Signorelli received his artistic training from Piero della Francesca and worked almost exclusively in Umbria and southern Tuscany. The two frescoes he painted in the Sistine Chapel in Rome established him as a successful and independent master by the early 1480s. It was, however, the fresco cycle in the Cappella Nova (also known as the Chapel of San Brizio) in Orvieto Cathedral, commissioned in 1499 and completed in 1503, that ensured his place among the greatest Renaissance masters. One of the most extensive narratives dedicated to the Last Judgment made during the period, the cycle in the first, or entrance, bay comprises scenes relating to the end of the world, namely the Signs of the End of the World above the entrance, the Resurrection of the Flesh on the right wall, and the Rule of the Antichrist on the left. This was followed in the second bay, with frescoes of The Damned on the right wall and The Elect on the left, culminating above the altar with the Damned Being Plunged into Hell and the Ascent of the Elect into Paradise. This plethora of harrowing scenes, teeming with an array of muscular devils tormenting the damned, was much admired by Michelangelo and paved the way for new, dramatic possibilities for depicting the nude figure.
Although the four demons in the present drawing do not appear in the Orvieto frescoes, the drawing has been convincingly associated with the San Brizio cycle. The exact action depicted is difficult to determine, but, judging by the enraged expressions of the demons, one of whom is wearing pince-nez, the group seems to be inspecting a controversial book. Similar fantastic nude devils with curled horns and spiked, batlike wings torment their victims in the fresco The Damned, but none of the drawn figures finds a counterpart in the final version. The drawing may well have been conceived as a study for one of the groups in the Rule of the Antichrist, in which disputing clerics demonstrate the confusion in the church caused by the preaching of the Antichrist.1 A change in plan calling for clothed figures in that scene, however, might have caused the design to be discarded. Indeed, very few of the surviving studies for the project appear in the finished work. Andrew Martindale has suggested that Signorelli produced true studies for the San Brizio project only rarely because the final design was not necessarily settled until the very last moment, with improvements and improvisations occurring directly on the wall. In at least one instance, the artist incised a figure in the wet plaster in one pose and painted it in another.2 More recently, Tom Henry suggested that rather than preparatory studies for the frescoes, these drawings were produced as “finished replicas of successful solutions.”3
Of the forty or so known drawings by Signorelli, this example ranks among the very finest,4 containing, in the words of Felice Stampfle, “as much of the essence of the artist as can be distilled in a single sheet.”5 The study excels in wit as well as in its accurate modeling and rendition of the proportions of the figures, which are individualized and vigorously drawn in soft black chalk. There is a clear definition of volume, mass, and anatomy, with the pronounced muscles sketched with emphatic outlines and crosshatched shading.
- For a reproduction of the fresco, see Testa 1996, 106.
- Martindale 1961, passim.
- Henry 2012, 206 and 377n159.
- For a complete catalogue of the drawings, see van Cleave 1995.
- Fellows Report 14 1967, 98.
Rhoda Eitel-Porter and and John Marciari, Italian Renaissance Drawings at the Morgan Library & Museum, New York, 2019, no. 23.
Selected references: London 1893, no. 112; Vasari Society 1922, no. 1; London 1930, 97; Berenson 1932, 190-91, 207; Berenson 1938, no. 2509E; Scarpellini 1964, no. 77; Fellows Report 14 1967, 98-100; Stockholm 1970, no. 29; New York 1981, no. 4; van Cleave 1995, no. 24; Washington 1995-96, under no. 20; Testa 1996, 249-50; Röttgen 1997, 388; New York 2006, no. 3; Munich 2008-9, no. 4; Henry 2012, 206-7; Perugia and elsewhere 2012, no. 73.
Adams, Frederick B., Jr. Fourteenth Annual Report to the Fellows of the Pierpont Morgan Library. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1967, p. 98.
A review of acquisitions, 1949-1968 / Pierpont Morgan Library. New York : The Library, 1969, p. 170-171.
Denison, Cara D., and Helen B. Mules, with the assistance of Jane V. Shoaf. European Drawings, 1375-1825. New York : Pierpont Morgan Library, 1981, no. 4, repr.
From Leonardo to Pollock: Master drawings from the Morgan Library. New York: Morgan Library, 2006, cat. no. 3, p. 8-9.
100 Master drawings from the Morgan Library & Museum. München : Hirmer, 2008, no. 4, repr. [Rhoda Eitel-Porter]
Hone, Nathaniel, 1718-1784, former owner.
Reynolds, Joshua, Sir, 1723-1792, former owner.
Banks, Thomas, 1735-1805, former owner.
Forster, Lavinia Banks, 1774-1858, former owner.
Poynter, Ambrose, 1796-1886, former owner.
Poynter, Edward John, 1836-1919, former owner.
Harewood, Henry George Charles Lascelles, Earl of, 1882-1947, former owner.