Out of Michelangelo’s shadow
Michael Hall surveys an exhibition that traces the working relationship betweeen Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo. It culminated in their monumental altarpiece, The Raising of Lazarus, painted in bitter rivalry with Raphael
Michael Hall surveys an exhibition that traces the working relationship between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piomo as they united to beat their bitter rival Raphael
ENGLAND’S National Gallery was founded in 1824 by a parliamentary vote to purchase—for £57,000 —38 paintings owned by a Russianborn insurance broker, John Julius Angerstein. Depictions of the collection hanging in his house, 100, Pall Mall (where it remained until being transferred to Trafalgar Square in 1838), shows it dominated by Sebastiano del Piombo’s The Raising of Lazarus (Fig 6). Perhaps because of its enormous size— it’s 12½ft high—as well as its art-historical significance, the painting had the honour of being catalogued ‘NG1’ in the new national collection.
Angerstein had bought the painting in 1798 for 3,500 guineas, making it more highly valued than his paintings attributed to Titian and Raphael. That was largely for one reason: Sebastiano had based the painting in part on drawings supplied by none other than Michelangelo. Commissioned in 1517, The Raising of Lazarus is 500 years old, providing the National Gallery with a peg for an absorbing exhibition. Using impressive loans of paintings, drawings and sculpture, Matthias Wivel, the Gallery’s curator of 16th-century Italian art, traces the relationship between the two artists.
As early as 1497, Michelangelo provided a drawing for his friend Piero d’argenta to convert into a painting. As he was secretive about his creative processes and was reluctant to let people see his drawings, the principal motive for such a generous act was friendship. It may also be significant that Piero was never likely to be a rival. That was not the case with Sebastiano, who was clearly destined for fame when the two artists first met, in 1511. They struck up a warm friendship, but the main reason why Michelangelo was willing to collaborate with him was an increasingly poisonous rivalry with the most celebrated painter of the age, Raphael.
‘Sebastiano’s technique was even more virtuosic than Titian’s’
Born in 1485 (and so 10 years younger than Michelangelo), Sebastiano came from Venice. Little is known about his background, but the fact that he had a surname (‘Luciani’) suggests that his family wasn’t working class—‘del Piombo’, the name by which he came to be known, was a later acquisition, referring to the lucrative sinecure of keeper of the Pope’s lead seal (piombo) that he was granted in 1531. At the start of his career, he worked with Giorgione, the painter whose innovatorily atmospheric handling of oil paint laid the foundation for the achievements of Venetian artists in the 16th century, most famously Titian.
Sebastiano developed a painting technique that was even more dazzlingly virtuosic than Titian’s. Like Titian, but unlike Florentine artists such as Michelangelo, he didn’t depend
much on preliminary drawings. Florentine belief in the all-importance of drawing had developed out of fresco painting, where second thoughts are almost impossible, and so careful advance planning is essential. Because of the climate, fresco wasn’t much used in Venice and, when painting in oil, it’s easy for artists to change their minds. Like Giorgione, Sebastiano often worked out his designs by painting them straight onto the canvas.
Sebastiano was talent-spotted by the art-loving banker Agostino Chigi (1466–1520), who, in 1511, brought him to Rome to help with the painting of his villa, the Farnesina. Sebastiano’s contribution, a depiction of the cyclops Polyphemus, was almost immedi- ately outshone by Raphael’s adjacent painting of the nymph Galatea, after whom Polyphemus lusted, in which, with an insouciance that Sebastiano probably interpreted as contempt, the figures are on a different scale from his and are depicted against a landscape that fails to continue his horizon line. Michelangelo would have sympathised with
Sebastiano’s wounded pride. He was then painting the Sistine ceiling for Pope Julius II, at exactly the same time that Raphael was at work on the frescoes in the Pope’s private library (1508–11).
Artists and courtiers compared the two great works and, to Michelangelo’s intense annoyance, judged Raphael’s use of colour to be more lifelike. His irritation was inflamed when he saw that some of the figures in the library revealed that Raphael must have been shown—behind Michelangelo’s back—drawings for parts of the ceiling not yet completed. This still rankled decades later, when Michelangelo was quoted as saying that what Raphael ‘had of art, he had from me’.
Michelangelo’s three surviving portable paintings (two of which are in the National Gallery), not to mention the Sistine ceiling, make it surprising that he worried about criticism of his colour. However, he must have realised that, since his training in the late 1480s, oil painting—at which Raphael excelled as much as he did in fresco—had achieved a new level of expressivity that he was not interested in trying to match. He was, after all, essentially a sculptor. The appeal of collaboration was obvious: Michelangelo, Raphael’s equal as a draughtsman, could supply innovatory designs for works by Sebastiano that would compete with Raphael’s supremacy as a painter.
The first fruit of this working relationship was the celebrated Pietà (Fig 3), commissioned by a clergyman, Giovanni Botonti, for San Francesco in Viterbo, and now in the town’s municipal museum. Even without the evidence of drawings (Fig 1), it wouldn’t be hard to guess that the monumental figure of the lamenting Virgin is based on a design by Michelangelo. His presence in Sebastiano’s studio in about 1512 is vividly evoked by the reverse of the canvas—visible in the exhibition—as he used it to sketch out ideas for the Sistine ceiling. Technical examination suggests that both figures in the Pietà were transferred from full-size drawings, reflecting Michelangelo’s approach to painting, not Sebastiano’s.
In the catalogue, Dr Wivel argues, however, that the drawing for the figure of Christ was Sebastiano’s—he points to the anatomically awkward way that the legs are joined to the hips. Beyond question is the fact that the most beautiful aspects of the painting— the tender sensuousness of the depiction of Christ’s flesh and the haunting evocation of a nocturnal landscape—demonstrate Sebastiano’s mastery of oil paint. Raphael must have seen the painting as a challenge, given that almost immediately he included a night scene in his Vatican frescoes, The Liberation of St Peter.
The next collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano, the Flagellation in the Borgherini Chapel in San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, is a mural in oils. It is represented in the exhibition both by preparatory drawings and a full-size photographic replica. Here, the incentive for Michelangelo to help was principally his infatuation with its patron, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini, for whom he had earlier failed to execute a promised painting. One practical advantage of the collaboration was that Sebastiano had time for commissions, whereas Michelangelo often did not.
No sooner had Sebastiano signed the contract for this project than an extraordinary opportunity was offered to him by Cardinal Giulio di Giuliano de’medici. He was a cousin of Pope Leo X, who had recently appointed him archbishop of Narbonne. Cardinal Giulio commissioned two altarpieces for his cathedral. One, by Sebastiano, was to depict the
Raising of Lazarus—there was a cult of Lazarus in southern France, as he was believed to have preached there after his resurrection. The other, depicting the Transfiguration of Christ, was to be by Raphael.
Fig 1 left: Drawings of about 1510–12 by Michelangelo for Fig 3, a study of a male torso with hands clasped and six studies of hands
Fig 2 below: A portrait of Michelangelo, probably by Sebastiano del Piombo, about 1518–20 (prerestoration)
Fig 3 facing page: Lamentation over
the Dead Christ
(Pietˆ) by Sebastiano del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo, about 1512–16
Fig 4 left: Redand-black chalk drawing by Michelangelo for Lazarus in Fig 6, showing him with his right arm outstretched, supported by two figures, probably 1518 Fig 5 right: A second drawing by Michelangelo for Lazarus, showing him with his right arm held across his chest, draped in a shroud, probably 1518