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Luca Signorelli

Umbrian, 1445/1450 - 1523

Signorelli, Luca di Egidio

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Vasari, who claimed to be a distant relative of Signorelli,[1] wrote a well-informed biography of the painter, celebrating his fame and success in terms that modern critics consider somewhat overestimated. Luca trained under Piero della Francesca; his earliest surviving work is a badly deteriorated fresco of the Virgin and saints, dated 1474, which was until few decades ago on the exterior of the Torre del Vescovo in Città del Castello (and is now in the Pinacoteca of that city). To this some panels, including three Madonna and Child compositions (Cini collection, Venice; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and Christ Church Gallery, Oxford), have been compared, which do in effect share Piero's calm and monumental compositional structure as well as his light palette.

In the second half of the 1470s Signorelli must have had contacts with the cultural climate of the court at Urbino, where Bramante, Francesco di Giorgio, and Justus of Ghent were working, and also with the Florentine art world, dominated in that period by Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo and Verrocchio's workshop. He enjoyed a particularly close relationship, however, with Bartolomeo della Gatta, the great Camaldolese painter and book illuminator who may well have been active at the Urbino court as well as in Arezzo and Cortona. Luca collaborated with him on the fresco of the Last Days of Moses in the cycle on the walls of the Sistine Chapel (1480-1482), and Bartolomeo's manner is readily evident in Luca's fresco decorations for the Sagrestia della Cura in the sanctuary at Loreto. It is here that the young Signorelli's work probably reaches its highest point, with an open grandeur and power originating in Piero's art, enlivened by a complex and elegantly refined play of gestures as well as a strong emotional charge. This is the moment also of the stunning Vagnucci altarpiece in Perugia cathedral, dated 1484, and of various Medici commissions such as the School of Pan (formerly Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) or the Madonna and Child with two figures of prophets in the roundels (Uffizi, Florence).

From the end of the 1480s Signorelli concentrated his activity in the areas of Città di Castello, Volterra, and Siena, while his well-established fame is proved by the various public assignments he assumed in his native Cortona. Particularly fruitful were his contacts in Siena with Francesco di Giorgio and the local painters in that circle, alongside whom Luca worked on the decorations of the Bichi chapel in the church of Sant'Agostino. His success in Siena was crowned by the commission to decorate the cloister of Monteoliveto Maggiore, where he frescoed ten scenes from the life of Saint Benedict (1498-1499), interrupting his work (which was finished in the very early 1500s by Sodoma) when he was called to complete the decoration of the Saint Brixius chapel in Orvieto cathedral. The scenes of the Last Judgment painted there (1499-1504) are his most famous masterpiece, and have been highly appreciated over the centuries for showing Luca's strength of invention, skill in anatomical drawing, and--in the nude bodies crowding the scenes with dramatic concreteness--his expressive power.

In the last twenty years of his career, apart from some other evocative masterpieces like the Lamentation over the Dead Christ for the church of Santa Margherita in Cortona (Museo Diocesano, Cortona) of 1502,[2] and the frescoes in the Palazzo del Magnifico in Siena (1509), Signorelli produced mainly routine works, sometimes weary and often repetitive, whose execution was increasingly delegated to his well-organized workshop. However, Michelangelo's high esteem for his painting, attested to by Vasari, proves the considerable importance of his contribution to the development of Italian High Renaissance painting.[3] [This is the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]

[1] Vasari, ed. Milanesi, 3 (1878): 683-684.

[2] Fruscoloni 1984, 179-182.

[3] See Vasari, ed. Milanesi, 3 (1878): 690: "Onde io non mi maraviglio se l'opere di Luca furono da Michelangelo sempre sommamente lodate" ("Hence I do not marvel at the fact that Luca's works were always highly praised by Michelangelo"). See also Creighton Gilbert, "Signorelli and Young Raphael," SHA 17 (1986): 109-124.

Artist Bibliography

Vischer, Robert. Luca Signorelli und die italienische Renaissance. Leipzig, 1879.
Cruttwell, Maud. Luca Signorelli. London, 1899.
Dussler, Luitpold. Luca Signorelli. Des Meisters Gemälde. Stuttgart, 1927.
Mostra di Luca Signorelli. Exh. cat. Cortona and Florence. Florence, 1953.
Salmi, Mario. Luca Signorelli. Novara, 1953.
Kury, Gloria. The Early Work of Luca Signorelli: 1465-1490. Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1974. New York and London, 1978.
Kanter, Laurence B. The Late Works of Luca Signorelli and His Followers, 1498-1559. Ph.D. diss., New York University, 1989. Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1990.
Kanter, Laurence B., Guisi Testa, and Tom Henry. Luca Signorelli. Trans. Isabella Lodi-Fé Chapman. Milan, 2001.
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 636-637.

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