Luca d’Egidio di Ventura, also known as Luca da Cortona, was born in Cortona, Tuscany, with birth dates proposed between 1441-1445. He is considered to be part of the Tuscan school of art, although he also worked extensively in Umbria and Rome. His early artistic influences are thought to be from Perugia, specifically the styles of Benedetto Bonfigli, Fiorenzo di Lorenzo, and Pinturicchio. Lazzaro Vasari, the great-grandfather of art historian Giorgio Vasari, was Luca’s mother’s brother, and it is said that he helped to apprentice Luca to Piero della Francesca. In 1472, he was painting in Arezzo and in 1474 in Città di Castello. He presented a painting, the “School of Pan,” to Lorenzo de’ Medici, which was later discovered by Janet Ross and her husband Henry in Florence around 1870 and sold to the Kaiser Frederick Museum in Berlin. The painting was destroyed during WWII. He also painted frescoes for Pope Sixtus IV in the Shrine of Loreto and a single fresco in the Sistine Chapel in Rome, although many of these have been attributed to other artists. He returned to his hometown of Cortona in 1484, where he remained for the rest of his life. He painted frescoes in the Monastery of Monte Oliveto Maggiore in Siena, and also worked on various classic and mythological subjects in the palace of Pandolfo Petrucci. He died in 1523 in Cortona, where he is buried, and was likely around 82 years old.
Among the more important architectural projects of Cortona are the Church of Santi Luca e Martina, completed in 1664, and the Church of the Accademia di San Luca, located in the Roman Forum. While Cortona served as the principle or director of the Accademia from 1634-38, he obtained permission to excavate the crypt of the church, which led to the discovery of remains attributed to the first-century Roman martyr and Saint Martina, although this attribution is now believed to be mistaken. The church’s layout is almost a Greek cross, with four nearly identical wings extending from the central dome. The ground structure is relatively plain, while the upper levels are intricately decorated. The facade is dominated by vertical elements, but is enlivened by horizontal convexity. In his will, Cortona referred to this church as his “beloved daughter”. He also oversaw the renovation of the exterior of the ancient Santa Maria della Pace (1656-1667), and the facade (with an unusual loggia) of Santa Maria in Via Lata (approx. 1660). Another significant work was the design and decoration of the Villa Pigneto, commissioned by the Marchese Sacchetti. This garden palace featured a novel combination of elements, including a garden facade with convex arms, highly decorated niches, and elaborate tiered staircases surrounding a fountain.
Work in Orvieto
Signorelli’s masterpiece is considered to be the frescoes in the Cappella Nuova, also known as the chapel of S. Brizio, in the cathedral of Orvieto. The Cappella Nuova already contained two groups of images in the vaulting over the altar, the “Judging Christ” and the “Prophets,” by Fra Angelico, who had begun the murals fifty years earlier. Signorelli’s works in the vaults and on the upper walls represent the events surrounding the Apocalypse and the Last Judgment. The events of the Apocalypse fill the space which surrounds the entrance into the large chapel. The Apocalyptic events begin with the Preaching of Antichrist, and proceed to the Doomsday and The Resurrection of the Flesh. They occupy three vast lunettes, each of them a single continuous narrative composition. Signorelli also added the Madonna leading the Apostles, the Patriarchs, Doctors of the Church, Martyrs, and Virgins to Angelico’s ceiling, which contained the Judging Christ and the Prophets led by John the Baptist. The unifying factor of the paintings is found in the scripture readings in the Roman liturgies for the Feast of All Saints and Advent.
Stylistically, Signorelli’s works were considered striking in their day for their daring and terrible inventions, powerful treatment of the nude and arduous foreshortenings. Michelangelo is said to have borrowed some of Signorelli’s figures or compositions for his fresco at the Sistine Chapel wall. The decoration of the lower walls, which was unprecedented in the history of art, was richly decorated with a great deal of subsidiary work connected with Dante, specifically the first eleven books of his Purgatorio, and with the poets and legends of antiquity. A Pietà composition in a niche in the lower wall contains explicit references to two important Orvietan martyr saints, S. Pietro Parenzo and S. Faustino, in the centuries preceding the execution of the lunette paintings.
The contract for Signorelli’s work is still on record in the archives of the Cathedral of Orvieto. He undertook on April 5, 1499 to complete the ceiling for 200 ducats, and to paint the walls for 600, along with lodging, and in every month two measures of wine and two quarters of corn. The contract directed Signorelli to consult the Masters of the Sacred Page for theological matters. This is the first such recorded instance of an artist receiving theological advice, although art historians believe the two groups routinely discussed such matters. Signorelli’s first stay in Orvieto lasted not more than two years. In 1502 he returned to Cortona. He returned to Orvieto and continued the lower walls. He painted a dead Christ, with Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary and the martyrs local Saints Pietro Parenzo and Faustino.The figure of the dead Christ, according to Vasari, is the image of Signorelli’s son Antonio, who died from the plague during the course of the execution of the paintings.
Work in Siena, Cortona, Rome, and Arezzo
After finishing the frecoes at Orvieto, Signorelli was often in Siena. In 1507 he executed a great altarpiece for S. Medardo at Arcevia in the Marche, the Madonna and Child, with the Massacre of the Innocents and other episodes. In 1508 Pope Julius II summoned artists to Rome, including Signorelli, Perugino, Pinturicchio and Il Sodoma to paint the large rooms in the Vatican Palace. They began work, but soon the pope dismissed all to make way for Raphael. Their work was taken down, except for the ceiling in the Stanza della Segnatura. Luca returned to Siena, but mostly lived in his hometown of Cortona. He constantly was at work, but the performances of his closing years were not of the quality of his works from 1490–1505. In 1520 Signorelli went with one of his pictures to Arezzo. He was partially paralysed when he began a fresco of the Baptism of Christ in the chapel of Cardinal Passerini’s palace near Cortona, which (or else a Coronation of the Virgin at Foiano) is the last picture of his specified. Signorelli stood in great repute as a citizen. He entered the magistracy of Cortona as early as 1488, and held a leading position by 1524 when he died. Signorelli paid great attention to anatomy. It is said that he carried on his studies in burial grounds. Certainly his mastery of the human form indicates that he had performed dissections. He surpassed contemporaries in showing-the structure and mechanism of the nude in immediate action; and he even went beyond nature in experiments of this kind, trying hypothetical attitudes and combinations. His drawings in the Louvre demonstrate this and bear a close analogy to the method of Michelangelo. He aimed at powerful truth rather than nobility of form; colour was comparatively neglected, and his chiaroscuro exhibits sharp oppositions of lights and shadows. He had a vast influence over the painters of his own and of succeeding times, but had no pupils or assistants of high mark; one of them was a nephew named Francesco. Vasari, who claimed Signorelli as a relative, described him as kindly, a family man, and said that he always lived more like a nobleman than a painter. Vasari included Signorelli’s portrait, one of seven, in his study in Arezzo, along with Michelangelo and himself. The Torrigiani Gallery in Florence contains a grand life-sized portrait by Signorelli of a man in a red cap and vest, and corresponds with Vasari’s observation. In the National Gallery, London, are the Circumcision of Jesus and three other works. Legend holds that Signorelli depicted himself in the left foreground of his Orvietan mural The Rule of Antichrist. Fra Angelico, his predecessor in the Orvieto cycle, is thought to stand behind him in the piece. However, the figure thought to be Fra Angelico is not dressed as a Dominican friar, and Signorelli’s supposed portrait does not match that in Vasari’s study.