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 longer painting frescoes for Agostino Chigi’s “Pleasure Garden.” He had just finished one section of a wall in the summer dining room when Chigi suddenly passed the whole assignment to Raphael, who rose to the challenge with a fresco of the nymph Galatea scudding across the Aegean in a dolphin-drawn seashell chariot, nymphs and mermen gamboling around her in a sparkling, white-capped sea. The abrupt substitution left Sebastiano with a burning urge to redeem himself and an incandescent hatred for his charming, successful competitor.

Chigi’s villa still tells the story today: Sebastiano’s frescoes in the lunettes of what is now called the Loggia di Galatea show skillful brushwork, novel color combinations, and some small triumphs, like a marvelous pair of spotted hawks and a young boy hurtling down from the heavens in a striped silk loincloth (Perdix, the nephew of Daedalus, who was turned into a partridge). But fresco can be a treacherous medium, because its colors change in the first hours, as wet plaster turns to dry. Rather than working with the colors they see, fresco painters must predict what those colors will become, a skill for which there is no more reliable guide than experience.

Lacking that experience, Sebastiano gave Chigi a rainbow that turned brown, golden hair that faded into its background rather than shining forth, a peacock’s tail whose shimmering blues evolved into chalky gray. With oil paint, artists can change their minds, but the most effective way to alter a fresco is to chop out the original plaster and begin again. Sebastiano, like most Venetians, went straight to work on his paintings without sketching them out extensively on paper, confident that he could always adjust figures and compositions as he went along: oil paint dried slowly, especially in the Venetian damp. This spontaneity shows with particular clarity in an ambitious early painting that started off Sebastiano’s segment of the London show: a Judgment of Solomon from 1506–1509 that time has revealed as a patchwork of experiments.


But when Sebastiano gave his frescoed figure of Juno in Chigi’s villa an impossibly long pair of calves, he could only hope that the dazzle of her peacock chariot would distract critical eyes from her defective anatomy—as it may have done for a short while, before the calcium carbonate in his drying plaster dimmed the peacocks’ luster. There was no question of beginning again on these frescoes, however flawed. Agostino Chigi was not a man to waste time. His grandnephew Fabio Chigi reported that “he utterly hated all lazy people” (or as Fabio put it in poetic Latin, ociosos omnes oderat omnino). Sebastiano’s lunettes and wall have stayed as they were for five centuries, imperfections and all—charming, but only a cloudy memory of what they must have looked like when the colors were still wet on the wall. Raphael’s Galatea utterly eclipsed them, to Sebastiano’s eternal outrage.

The Venetian’s skill at oil painting, on the other hand, remained indisputable. Shortly after Sebastiano’s disappointment at Chigi’s villa, one of the banker’s associates, Giovanni Botonti, commissioned him to create a large altarpiece for the cavernous medieval church of San Francesco in nearby Viterbo, to be executed in oil on a wooden panel. Sebastiano had already struck up his friendship with Michelangelo, who provided a preparatory drawing for this new painting, a Lamentation over the Dead Christ, or Pietà. In one of several dramatically effective displays, the London exhibition hung Sebastiano’s Viterbo Pietà opposite an excellent plaster cast of Michelangelo’s marble Pietà from St. Peter’s Basilica (an earlier cast served as the model for repairing the original after it was vandalized in 1972).

Trained in the artistic tradition of his native Tuscany, Michelangelo prized drawing (disegno) as the essential preparation for creating any work of art, in any medium, from jewelry to architecture (as the exhibition showed through a choice selection of his early paintings, drawings, and sculpture). Prodigiously talented, charismatic, and overbearing, he supplied friendly fellow artists with drawings for their own projects, imposing his muscular style on a whole generation in Florence and Rome. The drawings were gifts, but they were also assertions of dominance.

Sebastiano had several reasons for gravitating to Michelangelo, first among them the sheer power of the Florentine’s artistry. Even as a plaster facsimile, Michelangelo’s Pietà plays out its quiet tragedy with gentle simplicity, as a mother faces the death of her child in the only way she can: with pure, steadfast love. In this early Pietà Mary throws up her left hand in despair as her right hand catches her son in an iron grip; in Michelangelo’s last, unfinished Pietà in Milan, a small, stocky Mary slings an arm around Jesus to clutch him in an embrace fierce enough to last forever. Michelangelo could be stingy, irascible, and demanding, but he knew how to communicate love in affecting details that infuse human warmth into cold stone.

Michelangelo also introduced Sebastiano to the Tuscan way of creating art. The Venetian began to refine his technique as a draftsman, concentrating on anatomy, learning to manage details in chalk on paper before committing them to paint. The drawings displayed in London track his progress alongside that of his mentor, but when it came to a commission as significant as the Viterbo altarpiece, Sebastiano took no chances: rather than rely on his own disegno, he called in the master.

Finally, the two men bonded in their hostility to Raphael. They called him “the prince of the synagogue” because of his friendships with Jews and plotted incessantly to thwart him, Sebastiano in a spirit of coruscating hatred, Michelangelo with a cooler sense of his own superiority. Inevitably, then, Raphael loomed over this exhibition and its catalog, his presence as commanding as it is often unacknowledged.

Michelangelo claimed that he had taught Raphael everything he knew about art, but this exhibition made it clear that their exchange passed in both directions (as we can see from the Raphaels in the National Gallery’s permanent collection). As for Sebastiano, despite his fuming about “the prince of the synagogue,” he knew good artistic ideas when he saw them and never hesitated to put them into practice. Artists have always borrowed from other artists, and these three drew from everyone and everything: one another, Leonardo, Piero della Francesca, classical sculptures, early Christian mosaics, ancient manuscripts, Roman ruins, beautiful women, silk, wiggling babies, and the endless bounty of nature.

Alessandro Vasari/Church of San Vincenzo Martire, Monastero dei Silvestrini, Bassano Romano

Michelangelo: The Risen Christ (The Giustiniani Christ), 1514–1515, finished by an unknown artist in the early seventeenth century

For his Viterbo Pietà, therefore, Sebastiano combined Michelangelo’s command of anatomy with his own command of mood and color, setting the scene of Mary’s bereavement in a desolate, moonlit landscape between an ancient ruin and a run-down wooden shed on the edge of a turreted city. The beautiful body of Christ, silvery in the moonglow, extends across the bottom of the painting, stretched out somewhat awkwardly on a brilliant white winding sheet. When the panel was set in place, it would have been visible just above the altar table, a reminder to the faithful that the rite of communion would transform the bread of the Host into this very same divine body (a belief that Protestant reformers would question only a few years later).


Unlike the youthful Virgin Mary of Michelangelo’s Vatican Pietà, Sebastiano’s Mary is portrayed as a plain-featured, small-headed older woman, with a sturdy body and an athlete’s neck, dressed in robes of a shimmering ultramarine blue ground from pure lapis lazuli. Most striking of all is the silver-lit nocturnal landscape—there is a full moon emerging from the clouds above Mary’s head—with the volcanic crags of Viterbo standing in for the limestone hills of Jerusalem. Night scenes were rare but not unknown in medieval and Renaissance art, and Sebastiano’s painting also drew inspiration from the menacing cloud formations of The Tempest, the enigmatic painting his master Giorgione had made in Venice around 1508.

At almost the same moment, Raphael created his own nocturne, The Liberation of Saint Peter, for the Vatican Palace, concentrating, like Sebastiano, on the contrast between cool moonlight and the red-orange hints of sunlight on the horizon. Raphael, however, painted his night scene in masterful fresco. Matthias Wivel’s catalog essay gallantly credits Sebastiano with the initial idea, but no definite evidence survives to indicate who inspired whom (and their joint source may well have been Leonardo, who was in Rome at the time). It hardly matters. Both artists would spend the rest of their careers exploring the atmospheric effects that occur in the border zone between day and night, and setting intense light against varying degrees of darkness.

From this bumpy beginning, Sebastiano went on to a successful career in Rome. In late 1516, one of his most illustrious admirers, Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici, nephew of Lorenzo the Magnificent and cousin of the reigning pope, Leo X, set him the ultimate challenge: he asked both Sebastiano and Raphael to create altarpieces for the cathedral of Narbonne, France, the cardinal’s new diocese. Working in oil on monumental wooden panels, the painters would inevitably compete with each other, a time-honored patron’s ploy to get the best work from each artist in the shortest amount of time.

Michelangelo had returned to Florence by then, but he and Sebastiano kept in close touch about the commission, for which Michelangelo would once again supply drawings. Three letters concerning the cathedral of Narbonne were on display in London, written in Sebastiano’s large, neat hand—both he and Michelangelo wrote in an expansive, confident script. His spelling shows that he continued to communicate in Venetian dialect; his speech must have had the lilting cadence that Venetians ascribe to the ebb and flow of the city’s canals.

Sebastiano’s painting shows the moment when Jesus calls the dead youth Lazarus forth from the grave and restores him to life. As he boasted to his mentor, the final composition of this Raising of Lazarus involved no fewer than forty figures, as well as some vertiginous perspective effects, and exploited the sheer drama of the story itself. Michelangelo furnished the preparatory drawing for the figure of Lazarus, a heroic nude still wrapped in his burial shroud, as well as sketches for some of the bystanders. The biblical description of this event (John 11:39) asserts that Lazarus still smelled of the grave when Jesus called him forth from his tomb; he had been dead for four days already. Some of Sebastiano’s spectators shrink back from the stench, but the young man’s resurrected body is already restored to glorious perfection.

Sebastiano presented the completed painting to Cardinal de’ Medici in May 1519. From one of his letters to Michelangelo, it seems clear that the outcome of the contest with Raphael was never in question. Sebastiano reports that Cardinal Giulio “told me that I had given him more satisfaction than he was expecting.” Raphael took four more months to complete his Transfiguration. Before he could deliver it, he died of a sudden fever on April 6, 1520, his thirty-seventh birthday. Four nights later, Agostino Chigi expired in his own ebony bed with its ivory inlay, at the age of fifty-three.

Sebastiano could draw a certain satisfaction from the fact that his Raising of Lazarus was the painting Cardinal de’ Medici decided to send to the cathedral of Narbonne. He may have been less happy to realize that the cardinal simply could not bear to part with Raphael’s Transfiguration, which entered his private collection. (It is now in the Vatican Museum.) Today, Sebastiano’s Raising of Lazarus bears the National Gallery’s accession number NG1; purchased in 1824, it forms the cornerstone of the collection, an outstanding example of the classically inspired painting of Renaissance Rome.

Museo di Capodimonte, Naples

Sebastiano del Piombo: Portrait of Pope Clement VII, circa 1525–1526

Sebastiano also excelled as a portraitist. The National Gallery displayed two of his most famous examples: both portraits of Giulio de’ Medici, the same Giulio who commissioned The Raising of Lazarus and who became Pope Clement VII in 1523. The earlier of these images, a half-length oil painting on a wooden panel, shows the darkly handsome (if slightly pear-shaped) pope a year or two after his election, looking off to one side as he sits restlessly on his throne, isolated against a moonlit night sky. (We do not see the moon, but we can infer its presence from the beams it casts.)

The moonlight, beyond the visual pleasure of its silvery shimmer on the velvet pile of Clement’s capelet, may suggest an association with Endymion, the young shepherd from Asia Minor who, according to Greek myth, attracted the attention of the moon goddess Diana. While Endymion slept among his flock at night, she swooped down from Olympus to kiss him on the sly. Pope Clement’s friend and spiritual adviser Cardinal Giles (Egidio) of Viterbo declared in one of his theological tracts that Endymion could be seen as a Christian image of the human soul, enveloped in God’s love but often as dimly oblivious to its condition as the sleepy shepherd was to the caresses of his divine lover.

Sebastiano’s Clement, on the other hand, is watching something attentively. This Endymion, the painting seems to suggest, is a Good Shepherd with his wits about him. Clement’s taut posture—seated in an armchair in red and white papal attire—deliberately evokes Raphael’s famous portrait of an earlier pope, Julius II, as a man of action eager to spring from his throne; it is easy to make the comparison, because Raphael’s painting is one of the National Gallery’s greatest treasures. Raphael’s Julius, however, is wrapped up in his own thoughts, and some of the discomfort in his posture stems from the pains of old age. Sebastiano’s Clement, by contrast, is attuned to the world around him, although he seems to regard it with a certain hauteur.

Unfortunately, Clement was not alert enough to read the signs of his turbulent times. Martin Luther may have set off the Reformation during the reign of Leo X, but the movement spread like wildfire under Clement’s watch. Rome itself was caught up in the increasing violence of the conflict in 1527, when some 12,000 mercenary troops, many of them Swiss Protestants, were released from serving Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in central Italy. Rather than return home, these soldiers of fortune saw easy money to be made by ransacking the Eternal City, which they did for nearly a year of brutal mayhem (as a comparison, Alaric and the Visigoths stayed only three days in the great sack of 410).

Clement was forced to slink out of the Vatican down the fortified corridor to Castel Sant’Angelo, the huge concrete tomb of the emperor Hadrian transformed into a papal fortress. There, like an ancient Roman patrician (and like Pope Julius before him), he grew a beard as a sign of mourning. Sebastiano painted him in this penitential mood, circa 1531—a much smaller head portrait in profile—using oil paint applied to slate, the deep, somber gray of the stone enhancing the pontiff’s grim demeanor. The arrogance and self-consciousness of the earlier portrait are gone. By painting on stone, as he wrote to Michelangelo, Sebastiano hoped to make his image of the penitent pope last an eternity.

Sebastiano experimented widely with painting on stone, as we learn from his biographer Giorgio Vasari, a much younger contemporary (Vasari was born in 1511). He also took on a challenge that Leonardo and Raphael had never mastered successfully: painting with oil on plaster. In 1516, shortly before the painting contest with Raphael took place, the newlywed banker Pierfrancesco Borgherini, a Florentine with an office in Rome, commissioned Sebastiano to decorate a side chapel in the church of San Pietro in Montorio, knowing that Michelangelo would almost certainly contribute to the project as well. Endowed by the Spanish Crown, perched high on the Janiculum hill with a panoramic view of the city, San Pietro in Montorio was one of Rome’s most fashionable churches. True to expectations, Michelangelo supplied most of the drawings, but it was Sebastiano who carried out the painting, after priming the chapel wall with an experimental mixture that has successfully held the pigment in place for half a millennium. Vasari reported that the secret mix included “mastic and Greek pitch [pine resin], melted in the fire and applied to the wall with a red-hot trowel,” and praised its durability.

With the help of Italian specialists, the National Gallery installed a full-size reproduction of the Borgherini Chapel in one of its exhibition rooms. The high-resolution photographs of the paintings that were applied to the facsimile chapel (combining over 2,400 overlapping images) are uncannily good. The reconstruction serves a significant practical purpose: because the chapel itself takes the form of a curved niche sunk into the right-hand wall of the church, viewers can see, in all three dimensions, how cleverly Sebastiano exploited the chapel’s curvature to lend more depth to the already expert perspective of his Flagellation of Christ. The figure of Jesus slumped before a majestic colored marble column clearly follows a design by Michelangelo, and local rumors quickly decreed that the Florentine had come down to Rome to paint it himself. He did not—the work, on its specially prepared plaster, was certainly executed by Sebastiano—but it represents one of the high points of their collaboration.

Michelangelo had recently carved a heroically classical Risen Christ for the Dominican church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome—actually, he had carved two. As he shaped the face of the first version, he uncovered a dark gray vein in the luminous white Carrara marble. Marble is usually veined, but this vein occurred in an inconvenient place—Christ’s face. Michelangelo managed to reduce it to a fine vertical line just to the left of Christ’s nose, so cleverly concealed as to be almost unnoticeable, but he knew it was there and redid the entire statue, taking the opportunity, as he always did, to make adjustments everywhere: to the pose, to the angle of the Cross, to Christ’s proportions. The National Gallery brought the first version from Bassano Romano, a hamlet between Rome and Viterbo, where the statue, retouched in subsequent centuries, graces a local monastic church (see illustration on page 23). The better-known second version, still in its original setting in Rome, appeared as a cast, allowing us to register all the differences between the two, major and minor.

Inevitably, the exhibition also brought out the main reason why Sebastiano, for all his skill, is less well known than Titian, Raphael, or Michelangelo. Both Vasari and Michelangelo accused him of laziness. Agostino Chigi may well have come to the same conclusion as early as 1512. The banker was famous for his parties, and Vasari reports that Sebastiano always enjoyed partying more than painting. (He also tells how Chigi convinced a lovesick Raphael to finish a project by locking him into the “Pleasure Garden” with his mistress until the job was done.) When Pope Clement awarded Sebastiano the lucrative post of “Master of the Lead Seals” (maestro del piombo), the artist, married with children, complied with the requirement that he take holy orders and earned the nickname by which we know him, “Sebastiano del Piombo.”

One painting by Sebastiano del Piombo is a revelation; a dozen paintings by him are enough to reveal all the formulas by which he worked—and avoided working. His best figure drawings were Michelangelo’s, not his own—this was the point of the London exhibition, and in fact it was the request for yet another drawing that finally drove Michelangelo to accuse his friend of laziness. Sebastiano’s ideal figures, both men and women, all have the same straight “classical” nose with large, flaring nostrils, drawn apparently from one ancient statue, the Apollo Belvedere. Clement VII is so strikingly handsome precisely because his nose is longer and more pointed than Sebastiano’s standard: it lends him character. Every single one of these noses, including Clement’s, is highlighted, virtually without exception, by a white brushstroke down the ridge and a white dot at the tip.

Portraiture gave the artist real, idiosyncratic faces to work with, real clothing, and real objects. Without competition with Raphael to sting him and reality to catch his eye, he falls back on the same poses, the same generic robes, the same expressions. Like another famously lazy painter, Andrea del Sarto, Sebastiano concentrates on the center of his paintings and neglects the corners—they both painted so beautifully in those centers that we can forgive them the corners, at least until Paolo Veronese reminds us what a clever corner can do. Sebastiano’s backgrounds, even the eerie Viterbo of his Pietà, are simplified landscapes, with at most four layers of detail as they recede into space. Raphael usually provides twice as many layers: houses, hills, rivers, towers.

The latest paintings in the London exhibition were listless replicas of earlier work. Sebastiano responded to critics, according to Vasari, by saying:

Now that I have a living, I don’t want to do anything, because today there are talents in the world who take two months to accomplish what used to take me two years, and I believe that if I live much longer, which I don’t expect to, that we’ll see everything in the world painted, and these guys are doing so much, it’s better for someone to do nothing, so that they’ll have something more to do.

“And with that,” Vasari concludes, “and other pleasantries, Brother Sebastiano went his merry way, always charming and pleasant, and in truth there was never a better companion than he.”

But if it’s a painter you want, go, like Agostino Chigi, with Raphael.