This is the story of three great cities of the Italian Renaissance, two exceptional artists and one revolutionary new medium. Michelangelo Buonarotti was from Florence, where drawing – disegno – was considered the father of all arts. Sebastiano del Piombo, ten years younger, came from Venice, where cross-continental trade brought rare minerals and pigments to artists who became masters of colour – colorito. The two men met where all roads meet, in Rome.
They were thrown together by the disruptive power of a new technique: oil painting. Italian artists had been slow to adopt this method, which had been widely used in northern Europe since the early 15th century. The quickest on the uptake were the Venetians, who used it to create a depth and lustre of colour unimaginable with quick-drying egg tempera or fresco. Sebastiano had mastered it; Michelangelo struggled. His solution was to work with the young Venetian.
“Michelangelo & Sebastiano” at the National Gallery in London is the first exhibition to explore their partnership. It began in 1511, when Sebastiano arrived in Rome, and Michelangelo was putting the finishing touches to one of the most daring commissions of his life: the decoration of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The pair hit it off. The curator, Matthias Wivel, thinks it highly likely that Michelangelo invited Sebastiano up onto the scaffolding to examine his colossal frescos and admire the ambition of the design, with its non-naturalistic colours and muscular, classically inspired figures.
Michelangelo wagered that by combining his genius for design with Sebastiano’s gift for colour, they would gain an edge in the growing market for oil painting. He was right: by collaborating they produced work that neither could have completed on their own. Their creative partnership, which lasted for two decades, brought both men huge success – and friendship. Reams of sketches show their intense exchange of visual ideas, while letters filled with humour, affection and politics show how close they were. Michelangelo even became the godfather of Sebastiano’s first child.
Their relationship didn’t last. For reasons that are not entirely clear they fell out. Though this exhibition proves that Michelangelo could be a generous colleague, it was not for nothing that he was known as terribile – difficult to work with. Their contemporary, Giorgio Vasari, a writer who idolised Michelangelo, sent Sebastiano down in history as the lesser artist and man.
True, this was not a partnership of equals. Michelangelo was one of the great polymaths of the Renaissance: he designed St Peter’s basilica in Rome, his sculpture of David remains the Western ideal of masculinity, and his frescos at the Sistine Chapel are one of the wonders of the world. But when it came to oil painting, Sebastiano was better by far. This tightly edited exhibition shows Michelangelo as a genius, and rehabilitates Sebastiano as the master artist who rendered Michelangelo’s vision in Venetian technicolour.
“The Virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels” (“The Manchester Madonna”) (c.1494-7) and a cast of “Pietà” (1497-1500), both by Michelangelo
These two almost contemporary works show Michelangelo’s weaknesses as well as his strengths. In Florence, meticulous drawing was considered the necessary first stage of painting. In “The Manchester Madonna” you can see how Michelangelo applied the paint in sections, scrupulously adhering to his original design. In the finished portions, he used vivid, contrasting colours to create forms that look sculptural; in some areas he even scraped the paint away, as if he were carving. The effect is cold and static. Compare this with the “Pietà”, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of her son. Working in marble, Michelangelo was able to evoke great heights of emotion. He probably abandoned “The Manchester Madonna” in 1497 to concentrate on this work. In his long life – he died aged 88 – Michelangelo frescoed only two chapels, and finished just one of his three surviving paintings. The inescapable impression is that he did not like painting.
“The Judgment of Solomon” (c.1506-9) by Sebastiano
This unfinished work depicts the Old Testament story in which King Solomon decides which of two women is the true mother of a stolen baby. (Confusingly, the baby was never painted in.) In contrast to Michelangelo’s approach, disegno and colorito here are not separate but part of one continuous creative flow. Sebastiano’s many revisions, some of which are visible to the naked eye, were drawn or painted directly onto the canvas. Because he built his forms from subtle gradations of colour, rather than filling in the lines, he lent his figures a softness entirely absent from Michelangelo’s work.
“Lamentation over the Dead Christ” (“Pietà”) (c.1512-16) by Sebastiano del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo
Their first collaboration remains as powerful today as it was 500 years ago. They were commissioned to make an altarpiece which would be designed by Michelangelo but painted by Sebastiano. In a direct development of the ideas of Michelangelo’s first “Pietà”, the focus is on Mary, who is oversized, an exceptionally masculine and protective mother of the Church. Her strength stands in contrast to the vulnerable beauty of her son, who – in the picture’s original position – would have appeared to be lying on the altar itself, the embodiment of sacrifice. Mary’s twisted torso could only come from the mind of Michelangelo, but the delicacy of colouring – in the hollow of Christ’s stomach, the shadows of his ribs and the lustrous blue of Mary’s robe echoed in the way the moon lights up the thunderous sky – is pure Sebastiano. (If you look behind the painting, displayed in the centre of a room, you will see that the back of the panel is covered in sketches by both artists. It seems that the two must at some time have been working so closely together that they shared a studio.)
“The Raising of Lazarus” (1517-19) by Sebastiano del Piombo, with designs by Michelangelo (c.1518)
This is perhaps the most vivid collaboration between the two men. It was commissioned by Pope Clement VII as one of a pair; Raphael was hired to paint the other panel. Sebastiano’s correspondence with Michelangelo, who was in Florence, shows how desperate he was to outshine his rival: “I have kept it for so long because I do not want Raphael to see mine before he has delivered his… I do not think you will be ashamed of me.” Michelangelo provided detailed red-chalk sketches for the contorted, muscular body of Lazarus, who in the painting emerges from his winding cloth in a Venetian-style landscape characteristic of Sebastiano’s work. In the Bible story, Jesus brings Lazarus back to life after he has been dead for four days. To remind the viewer that this miracle recalls God’s creation of Adam, Sebastiano gave Christ the pink robe and commanding gesture of God from Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel (above). The painting was a sensation. After Raphael’s premature death in 1520, Vasari relates that “the first place in the art of painting was unanimously granted by all, thanks to the favour of Michelangelo, to Sebastiano”. Clement even made Sebastiano keeper of the papal seal, a role which allowed him to use the honorific “del Piombo”.
Three fragments from “The Meeting of the Virgin and Elizabeth” (“The Visitation”) (c.1533-6) by Sebastiano del Piombo
These surviving fragments of a much larger work exemplify Sebastiano’s late style. His relationship with Michelangelo had deteriorated by this time, but the techniques he had absorbed he now made his own. Michelangelo would have approved of this pared-down, almost sculptural composition to which, with his skilful use of light and dark, Sebastiano manages to add a sense of depth. His figures are solid and weighty, their gestures expressive, but they are much more human than the classical ideal of the Sistine ceiling. This way of painting influenced later artists like Caravaggio and Nicolas Poussin in Rome, and Francisco de Zurbarán in Spain.
In a way, in later life, their styles crossed. While Sebastiano approached geometric simplicity, Michelangelo – who had abandoned painting for architecture and sculpture – became looser and more expressive, revising as he worked. After his death, this lyrical “Pietà” was discovered, fallen and broken, in his house in Rome. He seems to have been working on it just days before he died. While Sebastiano lived for oil, Michelangelo was always best in stone.
The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano The National Gallery, London, until June 25th