Roman Rivalries

Michelangelo and Sebastiano

an exhibition at the National Gallery, London, March 15–June 25, 2017
Catalog of the exhibition by Matthias Wivel and others
London: National Gallery, 271 pp., $50.00 (distributed by Yale University Press)
Museo Civico, Viterbo
Sebastiano del Piombo: Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà), circa 1512–1516

In theory, they were the perfect combination: a Florentine sculptor and a Venetian painter, a master of line and a master of color, Michelangelo Buonarroti and Sebastiano Luciani, the twin subjects of an exhibition this spring at London’s National Gallery. “Michelangelo and Sebastiano” brought together paintings, drawings, sculpture, and letters by these two sixteenth-century friends and occasional collaborators, along with plaster casts of sculptures by Michelangelo and a full-size facsimile of a Roman chapel painted by Sebastiano that looked, from a distance, like the real thing with better lighting.

The pair met in Rome, perhaps as early as August 1511, when Sebastiano arrived in the entourage of Agostino Chigi, a banker, diplomat, industrialist, and international power broker, triumphant after six months of negotiations in Venice involving France, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the papacy. Along with the hard-won treaty that linked these four powers in a Holy League, Chigi returned to Rome with 30,000 ducats pledged from the Venetian state treasury, a painter (Sebastiano), a Greek typographer, and the daughter of a Venetian greengrocer, his latest mistress. He set Sebastiano to work painting frescoes for his new suburban villa in Trastevere, “The Pleasure Garden” (Viridarium), the deceptively idyllic headquarters for his international banking operation. (Designed by Baldassarre Peruzzi, a disciple of Bramante, it was acquired in 1579 by the Farnese family and has since been known as the Villa Farnesina.)

Michelangelo had also been painting frescoes in Rome, on the vast ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a project that had engaged him since 1508 and would occupy him until 1512. Ironically, both artists would rather have been doing something else. Michelangelo, who claimed that he had drunk in marble dust with the milk of his wet nurse, longed to carve stone rather than stand for hours every day on a sky-high wooden scaffold, craning his neck as he swept his huge brushes overhead. Sebastiano had almost always painted with oil on wood or canvas rather than applying water-based paint to fresh plaster; fresco was not an ideal technique in the damp salt air of the Venetian lagoon, and he had little experience with it. He had probably carried out only one serious fresco commission before coming to Rome: a joint project with his teacher Giorgione and another young assistant, Tiziano Vecellio—Titian, the artist Chigi had truly hoped to lure away from Venice.

Sebastiano may have left Titian behind, but he soon learned that he had another rival in Rome itself. Raphael, two years older than Sebastiano, had just completed two large frescoes in the papal apartments, The School of Athens and The Triumph of Theology (conventionally, if inaccurately, known as The Disputation of the Holy Sacrament), large public commissions that revealed an unparalleled mastery of the difficult medium. Within a year, Sebastiano was no…

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