(b. ca. 1450, Cortona, d. 1523, Cortona)
Fresco, width 432 cm
Chapel of San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto
Borrowing a decoration programme that had already been used in 1494 by Pinturicchio in the Borgia Apartment in Rome, Signorelli decided to decorate the area below his frescoes with grotesque ornamental motifs, busts of philosophers and poets, as well as monochromes illustrating their work. It is possible that the busts of philosophers and poets are intended as symbols of reason and moral values, the only instruments that man can use to keep in check the powerful animal instincts of his nature and to attain the higher spheres of the spirit.
But one thing is certain: this apparently minor section, which was painted to a large extent by Signorelli's assistants, contains fascinating inventions and reaches extraordinary heights of expression. The artist gives free rein to his imagination in these grotesques, and the result is comparable only to the scenes that Filippino Lippi was painting at about the same time in the Strozzi Chapel in the church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence.
The only one of philosophers and poets that can be identified with certainty is Dante Alighieri, and some of the loveliest and most famous of the monochromes are illustrations of episodes from the Divine Comedy, for the most part from Purgatory.