Painting in Central Italy during the 16th Century. Luca Signorelli.

Several of Raphael’s pupils continued to paint in his style, but lacking his artistic genius or hardly any good taste. It is curious that, even working alongside him and developing the same projects, the color varies so enormously between the parts executed by Raphael and those painted by his disciples; that what was noble and brilliant when painted by Raphael’s hand became something very different when it was executed by Giulio Romano, Gianfrancesco Penni, and even Giovanni da Udine and Perino del Vaga. In only one thing these last two painters were worthy disciples of Raphael’s style: in the art of stuccoes and grotesque decorative fantasies, such as those that their maestro projected for the Vatican loggias. Giovanni da Udine decorated the Loggetta of Cardinal Bibbiena with true originality and grace. Perino del Vaga covered a staircase of the Palazzo Doria in Genoa with Raphaelesque motifs displaying a charm of color; the fine lines and mural paintings fill the entire vault with a luminous vestment of figures and flowers. But when they embarked on more monumental tasks, like Giulio Romano at the Palazzo del Tè in Mantua, they move away from Raphael’s pure classicism and make compositions that already correspond, due to their themes and style, to the taste of the Mannerism typical of the 16th century.

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The Fall of the Giants, fresco, by Perino del Vaga, 1531-1533, 640 x 920 cm (Palazzo dei Principe, Genoa). Andrea Doria (1466-1560) was the dominant figure in Genoa in his times, he was an extraordinarily talented naval commander and helped the reestablishing of Genoese independence after being dominated by the French. His fellow citizens named him Principe (Prince) and Pater Patriae (Father of the Homeland).
Doria built himself a splendid seaside villa just outside the city’s western gate (known today as Villa Doria or Palazzo del Principe). He entrusted the design and the decoration of much of this complex to Perino del Vaga, one of Raphael’s students. Perino was responsible for the entire decoration of the Salone dei Giganti. This splendidly decorated room is crowned by the representation of the Fall of the Giants on an enormous ceiling painting.
View of the frescoes of the Sala dei Giganti (west and north walls), by Giulio Romano and assistants, 1532-1534 (Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Tè, Mantua). The Sala dei Giganti (Room of the Giants) is located in the southern corner of the Palazzo del Tè, the palace of leisure of Federico II Gonzaga, Marquess of Mantua. The walls and the ceiling of this room are painted with a single continuous scene representing the Gigantomachy, an episode from the Greek mythology, and particularly derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It is an apocalyptic catastrophe into whose center the viewer enters. The room’s decoration represents Jupiter punishing the giants for having dared to oppose his power and for bringing their rebellion to his domain. The giants are shown attacking the gods, trying to storm Olympus, piling mountain onto mountain, until Jupiter causes the boulders to fall with his lightning, and the attackers are buried beneath them. The giants are ill-proportioned but muscular, with grotesque, desperate faces, and they are depicted struggling amid or trying to escape the dramatic collapse of rocks and fictive architecture that Giulio Romano imagined. Born in Rome, Giulio Romano was a pupil of Raphael, the Palazzo del Tè is his masterpiece of architecture and fresco painting.
The Assembly of Gods around Jupiter’s Throne, fresco, by Giulio Romano and assistants, 1532-1534 (vault of the Sala dei Giganti, Palazzo del Tè, Mantua). From the summit of Mount Olympus, the father of the gods hurls his thunderbolts at the earth, sweeping away the giants and the awkward pile of rocks intended to support their ascent into the heavens (see previous picture). The pantheon of pagan divinities that surround him are for the most part paralyzed with fear. This work is considered as on of early Mannerism’s most famous frescoes. Giulio Romano’s illusionism invents a dome overhead and dissolves the room’s architecture at the eyes of the viewers, making them participants of the scene.

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The man, who in Rome also had to give great lessons in art, was Michelangelo (6 March 1475 – 18 February 1564) who (according to him) was not a painter nor did he want to be. Only once, when he left Rome for having quarreled with the Pope, and in the subsequent two months he resided in Florence, he begun, along with Leonardo, some paintings for the Palazzo della Signoria (the Battle of Cascina, 1504), which remained unfinished. Later he paid no more attention to painting until he was commissioned to decorate the Sistine Chapel. We will talk more in depth about this great maestro that was Michelangelo. But before that, let’s talk about another painter that seemed to have had influenced his spirit, and this was the tormented Luca Signorelli. As is often the case in History, the only document we have of their friendly relations is the detail of a legal claim by Michelangelo against Signorelli because of some money he had loaned to him. Even so, Signorelli is Michelangelo’s forerunner in painting, and his name must be mentioned before dealing with the decoration of the Sistine Chapel.

Luca Signorelli (ca. 1441/1445—16 October 1523) was born Luca d’Egidio di Ventura in Cortona, on the Tuscan frontier, and therefore his artistic beginnings correspond to the Florentine school. According to Giorgio Vasari, Luca was an apprentice in the workshop of Piero della Francesca. From there he went to the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore (Siena), before Sodoma worked there, where he painted eight frescoes, forming part of a vast series depicting the life of St. Benedict.

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Life of St. Benedict, Scene 23: Benedict Drives the Devil out of a Stone, fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Great Cloister, Abbey of Monteoliveto Maggiore, Tuscany). Some scenes of this fresco cycle depict the range of tasks that had to be accomplished to maintain the monastery’s self-sufficiency. Among these are the erection of churches and other buildings in accordance with Benedict’s precepts. These tasks were often delayed by interference from the archenemy Satan. For example, in this scene the devil makes a stone so heavy that the monks are unable to raise it until Benedict comes to their aid. The Great Cloister of Monteoliveto Maggiore was frescoed by Luca Signorelli with nine scenes on the west side (1497-1499) and by Sodoma with 28 scenes (1505-1508 and after 1513).

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His capital work, though, is in Orvieto, in the cathedral chapel that Fra Angelico left unfinished. This chapel’s vault over the altar was already decorated with two groups of images: the Judging Christ and the Prophets, these paintings were begun by Fra Angelico 50 years before.

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View of the fresco Cycle in the San Brizio Chapel, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). On 5 April 1499, Luca Signorelli was commissioned to paint the two remaining sections of the ceiling of the Chapel of San Brizio (that had been started 50 years earlier by Fra Angelico). After he finished the ceiling frescoes one year later, he was commissioned to decorated the rest of the chapel’s walls. In only three years, from 1499 to 1502, the whole decoration of this chapel was planned and executed, with a speed and efficiency that is practically unique in the history of Italian art. The subject matter of these frescoes is one of the most important subjects of Christian iconography. For the ceiling frescoes (see picture below) Signorelli simply completed the program that had originally been devised by Fra Angelico. But the frescoes on the side walls, although the basic subject would have been planned in accordance with the Cathedral’s administrators and theologians, are wholly the product of Signorelli’s fertile imagination. The side walls (see below) are covered with seven large scenes: the Sermon and Deeds of the Antichrist, the Destruction of the World, the Resurrection of the Flesh, the Damned, the Elect, the Paradise, and the Hell.

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The works commissioned to Signorelli in the vaults and on the upper walls represent the events surrounding the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment. Between 1499 and 1502, on the walls of the Chapel of the Madonna di San Brizio, Signorelli displayed all his genius to express the individual drama of the characters, a genius of fury and trepidation, flesh that boils and shakes, singularly energetic foreshortenings, characters that intermingle and twist with strange frenzy. To the frescoes executed by Fra Angelico on the ceiling, Signorelli added the Madonna leading the Apostles, the Patriarchs, Doctors of the Church, Martyrs, and Virgins; while on the walls are painted the Preaching of the Antichrist, the End of the World, the Resurrection of the Flesh, The Damned taken to Hell and received by Demons and the Elect in Paradise.

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Frescoes on the Vault in the Chapel of San Brizio, by Luca signorelli, 1499-1502 (Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). The frescoes on the ceiling were begun by Fra Angelico and completed by Luca Signorelli who painted the scenes with the Choir of Patriarchs and the Virgins (left) and the Doctors of the Church (right). To complete the decoration of the ceiling, Signorelli followed the pattern established in the existing frescoes painted by Fra Angelico 50 years earlier.

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The apocalyptic themes are very appropriate to excite Signorelli’s singular inspiration: the signs of the end of the world, the preaching of the Antichrist (the false prophet in which apparently Signorelli wanted to allude to Savonarola, enemy of his protectors the Medici, and that precisely had just been burned alive in Florence), the final fulmination, the resurrection of the flesh and the torture of the damned. In general, the air of this painter is a luminous gray atmosphere where bodies stand out as if they had been cut out, but masterfully drawn. The groups of people show lots of movement and vitality: Signorelli was able to express movement in an immense crowd with somewhat neurotic force and with a spiritual shudder that had never been represented before in painting.

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The Preaching of the Antichrist, fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502, width 700 cm (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). It is believed that this fresco depicting the Preaching of the Antichrist was intended as a reference to Savonarola, the Dominican friar hanged and burnt at the stake in Florence on 23 May 1498. In the case of an artist like Signorelli who had been a Medici protégé and who thought of himself basically as a victim of persecution from the Florentine democratic government (a fact we learn from Michelangelo), this identification of Savonarola with the Antichrist is very plausible. In this fresco, Signorelli gave us a very convincing portrayal of the sinister and mysterious atmosphere evoked in the prophecies of the Gospels. Against a vast and desolate background, dominated on the right by an unusually large classical building, depicted in distorted perspective, the false prophet is shown in the foreground disseminating his lies and spreading his message of destruction. The people around him, who have piled up gifts at the foot of his throne, have clearly already been corrupted by the iniquities the Gospel has warned us of. And, starting from the left, we have a description of a brutal massacre, followed by a young woman selling her body to an old merchant, and then more aggressive and evil-looking men. In the background of this scene all sorts of horrors and miraculous events are taking place. The Antichrist orders people to be executed and even resurrects a man, while a group of clerics, huddled together like a fortified citadel, resist the devil’s temptations by praying. Lastly, to the left, Signorelli shows us how the age of the Antichrist is rapidly reaching its inevitable epilogue, with the false prophet being hurled down from the heavens by the Angel and all his followers being defeated and destroyed by the wrath of God. Signorelli also included portraits of his contemporaries in the group to the right, including the young Raphael in a striking and flamboyant pose; Dante; possibly Christopher Columbus; Boccaccio; Petrarch; and Cesare Borgia, and, on the left, he depicts himself, dressed in noble garments, and Fra Angelico, in his Dominican habit. For the development of his Last Judgement fresco in the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo was inspired by observing these frescoes by Signorelli in the Cathedral of Orvieto.
The Preaching of the Antichrist (detail), fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). Signorelli depicted the Antichrist having the features of Christ, but it is actually Satan (pictured behind him) who tells him what to say.
The Preaching of the Antichrist (detail), fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). Even Luca himself must have realized that the scene of the Preaching of the Antichrist is the masterpiece of the whole cycle (at least in terms of originality of invention and evocation of fantastic imagery), and he has placed himself, together with a monk (traditionally identified as Fra Angelico) on the left-hand side of the composition. Wearing a black cap and cloak, as was suitable for a respected artist, an attractive and elegantly dressed man in his fifties as Vasari described him, Luca Signorelli really looks like a director so pleased with himself for the success of his theatrical representation that he stands on stage for his deserved curtain call.
Apocalypse, fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502, width 455 cm (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). According to the prediction in the Scriptures, the deeds of the Antichrist take place immediately before the end of the world, in those last days when ‘the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, And the stars of heaven shall fall, and the powers that are in heaven shall be shaken’ (Mark, 13: 24-25). For his description of the end of the world, Signorelli had to deal with the narrow spaces on either side of the entrance door to the chapel. He was thus forced to divide the scene into two narrative sections. To the right he describes the first signs of the Apocalypse. In the foreground, in the lower part of the painting, he shows King David (with raised hand predicting the end of the world) and the Sibyl (holding her book of prophesies), as witnesses of God’s Wrath. The stars go pale, fires and earthquakes sweep the earth, war and murder spread throughout the world. The left hand section recounts the epilogue of this preannounced catastrophe (see detail below). Demons looking like monstrous bats soar through the darkened sky, showering earth with flaming arrows; the last survivors fall under their shots, piling up on top of each other like broken dolls.
Apocalypse (detail), fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). In the foreground on the left corner of this fresco, Signorelli represented people scrambling and lying in diverse positions on the ground, producing an illusion as if falling out of the painting. This successful attempt in foreshortening was striking in its day. This section of the fresco recounts the epilogue of the preannounced catastrophe of the Apocalypse.
Resurrection of the Flesh, fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502, width 700 cm (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). This fresco is located in the first compartment on the right wall of the chapel. Signorelli continues his account of the Apocalypse with three large scenes, the Resurrection of the Flesh, the Damned and the Elect, and two smaller ones on either side of the chapel’s window, Paradise and Hell. It is primarily in this section of the fresco cycle that Signorelli has given free rein to his inventive genius. An inventiveness that made him one of the greatest of the modern illustrators, and thanks to which his art is still an extremely important part of our figurative heritage. Never before figurative ideas of such unforgettable power had been used in Italian art. Viewed all together the huge frescoes in the Orvieto chapel give an impression of overcrowding and of confusion which is far from pleasing. We have to isolate the individual details in order to grasp the greatness of Signorelli the ‘illustrator’ and the ‘inventor’. See, for example, in the Resurrection of the Flesh, the macabre but hilarious idea of the nude with his back to the observer who is carrying on a conversation with the skeletons (see detail below); or the skulls surfacing through the cracks in the ground, who put on their bodies as though they were a costume, and become human beings once again. In this scene, Luca shows his mastery in depicting the many positions of the human body. The risen, brought back to life, are crawling in an extreme effort from under the earth and are received by two angels in the sky blowing on a trumpet.
Resurrection of the Flesh (detail), fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). In this detail of the Resurrection scene, the skulls surfacing through the cracks in the ground become alive human beings once again. The macabre but hilarious idea of the nude with his back to the observer calmly engaged in a conversation with the skeletons, is of particular interest.
The Damned, fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502, width 700 cm (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). Signorelli’s account of the Apocalypse continues with this large scene of the Damned being taken to Hell and received by Demons. Signorelli has gone to the extremes of his fantasy and evocative powers to portray his cataclysmic vision of the horrible fate, the agony and the despair of the damned. He uses the naked human body as his only expressive element, showing the isolated bodies entangling each other, merging in a convoluted mass. They are overpowered by demons in near-human form, depicted in colors of every shade of decomposing flesh. Above them, the famous image of the flying devil carrying off a young girl and turning around, with a broad, satisfied grin on his face. In other celebrated image, another demon (right below the flying couple) attacks a young woman from behind, biting her ear, as she doesn’t appear to mind all that much. Again, Luca has portrayed himself, but as one of the devils: see the image right below the one with the demon biting the woman’s ear, with the demon with just one horn in the middle of his forehead, he is embracing a beautiful blonde woman who is trying to break away from his fiery assault. One can’t help imagining that this rather unusual self-portrait must be a reference to some episode in Signorelli’s private life. Probably the story of a woman who was unfaithful to the painter: and in fact, if we look carefully we can see that this is the same woman portrayed as the sinner being carried off by the flying demon, as the woman being grabbed from behind by the other demon, and even as the prostitute being paid by the old merchant in the scene of the Antichrist’s Sermon (see picture before).
The Elect, fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502, width 700 cm (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). Despite his extremely accurate studies of the human body, Signorelli’s depiction of Paradise is no more than a conventional catalogue of good sentiments and the overall effect is one of unmitigated dullness. The same is true of the pair of frescoes depicting the Elect being called to Paradise and the Damned being plunged into Hell (see pictures below). This scene, as expected, shows the elect in ecstasy looking up to music-making angels.
The Elect Being Called to Paradise and The Damned Being Plunged into Hell, fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). These frescoes are on the altar wall of the chapel and include two contrasting scenes: The Elect Being Called to Paradise (left) and The Damned Being Plunged into Hell (right). In the window embrasures are angels and Saints Brizio and Constantius, while in the tondi of the side window embrasures, the archangel Michael and a demon (left) and the archangel Raphael with Tobias (right). The scene with the Elect follows conventional portrayals of the subject with its pretty musician angels and chocolate-box portrayals of the Elect. Whereas the scene of the Damned is constructed around the visionary, almost surrealistic, idea of these crowds of naked figures jostling for space along the banks of the Acheron, and the splendid group in the foreground of the devil whipping a terrified, screaming sinner. Michelangelo was clearly fascinated by this powerful scene of cruelty and did a drawing of it.
The Damned Being Plunged into Hell (detail), fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). The scene portrays crowds of naked figures jostling for space along the banks of the river Acheron, while on the right a devil with a white banner leads a group of damned. Other damned are in despair since they see Charon’s boat getting near.

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For the chapel’s lower walls, Signorelli decided on a richly decorated style with works connected with Dante, specifically the first 11 books of his Purgatorio, and with the poets and legends of antiquity. A Pietà composition in a niche in the lower wall with Mary Magdalene and the local martyrs San Pietro Parenzo and San Faustino was also included. According to Vasari, the likeness of the dead Christ is that of Signorelli’s son Antonio, who died from the plague a few months later in July 1502 after his father finished this fresco cycle in February of the same year.

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Dante Alighieri, fresco, by Luca Signorelli and assistants, 1499-1502, width 432 cm (Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). Borrowing a decoration program that had already been used in 1494 by Pinturicchio in the Borgia Apartments in Rome, Signorelli decided to decorate the area below the frescoes with grotesque ornamental motifs, busts of philosophers and poets, as well as monochromes illustrating their work. It is possible that the busts of philosophers and poets are intended as symbols of reason and moral values, the only instruments that man can use to keep in check the powerful animal instincts of his nature and to attain the higher spheres of the spirit. The artist gives free rein to his imagination in these grotesques, and the result is comparable only to the scenes that Filippino Lippi was painting at about the same time in the Strozzi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. The only one of philosophers and poets that can be identified with certainty is Dante Alighieri, and some of the loveliest and most famous of the monochromes are illustrations of episodes from his Divine Comedy, for the most part from Purgatory. Other writers depicted in the lower walls of the chapel are possibly Homer, Empedocles, Lucan, Horace, Ovid and Virgil.
Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints Faustinus and Parentius, fresco, by Luca Signorelli, 1499-1502 (Cappellina dei Corpi Santi, Chapel of San Brizio, Cathedral of Orvieto, Orvieto, Umbria, Italy). The overall decoration of the Chapel of San Brizio was completed in the small chapel on the far wall by the figures of Archangels Raphael (with Tobias), Gabriel and Michael (weighing souls and subjugating the devil), by Bishop Saints Brizio and Constant, and the Lamentation over the Dead Christ with Saints Faustinus (left) and Parentius (right) who were buried here. This Pietà contains explicit references to two important Orvietan martyr saints (Sts. Pietro Parenzo and Faustino). They stand next to the dead Christ, along with Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary. According to Vasari, the figure of the dead Christ is the image of Signorelli’s son Antonio, who died from the plague. This fresco was Signorelli’s last work in the chapel.

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In 1508 Pope Julius II summoned several artists to Rome, including Signorelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio, and Il Sodoma to paint the rooms he chose as his apartments in the Vatican Palace. They began work, but soon the Pope dismissed all to make Raphael solely in charge of the decorations. Luca then returned to Siena, but mostly lived in his hometown of Cortona. He was a highly esteemed citizen of Cortona, even entering the magistracy of the town as early as 1488 and holding a leading position by 1523, the year of his death.

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Testament and Death of Moses, fresco, Bartolomeo della Gatta and Luca Signorelli, 1481-1482, 350 x 572 cm (Cappella Sistina, Vatican City). This fresco is from the cycle of the life of Moses in the Sistine Chapel. It is located in the sixth compartment on the south wall. Signorelli’s fresco depicts the last episodes in the life of Moses. On the right sits the 120 year-old Moses on a rise, holding his staff and with golden rays circling his head. At Moses’s feet stands the ark of the Covenant, opened to show the jar of manna inside and the two tables of the law. In the left half of the fresco Joshua is appointed Moses’s successor. Joshua kneels before Moses, who gives him his staff. In the center of the background we see Moses being led by the angel of the Lord up Mount Nebo, from which he will be able to look across to the Promised Land that by the will of God he will never enter. At the foot of the mountain we see him again, turning toward the left. His death is depicted in the background, in the land of Moab, where the children of Israel mourned him for 30 days. Signorelli must have been just over 30, when he became involved in the decoration of the Sistine Chapel. The painting is for the most part the work of Bartolomeo della Gatta, reflecting his typical use of vibrant color and subtle lighting. But, amidst the numerous figures that populate the scene, there are some whose anatomical description is full of energy and who convey powerful emotions: for example, the young nude seated in the center, or the two clothed figures portrayed with their backs to the onlooker, or the man with the stick leaning against Moses’s throne. Luca Signorelli’s hand appears quite obvious in these details, and in others as well.

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In his small easel paintings, Signorelli conceived and executed his works also in a “big scale”, without excessive details. It is understandable that a painter with such a singular spirit inspired interest in Michelangelo, who would surely refer to him in the Sistine Chapel, where he painted subjects to some extent analogous. The most evident proof of this assumption are two tondi, one with the Virgin and Child with Saint John, by Signorelli, and the other, the Sacred Family (also known as Doni Tondo), by Michelangelo. Saint John taking off his shoes, near the Virgin and the infant Jesus, is replaced in Michelangelo’s painting by groups of ephebi*, who are also found in another painting by Signorelli, in Florence, with the Virgin and Child.

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Madonna and Child, tempera on wood panel, by Luca Signorelli, ca. 1492-1493 or 1495-1498, diameter 87 cm (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). The rocky landscape in the background shows the influence of Leonardo da Vinci. To the right is a nude seated on a rock, a possible reference to the ancient marble of the Spinario, which at that time was already in the Uffizi in Florence. This seated figure of a naked young man is probably John the Baptist who is preparing to baptize Jesus.
The Holy Family with the infant St. John the Baptist (also known as the Doni tondo), tempera on panel, by Michelangelo, ca. 1506, diameter 120 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence).
Madonna and Child, oil on wood, by Luca Signorelli, ca. 1490, 170 x 115 cm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). The Virgin is portrayed sitting in a flowery meadow, against a background of young athletes (probably to be interpreted as an allegory of ascetic virtues); towering above her are the grisaille figures of John the Baptist and two prophets. The figurative references contained in this painting are extremely varied and sophisticated. There are references to Piero della Francesca’s descendants of Adam (the young man in the background), to archeological elements, as well as tributes to Flemish painting (the monochromes in the upper part); and, above all, there is an explicit reference to Leonardo and his followers in the flowery meadow in the foreground, in the toned down colors and in the careful attention paid to chiaroscuro values. The work has many unique details, beginning with the shape: the tondo, the traditional round shape favored for religious paintings destined for private residences and the magistrates of the Florentine Republic, which is framed with a false frame painted imitating a carved stone adorned with the figures of two prophets intent upon their writing and, in the center, the bust of St John the Baptist. The monochromatic tones of the frame serve to enhance the vibrancy of the image of the Madonna, humbly seated on the ground in a natural setting surrounded by the ruins of ancient monuments and absorbed in the care of baby Jesus. The significance of the nude figures of the background is unclear, although one interpretation could be the representation of mankind before the time of the Law of Moses and the coming of Christ; similar ‘ignudi‘, or nude figures can be seen in the background of the Holy Family by Michelangelo (see picture before). The iconographic complexity of the work, as well as the unusual layout, seem to suggest a cultured, refined and avant-garde client. Originally coming from the Medici villa of Castello, according to Giorgio Vasari the painting was executed for Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici.

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Throughout his work, Luca shows particular attention to the description of anatomy. It was then highly probable that his mastery of the human form implied that he himself was familiar with dissections. He surpassed contemporary artists in depicting the structure and mechanism of the nude human body in immediate action, trying hypothetical attitudes and combinations. These studies bear a close analogy to the method used by Michelangelo.

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Left: Study of nudes, charcoal, pen and wash, by Luca Signorelli, ca. 1500, 343 x 187 mm (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). Signorelli studied from living models to create his marvelous drawings of nudes, which are often specific preparatory efforts for his frescoes. The only two artists whose skill as draftsmen could equal that of Signorelli were Leonardo and the then young Florentine sculptor who was required to paint a vast cycle in Rome a few years later, namely Michelangelo. It comes as no surprise that Michelangelo was not only acquainted with the painter from Cortona, but even lent him money. Right: Two nude youths carrying a young woman and a young man, black and red chalk, brown and grey ink on yellow to brown prepared paper, heightened with white, by Luca Signorelli, ca. 1490-1495, 35 x 28 cm (Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin).

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Luca continued painting and accepting commissions into his final year, 1523, where he died in his native Cortona. He had a vast influence over the painters of his own and of following years, but had no pupils or assistants of high repute.

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Ephebe: (from the Greek ephebos). A term referring to an adolescent male. In ancient Greek society and mythology, an ephebos was a boy, aged 17–18, who went through a period of initiation that included military training.

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