Well what a treat is in store for you at the moment in the National Gallery. The exhibition ‘Michelangelo and Sebastiano’ needs no explanatory by-line to entice viewers. It boldly claims to exhibit works by one of the most famous artists in history, one of Italy’s Crown Jewels, despite the ‘minor’ inconvenience that his most famous stuff is, you know, in Italy.
When you think of Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel in Rome or the beautiful David in Florence probably come to mind. You don’t necessarily think “oh yeah, he was bffs with that guy Sebastiano del Piombo” – am I right? This exhibition explores just that – a friendship between the two artists that is probably not much known outside the walls of an Art History library.
Before I go on, let me introduce both men.
Michelangelo: Moody, proud (not in the dreamy Mr Darcy kind of way) and deeply religious. This genius artist was rather anti-social and had a reputation for working alone. His career was mainly in Florence (where he trained) and Rome. He considered himself more a sculptor than a painter (it is perhaps a little ironic that he is most widely remembered today for the painted ceiling in the Sistine Chapel).
Sebastiano del Piombo: A Venetian painter 10 years Michelangelo’s junior. Being trained in Venice, he had a very different artistic upbringing to Michelangelo. He trained under Giorgione, was friends with Titian and became a skilled oil painter. His work is characterised by a bold and bright use of colours combined with an organic and lyrical atmosphere i.e. his work favours subtlety and ‘softness’ as opposed to the harsh, angular dramatics of Michelangelo. (Please believe me when I say this description is not taken from the label of a wine bottle).
Basically – the two artists were very different. Yet according to the NG, these men, the most unlikely of friends, complimented and aided each other’s artistic career.
You begin the exhibition in 1511, the year Sebastiano first met Michelangelo in Rome when he was still working on the Sistine Chapel. The exhibition is arranged thematically and addresses the artists’ 25 years of friendship as well as the political and religious turbulence of the first half of the 1500s. The whole aim is to show how the two worked together whilst also highlighting their own distinct styles.
The exhibition works particularly well since it is not in the Sainsbury wing but uses a selection of rooms from the main building of the gallery. This means there’s actually enough space and light to enjoy the works on display.
The sight lines (where you look through the doorway from one room to another) are fantastic and give you a flavour of what treasures are in the following rooms. When you step into room 1, for example, straight ahead you see M’s Entombment through the door to room 2, together with the tantalising glimpse of a sculpture. Once you have settled and enjoyed room 1, you discover that room 2 in fact holds a cast of Michelangelo’s Pieta, on loan from The Vatican.
Let’s just pause here for a sec.
[Draws breath, sighs]
Let us continue.
I can hear you saying… ‘err, a cast. What is so impressive about a cast?’ Well, dear reader, many things. The original Pieta rests in St Peter’s in Rome (you know, HQ of the Catholic Church) and is highly unlikely ever to leave its holy domain. It’s located some metres back and behind glass following an unfortunate act of vandalism in the 70s. Having the cast to hand, however, has its perks… whilst it’s not the ‘real thing’, you can actually get close to it.
With the cast, you can see the sculpture’s detail. You can walk around it, crouch down by it, step back from it. You can see where M signed the Virgin’s mantle after he overheard someone questioning the artistry. You can see the incredibly complex folds of drapery contrasting against the glowing, polished body of Christ. You are touched by the silent despair on the young Virgin’s face as she effortlessly supports her full-grown dead son as if he’s still a babe. I told you this exhibition is a treat – and this is only Room 2.
Having satisfied your Michelangelo fix with the cast, you stumble into room 3 where you are met with the huge Raising of Lazarus by none other than Sebastiano del Piombo. This gargantuan painting, one of the first bought by the NG in the 1800s, sits within an impressive new frame entirely based on, and in part made from, 16th century elements.
This room, called Defining the Roman Style, for me, truly revealed the friendship between the two artists. There are several letters from both M and S addressing each other in terms of endearment. Sebastiano even made Michelangelo a sort of godfather to his first child by referring to the artist as ‘compare’ (sounds like com-par-ray) in his writing. There are drawings scattered around the room which demonstrate how the two artists shared designs for large compositions, some of which hang on the walls around you.
In room 4 you are met with a striking comparison of two versions of The Risen Christ both by Michelangelo. It is wonderful to have these two sculptures, free-standing, in the same room to compare and contrast. One is a cast from Copenhagen and the other is the original, a loan from the Church of San Vincenzo, quite stunning. You can see how M reimagined the same subject and made the figure of Christ far more dynamic. The drawings displayed in the same room by both M and S show their constant re-working of the same subject. As the two explored the subject on paper, M steps it up and ‘sketches’ in sculpture, leaving his two ideas for the figure quite literally set in stone.
In the following room, you discover Sebastiano’s Borgherini chapel from San Pietro in Montorio (in Italy… where else?). This reconstruction is impressive and it is the cherry on the Renaissance Artist cake. It is particularly interesting as you view Michelangelo’s drawings of the Flagellation on the walls nearby and you can see how Sebastiano has echoed his Michelangelo in his painting.
This exhibition offers something new to digest in each room. We are not dragged through painting after painting but met with a varied selection of material which illustrates well the relationship between the two artists. Whilst some have commented that it is clear who the stronger artist of the two is, I feel that this slightly misses the point. It is fascinating to see The Great Michelangelo’s interactions with his junior artist and friend Sebastiano. It makes the men more human, more tangible. The letters and drawings are a particular highlight and offer a private view into the lives of these artist, their friendship and their careers.
So with that, it seems fitting that I finish by saying that this isn’t just any exhibition, it truly is… an M and S exhibition.
‘Michelangelo and Sebastiano’ is on at the National Gallery, London until 25th June 2017.