Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: Michelangelo & Sebastiano at the National Gallery, London

I went to the preview of "The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano" at the National Gallery this week, along with rather a lot of other people from all over the world.

Michelangelo & Sebastiano - Room 3 Defining the Roman Style
Michelangelo is a name we all know - but Sebastiano is less well known. This exhibition is about why they worked together within the context of Raphael's ever-increasing profile and prominence.

The key issue for me for those coming to visit the exhibition is that there talents and reputations and unequal - people will come for Michelangelo - while the exhibits (paintings, drawings and letters) are mostly by Sebastiano.

Notwithstanding it's impossible to remove mural frescos from walls in Rome and there are some exceptional loans of sculpture and drawings by Michelangelo, the exhibition does feel a tad unbalanced.

The 'Taddei Tondo' - the only marble sculpture by Michelangelo in Great BritainMadonna and child with the infant John the Baptist and a bird
On Loan from the Royal Academy of Arts (which it has not left since the 1960s!)
However, I did find the curator's talked focused on the relationship rather than the paintings and how their joint enterprise progressed and in that context I came out of the exhibition with a better impression than when I went in.

I'd also go a long way for a look at Michelangelo's drawings!

Michelangelo drawing of a seated nude with arms (crop)
The exhibition includes around 70 paintings, drawings, sculptures and letters.The exhibition is in the North Galleries on Level 2 and continues until 25th June 2017. It's open from 10am - 6pm daily (9pm on Fridays). The curator of the exhibition is Matthias Wivel, the National Gallery's curator of 16th-century Italian Paintings.

Below are highlights of the exhibition and key points about the context and the artists. Articles about the exhibition are listed at the end of this blog post.

A creative partnership

It's an exhibition about a creative partnership. Michelangelo (1475-1564) - who, as the audio guide suggested, never sustained a relationship with anybody - had a collaborative and creative working friendship with Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547).

This is the National Gallery short video about the exhibition.

The context pre-meeting

Room 1 of the exhibition
The first room of the exhibition shows us something of their work before they worked together. There are differences. Michelangelo comes from Florence while Sebastiano comes from Venice. -Each has a each have very different artistic heritage and their training as artists was very different due to where they came from and who they trained with. This is exemplified in the work in Room 1 of the exhibition.
  • Michelangelo trained in Florence with Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) who excelled in fresco painting, perspective, figure drawing, and portraiture. As a third generation Renaissance artist, Ghirlandaio led a large workshop in Florence with many apprentices - including Michelangelo who was apprenticed age 13. He learned how to paint in a systematic way, working out compositions through drawings and painting each a section at the time. He also attended the academy run by Lorenzo de' Medici and learned how to sculpt.
  • Sebastiano trained with Giorgione in Venice. He mastered the organic method of painting with oils which favoured boldness and atmosphere over precision. He also painted in colour that ranged in its depth and subtlety.
They both came to Rome to work at a time when competition for patronage was intense.
  • Michelangelo arrived in 1496 at the age of 21. The very next year he was commissioned to carve a Pietà by the French Ambassador to the Holy See.
  • Sebastiano arrived in Rome in 1511 to fulfil a commission for a banker.
The exhibition includes a plaster cast of the Pietà

Why they worked together

The two men met in Rome in 1511, shortly after Sebastiano’s arrival from his native city, and while Michelangelo was working on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

Raphael (1483-1520) prompted their collaboration. Their alliance was designed to avoid Raphael getting all the most prestigious commissions from the important patrons.

Michelangelo was not keen on Raphael getting more commissions from the Pope and other eminent Italians and becoming ever more prominent and, at the same time, he wasn't so keen on painting (he's been painting on his back for six years at this point!). Consequently, he needed a painter who could work with his compositions and drawings - enter Sebastiano.
...the relationship between Michelangeo and Sebastiano del Piombo, a relationship that mist be considered one of the strangest between two renowned artists and that, as I have suggested, can only be fully understood if considered as triangular in nature, involving Raphael.Raphael, Michelangelo, Sebastiano: high renaissance rivalry
That makes it sound very simplistic - and there is no doubt Sebastiano (10 years junior) was the junior partner but he also made decisions for himself.

The nature of the relationship

The relationship lasted for 25 years from 1511 until 1536 - until they fell out over a painting technique (i.e. how to paint with oils on plaster - which Sebastiano had perfected and suggested to Michelangelo as a way of painting one of the last great paintings for the Sistine Chapel)
  • Their relationship works well when Michelangelo draws and Sebastiano paints. They paint in different ways because of the media they use.
    • Michelangelo prefers egg tempera on wet plaster while Sebastiano paints in oil on wood - and subsequently on plaster
    • Michelangelo paints in a systematic way. He has to work out everything in advance in his drawings as he has one chance to get it right in egg tempera on wet plaster. In particular, he has to think about how to model form given the flat nature of egg tempera.
    • Sebastiano paints in an organic way. He changes paintings as they progress because he is painting in oil. He also gives his paintings the deep colours associated with the Venetian way of painting.
    • Michelangelo's drawings give a much better sense of dynamism and proper form - both qualities sometimes lack in Sebastiano's drawings and compositions.
Portrait of Michelangelo probably by Sebastiano del Piombo (15180-1520)
  • Each learns from the other
    • Sebastiano learns about Michelangelo's 3D way of thinking and design which helps his figures have more form (they become more monumental) and his paintings to have more dynamism.
    • Michelangelo learns about another way of painting (he's not a fan of painting in egg tempera given the years he's spent up a ladder or lying on his back)
  • the relationship lasted as long as it did due to a long distance. For most of the time they worked together, Michelangelo was based in Florence (from 1516 to 1534).
  • evidence for the relationship comes from Vasari - but also from their correspondence caused by their separation. According to Vasari, Michelangelo befriended Sebastiano and offered pictorial designs for him to develop in paint. The exhibition provides a number of examples of their letters to one another.
The National Gallery website provides links to articles about them both and their relationship
This short video expands on the context of Rome in the early 16th century and the nature of the relationship and the quest to marginalise Raphael.


The exhibition features two notable and documented collaborations between the two of them. These are...

(Room 2) Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c.1512-1516) - the first large-scale nocturnal landscape in history.

Lamentation over the dead Christ
by Sebastiano del Piombo
after partial designs by Michelangelo
For this Michelangelo helped through the provision of drawings and Sebastiano translates the drawings to full size on the panel and does all the painting - including the innovative and freely handled nocturnal landscape.

He also takes drawings and clothes them. The Madonna below starts from an amazingly robust male torso drawn my Michelangelo.

[As an aside do have a read of 
This painting is designed as an altarpiece for the church of San Francesco in Viterbo and Michelangelo's design makes it look as if Christ is lying on the altar.

(Room 3) The Raising of Lazurus (1517-19) - This painting has the distinction of being numbered NG1 as it was part of the foundation group of paintings given when the National Gallery was created

NG1: Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo
The Raising of Lazarus, 1517-19
Oil on synthetic panel, transferred from wood
381 x 289.6 cm
© The National Gallery, London (NG1)
This painting was supposed to be painted in competition with Raphael for the Cathedral of Narbonne in France.

The painting has been the subject of recent research and infrared reflectography now reveals that Sebastiano's contribution to the work is much more considerable than previously assumed. Teh theory is now that Michelangelo intervened when the painting was nearly finished and strengthened the figure of Lazarus, changing both posture and dynamism.  Drawings in the exhibition demonstrate Michelangelo's contribution.  I've got a note saying he provided three options for alternative ways of painting Lazarus so he is more memorable and not lost in the crowd.

The rest of the exhibition

Drawings feature significantly throughout the rest of the exhibition - alongside some very significant loans of statues by Michelangelo (one real and one plaster cast) in Room 4 which is devoted to Michelangelo's devotion of the male figure.

The Risen Christ by Michelangelo
(a larger than life marble statue in foreground
and a 19th centuryplaster cast behind)
and a first for me - a 3D printed exhibit of the Flagellation of Christ.

One of the highlights for me was the portrait of Michelangelo by Sebastiano (see earlier in this post). I don't think I've seen a such a large 3D reproduction of an in-situ artwork which cannot be moved before - and I was VERY impressed. Is this the future for art exhibitions?

It's a good exhibition, the audio guide is helpful, there is some information online.

However what I'd really like to see online is a video of the curator's introduction. I'm sure people would get far more out of the exhibition if they could see that...

Articles about the exhibition

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