Last week we visited the National Gallery to see The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano. We’ve written a short review of selected works from the exhibition and what we learnt about Mike and Seb’s friendship and careers.
Mike and Seb first met in Rome around 1511. Mike was 36 years old, Seb some 10 years Mike’s junior. Their professional reputations at this stage in their careers paralleled the differing years of their experience.
Mike, already known and respected, embraced punctilious preparation, method, and accuracy through observation and study (not unlike Leonardo); creating monumental works in the way of the Florentine and Roman schools that mark out his stylistic development. Mike was clearly a driven individual who wanted to be number one in his field – not second or third. During his career as a painter, Mike was in fierce competition with Raphael. Raphael was eight years younger, clearly talented and innovative within the renaissance movement. Historical accounts give a sense of difference between Mike and Raphael – that Mike was obstinate, moody, quarrelsome and unforgiving, where Raphael was humble, sincere and very likeable – which opened doors for him with ease when Mike had to force his way through. The threat to Mike from the young upstart Raphael seems to have been very real.
In his art, Seb was a freer spirit than Mike, intent upon creating atmosphere and emotion over the strictures of precision, in accordance with his training and development in the altogether more liberal Venice school – accentuating the use of colour and improvisation. This was not dissimilar to Raphael’s sytle and when Mike became aware of Seb and his talent, Mike realised that rather than allow another unwanted competitor on to the Roman art scene, a collaboration might be in his better interest. Something about keeping your enemies close, perhaps.
The Exhibition starts with pieces by each of Mike and Seb to illustrate their differing styles.
Left: The virgin and Child with Saint John and Angels (‘The Manchester Madonna’), 1497 – Michelangelo
This panel painting in the opening exhibition room shows Mike’s mastery of the sculptural form. The vividness of detail and colour in the infant Jesus and his cousin St John the Baptist contrasts with the heavy and precise outlines to the left where the panel remains unfinished. These later outlines are likely transferred to the panel from preparatory drawings, hence their deliberateness at this stage in their introduction to the scene. There appears to be no doubt as to what the painting is intended to portray, and how it is to be produced.
Right: The judgement of Solomon – Sebastiano Del Piombo, 1505
Here, Seb does what he does best. Many figures, all animated in a way that makes them seem alive and in motion, supporting the story that the scene tells. Again the piece is not complete – the baby that Solomon is issuing judgement over does not appear. When looking between this and the previous work of Mike, Compare the skin tone and detail on the nude courtier (who is without the sword that he will need to cut the baby in two) with the skin on the infants in Mike’s work. Also note how Seb’s work is developing as his thoughts and designs develop. Not much planning in evidence here. There are sections around the porticos at the side that look like a montage of several different images such is the prominence of prior architectural layouts he has explored over the one currently adopted.
It is quite possible that Seb became infatuated with Mike. They quickly struck a friendship and artistic partnership which involved doing sketches for each other and actually both painting on the same canvas. There is a letter in the exhibition (one of several that illuminate the relationship between the two) in which Seb assumes Mike’s hatred of Raphael. Whether this is founded on genuine artistic difference, or again evidence of the indoctrination that Seb went through under Mike’s control is not clear.
Whilst Mike may have wanted to get close to Seb to control the risk of more competition, he was professional enough to see the opportunity for creating collaborative art of a new type that could continue to develop the renaissance.
Left: Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà) – Sebastiano Del Piombo, after partial designs by Michelangelo, 1512-16
In this collaborative piece the possibilities of their combined talents are explored. The grieving Mary is painted by Seb in a flowing style with intense colours to her clothes. The moonlit background is full of atmosphere and suggestion. Here anatomic form, however, is something of a contradiction. A muscular neck, broad shoulders and chest are almost certainly the influence of Mike. The body of Jesus is painted in a starkly contrasting style by Mike – precise body form and arrangement and highly detailed skin tone. You can almost see how the body of Jesus could be taken out to be a sculpture, whilst the balance of the painting could only ever be a painting. It is likely that this piece proved to be on the evolutionary path to Mike’s Pieto.
Experiments in oil on plaster for the Sistine Chapel frescos may have been the subject of Mike and Seb’s early collaboration. Ironical, as this is the very topic that was to be their undoing as friends.
Right: Study of a male upper torso with hands clasped and six studies of hands – Michelangelo
These studies, of which there are many in the exhibition, show the intensity of Mike’s pursuance of accuracy and truth in his art. He is not leaving anything to chance when it comes to the final production. How much his studies allowed him to vary his intentions is unsure. Did he always start with a master plan for each piece, or were his studies and preliminary designs permitted to cause a change in the plan?
Mike spent many years back in Florence working for the Midici house whilst Seb stayed in Rome. By the time of Mike’s return, Raphael had died a young man removing the threat to Mike’s ascendency to the top of his profession.
Left: The Visitation, 1518-1519 – Sebastiano Del Piombo
Towards the middle of Seb’s career, during the collaboration period, his style of painting seemed to take on characteristics of the defined and delicate work that Mike is known for. Here within The Visitation, one of his later works, he has gone beyond the figurative visualisation of Mike towards a subtly grand, abstracted and soulful style. He does, however, still maintain the expressive sky in the background of the work, something that for me allowed an instant recognition that the piece was the work of Seb.
Right: Section of the The last judgement, 1536-1541 – Michelangelo
With the sculptured and detailed bodies within The Last Judgement compared to The Visitation you can further see the differential stylings of the two artists. With Seb searching for less commissions and slowing down his painting career Mike was at the top of his game and with this he produced one of the most significant and renowned fresco paintings in the world. He had been fighting his whole career for the art work that would cause a stir and get his name firmly secured within the art history bible with the Sistine chapel commission he had finally proven his worth. Although some people did believe that Raphael had painted the chapel, most definitely to Mike’s annoyance.
Mike and Seb’s friendship was put under strain when Seb ordered that the yet to be painted parts of the Sistine Chapel ceiling be prepared with an oil-paint base coat before Mike returned to Rome to complete the task. Mike did not like working in oils and so ordered those areas painted in oil to be stripped and repaired in order that he could complete the work in his establish fresco style with water and egg-based paints on daily plaster applications.
Whilst Mike was away in Florence, working intensely and relentlessly as usual, Seb had taken up favour with the Pope’s court, where he became a salaried advisor. Whether this role was so demanding that Seb reduced his painting output, or he became lazy with a fat guaranteed salary is not known. When Mike returned to Rome he quickly formed the later opinion, which coupled with the Chapel ceiling incident was the undoing of their friendship.
Seb died some 18 years before Mike. Seb had not produced much of note, and very little that was completed in the final 15 or so years of his life. Mike went from strength to strength in painting, sculpture, architecture, poetry and letters up to his death in 1564 at the age of 83. After Seb’s passing and before his own, Mike did not acknowledge any good to have come from his collaboration with Seb. Indeed, Mike publicly scathed Seb, his work and of what he had become in his later life. Whether this attitude reveals evidence that Mike had only ever used Seb to further Mike’s own career is open for debate.
This exhibition, on at the National Gallery until June 25th, 2017 seeks to explore the coming together of Mike and Seb, their collaborative output, and the breakdown of their friendship. Overall, the curators have achieved their aim, although Mike’s work out ways Seb’s. We found one or two of the rooms to have odd exhibit numbering with no clear start point if following the very well put together exhibition guide in strict numeric order. Also, the lighting was a little off on some pieces creating glare or reflection that was difficult to overcome by vantage point selection.
Thank you for reading!