(b. ca. 1450, Cortona, d. 1523, Cortona)

The Damned

Fresco, width 700 cm
Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto

The account of the Apocalypse continues with three large scenes, the Resurrection of the Flesh, the Damned and the Elect, and two smaller ones on either side of the chapel's window, Paradise and Hell.

It is primarily in this section of the fresco cycle that Signorelli has given free rein to his inventive genius. An inventiveness that, as Berenson said, made him one of the greatest of modern illustrators, and thanks to which his art is still an extremely important part of our figurative heritage. Despite the rhetorical devices, the theatrical ruses and the occasional contrived details, despite the limitations in his draughtsmanship and use of colour recognized by all modern critics, there is no denying that never before in Italian art had figurative ideas of such unforgettable power been used. Viewed all together the huge frescoes in the Orvieto chapel give an impression of overcrowding and of confusion which is far from pleasing. We have to isolate the individual details in order to grasp the greatness of Signorelli the 'illustrator' and the 'inventor' and therefore justify Berenson's statement.

Signorelli's fresco cycle in Orvieto is full of humour, grotesque inventions, erotic allusions and ribald jokes. There is no need to refer to the profane spirit of the Renaissance to explain this. On the contrary, these scenes fit in very well with the idea of the Cathedral as theatrum mundi, as the mirror image of the whole universe, and they are fully in the spirit of the religious plays of the time. Basically, neither Signorelli nor his patrons wanted to do without the enjoyment provided by story-telling, a typically Italian style based on humorous and imaginative details. But this in no way invalidates the dogmatic truth of the prophecies relating to the end of the world, which, especially in those turbulent years, really came across as a terrifying threat. It becomes quite understandable that Michelangelo would have been really interested in these Orvieto frescoes. But he in no way imitated Luca's work , (as Vasari would have us believe), for the spirituality and the moral content of the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel have absolutely nothing in common with the theatrical representation in Orvieto. Michelangelo perhaps found in Signorelli's frescoes a useful iconographical repertory, a catalogue of surprising and unusual inventions.

In any case the parts of the fresco cycle that would have attracted Michelangelo's curiosity most would certainly have been the scenes with devils and other imaginary figures, those scenes that were best suited to Signorelli's eccentric temperament, to his irony and macabre humour.