The current Michelangelo & Sebastiano show at the National Gallery here in London is very much the kind of exhibition that one feels a great institution ought to be doing: spaciously presented, tirelessly scholarly, you couldn’t wish for a better introduction to these major names in Italian Renaissance art. And it’s particularly nice to escape from the claustrophobia of the basement spaces in the new wing, where the NG usually presents its major offerings.
If this introduction to the event sounds faintly grudging, I’m afraid that accurately reflects the feelings the show eventually aroused in me. The truth, however, is that these reactions are inevitable, given what is actually on view. Yet, at the same time what is on view accurately represents the possibilities – or in this case the lack of them – when even the grandest of institutions tries to do a show of this kind.
As for poor Sebastiano del Piombo, the longer one spends in the show, the more thoroughly he tends to get blotted out
Michelangelo is universally acknowledged as being one of the three greatest names in Italian High Renaissance Art – Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael. Which, in turn, is acknowledged as representing one of the highest points of European achievement in the visual arts. His collaborator featured here, the Venetian painter Sebastiano de Piombo, originally a pupil of the magical but unprolific Giorgione, occupies a lower, but only slightly lower, place in the accepted hierarchy. Michelangelo allied himself to this younger colleague in order to fend off the increasing success and popularity of Raphael, newly arrived in Rome from Umbria, and receiving ambitious commissions from the Papacy. All to this the fact that, while we now recognise the early decades of the 16th century as a great age for art, they were also a time of warfare and disruption in Italy. Rome, the seat of the Papacy, and the arena for the artistic rivalry between Michelangelo and Raphael suffered grievously from the bloody sack of Rome in 1527. Ambitious artistic projects remained unfinished or were not finished in the form originally envisaged. Michelangelo’s botched design for the tomb of Pope Julius II supplies a case in point.
The National Gallery has the good fortune to possess two early, unfinished paintings on panel by Michelangelo, and the Royal Academy owns the so-called Taddei Tondo, a circular marble relief, also apparently unfinished, showing the Virgin and Child with the Infant St John. These items provide the exhibition with a solid start. Things soon get more complicated.
The cover illustration for the catalogue of the exhibition is the large altarpiece showing a Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, dated c. 1512-16, borrowed from the Museo Civico, Viterbo, and presented here as being by Sebastiano ‘after partial designs by Michelangelo’. Yes, in its own way it is indeed loomingly impressive. It is also, to put it bluntly, a bit of an awkward brute. The composition takes the form of an inverted T. The body of Christ lies horizontally in the foreground. It is unconvincing anatomically – the straggling legs of the corpse are disarticulated from the hips. Above Christ sits the figure of the Virgin, a masculinised giant with massive lower legs and knees and a head that seems much more male than female.
Many of these characteristics are repeated, though in much more acceptable guise, in one of Michelangelo’s most famous works, the Pieta of 1475-1500, made for St Peter’s in Rome, where it still resides. It is represented here by a plaster cast, a later replica of a cast originally made in 1930. It shows the sculpture before the damage done to the original by a crazed Hungarian called Laszlo Toth, who attacked it with a hammer. The cast, presented with no fuss, spaciously installed and evenly lit. somehow impresses as much or more than the battered (if now devotedly restored) original.
As the exhibition proceeds, Michelangelo is represented by two other large-scale sculptures, both representing the Risen Christ, nude, holding a cross that is unconvincingly small in scale in relation to His figure. One of these sculptures rediscovered less than twenty years ago is an original, left unfinished because of a flaw in the marble that put a black streak down Christ’s face. It was later bodged to completion by an unknown 17th-century hand. The other version, slightly smaller and more elegantly sinuous, is seen here in a late 19th-century plaster cast lent by the Statens Museum for Kunst in Copenhagen, made from the original in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva in Rome. If memory serves, the original now wears an obtrusive metal loincloth, though one less voluminous than one it was accoutred with in the late 19th century.
Wikipedia records that Sebastiano del Piombo said of this sculpture that ‘the knees alone were more worthy than the whole of Rome’. Wikipedia also notes that ‘Christ’s sexual organs are exposed in order to show that his sexuality is uncorrupted by lust and completely controlled by his will so that in his resurrected body he shows his triumph over both sin and death.’
Well. OK in a grandee museum, I suppose, but still – even today – not OK in a church. So better to see it as the artist intended.
As for poor Sebastiano del Piombo, the longer one spends in the show, the more thoroughly he tends to get blotted out. Michelangelo in plaster casts is more convincing than Sebastiano in the original.
Words: Edward Lucie-Smith © Artlyst 2017
Michelangelo & Sebastiano National Gallery London 15 March – 25 June 2017