(Luca Signorelli, C.1441-1523)
Luca Signorelli does not glow with Melozzo's consuming fire; and yet he takes his rank beyond. His was the finer and deeper mind, his genius fetched the larger compass, his perception of value, both in life and in art, was subtler and more just. Even in feeling for the poetry in things, Luca was inferior to no man. Then to be more specific to a sense for tactile values scarcely less than Giotto's, Luca added Masaccio's orPiero della Francesca's command over action. In this, indeed, he almost rivalled his own teacher in that art and its unparalleled master, Antonio Pollaiuolo. Great artist he would have been with these qualities alone, but for him they were means to an end, and that end, different from Melozzo's, was his joy in the Nude.
What the Nude is and whence its supereminence in the figure arts, I have discussed elsewhere. I must limit myself here to the statement that the nude human figure is the only object which in perfection conveys to us values of touch and particularly of movement. Hence the painting of the Nude is the supreme endeavor of the very greatest artists; and, when successfully treated, the most life communicating and life-enhancing theme in existence. The first modern master to appreciate this truth in its utmost range, and to act upon it, was Michelangelo, but in Signorelli he had not only a precursor but almost a rival. Luca, indeed, falls behind only in his dimmer perception of the import of the Nude and in his mastery over it. For his entire treatment is drier, his feeling for texture and tissue of surface much weaker, and the female form revealed itself to him but reluctantly. Signorelli's Nude, therefore, does not attain to the soaring beauty of Michelangelo's; but it has virtues of its own a certain gigantic robustness and suggestions of primeval energy.
The reason why, perhaps, he failed somewhat in his appreciation of the Nude may be, not that 'the time was not ripe for him', as is often said, but rather that he was a Central Italian which is almost as much as to say an Illustrator. Preoccupied with the purpose of conveying ideas and feelings by means of his own visual images, he could not devote his complete genius to the more essential problems of art. Michelangelo also was an Illustrator alas! but he, at least, where he could not perfectly weld Art and Illustration, sacrificed Illustration to Art.
But a truce to his faults! What though his nudes are not perfect; what though as in candour must be said his colour is not always as it should be, a glamour upon things, and his composition is at times crowded and confused? Luca Signorelli none the less remains one of the grandest - mark you, I do not say pleasantest - Illustrators of modern times. His vision of the world may seem austere, but it already is ours. His sense of form is our sense of form; his images are our images. Hence he was the first to illustrate our own house of life. Compare his designs for Dante (frescoed under his Heaven and Hell at Orvieto) with even Botticelli's, and you will see to what an extent the great Florentine artist still visualizes as an alien from out of the Middle Ages, while Signorelli estranges us, if indeed at all, not by his quaintness but by his grand austerity.
It is as a great Illustrator first, and then as a great artist that we must appreciate Signorelli. And now let us look at a few of his works works which reveal his mastery over the nude and action, his depth and refinement of emotion, the splendour of his conceptions. How we are made to feel the murky bewilderment of the risen dead, the glad, sweet joy of the blessed, the forces overwhelming the damned! It would not have been possible to communicate such feelings but for the Nude, which possesses to the highest degree the power to make us feel, all over our own bodies, its own state. In these frescoes at Orvieto how complete a match for the 'Dies Irae' are the skies with their overshadowing trains of horror, and the trumpet blasts of the angels! What high solemnity in his Volterra 'Annunciation' - the flaming sunset sky, the sacred shyness of the Virgin, the awful look of Gabriel! At Cortona, in an 'Entombment', you see Christ upheld by a great angel who has just alighted from a blessed sphere, its majesty still on his face, its dew on his wings. Look at Signorelli's music making angels in a cupola at Loreto. Almost they are French Gothic in their witchery, and they listen to their own playing as if to charm out the most secret spirit of their instruments. And you can see what a sense Signorelli had for refined beauty, if, when sated with Guido's 'Aurora', you will rest your eyes on a Madonna by him in the same pavilion of the Rospigliosi Palace.
The Nude for its own sake, for its distinctly tonic value, was used by Signorelli in one of the few most fascinating works of art in our heritage I mean his 'Pan' at Berlin. The goat footed Pan, with the majestic pathos of nature in hit, aspect, sits in the hushed solemnity of the sunset, the tender crescent moon crowning his locks. Primevally grand nude figures stand about him, while young Olympos is piping, and another youth lies at his feet playing on a reed. They are holding solemn discourse, and their theme is 'The Poetry of Earth is never Dead'. The sunset has begotten them upon the dew of the earth, and they are whispering the secrets of the Great Mother.
And now, just a glance at one or two of Luca's triumphs in movement. They are to be found chiefly in his predelle, executed in his hoary old age, where, with a freedom of touch at times suggesting Daumier, he gives masses in movement, conjoined, and rippling like chain mail. Perhaps the very best are certain bronzed predelle at Umbertide, a village situate upon the Tiber's bank; but more at hand is one in the Uffizi, painted in earlier years, an 'Annunciation', wherein the Angel runs so swiftly that he drinks the air before him.
- From Bernard Berenson, "Italian Painters of the Renaissance"