In­grid D. Row­land

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - In­grid D. Row­land

Michelangelo and Se­bas­tiano an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Na­tional Gallery, Lon­don, March 15–June 25, 2017. Cat­a­log of the ex­hi­bi­tion by Matthias Wivel and oth­ers. Lon­don: Na­tional Gallery,

271 pp., $50.00

(dis­trib­uted by Yale Univer­sity Press)

In the­ory, they were the per­fect com­bi­na­tion: a Floren­tine sculp­tor and a Vene­tian pain­ter, a master of line and a master of color, Michelangelo Buonar­roti and Se­bas­tiano Lu­ciani, the twin sub­jects of an ex­hi­bi­tion this spring at Lon­don’s Na­tional Gallery. “Michelangelo and Se­bas­tiano” brought to­gether paint­ings, draw­ings, sculp­ture, and let­ters by th­ese two six­teenth-cen­tury friends and oc­ca­sional col­lab­o­ra­tors, along with plas­ter casts of sculp­tures by Michelangelo and a full-size fac­sim­ile of a Ro­man chapel painted by Se­bas­tiano that looked, from a dis­tance, like the real thing with better light­ing.

The pair met in Rome, per­haps as early as Au­gust 1511, when Se­bas­tiano ar­rived in the en­tourage of Agostino Chigi, a banker, diplo­mat, in­dus­tri­al­ist, and in­ter­na­tional power bro­ker, tri­umphant af­ter six months of ne­go­ti­a­tions in Venice in­volv­ing France, the Holy Ro­man Em­peror, and the pa­pacy. Along with the hard-won treaty that linked th­ese four pow­ers in a Holy League, Chigi re­turned to Rome with 30,000 ducats pledged from the Vene­tian state trea­sury, a pain­ter (Se­bas­tiano), a Greek ty­pog­ra­pher, and the daugh­ter of a Vene­tian green­gro­cer, his lat­est mistress. He set Se­bas­tiano to work paint­ing fres­coes for his new suburban villa in Traste­vere, “The Plea­sure Gar­den” (Viri­dar­ium), the de­cep­tively idyl­lic head­quar­ters for his in­ter­na­tional bank­ing op­er­a­tion. (De­signed by Bal­das­sarre Peruzzi, a dis­ci­ple of Bra­mante, it was ac­quired in 1579 by the Far­nese fam­ily and has since been known as the Villa Far­nesina.) Michelangelo had also been paint­ing fres­coes in Rome, on the vast ceil­ing of the Sis­tine Chapel, a project that had en­gaged him since 1508 and would oc­cupy him un­til 1512. Iron­i­cally, both artists would rather have been do­ing some­thing else. Michelangelo, who claimed that he had drunk in marble dust with the milk of his wet nurse, longed to carve stone rather than stand for hours ev­ery day on a sky-high wooden scaf­fold, cran­ing his neck as he swept his huge brushes over­head. Se­bas­tiano had al­most al­ways painted with oil on wood or can­vas rather than ap­ply­ing water-based paint to fresh plas­ter; fresco was not an ideal tech­nique in the damp salt air of the Vene­tian la­goon, and he had lit­tle ex­pe­ri­ence with it. He had prob­a­bly car­ried out only one se­ri­ous fresco com­mis­sion be­fore com­ing to Rome: a joint project with his teacher Gior­gione and another young as­sis­tant, Tiziano Ve­cel­lio— Ti­tian, the artist Chigi had truly hoped to lure away from Venice.

Se­bas­tiano may have left Ti­tian be­hind, but he soon learned that he had another ri­val in Rome it­self. Raphael, two years older than Se­bas­tiano, had just com­pleted two large fres­coes in the pa­pal apart­ments, The School of Athens and The Tri­umph of The­ol­ogy (con­ven­tion­ally, if in­ac­cu­rately, known as The Dis­pu­ta­tion of the Holy Sacra­ment), large pub­lic com­mis­sions that re­vealed an un­par­al­leled mas­tery of the dif­fi­cult medium. Within a year, Se­bas­tiano was no longer paint­ing fres­coes for Agostino Chigi’s “Plea­sure Gar­den.” He had just fin­ished one sec­tion of a wall in the sum­mer din­ing room when Chigi sud­denly passed the whole as­sign­ment to Raphael, who rose to the chal­lenge with a fresco of the nymph Galatea scud­ding across the Aegean in a dol­phin-drawn seashell char­iot, nymphs and mer­men gam­bol­ing around her in a sparkling, white­capped sea. The abrupt sub­sti­tu­tion left Se­bas­tiano with a burn­ing urge to re­deem him­self and an in­can­des­cent ha­tred for his charm­ing, suc­cess­ful com­peti­tor.

Chigi’s villa still tells the story to­day: Se­bas­tiano’s fres­coes in the lunettes of what is now called the Log­gia di Galatea show skill­ful brush­work, novel color com­bi­na­tions, and some small tri­umphs, like a mar­velous pair of spot­ted hawks and a young boy hurtling down from the heav­ens in a striped silk loin­cloth (Perdix, the nephew of Daedalus, who was turned into a partridge). But fresco can be a treach­er­ous medium, be­cause its col­ors change in the first hours, as wet plas­ter turns to dry. Rather than work­ing with the col­ors they see, fresco pain­ters must pre­dict what those col­ors will be­come, a skill for which there is no more re­li­able guide than ex­pe­ri­ence.

Lack­ing that ex­pe­ri­ence, Se­bas­tiano gave Chigi a rain­bow that turned brown, golden hair that faded into its back­ground rather than shin­ing forth, a pea­cock’s tail whose shim­mer­ing blues evolved into chalky gray. With oil paint, artists can change their minds, but the most ef­fec­tive way to al­ter a fresco is to chop out the orig­i­nal plas­ter and be­gin again. Se­bas­tiano, like most Vene­tians, went straight to work on his paint­ings with­out sketch­ing them out ex­ten­sively on paper, con­fi­dent that he could al­ways ad­just fig­ures and com­po­si­tions as he went along: oil paint dried slowly, es­pe­cially in the Vene­tian damp. This spon­tane­ity shows with par­tic­u­lar clar­ity in an am­bi­tious early paint­ing that started off Se­bas­tiano’s seg­ment of the Lon­don show: a Judg­ment of Solomon from 1506–1509 that time has re­vealed as a patch­work of ex­per­i­ments.

But when Se­bas­tiano gave his fres­coed fig­ure of Juno in Chigi’s villa an im­pos­si­bly long pair of calves, he could only hope that the daz­zle of her pea­cock char­iot would dis­tract crit­i­cal eyes from her de­fec­tive anatomy—as it may have done for a short while, be­fore the cal­cium car­bon­ate in his dry­ing plas­ter dimmed the pea­cocks’ lus­ter. There was no ques­tion of be­gin­ning again on th­ese fres­coes, how­ever flawed. Agostino Chigi was not a man to waste time. His grand­nephew Fabio Chigi re­ported that “he ut­terly hated all lazy peo­ple” (or as Fabio put it in po­etic Latin, ociosos omnes oderat omnino). Se­bas­tiano’s lunettes and wall have stayed as they were for five cen­turies, im­per­fec­tions and all—charm­ing, but only a cloudy mem­ory of what they must have looked like when the col­ors were still wet on the wall. Raphael’s Galatea ut­terly eclipsed them, to Se­bas­tiano’s eter­nal out­rage.

The Vene­tian’s skill at oil paint­ing, on the other hand, re­mained in­dis­putable. Shortly af­ter Se­bas­tiano’s dis­ap­point­ment at Chigi’s villa, one of the banker’s as­so­ciates, Gio­vanni Bo­tonti, com­mis­sioned him to cre­ate a large al­tar­piece for the cav­ernous medieval church of San Francesco in nearby Viterbo, to be ex­e­cuted in oil on a wooden panel. Se­bas­tiano had al­ready struck up his friend­ship with Michelangelo, who pro­vided a prepara­tory draw­ing for this new paint­ing, a La­men­ta­tion over the Dead Christ, or Pi­età. In one of sev­eral dra­mat­i­cally ef­fec­tive dis­plays, the Lon­don ex­hi­bi­tion hung Se­bas­tiano’s Viterbo Pi­età op­po­site an ex­cel­lent plas­ter cast of Michelangelo’s marble Pi­età from St. Peter’s Basil­ica (an ear­lier cast served as the model for re­pair­ing the orig­i­nal af­ter it was van­dal­ized in 1972).

Trained in the artis­tic tra­di­tion of his na­tive Tus­cany, Michelangelo prized draw­ing (dis­egno) as the es­sen­tial prepa­ra­tion for cre­at­ing any work of art, in any medium, from jew­elry to ar­chi­tec­ture (as the ex­hi­bi­tion showed through a choice se­lec­tion of his early paint­ings, draw­ings, and sculp­ture). Prodi­giously talented, charis­matic, and over­bear­ing, he sup­plied friendly fel­low artists with draw­ings for their own projects, im­pos­ing his mus­cu­lar style on a whole gen­er­a­tion in Florence and Rome. The draw­ings were gifts, but they were also as­ser­tions of dom­i­nance.

Se­bas­tiano had sev­eral rea­sons for grav­i­tat­ing to Michelangelo, first among them the sheer power of the Floren­tine’s artistry. Even as a plas­ter fac­sim­ile, Michelangelo’s Pi­età plays out its quiet tragedy with gen­tle sim­plic­ity, as a mother faces the death of her child in the only way she can: with pure, stead­fast love. In this early Pi­età Mary throws up her left hand in de­spair as her right hand catches her son in an iron grip; in Michelangelo’s last, unfin­ished Pi­età in Mi­lan, a small, stocky Mary slings an arm around Je­sus to clutch him in an em­brace fierce enough to last for­ever. Michelangelo could be stingy, iras­ci­ble, and de­mand­ing, but he knew how to com­mu­ni­cate love in af­fect­ing de­tails that in­fuse hu­man warmth into cold stone.

Michelangelo also in­tro­duced Se­bas­tiano to the Tus­can way of cre­at­ing art. The Vene­tian be­gan to re­fine his tech­nique as a drafts­man, con­cen­trat­ing on anatomy, learn­ing to man­age de­tails in chalk on paper be­fore com­mit­ting them to paint. The draw­ings dis­played in Lon­don track his progress along­side that of his men­tor, but when it came to a com­mis­sion as sig­nif­i­cant as the Viterbo al­tar­piece, Se­bas­tiano took no chances: rather than rely on his own dis­egno, he called in the master. Fi­nally, the two men bonded in their hos­til­ity to Raphael. They called him “the prince of the syn­a­gogue” be­cause of his friend­ships with Jews and plot­ted in­ces­santly to thwart him, Se­bas-

tiano in a spirit of cor­us­cat­ing ha­tred, Michelangelo with a cooler sense of his own su­pe­ri­or­ity. In­evitably, then, Raphael loomed over this ex­hi­bi­tion and its cat­a­log, his pres­ence as com­mand­ing as it is of­ten un­ac­knowl­edged.

Michelangelo claimed that he had taught Raphael ev­ery­thing he knew about art, but this ex­hi­bi­tion made it clear that their ex­change passed in both di­rec­tions (as we can see from the Raphaels in the Na­tional Gallery’s per­ma­nent col­lec­tion). As for Se­bas­tiano, de­spite his fum­ing about “the prince of the syn­a­gogue,” he knew good artis­tic ideas when he saw them and never hes­i­tated to put them into prac­tice. Artists have al­ways bor­rowed from other artists, and th­ese three drew from ev­ery­one and ev­ery­thing: one another, Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, clas­si­cal sculp­tures, early Chris­tian mo­saics, an­cient manuscripts, Ro­man ru­ins, beau­ti­ful women, silk, wig­gling ba­bies, and the end­less bounty of na­ture.

For his Viterbo Pi­età, there­fore, Se­bas­tiano com­bined Michelangelo’s com­mand of anatomy with his own com­mand of mood and color, set­ting the scene of Mary’s be­reave­ment in a des­o­late, moon­lit land­scape be­tween an an­cient ruin and a run-down wooden shed on the edge of a tur­reted city. The beau­ti­ful body of Christ, sil­very in the moon­glow, ex­tends across the bot­tom of the paint­ing, stretched out some­what awk­wardly on a bril­liant white wind­ing sheet.

When the panel was set in place, it would have been vis­i­ble just above the al­tar ta­ble, a re­minder to the faith­ful that the rite of com­mu­nion would trans­form the bread of the Host into this very same di­vine body (a be­lief that Protes­tant re­form­ers would ques­tion only a few years later). Un­like the youth­ful Vir­gin Mary of Michelangelo’s Vat­i­can Pi­età, Se­bas­tiano’s Mary is por­trayed as a plain-fea­tured, small-headed older woman, with a sturdy body and an ath­lete’s neck, dressed in robes of a shim­mer­ing ul­tra­ma­rine blue ground from pure lapis lazuli. Most strik­ing of all is the sil­ver-lit noc­tur­nal land­scape—there is a full moon emerg­ing from the clouds above Mary’s head—with the vol­canic crags of Viterbo stand­ing in for the lime­stone hills of Jerusalem. Night scenes were rare but not un­known in medieval and Re­nais­sance art, and Se­bas­tiano’s paint­ing also drew in­spi­ra­tion from the men­ac­ing cloud for­ma­tions of The Tem­pest, the enig­matic paint­ing his master Gior­gione had made in Venice around 1508.

At al­most the same mo­ment, Raphael cre­ated his own noc­turne, The Lib­er­a­tion of Saint Peter, for the Vat­i­can Palace, con­cen­trat­ing, like Se­bas­tiano, on the con­trast be­tween cool moon­light and the red-orange hints of sun­light on the hori­zon. Raphael, how­ever, painted his night scene in mas­ter­ful fresco. Matthias Wivel’s cat­a­log es­say gal­lantly cred­its Se­bas­tiano with the ini­tial idea, but no def­i­nite ev­i­dence sur­vives to in­di­cate who in­spired whom (and their joint source may well have been Leonardo, who was in Rome at the time). It hardly matters. Both artists would spend the rest of their ca­reers ex­plor­ing the at­mo­spheric ef­fects that oc­cur in the bor­der zone be­tween day and night, and set­ting in­tense light against vary­ing de­grees of dark­ness.

From this bumpy be­gin­ning, Se­bas­tiano went on to a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in Rome. In late 1516, one of his most il­lus­tri­ous ad­mir­ers, Car­di­nal Giulio de’ Medici, nephew of Lorenzo the Mag­nif­i­cent and cousin of the reign­ing pope, Leo X, set him the ul­ti­mate chal­lenge: he asked both Se­bas­tiano and Raphael to cre­ate al­tar­pieces for the cathe­dral of Nar­bonne, France, the car­di­nal’s new dio­cese. Work­ing in oil on mon­u­men­tal wooden pan­els, the pain­ters would in­evitably com­pete with each other, a time-hon­ored pa­tron’s ploy to get the best work from each artist in the short­est amount of time. Michelangelo had re­turned to Florence by then, but he and Se­bas­tiano kept in close touch about the com­mis­sion, for which Michelangelo would once again sup­ply draw­ings. Three let­ters con­cern­ing the cathe­dral of Nar­bonne were on dis­play in Lon­don, writ­ten in Se­bas­tiano’s large, neat hand—both he and Michelangelo wrote in an ex­pan­sive, con­fi­dent script. His spell­ing shows that he con­tin­ued to com­mu­ni­cate in Vene­tian di­alect; his speech must have had the lilt­ing ca­dence that Vene­tians as­cribe to the ebb and flow of the city’s canals. Se­bas­tiano’s paint­ing shows the mo­ment when Je­sus calls the dead youth Lazarus forth from the grave and re­stores him to life. As he boasted to his men­tor, the fi­nal com­po­si­tion of this Rais­ing of Lazarus in­volved no fewer than forty fig­ures, as well as some ver­tig­i­nous per­spec­tive ef­fects, and ex­ploited the sheer drama of the story it­self. Michelangelo fur­nished the prepara­tory draw­ing for the fig­ure of Lazarus, a heroic nude still wrapped in his burial shroud, as well as sketches for some of the by­standers. The bi­b­li­cal de­scrip­tion of this event (John 11:39) as­serts that Lazarus still smelled of the grave when Je­sus called him forth from his tomb; he had been dead for four days al­ready. Some of Se­bas­tiano’s spec­ta­tors shrink back from the stench, but the young man’s res­ur­rected body is al­ready re­stored to glo­ri­ous per­fec­tion.

Se­bas­tiano pre­sented the com­pleted paint­ing to Car­di­nal de’ Medici in May 1519. From one of his let­ters to Michelangelo, it seems clear that the out­come of the con­test with Raphael was never in ques­tion. Se­bas­tiano re­ports that Car­di­nal Giulio “told me that I had given him more sat­is­fac­tion than he was ex­pect­ing.” Raphael took four more months to com­plete his Trans­fig­u­ra­tion. Be­fore he could de­liver it, he died of a sud­den fever on April 6, 1520, his thirty-sev­enth birth­day. Four nights later, Agostino Chigi ex­pired in his own ebony bed with its ivory in­lay, at the age of fifty-three.

Se­bas­tiano could draw a cer­tain sat­is­fac­tion from the fact that his Rais­ing of Lazarus was the paint­ing Car­di­nal de’ Medici de­cided to send to the cathe­dral of Nar­bonne. He may have been less happy to re­al­ize that the car­di­nal sim­ply could not bear to part with Raphael’s Trans­fig­u­ra­tion, which en­tered his pri­vate col­lec­tion. (It is now in the Vat­i­can Mu­seum.) To­day, Se­bas­tiano’s Rais­ing of Lazarus bears the Na­tional Gallery’s ac­ces­sion num­ber NG1; pur­chased in 1824, it forms the cor­ner­stone of the col­lec­tion, an out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of the clas­si­cally in­spired paint­ing of Re­nais­sance Rome.

Se­bas­tiano also ex­celled as a por­traitist. The Na­tional Gallery dis­played two of his most fa­mous ex­am­ples: both por­traits of Giulio de’ Medici, the same Giulio who com­mis­sioned The Rais­ing of Lazarus and who be­came Pope Cle­ment VII in 1523. The ear­lier of th­ese im­ages, a half-length oil paint­ing on a wooden panel, shows the darkly hand­some (if slightly pear-shaped) pope a year or two af­ter his elec­tion, look­ing off to one side as he sits rest­lessly on his throne, iso­lated against a moon­lit night sky. (We do not see the moon, but we can in­fer its pres­ence from the beams it casts.)

The moon­light, be­yond the vis­ual plea­sure of its sil­very shim­mer on the vel­vet pile of Cle­ment’s capelet, may sug­gest an as­so­ci­a­tion with Endymion, the young shep­herd from Asia Mi­nor who, ac­cord­ing to Greek myth, at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the moon

god­dess Di­ana. While Endymion slept among his flock at night, she swooped down from Olym­pus to kiss him on the sly. Pope Cle­ment’s friend and spir­i­tual ad­viser Car­di­nal Giles (Egidio) of Viterbo de­clared in one of his the­o­log­i­cal tracts that Endymion could be seen as a Chris­tian im­age of the hu­man soul, en­veloped in God’s love but of­ten as dimly obliv­i­ous to its con­di­tion as the sleepy shep­herd was to the ca­resses of his di­vine lover.

Se­bas­tiano’s Cle­ment, on the other hand, is watch­ing some­thing at­ten­tively. This Endymion, the paint­ing seems to sug­gest, is a Good Shep­herd with his wits about him. Cle­ment’s taut pos­ture—seated in an arm­chair in red and white pa­pal at­tire—de­lib­er­ately evokes Raphael’s fa­mous portrait of an ear­lier pope, Julius II, as a man of ac­tion ea­ger to spring from his throne; it is easy to make the com­par­i­son, be­cause Raphael’s paint­ing is one of the Na­tional Gallery’s great­est trea­sures. Raphael’s Julius, how­ever, is wrapped up in his own thoughts, and some of the dis­com­fort in his pos­ture stems from the pains of old age. Se­bas­tiano’s Cle­ment, by con­trast, is at­tuned to the world around him, al­though he seems to re­gard it with a cer­tain hau­teur. Un­for­tu­nately, Cle­ment was not alert enough to read the signs of his tur­bu­lent times. Martin Luther may have set off the Re­for­ma­tion dur­ing the reign of Leo X, but the move­ment spread like wild­fire un­der Cle­ment’s watch. Rome it­self was caught up in the in­creas­ing vi­o­lence of the con­flict in 1527, when some 12,000 mer­ce­nary troops, many of them Swiss Protes­tants, were re­leased from serv­ing Holy Ro­man Em­peror Charles V in cen­tral Italy. Rather than re­turn home, th­ese sol­diers of for­tune saw easy money to be made by ran­sack­ing the Eter­nal City, which they did for nearly a year of bru­tal may­hem (as a com­par­i­son, Alaric and the Visig­oths stayed only three days in the great sack of 410).

Cle­ment was forced to slink out of the Vat­i­can down the for­ti­fied cor­ri­dor to Cas­tel Sant’An­gelo, the huge con­crete tomb of the em­peror Hadrian trans­formed into a pa­pal fortress. There, like an an­cient Ro­man pa­tri­cian (and like Pope Julius be­fore him), he grew a beard as a sign of mourn­ing. Se­bas­tiano painted him in this pen­i­ten­tial mood, circa 1531—a much smaller head portrait in pro­file—us­ing oil paint ap­plied to slate, the deep, somber gray of the stone en­hanc­ing the pon­tiff’s grim de­meanor. The ar­ro­gance and self-con­scious­ness of the ear­lier portrait are gone. By paint­ing on stone, as he wrote to Michelangelo, Se­bas­tiano hoped to make his im­age of the pen­i­tent pope last an eter­nity.

Se­bas­tiano ex­per­i­mented widely with paint­ing on stone, as we learn from his bi­og­ra­pher Gior­gio Vasari, a much younger con­tem­po­rary (Vasari was born in 1511). He also took on a chal­lenge that Leonardo and Raphael had never mas­tered suc­cess­fully: paint­ing with oil on plas­ter. In 1516, shortly be­fore the paint­ing con­test with Raphael took place, the new­ly­wed banker Pier­francesco Borgherini, a Floren­tine with an of­fice in Rome, com­mis­sioned Se­bas­tiano to dec­o­rate a side chapel in the church of San Pi­etro in Mon­to­rio, know­ing that Michelangelo would al­most cer­tainly con­trib­ute to the project as well. En­dowed by the Span­ish Crown, perched high on the Jan­icu­lum hill with a panoramic view of the city, San Pi­etro in Mon­to­rio was one of Rome’s most fash­ion­able churches. True to ex­pec­ta­tions, Michelangelo sup­plied most of the draw­ings, but it was Se­bas­tiano who car­ried out the paint­ing, af­ter prim­ing the chapel wall with an ex­per­i­men­tal mix­ture that has suc­cess­fully held the pig­ment in place for half a mil­len­nium. Vasari re­ported that the se­cret mix in­cluded “mas­tic and Greek pitch [pine resin], melted in the fire and ap­plied to the wall with a red-hot trowel,” and praised its dura­bil­ity.

With the help of Ital­ian spe­cial­ists, the Na­tional Gallery in­stalled a full­size re­pro­duc­tion of the Borgherini Chapel in one of its ex­hi­bi­tion rooms. The high-res­o­lu­tion pho­to­graphs of the paint­ings that were ap­plied to the fac­sim­ile chapel (com­bin­ing over 2,400 over­lap­ping im­ages) are un­can­nily good. The re­con­struc­tion serves a sig­nif­i­cant prac­ti­cal pur­pose: be­cause the chapel it­self takes the form of a curved niche sunk into the right-hand wall of the church, view­ers can see, in all three di­men­sions, how clev­erly Se­bas­tiano ex­ploited the chapel’s cur­va­ture to lend more depth to the al­ready ex­pert per­spec­tive of his Flag­el­la­tion of Christ. The fig­ure of Je­sus slumped be­fore a ma­jes­tic col­ored marble col­umn clearly fol­lows a de­sign by Michelangelo, and lo­cal ru­mors quickly de­creed that the Floren­tine had come down to Rome to paint it him­self. He did not—the work, on its spe­cially pre­pared plas­ter, was cer­tainly ex­e­cuted by Se­bas­tiano—but it rep­re­sents one of the high points of their col­lab­o­ra­tion.

Michelangelo had recently carved a hero­ically clas­si­cal Risen Christ for the Do­mini­can church of Santa Maria so­pra Min­erva in Rome—ac­tu­ally, he had carved two. As he shaped the face of the first ver­sion, he un­cov­ered a dark gray vein in the lu­mi­nous white Car­rara marble. Marble is usu­ally veined, but this vein oc­curred in an in­con­ve­nient place—Christ’s face. Michelangelo man­aged to re­duce it to a fine ver­ti­cal line just to the left of Christ’s nose, so clev­erly con­cealed as to be al­most un­no­tice­able, but he knew it was there and re­did the en­tire statue, tak­ing the op­por­tu­nity, as he al­ways did, to make ad­just­ments ev­ery­where: to the pose, to the an­gle of the Cross, to Christ’s pro­por­tions. The Na­tional Gallery brought the first ver­sion from Bas­sano Ro­mano, a ham­let be­tween Rome and Viterbo, where the statue, re­touched in sub­se­quent cen­turies, graces a lo­cal monas­tic church (see il­lus­tra­tion on page 23). The better-known sec­ond ver­sion, still in its orig­i­nal set­ting in Rome, ap­peared as a cast, al­low­ing us to reg­is­ter all the dif­fer­ences be­tween the two, ma­jor and mi­nor.

In­evitably, the ex­hi­bi­tion also brought out the main rea­son why Se­bas­tiano, for all his skill, is less well known than Ti­tian, Raphael, or Michelangelo. Both Vasari and Michelangelo ac­cused him of lazi­ness. Agostino Chigi may well have come to the same con­clu­sion as early as 1512. The banker was fa­mous for his par­ties, and Vasari re­ports that Se­bas­tiano al­ways en­joyed par­ty­ing more than paint­ing. (He also tells how Chigi con­vinced a lovesick Raphael to fin­ish a project by lock­ing him into the “Plea­sure Gar­den” with his mistress un­til the job was done.) When Pope Cle­ment awarded Se­bas­tiano the lu­cra­tive post of “Master of the Lead Seals” (mae­stro del piombo), the artist, mar­ried with chil­dren, com­plied with the re­quire­ment that he take holy or­ders and earned the nick­name by which we know him, “Se­bas­tiano del Piombo.”

One paint­ing by Se­bas­tiano del Piombo is a rev­e­la­tion; a dozen paint­ings by him are enough to re­veal all the for­mu­las by which he worked— and avoided work­ing. His best fig­ure draw­ings were Michelangelo’s, not his own—this was the point of the Lon­don ex­hi­bi­tion, and in fact it was the re­quest for yet another draw­ing that fi­nally drove Michelangelo to ac­cuse his friend of lazi­ness. Se­bas­tiano’s ideal fig­ures, both men and women, all have the same straight “clas­si­cal” nose with large, flar­ing nos­trils, drawn ap­par­ently from one an­cient statue, the Apollo Belvedere. Cle­ment VII is so strik­ingly hand­some pre­cisely be­cause his nose is longer and more pointed than Se­bas­tiano’s stan­dard: it lends him char­ac­ter. Ev­ery sin­gle one of th­ese noses, in­clud­ing Cle­ment’s, is high­lighted, vir­tu­ally with­out ex­cep­tion, by a white brush­stroke down the ridge and a white dot at the tip.

Por­trai­ture gave the artist real, idio­syn­cratic faces to work with, real cloth­ing, and real ob­jects. With­out com­pe­ti­tion with Raphael to sting him and re­al­ity to catch his eye, he falls back on the same poses, the same generic robes, the same ex­pres­sions. Like another fa­mously lazy pain­ter, An­drea del Sarto, Se­bas­tiano con­cen­trates on the cen­ter of his paint­ings and ne­glects the cor­ners—they both painted so beau­ti­fully in those cen­ters that we can for­give them the cor­ners, at least un­til Paolo Veronese re­minds us what a clever corner can do. Se­bas­tiano’s back­grounds, even the eerie Viterbo of his Pi­età, are sim­pli­fied land­scapes, with at most four lay­ers of de­tail as they re­cede into space. Raphael usu­ally pro­vides twice as many lay­ers: houses, hills, rivers, tow­ers.

The lat­est paint­ings in the Lon­don ex­hi­bi­tion were list­less repli­cas of ear­lier work. Se­bas­tiano re­sponded to crit­ics, ac­cord­ing to Vasari, by say­ing:

Now that I have a liv­ing, I don’t want to do any­thing, be­cause to­day there are tal­ents in the world who take two months to ac­com­plish what used to take me two years, and I be­lieve that if I live much longer, which I don’t ex­pect to, that we’ll see ev­ery­thing in the world painted, and th­ese guys are do­ing so much, it’s better for some­one to do noth­ing, so that they’ll have some­thing more to do.

“And with that,” Vasari con­cludes, “and other pleas­antries, Brother Se­bas­tiano went his merry way, al­ways charm­ing and pleas­ant, and in truth there was never a better com­pan­ion than he.”

But if it’s a pain­ter you want, go, like Agostino Chigi, with Raphael.

Se­bas­tiano del Piombo: La­men­ta­tion over the Dead Christ (Pi­età), circa 1512–1516

Michelangelo: The Risen Christ (The Gius­tini­ani Christ), 1514–1515, fin­ished by an un­known artist in the early seven­teenth cen­tury

Se­bas­tiano del Piombo: Portrait of Pope Cle­ment VII, circa 1525–1526

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