Cortona Special: ‘Signorelli 500,’ A Tribute to the Artist by His Hometown

‘Four Standing Figures,’ a restored panel of the reassembled Matelica altarpiece

Cortona’s MAEC museum has extended the Signorelli 500 exhibition until October 22, 2023. Marking 500 years since his death, around 30 works of the renowned Renaissance painter, Luca Signorelli (1450 – 1523), are finally reunited in the artist’s hometown, thanks to loans from prestigious Italian and foreign museums, in addition to private collections. 

Praised for his vibrant palette and narrative flair, Signorelli is considered a crucial reference for the major artists of the 16th century and is seen to have paved the way for the likes of Raphael and Michelangelo. As Tom Henry, curator of the exhibition, noted, “It seems that when faced with a subject to represent, Signorelli would re-read the ‘set text’ in order to add fresh emphasis to a traditional iconography.” Historically, Giorgio Vasari also recognised Signorelli’s remarkable draftsmanship; so too did Filippo Lippi. It only takes a glance at his frescoes in the San Brizio Chapel, Orvieto, to understand the true extent of his genius, one that was to influence both Michelangelo and Raphael, and labyrinthine imagination. 

‘St. Mary Magdalene,’ a Signorelli work on loan from Orvieto in the Cortona show

Whilst the early stages of his artistic career are hard to pin down, the exhibition in Cortona has succeeded in bringing together 11 of his paintings dating from before the 1500s. This is a considerable achievement, given none of his work from the first 35 years of his life was located in Cortona prior to the show. Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, painted in 1501, is one of Signorelli’s finest examples from the early 1500s. Originally found in the Church of Santa Margherita, the painting is now displayed at the nearby Diocesan Museum, part of the Signorelli 500 itinerary, where viewers can marvel at Signorelli’s spectacular use of colour and expression of atmosphere and emotion. 

In 1504, Augustinians commissioned Signorelli to paint something similar in manner and subject to is the Lamentation at Santa Margherita. But, bound by his innovative nature, he went above and beyond the request, and produced something of real novelty, expressive power and masterful composition. This is illustrated by Four Standing Figures (see top photo), a section from the fragmented Matelica altarpiece restored specifically for Signorelli 500. The painting was originally damaged by an earthquake, and was subsequently cut into pieces and sold before the turn of the 19th century. However, years of recovery and reconstruction provide a highly plausible idea of its original appearance. The almost total reunification of the Matelica Altarpiece is displayed at the show; six out of seven parts are on loan from galleries and collections in England, Italy, and America.

Visitors can see Signorelli reaching the pinnacle of his artistic career with works such as Crucifixion Standard, on loan from the Pinacoteca Comunale in Sansepolcro. Originally situated in the Church of Sant’Antonio, in Sansepolcro, the piece showcases Signorelli’s astounding mastery of subjects such as drapery, which demands, with their numerous folds and twists, a sensitive and intelligent treatment of light and shadow (a signature Renaissance technique formally known as ‘cangiante’). 

A detail of Signorelli’s ‘Lamentation over the Dead Christ’ in the Diocesan Museum of Cortona

Cortona’s Diocesan Museum has preserved their Signorelli paintings in the same room for the past hundred years, ever since the 1923 celebrations commemorating the fourth centenary of Signorelli’s death. The previously mentioned Lamentation Over the Dead Christ (detail above) painted in 1501, is one of Signorelli’s finest and most poignant works from the early 1500s. His depiction of Christ’s lifeless body exudes a profound sense of grief and mortality, reflecting Signorelli’s own experiences of loss following the death of his son Antonio in 1502.  The Lamentation sets itself apart from conventional religious portrayals of the era, showcasing the artist’s willingness to explore the human condition through his art. Its emotional depth and innovative approach contribute to the evolution of artistic expression during the Renaissance, cementing Signorelli’s position as a trailblazer in the art world. 

A detail of the ‘Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ by Signorelli, displayed in the Diocesan Museum

The museum also hosts The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which depicts the apostles gathering around Mary’s empty tomb to watch her assumption into heaven, where she is surrounded by musicians. The painting’s vivid colors are impressive and make it a standout in the collection. Signorelli’s use of color is often relegated to the background of his skillset and looked over by critics; however this assessment negates the reality of his paintings, which are infused with intense, rich colors that catch the eye. Bold reds, bright yellow golds, deep pinks, and shimmering blues impressively contrast against each other, leaping off the canvas with nearly three dimensional vibrancy.  The enhancement of the Signorelli room, including a new layout and lighting design, amplifies the dynamism of Signorelli’s works and garners admiration of a significant cultural history. 

The Signorelli 500 exhibition at the MAEC Museum, piazza Signorelli, Cortona, open until October 22, is accessible 10 am – 7 pm with an admission fee of €8. More information regarding the show can be found here. (sophie holloway, with additional reporting by jonah foster & vivian stacey)