Up at the Villa by Somerset Maugham (1941)

‘Don’t be afraid. The devil’s a sportsman and he looks after his own.’ Rowley Flint

This is a ripping little novella, gripping and compelling, slightly ludicrous and strangely affecting, which I read from cover to cover in a single two-hour sitting. Maybe it would be the perfect introduction to Maugham for someone who’s never read him.

Background

When she was 22, Mary, a young lady from a good family, married Matthew Panton. Little did she realise he would turn into an alcoholic and a gambler. He gambled and was reduced to sottish inebriation every night, often not coming home at all because he had gone off with the first woman he could drunkenly chat up. After eight years he had gambled away his inheritance so it was tragic, but also a blessed relief, when he killed himself while driving blind drunk and had a high-speed car crash.

After prolonged discussion with the family lawyers it emerged that Mary had just enough income to survive, if she was frugal. So she welcomed a kind offer from friends, the Leonards, to go and recuperate at their villa overlooking Florence. It was not grand, it was a bit cold, but it was the perfect rest cure, with the added benefit of being looked after by the kind maid, Nina, and her husband, Ciro.

The plot

The story unfolds over a few fateful days. Mary is expecting a proposal of marriage from an old friend of her family’s, the eminent diplomat, Sir Edgar Swift, K.C.S.I., of the Indian Civil Service. Twenty five years her senior, he’s been in love with her since she was a teenager. They have had many discussions about it and now he is stopping over on a trip to Cannes, to propose to her.

Sir Edgar arrives, has tea, they talk politely and he informs her that he has been confirmed in the governorship of Bengal. Behind this is the possibility that he will one day be made Viceroy of all India. Marry him, and all that pomp and circumstance would be hers.

Maugham carefully investigates Mary’s feelings and hesitations on the matter – of course it would be a glorious life and yet… the age difference. She tells Sir Edgar she will give him her answer in three days’ time.

Submitting to her wish, Edgar leaves. As an after-thought, he insists she carry the revolver he’s given her when she goes out, since ‘you never know with all these foreigners about’. Touched and amused by his concern, she absent-mindedly agrees.

Mary then motors into Florence to attend a party given at a restaurant, Peppino’s, by the old Princess San Ferdinando. Despite her title, the Princess is in fact a humorously cynical old American lady who married an Italian prince some forty years earlier. He had affairs; he died. Whereupon she inherited his land, house and inheritance and has made herself into a well-established grande dame and hostess of Florentine society.

This is the kind of party which Maugham, for so long a hobnobber among the rich and titled, describes with such urbane confidence. I particularly enjoyed the character of the choleric old English traveler, Colonel Trail, much given to imbecile spluttering and indignation.

Also a guest is the wicked debauchee, young Rowley Flint, a kind of Errol Flynn character. (As a sample of his repartee, at one point he tells Mary that she is ‘an almost perfect specimen of the genus peach’ which made me laugh.) Rowley smooths up to Mary, with the sly encouragement of the wicked old princess, but Mary easily fobs him off – all carried off in the kind of sparkling dialogue which Maugham deploys to such effect in his many comic plays.

The Princess had arranged the party specially to hear a singer perform at Peppino’s but, to the Princess’s disgust, the singer is off sick tonight and has been replaced by a violinist. He is a shy, frail-looking man who plays a set of sentimental songs, but can’t overcome the disappointment of the rich clientèle. When he passes around a hat only a few coins and small notes are given.

Feeling sorry for him, Mary astonishes Rowley by handing over a hundred lira note.

At the end of the evening the Princess suggests to Mary that she give Rowley a lift to his hotel in her stylish little coupé. So she does. Rowley flirtatiously suggests they drive on into the country for a while, it being such a fine June evening.

During this drive a) Rowley makes a pass at Mary which b) she confidently rebuffs, during which she c) explains that he is the last kind of man she would have an affair with. If she was tempted to have an affair, it would be to make someone happy; to find someone less fortunate than herself, and to make him the gift of her lovely sexual body; to make the affair an act of charity. Rowley thinks this a ridiculous attitude and they squabble. So Mary drives Rowley back to his house, then turns round to drive up the hill to the villa.

At a bend in the road up the hill there is a fine viewing point and she pulls over and parks, gets out and stares out over the panorama of Florence by moonlight. Her mind and heart are confused and whirling: should she marry old Sir Edgar in order to have a distinguished middle-age? What of Rowley’s arguments that she is still young and beautiful and ought to enjoy life while she can? All mixed in with sad memories of her one true love, the husband who turned into a useless drunk.

She is so deep in thought that she is startled when a cigarette is lit in the shade of the tree next to her. Out from the shadow comes the violinist from Peppino’s, looking even poorer in his own clothes than when he’d been dressed in the threadbare costume of the troupe of musicians at the restaurant.

Initially scared, Mary is softened by his gentle attitude and poverty. Turns out he’s renting a room in one of the shacks further up the hill. Mary offers him a lift. On the way it turns out he’s had nothing to eat and so, by now feeling thoroughly sorry for him, she drives him on up to the villa.

She hears his story. His name is Karl Richter and he’s not Italian at all, but Austrian. He was among a student group which spoke out about the Anschluss (whereby Hitler’s Germany incorporated Austria in March 1938) whereupon they were all arrested, a couple shot and the rest thrown into a concentration camp. After a few months he managed to escape and made his way across the mountains to Italy, where he just about scrapes a living playing the violin.

As it happens the villa is decorated with impressive murals and, because Karl had mentioned that he was an art student back in Austria, Mary shows them to him. Then she takes him into the kitchen and cooks him bacon and eggs which he eats ravenously. Back in the living room there is a gramophone which, when she turns it on, proves to have a record of Austrian waltzes on it.

So it feels perfectly natural that they start dancing, her feeling his strong undernourished body pressed against her, he almost drunk with happiness, with a full stomach for the first time in months, mind filled with the wondrous art of the villa, and holding a beautiful woman in his arms.

Suddenly they are both overcome with passion, his fairly understandable, but Mary’s a logical consequence of the aim she stated to Rowley back in the restaurant – to make her love/body a gift of charity, to make someone happy. They make love.

Maugham tactfully skips the actual sex. Later she is sitting in an armchair chair, he sitting at her feet. Now the argument starts. He declares his undying love and that she must marry him, live with him, become his.

Mary delicately tries to explain that she’ll be leaving Florence in a few days because she’s going to say Yes in marriage to another man (Sir Edgar). Karl is upset and the more Mary tries to explain, the worse it gets. In her honest way, she can’t help revealing that she only took Karl to bed out of charity; she was doing a good deed. But from Karl’s point of view, the doorway to a wondrous better life had barely opened before she is slamming it shut in his face.

‘I didn’t mean to be cruel. My heart was full of tenderness and pity.’
‘I never asked for your pity. Why didn’t you leave me alone? You have shown me heaven and now you want to thrust me back to earth. No. No. No.’

At one point Karl approaches her threateningly, Mary remembers the gun and takes it from her handbag. Karl is so angry he shouts, ‘Yes, go on, shoot me, put me out of my misery.’ She drops it, he grabs her and, er… ravishes her, this time with real anger and aggression.

Once again they are lying on the bed after passion. Karl gets to his feet and she hears him padding round the dark bedroom. Suddenly there is a loud bang: he has shot himself through the chest.

Oh my God!

Part two

Maugham describes Mary’s panic-stricken reaction to this disaster. Practical worries swamped by her emotional reaction to the suicide of the man she’s just made love with. It’s made worse by the maid, Nana, tapping on the bedroom door, asking what the bang was. ‘It’s nothing,’ says Mary, ‘must have been a car backfiring in the road below.’ The only person she can think of who can help her in this crisis is Rowley, so she phones him and this begins part two of the book.

For Rowley turns out to be fantastically helpful, resourceful and reliable. Woken by her call in the middle of the night, he borrows his hotel porter’s pushbike and quickly cycles up to the villa.

Mary turns the light on, shows him the body and tells him the whole story with no omissions.

Rowley is shocked and appalled but quickly regains control. He tells her to fetch the car. They carry the body out and put it in the back. Rowley gets a towel and mops up all the blood on the floor. He drives to a place she suggests, up a remote hilltop road towards thick woods. They’re about to get the body out of the back when they see lights from a car coming along the same road. With quick thinking Rowley gets in the back with her (their feet on the warm corpse which is in the chairwell) and as the car goes by, make a big show of snogging, just another courting couple. The Italians in the car driving by whoop encouragement and start singing La donne e mobile. Italians.

Having finally disposed of the body, they drive back to the villa where Mary she says she’s got a luncheon appointment the next day but obviously can’t go. Quite the opposite, Rowley tells her. She mist take a sleeping pill now, and tomorrow she must go and be her usual bright and happy self.

Which is what she does. Takes pill, sleep deeply, wakes late. Bath and make-up helped by the maid. Then off to lunch at the Atkinsons’ and another of the frightfully posh social scenes Maugham does so well – old man Atkinson (‘a fine, handsome, grey-haired man, plethoric and somewhat corpulent, with an eye for a pretty woman’) flirting with Mary outrageously and Mary doing her best to keep up the light-hearted banter in between panic-stricken flashbacks to the night before.

I suppose it’s about here that one should mention that not much of this is very plausible. Mary is flustered alright, but shows little of the psychological trauma you might expect in a modern rendition of these events. The fact that she has to go to this lunch party – and that the conversation turns to the wretched little violinist they’d been forced to listen to the night before, instead of the hoped-for singer – are not indicators of ‘real life’ but of exactly the same kind of narrative logic you find in Maugham’s plays, or indeed of the popular American films noirs of the period.

Events are carpentered together in order to produce the best dramatic effects, with only a passing concern for psychological plausibility. This is brought out even more in the next few scenes which have a kind of melodramatic or even soap opera logic.

Chapter 7 Back at the villa after her lunch ordeal, Mary is sitting in the exquisite garden when Rowley saunters in and up to her. They review the events of the night before and Rowley points out they’ve been damn lucky. Mary tells him she’s really frightfully grateful. With a charming smile Rowley explains it’s because he likes the risk, the gamble, the excitement of an adventure.

Then he asks about the gun, which they had forgotten in all the excitement. Mary had put it back in her bedroom drawer – bad idea. To her horror, Rowley gets it then goes down to his bicycle and cycles off to the wood where he dumped the body. A little later he returns safely, saying he dropped it in a stream nearby.

It is only now that she gives a really thorough blow-by-blow explanation of what happened the night before, the flow of the conversation, the sex, the suicide. And Rowley gives his explanation:

‘I think I can tell you why he killed himself,’ he said at last. ‘He was homeless, outcast, penniless and half-starved. He hadn’t got much to live for, had he? And then you came. I don’t suppose he’d ever seen such a beautiful woman in his life. You gave him something that in his wildest dream he could never have dreamed of. Suddenly the whole world was changed because you loved him. How could you expect him to guess that it wasn’t love that had made you give yourself to him? You told him it was only pity. Mary, my dear, men are vain, especially very young men: did you never know that? It was an intolerable humiliation. No wonder he nearly killed you. You’d raised him to the stars and then you flung him back to the gutter. He was like a prisoner whose jailers lead him to the door of his prison and just as he is about to step out to freedom, slam it in his face. Wasn’t that enough to decide him that life wasn’t worth living?’

Mary is surprised that Rowley, according to ex-pat received opinion a well-known wastrel and ne’er-do-well, turns out to have such sensitive insight into other people. Which comes on top of her surprise at how sensible, calm and decisive he had been last night.

Mary hands him a telegram she received that morning from Sir Edgar. He will be arriving that afternoon. ‘Are you going to marry him?’ asks Rowley. ‘I need someone to look up to, someone to look after me,’ replies Mary.

But then she horrifies Rowley by announcing she will tell Edgar all about last night. ‘No, no, no,’ says Rowley. He knows these Empire Building types, the soul of integrity and honour. Sir Edgar has a shining ideal of her; it would be madness to destroy it. But I must she says, I must tell him the truth.

‘Have it your own way, sweetheart,’ replies insouciant Rowley, bids her adieu and saunters back out of the garden.

Chapter 8 There follows kind of scene Maugham excels at and which feels like it comes straight out of one of his plays. The worthy and dignified suitor, Sir Edgar, arrives to ask the hand of the younger women he has worshiped chastely and honourably all her adult life.

Unfortunately, ignoring Rowley’s advice, Mary does tell him about last night, leaving out nothing – the pity, the sex, the suicide, the hiding the body.

I don’t know whether we’re meant to be moved or amused or both by the subtlety with which Maugham describes the psychological negotiations which then ensue. It is like watching two masters play chess.

Mary realises she has shattered Edgar’s idealised vision of her – but that he is bound by his own code of nobility to continue with his proposal of marriage. That much she expected.

However, Edgar surprises Mary by announcing that he cannot now, of course, accept the post of Governor of Bengal. Why? Because now more than ever (i.e. in the dying days of the Raj) the British are only ruling by dint of their integrity. Sir Edgar wouldn’t be able to sleep at nights knowing that at some point, any point, in the future, the whole affair might somehow come out tarnish his reputation and, by extension, the entirety of British rule.

Not least because of the role played by bloody Rowley Flint. Sooner or later he’ll tell one of his many women and it will all come out. So it’s not so much his own personal fate Sir Edgar is concerned about, but  that it might damage British rule in India and the Foreign Service to which he has dedicated his life.

No, he will resign his commission and they can live quietly somewhere, maybe the Riviera, on his pension.

Mary hadn’t expected this at all. She is appalled. She realises that her confession has made Sir Edgar abandon his career, now, just as it reached its climax of success, the reward of thirty years of loyal service. But that he feels obligated by his sense of honour to pursue his suit regardless of the cost to himself.

Her confession has ruined his life, and yet he has the honour and dignity to accept the fact quite calmly.

And so – just as in the best of his plays – we watch Maugham make his character think on her feet. She realises she must do the right thing and force Sir Edgar to drop his marriage proposal, in order to rescue his career. But it must be in such a way so as not compromise him, to make him feel he is fulfilling his duties. She must place herself in a guilty position, she must paint herself in such a way that he can honourably dump her.

And so Mary lights on the solution of telling Sir Edgar that, given the difference in age and the fact (previously well aired) that she doesn’t really love him, that although she respects him and has great affection for him etc,. she had only said yes because when he was working full time as governor they wouldn’t see very much of each other and so the marriage would have worked as a sort of companionable arrangement.

However, if he is to quit his job and they are to live as a retired couple on the Riviera, well, they would be in each other’s faces all day long. And this wouldn’t work.

He was silent for a long time. When he looked at her again his eyes were cold.
‘You mean that you were prepared to marry the Governor of Bengal, but not a retired Indian Civilian on a pension.’

Excellent. Result. Mary has made herself appear heartless and scheming. She has killed not only his love for her, but his respect. She has given Sir Edgar the gift of enabling him to drop his suit with a clear conscience.

‘In that case we need not discuss the matter further.’
‘There doesn’t seem much point in doing so, does there?’

Abruptly frigid and correct, Sir Edgar stands up. He shakes her hand. He leaves. End of scene.

Chapter 9

Rowley rings up and is his usual flippant self.

‘Have you got any ice in the house?’ he said.
‘Is it to ask me that that you made me come to the phone?’ she answered coldly.
‘Not entirely. I wanted to ask you also if you had any gin and vermouth.’
‘Anything else?’
‘Yes. I wanted to ask if you’d give me a cocktail if I got into a taxi and came along.’
‘I’ve got a lot to do.’
‘That’s fine. I’ll come along and help you.’

Rowley turns up and, to cut a long story short, renews the proposal of marriage which he had made a few nights earlier, when he was drunk and she was driving him home. He tells Mary he has a farm in Kenya which he’d been letting a manager manage for him, but he’s just sacked him and fancies going out to manage the place himself. Fancy coming along?

‘How on earth could I ever hope to keep you even moderately faithful?’
‘Well, that would be up to you. They say a woman ought to have an occupation, and that would be a very suitable one for you in Kenya.’

But:

‘But I don’t love you, Rowley.’
‘I told you the other night, you will if you give yourself half a chance.’

Does it matter that none of this is particularly plausible? No. It is a social comedy, a comedy of manners, just like his many smash-hit West End plays. The reader’s job is not to seek for deep psychological analysis or investigation of the human condition. It is to be entertained and amused.

What the hell. Mary says Yes.

Rowley gave a great throaty chuckle. He jumped up and dragged her to her feet and flung his arms round her. He kissed her on the mouth. ‘So now what?’
‘Well, if you insist on marrying me… But it’s an awful risk we’re taking.”
‘Darling, that’s what life is for – to take risks.’

As delicious, as piquant, as sharp and sweet as a lemon sorbet.

Dolce far niente

Decades of holidaying on Capri and then living at his sumptuously-located villa in the south of France gave Maugham a profound feel for the physical and psychological well-being produced by beautiful Mediterranean landscapes and the balmy air of southern nights.

To dine there on a June evening, when it was still day, and after dinner to sit till the softness of the night gradually enveloped her, was a delight of which Mary felt that she could never tire. It gave her a delicious feeling of peace, but not of an empty peace in which there was something lethargic, of an active, thrilling peace rather in which her brain was all alert and her senses quick to respond. Perhaps it was something in that light Tuscan air that affected you so that even physical sensation had in it something spiritual. It gave you just the same emotion as listening to the music of Mozart, so melodious and so gay, with its undercurrent of melancholy, which filled you with so great a contentment that you felt as though the flesh had no longer any hold on you. For a few blissful minutes you were purged of all grossness and the confusion of life was dissolved in perfect loveliness.

Although at its core is a grisly sequence of events, this short book is punctuated by lyrical descriptions of beautiful scenery and stylish living. Here’s a description of the Atkinsons’ lunch party.

On that warm day of early June there was an animation in the air which put everyone in a good humour. You had a sensation that no one there was affected by anxiety; everyone seemed to have plenty of money, everyone seemed ready to enjoy himself. It was impossible to believe that anywhere in the world there could be people who hadn’t enough to eat. On such a day it was very good to be alive. (p.66)

God knows, there’s no shortage of ‘serious’ and ‘literary’ authors who can effortlessly convey feelings of anguish and despair, delving deeply into the tragedy and absurdity of existence. One of Maugham’s great appeals as a storyteller is that, even in the midst of sordid or even murderous events, he is able in the settings and the atmosphere of his stories to convey moods of great tranquility and serenity.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo and Sebastiano @ the National Gallery

Introduction

Michelangelo Buonarroti was born near Arezzo, in Tuscany, in 1475. At age 13 he was sent to study art in Florence, the greatest centre of art and learning in Italy, where he was apprenticed to Ghirlandaio, a master in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing and portraiture. Here he imbibed the Florentine principles of meticulous figure drawing and careful planning of a composition.

Sebastiano Luciani, later nicknamed del Piombo, was born ten years later in 1485 in Venice. He became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and then of Giorgione. From the latter, especially, he absorbed a more improvisatory approach to composition, combined with a soft almost misty use of light, along with the traditional Venetian emphasis on gorgeous colour. (The greatest colourist of all, Titian, was born in Venice just 5 years later.)

In 1511 Sebastiano arrived in Rome whose art world he found riven with rivalries, especially that between the established genius, Michelangelo, who was hard at work painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (a commission which took from 1508 to 1512) and his main rival, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino – otherwise known as Raphael – born in 1483, who was soon to be commissioned to paint the walls of the nearby Vatican library.

Michelangelo never liked oil painting; he was more a sculpture or a creator of frescos. He quickly realised that Sebastiano was the only oil painter in town who could take on Raphael, so there was a strong element of calculation in  his befriending of the younger man. Sebastian, for his part, was able to work with the greatest genius of the age.

It was the start of a 25-year-long friendship, which included a long correspondence, and collaboration on a number of major commissions. This exhibition features seventy or so works – paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters – which are masterpieces in their own right, shed light on the working practices of both men, and chronicle a unique friendship at the height of the Renaissance.

Differing approaches

Their differing approaches are epitomised in the first of the show’s six rooms by two unfinished works. Michelangelo is represented by a painting of The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’). Note the careful composition, the adult figures and child figures in neat rows, and the high finish of the human skin, almost like sculpted stone.

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels ('The Manchester Madonna') by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’) by Michelangelo (about 1497) © The National Gallery, London

Compare and contrast with Sebastiano’s Judgement of Solomon. It’s possible to see, on the unfinished legs of the figure at right, various other postures which have been tried out and superseded. Also the faces are much softer and misty, something which is especially clear on the face of the mother on the right.

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Judgement of Solomon (about 1506-9) by Sebastiano del Piombo © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

Collaborations

1. The nocturnal Pieta

Lamentation over the dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pietà (about 1512-1516) was Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s first collaboration. Michelangelo did the design and detailed sketches of the figures (sketches which can be seen here, next to the finished work) while Sebastiano actually painted it, adding the background landscape characteristic of Venetian art. (Compare and contrast with the softness of the figures and the mysterious background in the famous Tempest of Sebastiano’s teacher, Giorgione). In fact, this is, apparently, one of the first nocturnal landscapes in European art.

For my money, by far the best thing about it is the body of Christ. It has the best of both artists – Michelangelo’s sense of structure and musculature, softened by Sebastiano’s smooth oil technique.

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

Lamentation over the Dead Christ (1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo. Museo Civico, Viterbo © Comune di Viterbo

2. Raising of Lazarus

There are several stories about this painting.

1. It was commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici in Rome, who simultaneously commissioned a ‘Transfiguration’ from Raphael. The Lazarus was taken to Cathedral of Narbonne, where Giulio was cardinal.

2. Raphael’s Transfiguration is arguably the better painting, in terms of the drama of its structure and composition. The Sebastiano comes over as more cluttered and cramped. In fact the reproduction below makes it look better – more dramatic – than it is in real life, where it feels immense and overpowering.

3. X-ray photography has shown that Sebastiano changed the posture of some of the figures. The audioguide suggests that Michelangelo dropped by after the initial outline was created, and suggested changes to make it more dramatic e.g. the arm of Lazarus (bottom right) originally stretched out towards Christ and his head was further back. Changing the arm and head positions makes his figure more dynamic.

4. Lastly, the painting came into the ownership of the British collector Sir George Beaumont who, in turn, left it to the nation in 1824, in the collection which was to become the foundation of the National Gallery. All the NG’s works are numbered and this painting is actually the very first in the catalogue – NG1.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo © The National Gallery, London

3. The Borgherini chapel

The Borgherini Chapel was commissioned by Michelangelo’s friend and broker, the Florentine banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini (1488–1558) and was created inside the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome.

The frescoes showing The Flagellation of Christ and The Transfiguration were painted by Sebastiano. Michelangelo was slated to provide the designs, but left Rome for Florence after only providing drawings for the central Flagellation and possibly a layout for the Transfiguration. The entire wall and alcove of the chapel has been recreated using state-of-the-art digital technology by Spanish workshop, Factum Arte.

The composition is in three levels: centre bottom is Christ being flagellated; above in the ceiling is Christ rising to heaven; above that is the coat of arms of Pierfrancesco Borgherini. He is flanked by three sets of ‘authorities’: on the lowest level, by Saint Peter (left) and Saint Francis of Assisi (right) (the namesakes of the sponsor); to either side of the transfigured Christ are Moses (left) and Aaron (right); above, on the flat wall, are St Matthew (left) and Isaiah (right). It is these last two figures which are most reminiscent of Michelangelo; they could both have come straight from the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The exhibition's digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of An Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

The exhibition’s digital recreation of the alcove at the Borgherini Chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome, featuring designs by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano del Piombo

It’s only mentioned a few times, mainly in reference to the stunning over-life-size sculpture of Jesus by Michelangelo which is displayed here in two versions, but I was fascinated to learn how the image of the resurrected Christ was an object not only of anatomical beauty but of philosophical and theological inspiration for these artists and contemporary humanist reformers. The perfection of the naked body, as first created by Greek sculptors 2,000 years earlier, embodied a perfection of moral and theological being to which all humans could aspire. Hence there is a kind of luminous perfection of Michelangelo’s sculptures.

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

The Risen Christ (1897-8, after the Risen Christ, 1519-21, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, Rome) after Michelangelo. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen © SMK Photo / Jakob Skou-Hansen

Catholic Christianity and its discontents

It’s sort of obvious, but all these works celebrate Roman Catholic Christianity, at its headquarters in Rome, working for its chief officer on earth, the Pope. As a Protestant I am always aware that these exquisite art works were produced with money mulcted from the peasants and poorest people of Europe by huge numbers of roaming tax collectors, penance providers, summoners and pardoners of the kind satirised by Chaucer over a hundred years earlier, and whose cynicism and corruption so disgusted the monk Martin Luther that he undertook a sweeping condemnation of the entire structure of the church and its underlying theology.

These years of glorious artistic achievement also saw the start of what came to be known as ‘the Reformation’, triggered when Luther nailed his 95 theses against the church to the door of his local church in Wittenberg in 1517.

Luther’s theology was diametrically opposed to the optimistic humanism of Michelangelo and many of the other artists of the High Renaissance. While they thought humans could aspire to an almost supernatural perfection – bodied forth in their immaculate statues – Luther emphasised the irredeemably fallen state of degraded sinful humanity – incapable of anything, any action, any moral behaviour, any thoughts of beauty, without the all-powerful grace of God to lift us.

The sack of Rome

The Reformation itself doesn’t impinge on any of these works, but the chronic instability of central Europe certainly does. For the cardinal who commissioned Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus went on to become Pope Clement VII, ruling from 1523 to his death in 1534. In the interminable conflict between the Holy Roman Emperors (in this case, Charles V), the Papacy and the rising power of France, Clement made the mistake of allying with France. This led a large mercenary army of Charles V to lay siege to Rome and, on 6 May 1527, to breach the city walls and go on a week-long rampage of looting, raping, killing and burning.

Clement retreated to the enormous Castel Sant’Angelo, where he was accompanied (presumably among many others) by Sebastiano who forged a close friendship with him. Before and after the siege Sebastiano painted several portraits of Clement. As a result, in 1531 Clement appointed him piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal which was used to seal papal messages. It was a lucrative sinecure paying a stipend of some eight hundred scudi and explains why in later life he was nicknamed ‘del Piombo’, which translates literally as ‘of the lead’ and, more figuratively, as ‘of the seal’.

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

Portrait of Clement VII (1525-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo/Museo di Capodimonte, Naples © Soprintendenza Speciale per il Polo Museale di Napoli

End of the friendship

Raphael had died suddenly, very young (aged 37) in 1520, at which point Sebastiano became the leading painter in Rome. During the 1520s he gradually lost his Venetian style, adopting more monumental forms and a cooler range of colour. According to Michelangelo’s friend, the painter and great historian of Renaissance art, Giorgio Vasari, Sebastiano grew increasingly lazy, addicted to gaming and drinking.

His friendship with Michelangelo seems to have ended in the mid-1530s. Michelangelo had spent much of the 1520s in Florence, carrying out various commissions for the Medici family. In 1534 he returned to Rome and to a major commission to paint the end wall of the Sistine Chapel with the scene of the Last Judgement. The story goes that Michelangelo asked his old collaborator to prepare the wall for him, but that Sebastiano prepared it to be painted in oil – using a technique he had developed in Michelangelo’s absence. Apparently, Michelangelo was furious, had Sebastiano’s preparatory work torn down and insisted on doing the fresco his way.

Maybe. But Michelangelo was notoriously touchy. As the historian who is interviewed on the audioguide put it, Sebastiano had a longer run than most friends of the irascible genius, possibly because through most of the 1520s they’d lived in different cities. Maybe it was simply living in the same city again, that led to an inevitable break.

The works of art in this exhibition are stunning. But it can also be enjoyed as the story of a remarkable friendship; as giving fascinating insight into the compositional and painting techniques of the High renaissance; and as shedding an oblique light on the seismic contemporary events of the reformation and the Sack of Rome.

Although housed in just six rooms, it feels very, very full – of ideas, insights and breath-taking works of art.

Favourite

It’s easy to be over-awed by the brilliance, or certainly the size, of many of the works on display here. For me (the copy of) Michelangelo’s sculpted Pietà was head and shoulders better than anything else on display. It is an astonishing work and mind-boggling to realise that he made it when he was only 25!

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo's Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter's, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

Pietà (copy after Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1497-1500, St Peter’s, Vatican City) © Photo Vatican Museums

But it would be easy to overlook the maybe thirty sketches and cartoons by both artists – the Michelangelo generally more forceful and energetic than the Sebastiano. My favourite work in the whole exhibition was Michelangelo’s Seated nude and two studies of an arm. I love sketches and drawings which emphasise structure and draughtsmanship. And I like unfinished works, which are full of mystery and suggestion. So this really pulls my daisy.

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

Seated nude and two studies of an arm (1510-1512) by Michelangelo © Albertina, Vienna

The video

No self-respecting exhibition these days is without at least one promotional video.


Related links

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