Michelangelo & Sebastiano (2017)

Sebastiano: Christ Carrying the Cross

(National Gallery, London, 15 March-25 June 2017)

The current National Gallery exhibition is a lovingly-crafted feast for the mind, focusing on a remarkable, though somewhat one-sided friendship. This is the tale of a talented young painter in search of new opportunities, who manages against the odds to become friends with the most difficult, most demanding artist of the age. Our painter is amazed when this great maestro decides to collaborate with him. But that collaboration must come at a price: the young man departs from the style of his youth and devotes himself to assimilating the master’s aesthetic. But what happens when the friendship sours? This is a story worthy of a novel, full of ambition, envy, manipulation and exploitation, Renaissance rivalry and tragically one-sided devotion. And some truly beautiful art.

In 1511, the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi arrived back in his adopted city of Rome after a business trip to Venice. Banker to the pope and holder of lucrative monopolies, he was probably the wealthiest man in the city and also one of its leading patrons of the arts. He brought with him a young artist named Sebastiano, whose work he’d seen in Venice, and whom he’d commissioned to decorate part of his sumptuous new villa, which we now call the Farnesina. Chigi had a sharp eye for talent – a few years later, he was one of Raphael’s main patrons – and Sebastiano was one of the most promising Venetian artists of his generation. He was fresh from the orbit of Giorgione, a contemporary of Titian, steeped in that visual language of diffused golden light and softly rounded forms.

Shortly before leaving Venice, Sebastiano had painted the lovely Daughter of Herodias, or Salome, now one of the National Gallery’s Venetian treasures. She makes an appearance in this show, gazing warily at us over a shoulder of billowing blue satin. This is clearly the work of a very competent painter. For Chigi, he’d paint similarly lyrical works: the Polyphemus and a series of mythological lunettes for the Farnesina’s Loggia di Galatea. Here we see the last burst of his Venetian luminescence. Sebastiano wanted to make a name for himself in Rome, but realised that the prevailing aesthetic in the Holy City was very different from that in Venice. He needed a mentor, someone who could introduce him to other Roman patrons. Someone to guide him. And he found that person in a most unlikely guise: the notoriously solitary, misanthropic Michelangelo.

Sebastiano: The Daughter of Herodias

Sebastiano del Piombo, The Daughter of Herodias, c.1510, National Gallery, London (detail)

Why did Michelangelo decide to help Sebastiano? The evidence suggests that they really did become friends: they exchanged many letters, written in the warm language of Renaissance affection, though Sebastiano’s letters are always that bit warmer and more effusive than Michelangelo’s (some are on display in the show). It seems likely that the young Venetian arrived in Rome just at the right time for Michelangelo, who was rapidly beginning to resent the primacy in painting of the talented Raphael, and was keen to do anything he could to challenge Raphael’s dominance. Sebastiano, with his Venetian gift for oils, could be a valuable asset. And so the two men began to collaborate together. Michelangelo helped Sebastiano to get commissions, and shared ideas for key figures or compositional motifs, before leaving Sebastiano to get on with the grunt-work of the painting. Michelangelo had no time for oil-painting: their friendship would eventually founder in the wake of a snide comment he’d make years later, that oil painting was for ‘women and idle and lazy people like Fra Bastiano’.

But, before the friendship broke down, it produced a series of striking collaborations and the National Gallery present three in detail. These are shown with preparatory drawings and related works, which illuminate the working process and the interaction between the two artists. First was the Viterbo Pietà (1512-16) a hauntingly raw work which shows all too clearly the presence of two minds. The overall impact is impressive: arranged in a strong triangular composition, the lamenting Virgin raises her eyes to heaven while the dead Christ is laid out at her feet. In its original position, behind an altar, it would have given the impression that the body of Christ was laid upon the very altar cloth during the Eucharist: a powerful affirmation of transubstantiation.

Sebastiano: Pietà

Sebastiano del Piombo, The Lamentation (Pietà), c.1512-16, Museo Civico, Viterbo (detail)

In the distant twilight landscape, and in the body of Christ, you can still detect a certain Venetian sfumato and warmth. The flesh-painting is gorgeous, though he’s had a bit of trouble with the articulation of the neck. The Virgin, however, is on an entirely different scale. Towering over her son, she’s hard and masculine: typical of the female figures Michelangelo painted. There’s nothing Venetian about this imposing, graceless figure, nor about the intensely spiritual force. For a first attempt, it was moderately successful, but Sebastiano and Michelangelo could do better – and they did, very soon.

Next up was the Borgherini Chapel in San Pietro in Montorio in Rome (1516-24), commissioned from Sebastiano on the understanding that Michelangelo would provide some of the designs. The main scene is The Flagellation, a mural painting in oil showing Christ flanked by tormentors, which draws the eye unavoidably to Christ’s heroic torso (this would itself have an enduring influence: see Caravaggio’s Flagellation). Above was an apse painted in buon fresco with a scene of The Transfiguration. We can trace the development of the design through drawings like the British Museum’s gorgeous black-chalk Michelangelo study of Christ (I’m allowed to be partial), which hangs in this room. Here too are some of Sebastiano’s most impressive drawings, focused on the figures of the prophets around Christ in The Transfiguration.

Factum Arte

Factum Arte prepare the 3D reconstruction of the Borgherini Chapel with The Transfiguration

You’d be forgiven for doing a double-take when you walk into the room, because you’re faced by the chapel itself, in a deliciously theatrical revelation. It isn’t the real thing, of course, but it looks very like. This is an incredible 3D print of the chapel by Factum Arte, who specialise in 3D scanning and reproducing works of cultural heritage. They’ve reproduced everything, down to the light switch on the chapel’s left wall and the crumbling plaster where someone’s bodged in an electrical wire. It’s only 90% scale, but you don’t notice that. It’s a fantastic solution to the age-old problem of how to deal with important works that can’t travel. (There is a whole discussion to be had about the ethical implications, and whether one day we could have an entire exhibition without a single original work of art, but we’ll leave that for another day.) For now, it triumphantly presents the end result of the collaboration traced in the drawings around the walls.

The third and final collaboration examined here is The Raising of Lazarus of 1517-19 (from the National Gallery’s own collection: it was the very first work to be registered, with the inventory number NG1). Spare a moment to admire the picture’s new frame. It looks Renaissance, but in fact only the upper entablature is 16th-century. The rest has been made specially for the exhibition by the National Gallery’s resident framer, and it’s a work of art in itself. I’m hoping someone sets up a petition to keep the picture in said frame when it goes back on display.

Sebastiano: The Raising of Lazarus

Sebastiano del Piombo, The Raising of Lazarus, 1517-19, National Gallery, London (detail)

As for the painting itself, exciting new research shows that the left-hand side was completed with no substantial changes. But the figure of Lazarus went through several changes, as revealed by scans. He was first painted with his arm outstretched, his finger almost touching that of Christ. Ring any bells? It was a direct citation of the figure of Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling: another man brought to life by God. But this didn’t quite work, and when Michelangelo saw the half-finished painting, he made some suggestions. Through drawings from the British Museum, we can trace the development of the figure to its current pose, arm crossed over its chest. Sebastiano was hugely proud of the finished painting. He boasted that it included more than forty figures.

He needed it to make a big impression, because it had been commissioned as one of a pair: its pendant was to be a Transfiguration, painted by Raphael. Sebastiano was probably still smarting from his last encounter with the Umbrian artist, in the Loggia of the Farnesina. Here, Raphael had been commissioned to paint a Galatea to complement Sebastiano’s Polyphemus. Ignoring the usual courtesies, Raphael had ignored the horizon line set up in Sebastiano’s painting, and had fired off a stunning individualistic salvo that would cast Polyphemus into the shade forever. Sebastiano was determined this wouldn’t happen again; but he was, once again, thwarted in a way he could never have predicted. On finishing The Transfiguration, Raphael died, and his painting immediately became a relic of a dazzling ability. It was kept and cherished in Rome, while Sebastiano’s picture was sent off to France to fulfil the commission. It was a hollow victory.

These three focus points are set within a wider overview of Sebastiano’s career, ranging from the unfinished Judgement of Solomon (1506-8) from Kingston Lacy to the very late fragments of the frescoed Visitation (1533-36) from Alnwick Castle. The latter offers a sober conclusion to the show, almost diametrically opposed to the Venetian glow of the early years. Here everything is stripped back to essentials, the meaning conveyed through raw, austere form rather than the lush proliferation of colours in Sebastiano’s earlier work. Even after his friendship with Michelangelo had failed, he was drawing on the other artist’s lessons. To some extent, having worked so closely with Michelangelo for so many years, he could no longer separate himself.

Sebastiano: Visitation

Sebastiano del Piombo, The Visitation, 1533-36, Collection of the Duke of Northumberland, Alnwick Castle

But why are these works so dark, so sombre? Partly it stems from the intensely religious Counter-Reformation faith that was growing in Rome at this period, and from Sebastian’s own deep religiosity at the end of his life. But it probably also reflects his very changed view of the world. Unlike most artists, including Michelangelo himself, Sebastiano had stuck it out in Rome during the Sack, remaining loyal to the Pope. He would never recover from the horror of the experience, despite the rewards he received from the Pontiff. His brooding late works look even darker when viewed, as here, beside the Louvre Visitation from 1518-19, which positively glows with colour.

There are also, of course, works by Michelangelo which allow us to see what he was doing at the same time, and how motifs fed through from one artist to another – but it would be wrong, as some critics have, to see this as a Michelangelo show with a few awkward pictures by an interloper. That’s to miss the point. This is about the relationship between two men, at a very charged and competitive moment of art history. And the Michelangelos that are included are beautiful. Obviously, for me, his most exquisite works are the drawings, loaned from the British Museum, the Royal Collection and private collections. It’s also great to see the Taddei Tondo, the only Michelangelo sculpture in Britain. In an extraordinary coup, it has been brought down from the Royal Academy (where it’s been hidden away at the end of a landing for years). This is a fine chance to see it under better lighting, no matter what you may feel about its large box. That’s necessary to protect it: the reason it’s so rarely moved is because there’s a hairline crack running through the marble. It is unbelievably fragile.

But the other sculptures in the show give an idea of Michelangelo’s work rather than actually showing it. The finished version of the Risen Christ from Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, and the Pietà, are plaster casts. The first version of the Risen Christ, lent from Bassano Romano, is a more complex object. Conceived by Michelangelo and part-carved by him, it was abandoned as soon as he discovered a dark vein in the marble at the side of the face. We don’t know exactly how far he’d got with it. But we do know that it was completed in the 17th century. So how much of what we see now is actually by Michelangelo? The answer will differ depending on who you speak to.

In a sense, Sebastiano’s friendship with Michelangelo was something of a Faustian pact. Sebastiano needed someone with contacts and he also benefitted from Michelangelo’s brilliant imagination as a draughtsman. Roman art, with its complex compositions and extreme poses, relied heavily on drawing. While we can scotch the old adage that Venetian artists didn’t draw (which is manifestly untrue), Sebastiano hadn’t been trained in the kind of drawing which he needed to make a success of the Roman manner. Venetian drawing of this period was loose and evocative, usually executed in black and white chalk on blue paper, focusing on the fall of light. But Michelangelo could conceive of the human form in a myriad of perfect poses – he was so much better a draughtsman than a painter – and here, in the field of anatomical bravura, Sebastiano faltered.

He had much to gain from the association. But all Faustian bargains have a catch. For me, this exhibition is not only an illuminating study of a very complicated friendship, but a more cautionary tale. Sebastiano tried. He really did try. And there are passages of extreme beauty in the works he accomplished with Michelangelo. But, for me, they are the works of a man who’d compromised his art. He tried to paint in a way that wasn’t his way, and of course he ended up being outclassed by Raphael, who was more adaptive, more brilliant and more innovative. By the end of his friendship with Michelangelo, Sebastiano had lost sight of what he could do, so, so well. Your heart breaks to look at his early works, glowing with that crepuscular Venetian light, the forms soft and rounded and graceful. I’d been wondering how best to express this when one of my colleagues, unexpectedly, did it for me: “It makes you almost wish he’d never left Venice.”

This is a fascinating show with a quiet tragedy at its heart.

Find out more

Sebastiano: The Judgement of Solomon

Sebastiano del Piombo, The Judgement of Solomon, 1506-08, National Trust, Kingston Lacy

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