Help with His Drawing

Charles Hope

  • Michelangelo & Sebastiano
    At the National Gallery, until 25 June

The collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo, the theme of the beautiful if rather didactic exhibition now at the National Gallery, is one of the strangest episodes in the history of Renaissance art. Sebastiano was born in Venice around 1485, ten years after Michelangelo. Aged about twenty, Sebastiano became attracted by the work of another young local artist, Giorgione. Almost everything associated with Giorgione is now a matter of controversy, but there is general agreement about the identification of most of Sebastiano’s surviving pictures from his time in Venice. These are well represented in the exhibition, and show him as an artist with a distinctive style, although the links with the works of Giorgione and those of his slightly younger contemporary Titian are evident.

In the summer of 1511 Sebastiano moved to Rome at the invitation of a wealthy banker named Agostino Chigi, who wanted him to contribute to the decoration of his new house beside the Tiber, now known as the Villa Farnesina. He could hardly have arrived at a more challenging moment, with Michelangelo in the later stages of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Raphael completing the decoration of the Stanza della Segnatura, also in the Vatican. Both these artists had much more experience of fresco painting than Sebastiano, both were vastly more skilled at drawing, and both had developed distinctive figure styles, largely based on surviving fragments of classical sculpture to be seen in Rome, which were to exert an incalculable influence on later European art. Sebastiano’s first works in Rome, a series of mythological frescoes in Chigi’s villa, looked distinctly clumsy by comparison, especially in proximity to Raphael’s celebrated fresco of Galatea.

What happened next is told in the biography of Sebastiano in the first edition of Vasari’s Lives, published in 1550, only three years after his death. Here we learn that Michelangelo was particularly unhappy to discover that many people preferred ‘the grace of Raphael to the profundity of Michelangelo’. He was much impressed by Sebastiano’s ‘colouring’, a term which covered all the effects that could be achieved by the skilful use of paint, in which Venetians had particular expertise, and decided that if he secretly helped Sebastiano with his drawing, he could then praise Sebastiano’s pictures in a seemingly objective way and thus confound his critics. Thanks to Michelangelo’s support and assistance Sebastiano’s reputation was greatly enhanced, but if the fiction that Michelangelo was merely a disinterested admirer of Sebastiano was ever believed, it was soon abandoned. Clients who wanted representations of subjects that would appeal to Michelangelo knew that Sebastiano could provide them and expected that Michelangelo would help him.

The pictures he produced after meeting Michelangelo were very different from those he had painted in Venice. This is true of the subjects, in which themes relating to the passion and death of Christ predominate, and of the colours, which tend to be more muted, narrower in range and darker in tonality than the Venetian paintings. There is an obvious parallel here with the frescoes on the Sistine ceiling before their controversial restoration. Only in Sebastiano’s portraits, a genre in which Michelangelo had no interest, was there a less dramatic change. Unfortunately, because the main theme of the exhibition is the collaboration between the two artists these are not very well represented in London, although there is a wonderful portrait of Pope Clement VII.

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