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The master and his protégé

12 May 2017

Nicholas Cranfield sees ‘Michelangelo and Sebastiano’

© Comune di Viterbo

Talking-point: Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà), by Sebastiano del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo, c.1512-16, on loan from the Museo Civico, Viterbo

Talking-point: Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà), by Sebastiano del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo, c.1512-16, on loan from the ...

ANY pilgrim visiting the Eternal City in the mid-16th century would have found that much had changed since the 1527 Sack when Imperial troops had run amok and forced the pope to seek safety in the Castel Sant’Angelo.

The city needed much rebuilding, as the “sacred things, owing to wars, fires, past destruction, and the construction of new churches, hostels, and confraternities, have been changed and transported from place to place.”

The architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) used this to explain the need to provide a new guidebook; concentrating on more than 120 churches, his Description of the Churches of Rome was widely translated and reprinted into the 18th century. His repeated visits to the city, and two winters when he had left his native Vincenza to study the classical city and its ruins, uniquely placed him to devise a church-crawl that avoided the meanderings of the medieval handbooks.

He would have known the names of the outstanding architects who had been brought in to the city in the past couple of generations. The scaffolding for Donato Bramante’s tempietto at S. Pietro in Montorio for the Spaniards had come down half a century before (1502), but Antonio da Sangallo, working at S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini, and Jacopo Vignola, designing the oratory chapel of S. Andrea in Via Flaminia (dedicated in 1553), for Pope Julius III, were very much the new men.

Any visitor could have seen Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, commissioned for the church of Sta Maria sopra Minerva, where a second version, completed in 1521, still stands at the altar rail, its nakedness (explicitly specified in the 1512 commission) somehow shocking in its proximity to the high altar, under which St Catherine of Siena rests, in silent ignorance.

Those admitted to the Vatican, then as now, would have seen the spectacular frescoes of Pinturicchio painted for the Borgia pope in the 1490s, and those of Raphael, begun in 1508 in another range of papal apartments and, of course, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel.

And a steady climb up the Janiculum hill beyond the Vatican would have been on everybody’s agenda, as Raphael’s last work, unfinished at his death in 1520, The Transfiguration, had hung above the high altar of S. Pietro in Montorio from 1523. It is now in the Vatican Art Gallery, having been confiscated from Pope Pius VII by Napoleon in 1799 for the newly formed collections of the Louvre.

For all the enduring fame of their buildings, Palladio makes no mention of Bramante, Sangallo, and Vignola in his guidebook. He passes over Michelangelo, Raphael, Pinturicchio, and, indeed, all other artists who worked in Rome, with one signal exception, Fra Sebastiano Luciani (1485-1547).

Although Palladio mentioned Pope Clement VII’s commission for the Franciscans’ high altar at S. Pietro in Montorio, he omitted Raphael’s name, choosing instead to remark that the first chapel on the south side contains “a picture of Christ at the column painted by Brother Sebastiano of Venice”, whom he called “a very excellent painter”. This exhibition goes a long way to defend that claim, and uses modern technology to recreate the Borgherini chapel itself.

Luciani, known to posterity as “del Piombo” after the office and pension that a grateful pope conferred upon him as keeper of the seals in 1531, was a Venetian native, who first moved to Rome in 1511. There, Michelangelo, ten years his senior, befriended him.

The story of their friendship (and ultimately an acrimonious split) lies at the heart of this impressive exhibition, which includes both completed works and sketches by both, as well as sculptures. From 1517 to 1537, Michelangelo lived in Florence, and the friendship became an epistolary one. Their letters show Luciani often seeking Michelangelo’s ideas and support. He invited him to be godfather to his son, thereby cementing their friendship as compare.

Before travelling south, Sebastiano had painted the organ doors for the German church of S. Bartolomeo in Venice, two of which have been loaned from the Accademia, where they are housed for safekeeping. The plague saint Sebastian and the patron Apostle, both martyrs, stand between two columns beneath an arch with balanced poise.

Their monumentality is striking, and the command of perspective demonstrates startling virtuosity in the young artist. It is likely that Sebastiano learned this articulate skill from a fellow Franciscan: it was in this church — which is tucked in beside the Rialto, and even today is often missed by visitors, as it is hidden behind scaffolding and market traders — that Fra Luca Pacioli, regarded as the father of accountancy, lectured on 11 August 1508.

He addressed a full house of more than 500, many of whom are listed in the published text, on divine proportion and proportionality. The lecture, in effect, was an Italian translation of a Latin mathematical text by the visionary artist Piero della Francesca, which Pacioli appended to his translation of Euclid.

Sebastiano absorbed Pacioli’s geometric and algebraic observations to give his painted world a rare dimensionality, which is already apparent in his The Judgement of Solomon, a loan from the National Trust, which has owned it as part of the Bankes Collection at Kingston Lacy (Dorset) since 1981.

Although left unfinished (the missing dead child has been found by infra-red reflectography, lying in front of the steps), it is a confident work on a large scale, more than three metres in width. No other painting that I know of the narrative of I Kings 3.16-28 so strongly hints at an exegetical link with the judgement of the woman taken in adultery. The innocent young mother standing at Solomon’s left could just as readily be the adulteress.

Michelangelo may have manipulated Sebastiano in his long-running differences with Raphael, as oil paint was not a medium in which he excelled. Indeed, he watched from the wings as the two went head to head in competition, shortly before Raphael’s untimely death. As a protégé, Sebastiano picked up on some of his friend’s antagonism towards the Prince of Painters from Urbino, and coldly mocked him as “Prince of the Synagogue”.

But the real interest of the exhibition, which does not display any works by Raphael, lies in seeing the Florentine and Venetian collaborate.

The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19) from the National’s own collection rightly dominates one gallery, but it is the exceptional loan of the Pietà, the first collaboration between the two, which dates from 1512-16, which is the talking-point of the show. Commissioned for a funerary chapel in the Franciscan church in Viterbo, it is now displayed in the former conventual cloister of Sta Maria della Verità, which serves as the Civic Museum there, next to a later copy of the Borgherini Flagellation (1525).

When I last viewed it, I sat in front of both paintings for two hours. Only three other visitors came past in all that time (albeit on a Sunday morning in November), but the guest book suggested that there had only been a dozen other visitors in the previous fortnight. All that is surely about to change.

The Mayor of Viterbo, Leonardo Michelini, will have justified the generosity of this loan if more visitors seek out the papal city in north Lazio to see both works side by side. To judge by the toes and feet, the artist used the same model for the Saviour of the world in both paintings, over the span of the decade.

What is extraordinary about the work is not so much the monumentality of mother and son, both of whom occupy very different zones of the poplar-wood panel (on the back of which are Michelangelo’s charcoal sketches for figures at the west end of the Sistine Chapel ceiling), as the observation of the landscape itself.

Reckoned as the first nocturnal landscape in Western art on such a scale, Sebastiano’s work clearly draws on his memory of Giorgione’s altarpieces in Venice. Beside the dead Christ, a primrose bursts into spring life in the foreground, while, in the penumbrous countryside beyond a rustic cottage, rosy-fingered dawn is about to burst.

The drawing of the Dead Christ is anatomically awkward, a point that is sometimes used to argue against a contemporary claim that Sebastiano made use of one of Michelangelo’s cartoons.

That Sebastiano could be his own man is amply shown by the prone figure in the triptych commissioned in 1516 for a patron from Valencia, the Spanish ambassador to Rome, Jéronimo Vich. Thirty years later, the triptych passed to King Philip IV, and at some later stage it was dismantled. The central panel was painted on wood, while the two detached side panels were on canvas; each went its own way, and only here have they been brought back together, for this exhibition. I regret only that there has been no real attempt to construct a frame for the triptych.

The 1515-16 sketch of a lifeless body lying on a shroud for the central panel (loaned from the Hermitage) of The Lamentation over the Dead Christ was severally re-worked until the artist found the right pose for the head. The side panels show The Descent into Limbo (The Prado) and (in a respectful copy produced a century later by Francisco Ribalta) the unusual, and somewhat cramped composition of Christ appearing to his Disciples.

The curator, Matthias Wivel, unabashedly makes clear that the exhibition centres on Christ. This is perhaps best seen where the two versions of Michelangelo’s Risen Christ are dramatically brought together in one gallery.

They are surrounded by several of his sketches of the risen Christ, dancing into the light of Easter. Search out those of 1532-33, loaned by the Queen and the British Library, to share Michelangelo’s faith in the triumph of Christ.

His first attempt in marble was abandoned because of an imperfection in the marble. The second, completed in 1521 for Sta Maria sopra Minerva, is seen here in a plaster cast of 1898 (Copenhagen).

Until recently the original, the so called “Giustiniani Christ”, named after an astute collector who bought the damaged work in the early 17th century and had it finished by an unknown hand, had passed unnoticed in the sacristy of the Silvestrine church of S. Vincenzo Martire, Bassano Romano, outside Viterbo.

It may strike us as surprising that works by well-known artists should ever fall out of public knowledge or lose their attribution, but sculptures by Michelangelo turn up from time to time in just such surprising circumstances as the Giustiniani Christ, identified in 1997.

A particularly lovely early work, of a curly-headed young St John the Baptist, had stood on the back stairs of the sacristy of a Roman church, taken down and carried in procession only for his June feast day, until it, too, was spotted by a connoisseur. It is now one of the best reasons for spending time in the little museum in the church of S. Giovanni dei Fiorentini.

If Michelangelo’s sculptures help us to explore redemption and resurrection, The Flagellation painted in oil for the Borgherini chapel, using a new technique that Sebastiano was anxious should secure his superiority to Raphael, brings us to the heart of the Passion, while, in the scene of the Transfiguration painted in the vault above, we are led to consider the two natures of Christ.

Pierfrancesco Borgherini, born in 1488, commissioned the chapel. It is probably his face that appears as a successful handsome young banker in a portrait by Sebastiano (San Diego). Commercially successful, he kept his eye on God none the less, and the chapel, in a Franciscan church that had strong associations with a Spanish reformist movement, that of the Amadeans.

In 1456, Pope Calixtus II had decreed that 6 August be observed as the feast of the Transfiguration to honour the Christian victory over the forces of Mehmet II at Belgrade. Coming three years after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, this was an astounding victory, and for a time saw off the scourge of the Turk. Sixty years later, the Muslims again threatened the Christian West, and there was talk of a new crusade. The chapel’s decoration, therefore, brought a visual identification of the scourging of Christ alongside the scene on Mount Tabor.

The format of a lone figure standing at the column and being lashed violently at once established a new iconography for Christian witness in the face of persecution. Within five years, Giulio Romano (1490-1546) had copied the composition to provide an altarpiece for the Roman basilica of Sta Prassede (1520-21), where the supposed column is still honoured in a side chapel. In it, Romano, even more than Sebastiano, emphasises the cross pattern of the marble floor of the Praetorium.

The torso of the condemned man — which in Caravaggio’s handling of it, in the next century, becomes that of a break-dancer being held back by bouncers (Naples, 1607) — derives from Michelangelo’s sketches, which are shown alongside the correspondence of the two artists throughout 1517, as Sebastiano set to work on the mural painting, and Luther elsewhere became the new scourge of the Church.


“Michelangelo and Sebastiano: The Credit Suisse Exhibition” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 25 June. Phone 020 7747 2885. www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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