Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 22, 2014
Tom Henry The Life and Art of Luca Signorelli New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012. 472 pp.; 100 color ills.; 200 b/w ills. Cloth $85.00 (9780300179262)

Tom Henry’s The Life and Art of Luca Signorelli looks to the past and the future. The product of the author’s decades-long engagement with the artist, the book is unabashedly an artist’s biography that aims “to embrace Signorelli’s humanity” (xiv). When Henry writes, “A man’s work is, after all, the most satisfactory and reliable document for those who take the pains to decipher it—the autobiography which every man of genius bequeaths to posterity” (17), he echoes the first book in English on Signorelli, written by Maud Cruttwell and published in 1899, Luca Signorelli (London: Bell), a volume in the “Great Masters of Painting and Sculpture” series. Henry’s purpose, “to replace the myth making [of earlier writers, including Vasari] . . . with a history based on the facts of Signorelli’s life” (xiv–xv), is amply fulfilled by the table of documented commissions and the chronology of documents that conclude the text. As increasingly is the case in contemporary publications, a link to a database of 353 documents, the “spine for a discussion of Signorelli’s life” (xiv–xv)—many newly discovered and others newly transcribed by Henry and others—is available at “By going back to the documents, to the period and to the works, one can begin to recover the man and appreciate his concerns” (xi). In Henry’s view, the life documents provide the key to understanding Signorelli’s art.

The text proceeds in chapters chronologically through the artist’s career. Henry provides a richly textured discussion of Signorelli’s works, encompassing technique, condition, style, imagery, function, and links to contemporary events and persons. The book lacks a conventional catalogue raisonné, but the reader is referred to Henry’s 2002 publication, Luca Signorelli: The Complete Paintings (London: Thames and Hudson, co-authored with Laurence Kanter), in order to maximize space for a discussion of Signorelli’s art and life. He also provides, as part of an account of the artist’s fortuna critica, a revealing history of collecting Signorelli’s pictures in Europe and in America.

In spite of the many newly discovered sources for Signorelli’s life, Henry has not been able to add to the existing knowledge concerning the artist’s formation and first works. Born in Cortona circa 1450, Signorelli’s documented works exist only from 1481–82, when he was almost thirty years old and probably had been painting for ten years. Henry offers a carefully reasoned and creditable account of the artist’s probable training with Piero della Francesca, and he proposes several works as the artist’s juvenilia, based on visual analysis. In this account, the alternative proposal of an association with Perugino in the mid to late 1470s, proposed by Henry’s sometimes co-author Kanter, is discounted.

The Sistine chapel frescoes, painted in 1481–82 by a group of Florentine-based painters, including Perugino, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, and Cosimo Rosselli, is rightly seen as the preeminent artistic and historical commission of the late fifteenth century and a turning point in Signorelli’s career. Henry considers the ambiguous documentary evidence for the date of the cycle, and he lays out the varying interpretations of it and the typological imagery, pairing the lives of Christ and Moses on either side of the chapel. In his evaluation of the working relationship among the artists, Henry follows the recent interpretation of Arnold Nesselrath, under whose direction the murals were conserved (Arnold Nesselrath, “The Painters of Lorenzo the Magnificent in the Chapel of Pope Sixtus IV in Rome,” in The Fifteenth Century Frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, eds., Jorge Maria Cardinal Mejìa, Arnold Nesselrath, Pier Nicola Pagliara, and Maurizio De Luca, Vatican City: Edizione Musei Vaticani, 2003, 39–75). Henry sees the work as a result of “a convivial equipe rather than competitive rivalry” (40), resulting from a common approach to scale, color, composition, and narrative, along with the need to work quickly. Although Signorelli was not one of the artists named in the contractual documents, his contribution has been asserted since the early sixteenth century. Henry’s analysis of the Testament and Death of Moses, including observations on figure and drapery style as well as technique and facture, leads to the conclusion that Signorelli designed and executed the major parts of the mural, with the assistance of the artists Bartolomeo della Gatta and possibly Pinturicchio and Botticelli. Signorelli may also have assisted Perugino in the Gift of the Keys. These interventions suggest that Signorelli was brought to the Sistine project as a subcontractor to Perugino and subsequently entrusted with the design of two of the last murals painted in the chapel. A date of around 1482 for his initial participation would follow, that is, before the original “contract” artists departed Rome for Florence, sometime before the fall of 1482.

Signorelli’s profit from Rome and the mix of progressive artists working side by side in Sixtus’s chapel, as well as the boost to his career resulting from his work for the pope, is seen in subsequent commissions, such as the Flagellation in Milan (ca. 1482–85) (tellingly, the first work signed by the artist), the Vagnucci altarpiece in Perugia (1483–84), and his murals in the sacristy of St. John in the Basilica of Santa Maria in Loreto, which Henry dates to between 1484 and 1487. Signorelli’s subsequent work for Florentine patrons, including most likely Lorenzo de’ Medici, resulted in some of his best-known works, including the innovative Medici Madonna (ca. 1489–90) and the Court of Pan (ca. 1489–90), lamentably lost in the aftermath of World War II. Medici connections too seem to have led to commissions in Volterra in the early 1490s, which included the Circumcision, now in the National Gallery, London, and the Annunciation in the Pinacoteca Civica, Volterra, both painted for local religious confraternities. Henry’s full discussion of these works, including the patrons, settings, imagery, and technique is illuminating, yet the question lingers: why do they look so different? The Circumcision, with its brilliant palette of oranges, purples, and greens and dazzling light, strikes a completely different note from the rich reds of the Annunciation, dated firmly to 1491. The animated surface of the latter, painted in viscous oil, with its broad brush strokes and impastoed highlights, surely owes more to a desire on the artist’s part to call attention to his skill than to the need to finish quickly.

By the middle of the 1490s, perhaps owing to the fall of the Medici and the political upheaval engulfing the Italian peninsula, Signorelli’s activities became more circumscribed, concentrated on his hometown of Cortona. In fact, he did not work again in a major city for the rest of his career, though works such as the Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, painted about 1498 for a funerary chapel in the church of San Domenico in Città di Castello, shows continued meditation on Florentine examples, in this case Pollaiuolo’s altarpiece of 1475. Yet his works, particularly in the cathedral of Orvieto, transcended their provincial origins and cemented his place as a major artist of the turn of the century.

Henry’s march through Signorelli’s production in these years is unfailingly thorough and well informed. His treatment of the murals Signorelli painted in the Olivetan abbey of Monteoliveto Maggiore (ca. 1498–99) reveals Signorelli’s approach to subject matter, here somewhat constrained by the need to adhere to the text of the Dialogues of St. Gregory, the source for the life of St. Benedict. The murals, poorly preserved, were abandoned by Signorelli when he was, after much delay, commissioned to complete the unfinished chapel decoration of the Cappella Nova in the cathedral of Orvieto. The chapter devoted to the Orvieto commission profits from much recent scholarship on the chapel as well as the conservation campaign carried out between 1989 and 1996, yet here Henry’s deep knowledge of the artist and his relentless probing of the documentary evidence yield great riches for the reader. The protracted search for an artist to complete the program, after its beginnings by Fra Angelico in the 1450s, the patrons’ almost plaintive longing for an artist of sufficient fame, and Signorelli’s eventual selection (though at a lower pay rate than the more famous candidates), is a fascinating keyhole view of the mechanics of patronage for a substantial public commission. Signorelli’s design, from the daring illusionism of its overall conception, to the individual narratives with their towering figures, to the unprecedented decorative ensemble of the zoccolo, is discussed by Henry with reference to textual and visual sources. He also includes here an extended discussion of the drawings connected to the murals that sheds light on Signorelli’s creative and technical procedures. Yet the ensemble remains sui generis, and with reason it is considered the central work of the artist’s career and the source of his subsequent fame. Signorelli’s self-portrait at the lower left of the Deeds of the Antichrist, detached from the action and accompanied by a figure in a Dominican habit, perhaps Fra Angelico, has been likened to the narrative role of Dante in the Divine Comedy. If the analogy is valid, it is a striking example of the artist’s bold claim to authorship and intellectual stature, establishing for painting equivalence with poetry, as claimed by Cennino Cennini one hundred years before.

If the Orvieto chapel was a triumph for Signorelli, his career from then on seems to be drawn into smaller and smaller provincial circles. Henry’s subsequent chapters trace this slow devolution with attention, but for the reader it holds less interest. Nonetheless, The Life and Art of Luca Signorelli, with its authoritative text and sumptuous illustrations, will be the definitive volume on Signorelli for many years to come.

Jean K. Cadogan
Professor of Fine Arts, Trinity College