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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Luca Signorelli was a naturally gifted draughtsman and painter who peaked towards the end of the 15th century and produced a number of breaktaking murals. Although from Tuscany, he also worked extensively in Umbria and Rome.

The precise details around most artists from this period are not entirely complete, but there is enough available on Signorelli to confidently track his path from initial studies to significant success. He was connected through his family to the famous art historian Giorgio Vasari and another relation, Lazzaro Vasari, was integral to establishing him an apprenticeship role in the prestigious studio of Piero della Francesca. One can immediately see similarities between his own artistic style and the figurehead of this studio who would have been highly influential upon his development.

Signorelli was a highly skilled portrait sketcher who would practice and develop his craft whenever he got the opportunity and this ability would serve him well in his work as a painter. At this time, most critics within Italy would not take any artist seriously unless they were an accomplished draughtsman, though other nations did not take quite such a rigid view. If we look at the likes of Diego Velazquez, for example, who was rare in being taught the supreme importance of drawing as a young student in Spain, whilst many of his countrymen were not. Thankfully, many of Signorelli's original drawings still exist today, which is rare for members of this art movement. With over five hundred years have passed since then, these fragile items were always likely to fall into disrepair, whilst others were lost or simply not correctly attributed.

This Tuscan artist, sometimes known as Luca da Cortona because of the town of his birth, is regarded as one of the best handlers of anatomy within Renaissance Italy. There can be no doubt that with the levels of accuracy that he achieved that serious study would have been undertaken throughout his lifetime. Quite possibly, dissections were also involved as there was not sufficent literature at this point that would have allowed an artist to learn so much about the different aspects of the human body. Spare bodies would sometimes become available for artists to learn their craft, just as others would later dissect animals in order to develop their understanding of things like muscle balance. The end result of going into this much detail were incredibly lifelike depictions that would amaze viewers, particularly during that period. Artists also often had to compete with each other to obtain commissions, and so any way of lifting your level above others was a necessary means to ensuring their financial futures. In other cases, networking between artists and other patrons could also help push one to the front of the queue, plus also a willingness to travel to other parts of the country.

Whilst most remaining items from his career remain in Italy, some of his drawings can be found in the Louvre in Paris, France, and serve as fine examples of the craft of drawing. Many draw comparisons with the drawings of Michelangelo and it is clear that they both put a large amount of time into this discipline. There is an honesty within Signorelli's drawings that was unusual for this period, and indeed for several centuries afterwards. Typically around that time art was about indicating the desired reality, rather than reality itself. When considering the abilities that he developed over time, it is unfortunate that he did not himself possess of a large studio of any great note. Much of his inspiration was therefore felt by other artists with whom he worked across his career, rather than the conventional path of tutor-student via the many apprenticeships found within Renaissance Italy.

From across his distinguished career, Signorelli's finest moment would have to be his series of frescoes completed in the chapel of San Brizio. At the time, it was known as the Cappella Nuova. His took on the themes of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement with his work here, which was to be displayed in different parts of the building. It was a prestigious commission, as he was also following in the footsteps of Fra Angelico, who himself had completed a number of murals here some years earlier. Signorelli would decorate a number of walls within the vault as well as continuing some of Fra Angelico'swork on a ceiling, with room available for further artworks. The artist separated the topics of the Apocalypse and the Last Judgement into several sub-sections, which enabled him to construct a series of pieces which thematically fitted together perfectly - these included items such as Paradise, the Elect and the Condemned, Hell, the Resurrection of the Dead, and the Destruction of the Reprobate.

That particular commission was acquired right at the end of the 15th century and the artist finished it several years later. Several art historians have claimed that Michelangelo took elements of these designs as inspiration for his famous Sistine Chapel frescoes, underlining the high regard that other artists held for it. The most well known element to that mural would be The Creation of Adam, which Michelangelo completed between the years of 1508-1512, just a few years later. He, himself, would go on to become known as one of the greatest artists of all time, thus illustrating the technical qualities possessed by his inspiration, Signorelli. Both were talented in figurative portraiture, but also understood that this complex genre required endless practice and also the study of others in order to develop as far as possible. Other genres, such as the landscape scenes which became popular in later centuries, allowed a certain level of freedom with regards precision, even more so as we started to see more expressive styles later on.

Not all of this artist's projects were successful, however. Politics was a major influence on commissioned art during the Renaissance and Signorelli suffered as a result of that when he was dismissed, alongside Perugino, Pinturicchio and Il Sodoma, so that Raphael could replace them. The project in question was within the Vatican Palace and they found themselves superceded by an artist who was now more fashionable and in demand. Their murals on a ceiling within the Stanza della Segnatura did remain, however, and so their collective efforts were not completely in vain. For Pope Julius II to have brought all of them in together underlines quite what a significant commission this was, and therefore why he perhaps was exceptionally demanding in the finished look that he was after. The huge artworks completed during the Renaissance meant that they often took many years to complete, which could then bring in other issues in terms of project management and also external interference, even though all of these artistic names were held in such high regard.