The general perception of Michelangelo is of a highly introspective, tortured and cantankerous genius who worked independently to produce some of the most famous works in Western Art. So it may seem slightly incongruous that the National Gallery’s latest exhibition, Michelangelo & Sebastiano, is actually a celebration of the friendship Michelangelo forged with the Venetian artist, Sebastiano del Piombo. It presents a different side to Michelangelo’s character as collaborative and supportive, particularly as both he and Sebastiano had a mutual rival: Raphael. This exhibition shows the influence the two artists had on each other, and is keen to point out that Sebastiano had just as much influence on Michelangelo as the other way round, with their different artistic training intertwining in High Renaissance Rome.
The two men met in Rome in 1511, a significant time for Michelangelo as he was putting the finishing touches to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Sebastiano arrived in Rome as part of Agostino Chigi’s entourage, a banker from Siena. Both men were pitched against Raphael: Michelangelo in the Vatican, where Raphael was completing the Stanze for Pope Julius II (resulting in the most famous School of Athens in the Stanza della Segnatura) whilst he worked on the ceiling, and Sebastiano at Chigi’s Villa Farnesina, where both he and Raphael were asked to paint individual parts of the story of Polyphemus and Galatea on the same wall. However, by 1520, Raphael had passed away and their friendship lived on, with each man contributing to the compositions of the other. The exhibition explores this and I wanted to pick out some of my favourites, as it is such a great exhibition full of many treasures but also organised in a really interesting way, as it encompasses not only painting but also sculpture, manuscript letters, drawings and an amazing 3D printed impression of an altarpiece.
A cornerstone of the exhibition is Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus, which, this year, celebrates its 500th birthday. Shown in a beautiful new frame created by the National Gallery Framing Department based on, and some parts made from, sixteenth-century pieces, it has the accession number NG1 as it was one of the thirty-eight paintings from the collection of John Julius Angerstein which became the foundation of the National Gallery in 1824. It is so beautiful and colourful, exhibiting perfectly the artist’s Venetian training under the mentorship of Giorgione, and was painted as part of a double commission for the Cathedral of Narbonne in France by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici. Who was the other artist who was commissioned? Raphael, of course. The Transfiguration he completed between 1516 and 1520 is now in the Vatican Museums. It appears that Sebastiano began this painting to his own design but incorporated revisions suggested by Michelangelo.
Another painting where there is even more evidence of Michelangelo’s involvement is the Lamentation of the Dead Christ, also known as Pièta, which was completed between 1512 and 1516. I’ve already waxed lyrical in previous posts about how much I love Michelangelo’s sculpted version, dated 1497-1500 and located in St Peter’s Basilica, and I was so excited to see that they had a copy in this exhibition so spent about twenty minutes staring at it, as it is scaled to slightly larger than life size and this is especially apparent when you see it in the exhibition space here, as it is obviously much smaller than in St Peter’s, and you can get so much closer to properly look at it. Nearby is Sebastiano’s painted Pièta, in which he changed his original composition to show Christ on the ground as if he is lying on an altar. He also shows the time of day to be night time, which is unusual and highly atmospheric. This piece is amazing as when you walk round to the back, you can see where both men have drawn on the reverse of the panel to illustrate their ideas.
Another fabulous piece in the exhibition is the 3D printed altarpiece. It is a copy of the altarpiece Sebastiano executed for the Borgherini Chapel in San Pietro in Montorio, Rome, which again he was assisted in creating some of the designs by Michelangelo. Pierfrancesco Borgherini was a mutual friend of the two men. Sebastiano painted the upper sections in fresco but painted the lower in oil, which whilst obviously not an uncommon technique, applying oil paint to the wall was not very well understood in Rome at the time. This technique would turn out to be a contributor towards the demise of the two men’s friendship.
When Michelangelo was preparing for painting the Last Judgement on the wall behind the altar in the Sistine Chapel, Sebastiano was really excited to have his friend back in Rome (Michelangelo had been away in Florence, as well as brief spells in other places, for many years) and he advised for the wall to be prepared for painting in oil. However, in early 1536, Michelangelo ordered it to be re-plastered so that he could paint his Last Judgement in fresco. Although he later denied that he ever intended to paint in oil, he must have initially agreed with Sebastiano’s plans and changed his mind when he found the medium didn’t suit him. He later decried Sebastiano for being lazy, citing painting in oil as one of the reasons why, and their friendship deteriorated.
One of the things I loved most about this exhibition was the sheer amount of letters and drawings that were on display, charting their friendship and the artistic involvement they had with each other’s work. This particularly works in the room with a copy of Michelangelo’s statue of The Risen Christ, where translations of letters and drawings show how they offered each other advice. Considering this was an exhibition about a particularly fruitful friendship, having these there offered a more human dimension – particularly when you see Sebastiano addressing Michelangelo in a very fond and familiar way after the birth of his first son Luciano in 1519, to whom Michelangelo was godfather. This is a really enjoyable exhibition, playing with different sources and pieces of art, and showed a completely different side to Michelangelo in exploring his relationship with the Venetian Sebastiano.
The exhibition is open until June 25th, 10am-6pm every day except Fridays, when the National Gallery opens late until 9pm. Check out getting tickets here: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/the-credit-suisse-exhibition-michelangelo-sebastiano?tab=1