Michelangelo and Sebastiano

A couple of weeks ago, thanks to a very good friend, I was lucky enough to attend the Member’s Preview Day of the National Gallery’s latest exhibition: The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano. Rather than merely displaying examples of each artists’ masterpieces, the gallery has focused on and emphasised the friendship and collaboration between the two Italians. With in-depth information accompanying each work of art, an extraordinary story is told.

It goes without saying that Michelangelo is the more famous of the two – his name is well known regardless of whether people are able to bring his paintings or sculptures to mind. Sebastiano, on the other hand, is probably only heard of by those in the know – the artistically educated.

Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475-1564) was a man of many talents and highly influential to the Renaissance era. Living primarily in Florence, he was respected for his sculpting, painting, architecture, draughtsmanship and poems, although is mostly remembered for the former two. Due to his exceptionally long life, Michelangelo’s career spanned more than 70 years, and as a result, was the leading figure in Italian art.

Art historians are exceptionally lucky, particularly regarding the lack of preservation methods of the time, that so much is known about Michelangelo. Not only have innumerable artworks survived, a multitude of written correspondence is also still in existence, providing a great insight into his career and personal attributes.

Michelangelo’s first major piece of work is arguably David (1501-4, Accademia, Florence) – a larger than life statue sculpted from marble and erected outside the Palazzo Vecchio. This statue has since become a symbol of Florence and Florentine art. Michelangelo could have had many other equally significant works during his time in Florence, however a great number of his commissions remain unfinished, largely in part to summons to Rome from Pope Julius II – something that occurred with later Popes, too.

It was Pope Julius II who commissioned one of Michelangelo’s most significant achievements: the frescoing of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12). It can be surmised from letters and so forth, that Michelangelo was rather reluctant to take on this project, since he viewed himself primarily a sculptor. The finished painting shows representations of biblical characters, particularly those found in the book of Genesis, as well as the most important figure, Jesus Christ.

This brief account of Michelangelo’s life is typical of art books and encyclopaedias, but fails to mention the significance of his unaccounted for friend.

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547) was a Venetian painter, although worked predominately in Rome, where he incidentally met Michelangelo and formed a strong friendship and professional relationship. It was through this connection that Sebastiano became known, developed his painting style, and picked up commissions as a result.

Although Sebastiano owes Michelangelo for a large part of his success, his early works prove that he already had an exceptional gift. His impressive painterly skills can be observed in Judith (or Salome?) (1510, National Gallery, London) in which he expressively demonstrates the character’s beauty.

Sebastiano may have been overshadowed by the great Michelangelo, however he was recognised for his portrait artistry, a skill that supposedly had no rival. Sebastiano painted portraits of a number of significant figures, including Pope Clement VII.

Initially, Michelangelo sought out Sebastiano with the intention of making his rival, Raphael, jealous. By providing Sebastiano with drawings and designs to use as starting points, Sebastiano was constrained to Michelangelo’s particular style and method.

As you walk around the exhibition, it is almost impossible to distinguish between the two painters. Sebastiano perfectly replicates Michelangelo’s distinctive approach to painting, causing him to rise in popularity and receive just as many commissions as his more experienced contemporary.

Michelangelo and Sebastiano became favoured artists of many noteworthy individuals, including various popes. As a consequence, other up and coming artists began to mimic the method, resulting in Michelangelo’s original approach being adopted as the new Roman style of painting – something that continued long after their deaths.

Wandering the gallery rooms of the exhibition, it is highly noticeable that the two painters were very keen on religious scenes, particularly the death and resurrection of Jesus. This will come as no surprise to historians due to the fact the Catholic Church dominated over most of Western Europe during the 1500s. Also, the demand for paintings would have come from those who could afford them – for example, the Pope – and the majority of commissions were requested to decorate churches and chapels.

As the pair’s careers progressed, they were often separated. Michelangelo was called to Florence whilst Sebastiano remained in Rome, however they did not let this hinder their partnership. As evidenced within the exhibition, Michelangelo and Sebastiano kept in touch through letters. These reveal the intricacies of both their friendship and professional relationship, often updating one another on the progress of their current commissions.

Unfortunately, Michelangelo and Sebastiano’s relationship was not to remain amicable for the entirety of their lives. Michelangelo continued painting until his death, whereas Sebastiano began to wind down in his old age – something that Michelangelo deemed as laziness. After Sebastiano’s death, his so-called friend made malicious comments about him, thus suggesting their friendship may not have been quite as it appeared.

The National Gallery have done a fantastic job at curating their latest exhibition. Although the most famous artworks could not be displayed (David and Sistine Chapel, for instance), the paintings, drawings and sculptures on display exude a phenomenal sense of awe and intrigue. The scale of some of the paintings are quite remarkable, and go to show the talent both Michelangelo and Sebastiano had.

The exhibition continues until 25th June 2017, so there is plenty of time for Londoners to visit these unforgettable artworks, and, as a bonus, learn about the artists themselves.