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11 March 2017

The special relationship

Michelangelo disdained most artists, but his partnership with Sebastiano produced some of the boldest works of the Renaissance.

By Michael Prodger

The harmony that characterises the great works of the Renaissance belies how little harmony there was behind so many of them. Some of the biggest names of the age had a grudging respect for one another at best, and at worst a hearty loathing. At one end of the scale was Titian’s casual dismissal of Tintoretto – “He will never be anything but a dauber” – and at the other was the murder of a rival jeweller by the sculptor-goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini. Among those who nursed innumerable slights and dislikes in between, however, the most consistent was Michelangelo.

Touchy, sharp-tongued and with a highly developed amour propre, Michelangelo called Perugino a “fool in art” to his face (which led to a failed legal action for defamation); he waved away Titian’s accomplishments with the comment that the Venetian could have been a great painter if only he had learned to draw properly; he sneered at Leonardo in the streets of Florence (the older artist, according to the biographer Vasari, was “made red in the face by his words”); the great architect Bramante was a man he could not stand; and after Raphael’s death he ignored the niceties of de mortuis nil nisi bonum and belittled him with the claim that “what he knew of art he learned from me”. Michelangelo himself denied he was anything other than sweetness and light, writing that he never “spoke badly of anyone to the Pope or to others”.

He was nevertheless capable of sustained artistic friendships, the most notable of which was with the Venetian painter Sebastiano Luciani, better known as Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). For roughly 25 years from 1511 onwards the two men were friends, collaborators and, from 1519, when Michelangelo became godfather to Sebastiano’s son Luciano, kinsmen. In the end, even this strong bond couldn’t survive Michelangelo’s rebarbative nature. While it lasted, though, the friendship shone a bright light on the high point of the High Renaissance and it is now the subject of the National Gallery’s important exhibition “Michelangelo and Sebastiano”.

There is in fact a third, missing component to the exhibition: Raphael. Part of what drew Michelangelo and Sebastiano together was a mutual enmity for and envy of Raphael. Even Vasari, Michelangelo’s most cheerleading supporter, recognised that “in Raphael the rarest gifts were combined with such grace, diligence, beauty, modesty and good character that they would have sufficed to cover the ugliest vice and the worst blemishes”, and because he was free from ugly vices the ill-will the other painters felt towards him was professional.

Michelangelo and Raphael remain two of the great names of Renaissance art, whereas Sebastiano has slipped somewhat from prominence. In the early 16th century, however, he was one of the most feted painters of the age and a confidant of popes. Born in Venice, he had two careers – the first as a lutenist and the second as a painter. For the latter, he trained first in the workshop of Giovanni Bellini, the premier painter of the Republic, and then with Giorgione, its short-lived rising genius. By 1511 he was widely thought to be a more accomplished artist than his contemporary Titian.

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In 1511 Sebastiano was invited to Rome by Agostino Chigi, the Sienese banker who was said to be the richest man in Rome and who was so seemingly contemptuous of wealth that he used to throw his silver dishes into the Tiber at the end of banquets (although his servants then retrieved them). His first commission was to paint frescoes for Chigi’s suburban villa, later named the Farnesina, where Raphael, who had arrived in Rome in 1508, was also at work on his celebrated Galatea. There is an air of mischief-making in Chigi putting the two painters in direct competition within yards of one another.

Michelangelo also felt he was in competition with Raphael. While he was at work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Raphael was painting the Stanze, Julius II’s Vatican apartments. Initially relations between the two painters, who had known each other in Florence, were cordial but they soured in 1511 when the scaffolding was removed and the finished half of the Sistine ceiling was put on display. Vasari reports how, while Raphael’s frescoes were lauded by artists, courtiers and critics for being “pleasing in colour, beautiful in invention, and charming in the expressions, with design in keeping with the rest”, Michelangelo’s epic work, though praised for its power and design, was criticised for its sharp and unblended colouring. This sense of grievance was only exacerbated when Michelangelo learned that Bramante, who held the keys to the chapel, had let Raphael sneak in to see the incomplete frescoes when the secretive Michelangelo was absent; Raphael had given his own figures greater heft as a result.

Another thing that irked Michelangelo was that, for all his pre-eminence as a sculptor, he recognised that he was not as good a painter as Raphael. One 16th-century critic observed that Raphael painted gentlemen but Michelangelo’s figures resembled porters. In fact, Michelangelo didn’t like painting even in fresco, and oils, he thought, were for “women and idle and lazy people”. Sebastiano, on the other hand, was every bit as talented as Raphael as a painter, though he lacked a sense of figurative power. So the friendship between Michelangelo and Sebastiano quickly became an alliance: Michelangelo would supply drawings of his own great interest and strong point, the heroic male figure, and Sebastiano, who recognised the older man’s supremacy, would use them to build and fortify his compositions. In these “joint” works the design and drawing (disegno) of Florentine art was intended to combine with the colour and modelling (colorito) that characterised Venetian painting, and trump Raphael.




Their first collaboration was for the Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà) of 1512-16, for which Michelangelo may already have received the commission (there are sketches relating to the Sistine ceiling on the back of the panel) but which took Sebastiano’s hand to bring about. In 1498 Michelangelo had announced himself in Rome with an infinitely tender marble sculpture of the same subject: the crucified Christ lying in his young mother’s lap. For the painting, however, Christ is shown on the ground as Mary sits, knotting her hands in anguish and looking to the heavens.

The scene is set at night – the first religious nocturne in art – to signify that, with Christ’s death, the light of the world has been extinguished. The physical separation between mother and son heightens the grief: her monumentality represents the endurance of the Church. Some of Michelangelo’s sketches accompany the painting in the National Gallery’s exhibition and show that the model for Mary was a man, and in the finished work Sebastiano did little to soften the masculinity. Michelangelo’s love for the male body was a reflection not only of his homosexuality, but of the Augustinian belief, which he shared, that the male nude was the closest possible reflection of God we have been granted. The more his women resemble men, therefore, the closer they are to perfection.

No detailed drawings exist for the dead Christ, which Sebastiano may or may not have taken from Michelangelo’s designs, but his near-naked body is a wondrous piece of painting. Smooth, beautifully modulated, the face cast in shadow, it is a figure of tangible divine grace yet with a sensuality that complements Mary’s spirituality. Sebastiano’s Venetian heritage is evident in the landscape background (Michelangelo never painted or drew a single landscape) and in the Giorgionesque light effects cast by the moon. On seeing it, Raphael responded with his own nocturne, The Liberation of St Peter (1514), in the Vatican Stanze.

Michelangelo also provided drawings for the muscular figures in The Flagellation of Christ (1518) for the Borgherini Chapel of San Pietro in Montorio, Rome. It shows Christ and his torturers from the front, side and rear, like a statue (“Good painting is the kind that looks like sculpture,” Michelangelo said), and is an exercise in torsion as much as torment. By this point Michelangelo was back in Florence, where he remained for the best part of 20 years, the relationship between the two painters becoming epistolary and Sebastiano acting as the absent sculptor’s homme d’affaires in Rome.

Their campaign against Raphael continued, however, most notably with The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19). This painting had been commissioned from Sebastiano by Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, later Pope Clement VII, who had also commissioned Raphael, for another face-off, to paint the Transfiguration. Lazarus is hugely complicated, containing 40 figures and a broad but subtly handled chromatic range. Sebastiano completed most of the picture, including Christ’s outstretched hand – so clearly borrowed from the Sistine ceiling – but was unhappy with the figure of Lazarus. It was Michelangelo, on a brief visit to Rome, who provided the sketches that allowed him to solve the problem and give the protagonists the dramatic tension they need.

Letters record Sebastiano’s concern that Raphael would try to get the painting quickly despatched to its intended home in Narbonne Cathedral, France, in order to avoid a direct comparison between Lazarus and his own Transfiguration. In this he failed: the finished painting was put on display to great acclaim in Sebastiano’s studio. Raphael’s Transfiguration was not seen in public until it accompanied his bier when he died from fever, aged 37, in 1520 – a death that left Pope Leo X wallowing in “measureless grief”. When the two paintings were briefly exhibited together in the Vatican, Sebastiano felt his own held up well to the comparison.

Seven years later, with Sebastiano’s patron Clement VII as pope, mutinous troops from the army of Charles V, the Holy Roman emperor, sacked Rome. Under crossbow fire, both the pope and Sebastiano (and, coincidentally, Cellini) fled to Castel Sant’Angelo, where they were besieged for seven months. In 1531 Clement appointed Sebastiano, partly for his loyalty, to the ­office of Piombatore, or keeper of the lead seal – piombo – used to stamp papal briefs. The post came with a handsome stipend and gave the painter his nickname. It also marked a switch in his art, away from subject pictures to portraiture.

The break with Michelangelo, when it inevitably came, originated in a quarrel over technique. Sebastiano, it seems, told Paul III, who became pope in 1534, that Michelangelo would paint The Last Judgement on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in oils. The surface was prepared accordingly. But while Sebastiano had mastered this unusual technique Michelangelo hadn’t, and ordered the preparations removed for when he eventually started to work in fresco. The disagreement led to Michelangelo’s comment about oil being fit for “lazy people like Fra Bastiano” (on becoming Piombatore, Sebas­tiano was also obliged to become a friar).

Whatever else lay behind their falling out, a full rapprochement was never made. Sebastiano’s output soon tailed off and in the last decade of his life he seems to have painted almost nothing. Vasari records him saying that it was “as prudent to live quietly as to be ever striving to leave behind a name for oneself after death”. He was happy to quit the stage: “. . . there are now in the world men of genius who do in two months what I used to do in two years . . . and since these stalwarts can do so much, it is well that there should also be one who does nothing, to the end that they have the more to do.”

What he had already done, however, with Michelangelo’s help, was to combine the central Italian and Venetian traditions to forge an art that could be monumental, symbolic and ideal as well as naturalistic, atmospheric and colourful. Theirs may have been an asymmetrical relationship, but it was not one of master and servant. It was a partnership that resulted in works of great power that neither man could have created on his own.

The exhibition opens 15 March and runs until 25 June. Details:

This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda