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Signorelli and the Everpresent Apocalypse


Orvieto is a small, Umbrian city, set upon an excrescent heap of volcanic rock, which somewhat resembles a ruined classical column, half-inhumed but still striving upwards with unbounded pride. Beneath the rock, a verdurous valley rises into hills typical of the region. It feels like a remnant of the deluge; one can imagine it, like the peak of Ararat, poking its head out of the gargantuan water like a tired whale in need of a deep breath. It’s not that high — some 350 metres above sea level — but because of its jagged cliffs, it feels so. Seen from afar, its houses blend into the rock; if seen at twilight, city and rock become indistinguishable. Apart from the Cathedral, whose three-pointed Gothic facade sticks out with the gentle sharpness of cypress trees. But when seen from up close, in the kind of grey, nothing light which predominated on my visit, this facade seems quite brittle; the way it merges into the remainder of the Cathedral is the opposite of the smooth transition between rock and houses.

If you enter the Cathedral, entering through the small door on the right (the much bigger central door seems only to be used for important events), you will find yourself tracing the wall down the right side of the nave until you notice something bright and unexpected appear as you hit the transept. This is the Cappella di San Brizio. Here you will find Luca Signorelli’s startling fresco series on the Apocalypse. It’s the wedding of Orvieto’s two great assets: its Cathedral and its Wine. The former is obvious: it’s where the frescoes are. But the latter? Folklore has it that Signorelli (who, by contract, was due two measures of wine each month) became quite attached to Orvietan Wine; the locals suggest this is why the pictures became more fantastical as the project developed. Whether or not this is a convenient marketing strategy invented by a scheming vineyard, it’s still an excellent story that makes an appropriate point about the paintings and every viewer’s response to them. Why are they so bizarre? It stretches the human imagination in a way that even a great fantastical novel or film might fail to do. And it does all this without relinquishing the suspension of disbelief. It exists so far beyond the possibilities of imagination that one feels it must be real. The viewer feels the importunate presence of the apocalypse; and that really isn’t much of a surprise, considering that that is what many of Signorelli’s contemporaries felt they saw in the events of their time: with the advent of the Italian Wars, the pseudo-Protestantism of the Florentine Savonarola, and the relentless nepotism of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, it truly felt as if the Apocalypse was upon them.

Of the various scenes which Signorelli painted, it is The Deeds of the Antichrist which engages the most with contemporary events. It feels impossible not to consider the Antichrist as a direct representation of the aforementioned Girolamo Savonarola. It was Savonarola who had been responsible for the expulsion of the Medici Family, Signorelli’s patrons, from Florence (that, and Piero il fatuo’s abysmal leadership). He was a dominican friar, who had exceeded his monastic duties in order to establish a theocracy in all but name in place of the Medici-run princeps civitatis Florentine Republic. Savonarola was a kind of chilli-ridden amuse bouche to the Reformation’s acerbic banquet. These days we know him primarily for his Bonfires of the Vanities, in which they would burn great works of art, expensive clothing, and jewelry. His band of belligerent thugs would mush together heaps of precious things and watch them burn. See, then, in the painting, how various ornaments and trinkets are amassed beside the plinth on which the Antichrist stands. It is difficult to avoid this reference. In the painting’s eternal moment, the Antichrist is paused, waiting to hear what words Satan whispers to him; he is Hell’s seductive mouthpiece, drawing his audience away from the Catholic Church, and thus from Heaven. The ambiguity of that left hand — whether it belongs to the Antichrist or to Satan — makes the two seem one and the same. His congregation, too, is profligate: there are brawls and murdered priests, and there is a man bargaining with a prostitute. To make it yet more relevant, in the audience one can see Cesare Borgia, Dante Alighieri, and a young Raphael; some scholars speculate that Christopher Columbus, Petrarch, and Bocaccio also feature.

In many ways, this painting is concerned with the death of Italy’s golden age, the quarocento. Ever since the resolution of the Western Schism at the Council of Constance in 1418, Italy had enjoyed prosperity and relative peace.

There were always wars, but they were more courtly spectacles, pretend battles fought by pretend soldiers — more akin to the theatrical spectacles of the Roman Colosseum than the mud-soaked Hundred Years’ War fought between England and France. For example, it is said that only one man died in the 1441 Battle of Anghiari, which lasted a whole day … And he died from falling off his horse. This was mostly due to Europe’s major powers being preoccupied: France and England had been at one another’s throats for God knows how long, and the Spanish were yet to complete the interminable reconquista. But by the 1490s this was no longer the case; to make things worse, both the French and Spanish monarchs had viable claims to the Kingdom of Naples.

The bellicose French swept through Italy in 1494. The Italians, who’d been silly enough to forget the bloodiness of the Guelph-Ghibelline years, were now reminded what war was: Ecce La Guerra, the cannonballs screeched … Savonarola’s Florence welcomed the French in; he thought them a Biblical Force, led by a second Cyrus, who had come to usher in the Apocalypse. The relation between these two, then, would suggest those scarab-like soldiers of death, who sack the temple and massacre men, have some relation to the French army of 1494 and the more present one of 1499. The Antichrist distracts his unknowing audience from the pillaging that happens behind them. Familiar?

In the bottom left of The Deeds of the Antichrist, there are two men dressed in black. They are interdimensional and reflexive characters, existing in between the picture and the viewer. The partly obscured one is Fra Angelico and the other is Signorelli. The latter’s gaze confronts us. His admonishing look tells the reader that this is not a vague prophecy but political commentary: this is the state of our nation, our world. ‘Do you want to see more?’, he asks the viewer. He casts a mirror on us and dares us to see the brutal ugliness of our reflections.

In Hell Signorelli expands on his discussion of the present to show what violence we are capable of. The painting’s ordered chaos of modulating blues, greens, and flesh pinks, shows the damned being terrorised in hell. What makes this painting so jarring is Signorelli’s conception of the devils: the only thing which distinguishes them from the humans is their colour (green, blue, grey) and the occasional horn or pair of wings. Devils are often humanoid, but they’re usually grotesque and beastly, as with Giotto’s conception of the devil in his Last Judgement in Padua. Not here: their figures are as muscular and idealised as the other human forms, both male and female, which are scattered about this image.

(Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In the centre of this horrible mass of violence, there is a blue and horned figure who rapes a woman. Look closely. This devil looks familiar. Where could you have seen that face, and those long, artistic locks … It’s Signorelli, a self-portrait as a violent devil. Even within the artist there is the capacity for violence. There is such a capacity, this painting says, within all of us. But that’s not all … The woman whom he is raping strikes me as familiar. From my inspection of the other frescoes in this chapel, I recognise her. She is the archetypal female figure in Signorelli’s frescoes. The frequency of her appearance — I lost count at five; I’m no mathematician — suggests that either Signorelli wasn’t too interested in sketching too many female models, or else that he was obsessed with the figure of this one model. I would suggest the latter. She appears, too, in one of his frescoes at Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore in a tavern scene, where he was painting prior to being contracted in Orvieto. If my hypothesis were correct, the most obvious argument which he could be making is that not only are we all capable of violence, but we are capable of violence to those who we love.

If Signorelli’s conception of the Apocalypse is so persistently contemporary, it seems that Apocalypse is something which we carry with us. It is a facet of the human condition, a dark figment of the psyche. We have the capacity to violence, to injure those we love, and to be swept up in the more vicious currents of contemporary politics. But the painter’s warning, offered by his two self-portraits varying gazes, is adhered to, if we truly learn from it, then perhaps we might become more knowing, more able to fight against the maleficent voices which clammer in our subconscious and, more noticeably, in the news, on social media, and on the television. Signorelli’s vision persists, as relevant as ever.

For the Reader’s Information, I have only made use of two of the six frescoes. Time and space only permitted me these two. Each of the frescoes is remarkable; these two, to me, alongside The Resurrection, are the most interesting.

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