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

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Edited by Michael Hall

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

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