‘All the discords that arose between Pope Julius and me were owing to the envy of Bramante and Raphael of Urbino […] And Raphael had good reason to be envious, since what he knew of art he learnt from me.’
(Michelangelo from Rome to an unknown addressee, October-November 1542)
What do you get when you cross a paranoid Florentine sculptor with an envious painter from Venice? The unlikely friendship of Michelangelo Buonarroti and Sebastiano del Piombo. With a shared hatred for the graceful Raphael and his workshop, ‘Michelangelo & Sebastiano’ at the National Gallery explores how this Renaissance power-duo joined forces to make a mark on the artistic legacy of papal Rome.
The story begins with Agostino Chigi, a Sienese banker working for Pope Julius II and also the richest man in Europe at the time. During the War of the League of Cambrai, Chigi was sent to Venice in 1511 to provide financial support. Here he met Sebastiano Luciani, a painter who worked in the circle of Giorgione around 1500-11. Chigi commissioned him to decorate his villa back in Rome, known today as the Villa Farnesina. In the room designated the Sala di Galatea, the artist painted mythological scenes in the lunettes, followed later by an imposing Polyphemus (1511-12) in fresco. Contemporaneously, Raphael was asked to paint the Triumph of Galatea (1511-14) beside it. Chigi was impressed by the latter; Sebastiano was not.
The alliance between Michelangelo and Sebastiano appears to have been consolidated by about 1515. Although the former’s painted work on the Sistine Chapel ceiling between 1508 and 1512 astounded many who saw it, his calling was in the art of sculpture. His marble Taddei Tondo (1504-06) dazzles at the viewer in the first room of the exhibition, facing off against Sebastiano’s monumental Judgement of Solomon (1506-09). The display is evocative of two important theoretical debates in sixteenth-century Italian art theory: painting versus sculpture, and disegno (design) versus colorito (colour).
This first room is particularly important in that it highlights the characteristics of each artist that underpinned the nature of their collaboration. Sebastiano’s roots in the Venetian tradition meant that he was a master of colour. Painting in oil, he could exploit the medium’s slow-drying properties to reproduce the sensitive and contrasting effects of light and dress his figures in vivid colours. Michelangelo was a sculptor first, painter second. He was the inventor of expressive, monumental figures. Their collaboration was a fusion of Florentine disegno and Venetian colorito. Why? Because Raphael had both.
Three main projects underpin their alliance: the Pietà (1512-16) for the church of San Francesco in Viterbo, the Borgherini Chapel (1516-20) in San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, and The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) for the Cathedral of Narbonne in France.
For their first collaboration, Michelangelo reinvented his earlier Pietà (1497-1500) in Rome, made when he was just 25 years old. The Virgin Mary retains her monumentality and hefty swathes of drapery, gazing meditatively at the moon. However, instead of holding up the dead Christ, he has been laid on gleaming white sheets on the ground. The two figures are set in front of a nocturnal, desolate landscape – suggestive of the pains of earthly life – and unprecedented on this scale; Sebastiano would later come back to this motif in the coming years. In the exhibition, Sebastiano’s Pietà faces a cast of Michelangelo’s marble treatment of the subject; the latter had also painted a dead Christ in his unfinished Entombment (1500-01), shown in the same room.
A well-positioned sheet of drawings by Michelangelo clearly depicts a study of a male upper torso with clasped hands, with several other sketches of the same gesture scattered around. These were made in preparation for the clasped hands of the Virgin in Sebastiano’s altarpiece. This gesture derives from Andrea del Castagno’s Assumption of the Virgin (1449-50), a painting certainly seen by Michelangelo in his youth when it was at San Miniato fra le Torri in Florence. In another drawing, this time for the first phase of the Sistine Chapel ceiling, a sketch for the hand of Adam in the Creation of Man (1510-11) foreshadows the limp hand of Christ in the later altarpiece.
Before one enters the next room, a rare opportunity to see the back of Sebastiano’s Pietà presents itself. Here we have several large summary sketches attributed to Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, whilst others have been attributed to Sebastiano making impressions of the former’s preparatory work.
The year 1516 was a hugely important time in Sebastiano’s career. The greatest milestone was the commission from Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, the future Pope Clement VII, for an altarpiece to adorn his Cathedral in Narbonne. The commission first went to Raphael, probably in late 1516; he responded with The Transfiguration (1517-20), now in the Vatican. Sebastiano was eager to receive a papal commission and petitioned the cardinal to allocate him another painting of the same size to be paired with Raphael’s painting. With a little prompt from Michelangelo, his wish was granted and the result was The Raising of Lazarus, which I will discuss later.
Around the same year, a triptych was also believed to have been made for Jerónimo Vich y Valterra, the Spanish ambassador to Rome between 1506 and 1521. The central panel depicts the Lamentation over the Body of Christ (1516) with the sides showing The Descent into Limbo (1516) and a now-lost Christ appearing to the Apostles. The exhibition has reunited the two autograph panels – from The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, and the Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, respectively – alongside Francisco Ribalta’s seventeenth-century copy of the lost right-hand panel. The recumbent pose of Christ in the central panel derives from the Viterbo Pietà, including the simple loincloth which wraps around his hips. What is evident in this triptych is Sebastiano’s use of Michelangelo’s simple gestures and grand figures on his own accord, coupled with his natural abilities as a brilliant colourist. Such a work brought Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s Roman style to the attention of Spanish clients.
Two rooms later, one is confronted by a slightly-reduced reconstruction of the Borgherini Chapel at San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, courtesy of Factum Foundation. This was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s second collaborative project, commissioned by the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini in the spring of 1516, whose supposed portrait hangs nearby in the same room. The decoration of the niche-like chapel consists of a central scene showing Christ being flagellated, flanked by Saints Peter and Francis of Assisi. Above this is a half-dome depicting the Transfiguration of Christ witnessed by the Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah. Above the arch, in the spandrels, are another two Old Testament prophets, Ezekiel and Isaiah, foretellers of the first and second coming of Christ. The juxtaposition of these two scenes from the Passion of Christ would later influence Raphael’s design for the Transfiguration.
Michelangelo’s drawings for the Flagellation scene are beautifully composed, originally conceived with a seated Pontius Pilate as per tradition in a red chalk drawing. He then dismisses this in favour of showing the tortured Christ at centre-stage, flanked by his flagellators who echo each other’s movements. The beautiful body of Christ is being emphasised here, carefully pondered in a black chalk drawing by Michelangelo.
On the opposite wall are some later drawings by Sebastiano, careful studies of individual figures in black chalk in preparation for painting. One of these, showing the prophet in the left spandrel, has been squared in red chalk, ready for enlargement to create a full-sized cartoon. A cartoon (from the Italian word ‘cartone’, meaning a large piece of paper at the time) was a drawing made on the same scale as the final product, in this case the fresco on the chapel walls. It was also used to transfer the finished design onto the wall using one of two methods:
- Pricking and pouncing: This is when small holes are pricked along the contours of the design and charcoal dust is rubbed into these holes, appearing on the painting surface as small dots (spolveri). The artist would then join up the dots to recreate the design.
- Incision: This is when the contours of the design are scored using a stylus to create indentations on the picture surface. In the case of fresco painting, these indentations would be visible on the wet plaster of the chapel wall.
The survival of cartoons is extremely rare due to their sole function as aids for transferring designs. Usually they would be scrapped, if not already destroyed or damaged in the artistic process. As far as we know, only one cartoon by Sebastiano has survived and it is displayed in the exhibition.
This cartoon is for the head of Saint James Major, shown at the bottom right of the Transfiguration scene. Many cartoons that do survive tend to be of heads, hands, or feet. This is because they have greater potential for re-use and incorporation into other artistic projects; not all artists invented everything from scratch. The cartoon was drawn using black chalk, a medium suited for large-scale drawing due to its softness, bold lines, and opportunities for blending, shading and creating painterly effects. Here, Sebastiano has roughly rendered the tonal areas of the saint’s features, enough to aid him during painting. The spolveri dots are visible up close and you can see where the artist has chosen to move away from the original design.
During the Borgherini Chapel commission, Michelangelo was at a particularly busy and frustrating period in his career. The Medici Pope, Leo X, pestered him with commissions in Florence, such as the façade for San Lorenzo (left unfinished) and the New Sacristy. However, the artist had a more pressing matter on his mind: completing the tomb of Julius II, the previous Pope who died in 1513; the tomb was commissioned in 1505 but not completed until 1545. Part of the grand design for the tomb, intended to be a free-standing monument, was a group of marble Slaves, shown in a variety of struggling, tragic poses and displaying Michelangelo’s skill in rendering anatomy. Over the years, Michelangelo’s design went through considerable revisions, becoming smaller and less impressive, until it became the modest monument it is today at San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome. A concurrent commission in 1514 bears hints of Michelangelo’s intentions for his Slaves, only two of which were finished: The Risen Christ (1519-21) for Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome.
Michelangelo made two versions, the first of which was rediscovered in 1997 in the sacristy of San Vincenzo Martire, near Bassano Romano, and now dubbed the ‘Giustianini Christ’ (1514-15, finished in the early seventeenth century). A famous anecdote in two letters to Michelangelo by one of the supervisors of the commission, Metello Vari, mentions an unsightly black vein which ran along what would have been Christ’s face. Having discovered this fatal flaw, Michelangelo started anew. This exhibition presents a rare opportunity to observe that very vein in addition to seeing the two versions side by side.
Several noticeable improvements can be discerned, the most important being their pose. The second version adopts a more active stance than the first, clutching the cross with both hands and his sculpted body twisted in a serpentine manner. The result is grand and lively, as if Christ himself had taken on material form once more. The first version, however, takes on the stature of antique sculpture – for example, the Doryphoros (c. 440 BC) – monumental but unimposing. A double-sided study shows Michelangelo tentatively reworking the legs of the second version in red chalk before outlining the final stance in pen-and-ink. On the other side, exceptional care has been taken to mould the muscles of the torso using cross-hatched ink lines, leaving Christ’s face to perish as perfectly arranged outlines.
Exhibited nearby is a letter from Sebastiano to Michelangelo concerning his disappointment at the finishing touches to the second Risen Christ, made by the latter’s assistant Pietro Urbano and later corrected by Federico Frizzi. There are some amusing passages in this letter, dated Friday 6 September 1521, such as the following:
‘But I must tell you that everything he has worked on he has wrecked…Frizzi says that it looks as if they had been worked by people who make doughnuts…they look stunted as though they were worked by those who make pasta.’
By the time the second Risen Christ was begun, Raphael and Sebastiano had already begun their final battle to impress the future Pope Clement VII.
The Raising of Lazarus was the first painting to enter the National Gallery’s collection, purchased by the British Government from the estate of John Julius Angerstein upon his death. They also took over the lease of his Pall Mall town house, 100 Pall Mall, where the Gallery was first established in 1824 before the modern Gallery was built in Trafalgar Square. The painting is catalogued ‘NG1’.
No less than 40 figures fill Sebastiano’s painting, turning their heads and pointing towards the principal scene of Christ’s miraculous resurrection of the dead Lazarus of Bethany (John 11). Throughout the composition, they form clumps of interacting bystanders, such as the Pharisees in the upper-left background and the twelve Apostles below.
As was customary in their enterprise, the drawings related to this commission show that Michelangelo’s designs were limited to the most important male figures whilst Sebastiano invented the rest, including the background. On display are four sheets of drawings, two by each artist.
The earliest is a blue-tinted, double-sided sheet with a study of a woman’s head on one side (unrelated to this painting) and on the other a study of a male torso and a male kneeling figure, dated about 1517-18. The male torso appears to be Sebastiano’s early thoughts for the figure of Lazarus, his torso shown frontally with shoulders in a horizontal orientation; this seems to recur in one of the Michelangelo drawings. Drawn on top of it is a more detailed study for the kneeling Saint Peter, who appears in much the same way as in the painting.
The second sheet – also tinted blue – is a study for Martha of Bethany, sister of Lazarus, who turns her head away from him with outstretched hands out of revulsion at the stench of her brother’s open tomb. A figure in the pendentive of the Punishment of Haman (1511) on the Sistine ceiling bears a similar pose; Martha’s design may have derived from it. The gesturing bystanders behind Martha have been replaced in the painting with three women holding their noses. The outlines on the right of the sheet may be a placeholder denoting the position of the attendant leaning over Lazarus.
The two drawings by Michelangelo, dated about 1518, are red chalk studies for Lazarus and his two attendants who support him, both from the British Museum. The earliest shows the former softly modelled in the nude, arm outstretched as if about to greet Christ; the overall pose is adapted from a fusion between Adam in the Creation of Man (1508-12) and the ignudi of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In quick, summary lines, the oversized shape of an attendant leans over Lazarus to look down at the other attendant, who is bent down on one knee.
This specific study is surprisingly representative of Michelangelo’s drawing methods, starting with fast, well-placed outlines, reinforced with linear hatching for dramatic lighting, and ‘sculpted’ by blending the chalk to create delicately-modelled, marble-like flesh. At the bottom of the sheet are some studies of a left foot, possibly for that of Jesus Christ.
In the next drawing, Lazarus dons his grave clothes in elegant strips which drape over various parts of his body. The previously outstretched arm is now laid across his chest to grasp at pieces of drapery wrapped around his left bicep, and the attendants have shifted positions slightly. Rapid, linear hatching has been employed evenly across the composition. At the top of the sheet, above the right shoulder of the upper attendant, is an upside-down sketch of a torso resembling that found in the earlier double-sided sheet by Sebastiano.
It is difficult to talk about the Raising of Lazarus fully without reference to its historical context and relation to Raphael’s Transfiguration. In the middle of the room are displayed six letters, mostly from the archives of the Fondazione Casa Buonarroti in Florence. These correspondences were sent between 1516 and 1534, from when Michelangelo left for Florence to work on the façade of San Lorenzo until his permanent return to Rome; a total of 37 letters from Sebastiano and six by Michelangelo have survived thus far from this period.
In the earliest of the exhibited letters, dated Friday 2 July 1518, Sebastiano writes that ‘I have kept it [The Raising of Lazarus] for so long because I do not want Raphael to see mine until he has delivered his…Raphael has not yet begun his.’ Although this may seem like a paranoid statement, Raphael did in fact take inspiration from Sebastiano’s recent work: the Borgherini Chapel. His first idea for the Transfiguration was a humble depiction of Christ standing on Mount Tabor, flanked by the prophets Moses and Elijah, with the three Apostles who accompanied him (Peter, James, and John), and God the Father in the heavens above with angels.
Raphael then shifted his original scene to occupy the upper half of his new composition and added an extra Biblical scene at the lower half depicting the appearance of the possessed boy. Although the two episodes are chronologically adjacent in the Gospels, Raphael has connected the two events on a single picture plane using clear dramatic gestures that have the effect of directing the eye in a circular motion across the composition. It is not clear when Raphael decided to employ this double narrative, but the Borgherini Chapel may have had an influence; Raphael’s modifications to his standing Christ into a levitating Christ with floating prophets is clearly indebted to Sebastiano’s own Transfiguration in the chapel.
Despite Sebastiano’s paranoia, his own painting had sought inspiration from Raphael’s Christ Fallen under the Cross (The Spasimo) (1515-16), a large altarpiece intended for the church of Santa Maria dello Spasimo in Palermo. In this ironic and hypocritical act, Sebastiano took from Raphael’s altarpiece the use of jagged edges and tightly-cropped, multi-figural compositions.
Near the end of the same letter, Sebastiano urges Michelangelo for a request to have the Raising of Lazarus framed in Rome:
‘[…] I beg of you to persuade Messer Domenico [Buoninsegni] to have the frame gilded in Rome, and to leave me to arrange the gilding, because I want to make the Cardinal realise that Raphael is robbing the Pope of at least 3 ducats a day for gilding. Besides, my work will have more grace framed [‘fornita’] than if it were bare.’
A fragment of this frame still survives, integrated within the frame of an eighteenth-century copy of Sebastiano’s painting at Narbonne Cathedral. The frame was probably made by the woodworker Giovanni Barile after possible designs by Michelangelo. Made especially for this exhibition, the National Gallery’s Framing Department constructed a new frame for the painting, incorporating authentic, sixteenth-century elements and replicating the only surviving fragment of the original frame at its plinth.
A year later, Sebastiano writes in a letter dated 29 December 1519 to Michelangelo that he has finished the painting and delivered it to the Vatican:
‘Everyone seems to like it rather than dislike it, apart from the curial officials who don’t know what to say…the most reverend Monsignor [Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici] told me that I had given him more satisfaction than he was expecting.’
He immediately follows up with a snarky comment saying, ‘I believe my painting is better designed than those tapestries that have arrived from Flanders.’ Here, he is referring to Raphael’s Acts of the Apostles tapestries, commissioned by Leo X at least four years earlier, which were sent to Brussels to be made in the workshop of Pieter Coecke van Aelst. Ten of the supposed 16 tapestries arrived in Rome between late 1519 and 1521, with seven of those having arrived and displayed in the Sistine Chapel by 26 December 1519, the same date as Sebastiano’s letter.
On 6 April 1520 (Good Friday), Raphael had died without finishing his altarpiece; some parts of the lower left figures were finished by his assistants. It lay at his head for six days before being officially displayed in the Vatican next to Sebastiano’s altarpiece the following day. The two were evenly matched, employing brilliant bursts of exquisite colour and dramatic figures that can only be matched in stature by divinity itself. Although the intention was for both pictures to be sent to Narbonne, only Sebastiano’s was sent overseas. Giulio de’ Medici kept Raphael’s painting in Rome and had it installed in 1523 on the high altar of San Pietro in Montorio in a now-lost frame designed by Giovanni Barile.
Raphael’s death created an opportunity for Sebastiano to forward his career. Still seeking papal commissions, he writes to Michelangelo on 12 April 1520, first lamenting Raphael’s death – ‘which I think you must be very sorry about’ – before pestering the artist to recommend him for the painting of the Sala dei Pontifici, ‘something that Raphael’s workshop assistants keep boasting about’. Sebastiano passive-aggressively warns him:
‘And above all, you should watch out because one of Raphael of Urbino’s assistants is coming to Florence, so as to get all the jobs in the [Vatican] Palace from the most reverend Monsignor. Please make sure that I am given at least one of these jobs […]’
Indeed, Michelangelo did recommend the Venetian artist, although in a somewhat joking manner, as recorded in a draft of the letter to Cardinal Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena, dated May/June 1520:
‘Monsignor – I beg your Most Reverend Lordship – not as a friend, nor as a servant for I am unworthy to be either the one or the other – but as a man of no account, poor and foolish, to obtain Bastiano Veneziano, the painter, some share in the work at the Palace, now that Raphael is dead. But should your Lordship think that the favour would be thrown away on a man like me, I think that one might still find some pleasure in granting favours to fools, just as one does in onions as a change in diet, when one is surfeited with capons. You are always granting favours to men of esteem; I beg Your Lordship to try out the change with me. The said Bastiano is a capable man and the favour would be considerable, which, though it might be wasted on me, would not be so on him, as I’m sure he will do credit to Your Lordship.’
With Sebastiano’s career on the line in this one letter of recommendation from one of the finest sculptors of the Renaissance, you would hope the matter was taken seriously. It was not.
In a letter to Michelangelo, dated Tuesday 3 July 1520, Sebastiano reveals his hurt and disappointment at his friend, mentioning his awkward conversation with Cardinal Bibbiena after being turned down on his request to decorate the Sala dei Pontifici, already given to Raphael’s workshop:
‘Then he asked me whether I had read your letter. I said, “No, I had not”, and he laughed a lot at this, as though it were a great joke, and then with fine words I left. / Afterwards I heard from Bacino de Michelagnolo [Baccio Bandinelli], who is working on the Laocoon, that the Cardinal had shown him your letter and had also shown it to the Pope, and your letter is practically the only topic of conversation at the Palace, and it makes everyone laugh.’
Unfortunately, though he was eventually granted a private audience with Leo X, it was Michelangelo himself who was the root of Sebastiano’s patronage problems. Sebastiano records the Pope’s comments about Michelangelo in a letter to the artist, dated Monday 15 October 1520:
‘And I replied to him that, with your help, I could do miracles. And he replied “I have no doubt of that, because of all you have learnt from him […] But he is terribile, as you see; one cannot deal with him.” And I replied to His Holiness that your terribile character did not harm anyone, and that you appear terribile for love of the great works you carry out […]’
The exhibition ends with a focus on Sebastiano’s divergence from Michelangelo, jumping between the late-1510s and mid-1530s. The comparisons drawn in this room are between Sebastiano’s earlier oil depiction of The Visitation (1518-19) and three surviving mural fragments of a later Visitation (1533-36), left unfinished in the octagonal chancel of Santa Maria della Pace, Rome. Many formal similarities connect the two versions, such as the interaction between the Virgin Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. However, Sebastiano’s mural fragments exhibit greater solemnity and emotional interest than the chunky, dramatic Michelangeleque forms of his earlier version.
A drawing made a few years earlier by Michelangelo demonstrates that the elder artist complemented his bold figures with heightened emotional drama instead of paring down the monumentality of his sculptural figures. Upon his permanent return to Rome in 1534, he would begin the greatest statement of his sculptural approach to painting: The Last Judgement (1535-41).
‘Michelangelo & Sebastiano’ is an exhibition that is long overdue and highly anticipated in the visualisation of major art-historical events. It is deeply engaging and the selected works are beautifully balanced between painting, sculpture, drawings, and archival documents. Aside from their core collaborative works, independent works by Sebastiano exploring the Madonna and Child, and a selection of his vivid portraits are also on display.
Admittedly, there were some issues with displaying chronology on the part of the viewer trying to understand the artists’ activities between 1515 and 1521. This is particularly noticeable when transitioning between the room containing the Raising of Lazarus, into the two Risen Christs, and then hitting the Borgherini Chapel. The Risen Christs, albeit very welcome additions to the show, feel irrelevant and confusing within the proposed itinerary of the exhibition; the accompanying drawings do not seem to help with this either. In their defence, the works in this room could, logistically, hardly have sought for a better location, given the exceptional scale of the works in the flanking rooms. Overall, the complexities of Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s friendship and alliance were well demonstrated in this truly astonishing exhibition.
‘The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano’ ran between 15 March – 25 June 2017 at the National Gallery, London, www.nationalgallery.org.
For the catalogue, click on the image below!