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Discovering Luca Signorelli’s masterpieces in Umbria

Luca Signorelli (Cortona, Tuscany, c.1450 – 1523), one of the greatest artists of Italian Renaissance was an “adopted son” of Umbria.

Signorelli was born in Cortona, small but lively town on the border between Umbria and Tuscany. This town boasts works of artists such as Pietro Lorenzetti and Fra Angelico. He started his artistic education in Cortona but around 1470 he moved to Arezzo, where he served his apprenticeship with Piero della Francesca. From this experience he gained deep knowledge of perspective and mathematics that enabled him to use foreshortening and oil painting. Fundamental for his training was the period in Florence with Andrea del Verrocchio, who owns the workshop where artists such as Leonardo, Botticelli, Ghirlandaio and Perugino were trained; here, Signorelli bonded with Perugino, starting the collaboration that would bring to the realization –together with Bartolomeo della Gatta- of two frescoes of the cycle of the Sistine Chapel: the Delivery of the Keys (Consegna delle chiavi) and the Testament of Moses (Testamento di Mosè) (1481-1482).

It is possible that Signorelli arrived in Perugia because of Perugino. Here, the Bishop Jacopo Vagnucci, also from Cortona, commissioned him the Sant’Onofrio Altarpiece (Pala di San'Onofrio) made in 1484 and now displayed in the Museo del Capitolo della Cattedrale di San Lorenzo.

In Perugia, in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria is displayed the Paciano altarpiece (Pala di Paciano) made in 1517 for the church of Sant’Antonio dei minori osservanti, near the Trasimeno Lake. The altarpiece, that still has its original step, was made with the help of many artists of his workshop.

The relation between Signorelli and the Upper Tiber Valley is very strong.

In the Pinacoteca Comunale in Città di Castello is displayed a piece considered one of his first works, made in 1474. It is the Madonna with Saints (Maestà tra Santi) that once was on the front of the bishop’s tower and of which now remained some fragments, for instance the bust of Saint Paul clearly influenced by Piero della Francesca’s style.
Between 1486 and 1488 Signorelli was paid to paint the banner for the confraternita di Santa Maria, for which he earned the honorary citizenship in Città di Castello in 1488. The relation between the master and this town was very strong, also because the lords of the city, the Vitelli, were connected to the Medici, especially with Lorenzo the Magnificent, which had recently welcomed Signorelli in his court of artists.
In the Pinacoteca in Città di Castello is also displayed the beautiful work Martyrdom of St Sebastian (Martirio di San Sebastiano) made in 1498 for the Brozzi chapel in the church of San Domenico.
This piece influenced many artists, for instance the young Raffaello that arrived in town a few years later.
In the first years of the 16th century Signorelli collaborated with his disciples to make the processional banner of the Baptism of Christ and John the Baptist (Battesimo di Cristo e San Giovanni Battista) for the Confraternita di San Giovanni Decollato.
Città di Castello also owns a piece of the late period of the artist: the St. Cecilia altarpiece (Pala di Santa Cecilia) from the monastery of Santa Cecilia.

In the small oratory of San Crescentino (oratorio di San Crescentino), in Morra, near Città di Castello, Signorelli made an emotional and didactic cycle of frescoes on the Passion of Christ. The peaks of the piece are the Flagellation and the Crucifixion.

In the Upper Tiber Valley you should also visit Citerna and Umbertide, fundamental stops in Signorelli’s itinerary.
In Citerna, in the church of San Francesco, in a niche is preserved the fresco of the Madonna and Child with Saints Michael archangel and Francis (Vergine con Bambino tra i santi Michele Arcangelo e Francesco) made with the help of his disciples, shortly after the frescoes in Morra. Moreover, in 1516 for the church of Santa Croce in Umbertide, now Museo di Santa Croce, he made the beautiful panel of the Descent from the Cross, that still today presents the original step and frame.


In Umbria the masterpiece of the artist is the wonderful decoration of the Cappella Nova or di San Brizio located in the right transept of the Orvieto Cathedral and built between 1499 and 1504. Signorelli was commissioned to end the decoration of the vault, started by Fra Angelico fifty years earlier, and to decorate the entire chapel. He portrays superbly the last days of human life. The story is introduced by the Speech of the Antichrist (Predica dell’Anticristo), the fake prophet that spread the malevolent doctrine that the devil whispers in his ear; continues with the End of the World (Fine del Mondo) and the Universal resurrection (Resurrezione della carne), with the Damned and the Saved and ends with the Ascent to Heaven (Avvento al Paradiso) and the Avvento all’Inferno (Descent into Hell). On the base the decoration is completed by processions of distinguished men and episodes from epic poems and the Divine Comedy.

Before leaving Orvieto, to end this itinerary, you should visit the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo where is preserved the oil on wood piece Mary Magdalene (Santa Maria Maddalena), made in 1504 and originally displayed in the San Brizio chapel.

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