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.


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Reviews of other National Gallery exhibitions

In the Age of Giorgione @ the Royal Academy

At the very start of the 16th century Giovanni Bellini was still the leading artist in rich, imperial Venice. But a younger generation was emerging in his wake, including Tiziano Vecellio, known as Titian, and another newcomer, later referred to as ‘Giorgione’.

Little is known about Giorgione and there is little agreement on which works can be firmly attributed to him. According to the National Gallery website, he came from Castelfranco in the Veneto, and is referred to as ‘maistro Zorzi da Castelfranco’ in an inscription dated to 1506, Zorzi being Venetian dialect for Giorgi. Giorgione means ‘Big George’.

Giorgione in his time

This exhibition brings together 39 oil paintings, 6 drawings and one carved relief to set Giriogione in the context of the Venice of the day, among his eminent peers, Bellini and Titian, as well as other contemporaries such as Sebastiano del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto and the largely neglected Giovanni Cariani, with mention of notable visitors to the city at around this time, namely Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci (there are several portraits and drawings by Dürer, to show his influence, nothing actually by Leonardo).

Attribution

Giorgione was only active from around 1500 to 1510 when he died, probably in his 30s, probably from the plague. During that time he developed a style notable for its intimacy, sensuality and mystery. But study of Giorgione is plagued by problems of attribution. Numerous paintings here have had contested attributions: Is it Titian? Bellini? Big George? Listening to the audio commentary became quite confusing after a while because so many of the paintings have been attributed first to one, then to the other.

You think you’ve got the hang of Giorgione’s style from the second work in the exhibition, and maybe the best, the Terris portrait.

This is one of the few really brilliant works in an otherwise disappointing show and well worth the admission just to see it in the flesh. The use of shadow on the right side of the face, by the nose, the stubble, the darkness of the chin and jowls, create a tremendous sense of personality and depth. The commentary says the work appears to use or have been influenced by Leonardo’s technique of sfumato, or smokiness.

But having established this as Giorgione’s signature style, surprisingly few of the subsequent works attributed to him show this degree of subtlety and mastery.

Compare and contrast with the Giustiniani Portrait, below. The gaze is striking as is the pose with the hand on the lintel in the foreground, but it is not a complete masterpiece like the Terris portrait, it lacks the amazing modelling of the features, the softness and depth. And there’s something childish, almost naive, about the overall image, unlike the tremendous maturity of the Terris portrait.

Portrait of a Young Man ('Giustiniani Portrait') by Giorgione. Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preubischer Kulturbesitz. Photo (c) Jorg P. Anders

Portrait of a Young Man (‘Giustiniani Portrait’) by Giorgione. Gemaldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Preubischer Kulturbesitz. Photo (c) Jorg P. Anders

The exhibition is divided into sections: Portraits; Landscape; Devotional works; Allegorical portraits. The room on landscapes includes a lot of bad paintings by contemporaries, and some so-so drawings by Domenico Campagnola and Titian. Look at the musician’s face and his post-Michelangelo weightlifter’s legs in this Arcadian idyll, attributed to Titian.

Titian, Two Arcadian Musicians in a Landscape. Pen and brown ink over black chalk on paper. On loan from the British Museum, London (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Two Arcadian Musicians in a Landscape by Titian. Pen and brown ink over black chalk on paper. On loan from the British Museum, London (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Maybe Giorgione’s most famous painting is The Tempest, a puzzling and haunting work, the hazily realistic depiction of an unexplained and strangely symbolic scene, pregnant with meaning. Who is the woman suckling the baby? Who is the man watching (or guarding) them? What city lies (half ruined?) in the background? Why is it set during a storm?

This work isn’t in the exhibition. The nearest thing is the large and nearly as strange work, The Sunset.

Il Tramonto (The Sunset) by Giorgione. The National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London

Il Tramonto (The Sunset) by Giorgione. The National Gallery, London. Photo (c) The National Gallery, London

Only in the flesh can you appreciate its strange details: a tiny big-beaked bird in the centre right at the bottom, a strange beast emerging from a cave in the bottom right, another weird creature lying on the surface of the pond at the bottom right. The commentary complicates matters by saying the painting was only discovered in the 1930s in a badly degraded condition and was sent off to Rome to be restored. When it reappeared much improved it did so with the completely new figures of St George on horseback lancing the dragon in the centre right! Why? Did the restorer think it needed improving? Did the dealer who went on to sell it think it would sell better if it had a bit of narrative excitement?

And to the amateur eye, although the subject matter is obscure, the overall visual feel of this painting is very different from the Tempest, in at least two striking ways: in The Tempest the focus is very much on the human figures, especially the suckling woman looking at us; here the human figures are an afterthought in what is basically a strange landscape; and the Tempest is green, very green, green grass, green trees, even the river is green; this whole painting is a muddy brown.

This is just one of the most striking examples of the problems of attribution and authenticity which afflict Giorgione’s works.

Devotional works

The biggest room focuses on devotional and religious works by Giorgione and his peers. All of these struck me as ugly and clumsy. At one end is the big work, Jacopo Pesaro being presented by Pope Alexander VI to Saint Peter which is attributed to Titian.

Close up, I didn’t like it at all: the clumsiness of the composition eg the dais St Peter is sitting on is wonky, the way it cuts into the floor tiles is not convincing. Worse still is the way the floor ends and the sea just begins, as if about to pour over the floor at any moment: something is badly wrong with the perspective.

Then there’s the subject matter: this painting glorifies the Pope presenting to St Peter, one Jacopo Pesaro, bishop of Paphos who led the Venetian navy to victory over the Ottoman Turks at the battle of Santa Maura on 28 June 1502. I think it’s a hilariously unsuitable subject for an oil painting: a portrait of the victorious admiral would be one thing: the Pope blessing the victorious admiral would work; but the badly drawn Pope presenting the victorious admiral to St Peter, depicted as sitting on a wonky dais decorated with scenes from Greek mythology, seems tackily ill conceived.

The paintings in this room glorify a Roman Catholic Papacy which was already a byword for rapacity and corruption. Only ten years or so after this painting was made, Martin Luther would rebel against the systematic theological and financial corruption of the Italian church, leading to the wholesale rejection of its organisation, theology and practice by the north of Europe – the Reformation; an upheaval which would then lead to the shambolic attempts to reform the Catholic church known as the Counter-Reformation.

Thus the religious paintings of Giorgione and his peers celebrate the Catholic church at the most corrupt period of its long history. Maybe we could overlook this fact if the paintings were of a ravishing and transcendent perfection. But they aren’t. Here’s Bellini (1430-1516) at his best – Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor. Not a very appealing painting, I think; the faces of the Madonna and baby Jesus are, in my opinion, actively unpleasant to look at, like looking at photos of deformed people. The commentary points out that the donor’s hand isn’t quite touching the baby Jesus’s feet, but is everso slightly overlapping them, as if this is clever, or as if it it redeems the unattractiveness of the painting. I know it was traditional in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and beyond for rich people to pay for themselves to be included in paintings of the Madonna, of the Crucifixion and other key moments in Jesus life (less so the Sermon on the Mount or when Jesus attacked the moneylenders in the Temple) but to the liberal mind it always looks phenomenally crude, arrogant and blasphemous.

It is included in the exhibition to demonstrate Bellini’s clarity and crispness of image, the sharp outlines of the figures against the bright blue background, the detailing of the stone plinth behind the Madonna, a clarity which Giorgione and Titian were replacing with their more shady, smoky visions.

Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor by Giovanni Bellini. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Photo (c) Birmingham Museums

Virgin and Child with Saint Peter, Saint Mark and a Donor by Giovanni Bellini. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Photo (c) Birmingham Museums

The Bellini and Titian are hung alongside 10 or so other religious paintings, but directly contrasted with the big painting at the other end of the room, Christ and the Adulteress, which is also attributed to Titian.

Christ and the Adulteress by Titian. Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Archibald McLellan Collection, purchased 1856 Photo (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museum Collections

Christ and the Adulteress by Titian. Glasgow Life (Glasgow Museums) on behalf of Glasgow City Council. Archibald McLellan Collection, purchased 1856 Photo (c) CSG CIC Glasgow Museum Collections

There is something appealing about the frank posture of the man with the red pantaloons but I am not much moved by the fainting adulteress, let alone the head of the old man in the middle or the dead-looking person at the far left. The audio commentary tells us that for a long time this painting wasn’t attributed to Titian, and even an amateur can see why, because it does seem completely different from the crisp sharp outlines of The Presentation of Jacopo Pesaro. (I was gratified to see the mismatch between these two paintings highlighted in the London Review of Books review of the show by Charles Hope, link below.)

It’s yet another contested attribution which undermines your confidence in a lot of the works here. As if that weren’t enough, the commentary then continues with the stunning revelation that we’re not even sure the painting is depicting the scene of Christ and the adulteress; just possibly it’s depicting the Old Testament scene of Daniel judging Susannah. We’re not sure who painted this painting and we’re not even sure what it depicts!

Mystery, intimacy and sensuality

Nonetheless, through the slightly confusing fog of problematic attribution and doubtful naming, I had just about got the general message that Giorgione’s works are notable for their use of shade and shadow to create a special closeness, a sense of ‘mystery, intimacy and sensuality’, when I came to almost the last painting in the show, an unsparing portrait of an old lady (maybe the artist’s mother, maybe not).

Probably, as so often in an exhibition about a specific artist, we are meant to approach the final works with a hushed feeling of sympathy and pathos, as if last works carry a special message from a genius who has plumbed the depths of wisdom to us, his earthly followers (cf the final work in the big National Gallery Goya exhibition which showed the artist and his doctor in a would-be moving scene).

Certainly La Vecchia is an appealingly vivid picture, a poignant depiction of old age – but surely it’s completely at odds with the smoky use of shadow, with the mystery and sensuality which we first saw in the Terris portrait and have been hearing about ever since. The clarity of the wrinkles, the lined flesh, the detailing of the sparse hair, the quality of the even, unshadowed light, these all look like the work of a completely different artist. Another case of mistaken attribution? Time will tell…

Conclusions

I thought hardly any of the paintings on show here were beautiful: none of them took the breath away for their masterful depiction of the human face, or evocation of the sights and smells of landscape, or pleasing composition or ravishing use of colour. Rather, this exhibition is quite a demanding lesson in art history; it sets out to illustrate the birth of a new, more smooth, sensual and mysterious style in the Venice in the early 1500s, but turns out to be as much or more about quite knotty problems of attribution and authentication.

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