• Two artists, one aim

    Five centuries ago, at the height of the cultural transformation that was the Renaissance, an ambitious 26-year-old painter from Venice trained in that city’s tradition of rich colours and improvisational composition arrived in Rome seeking commissions from the church, the dominant patron of the age. There he met another artist, ten years his senior, from Florence, who had already made his name through carefully-planned sculpture and pictures based on extensive drawings. When the two encountered an exceptionally talented man from Urbino who threatened to eclipse them both, they joined forces in an unprecedented collaborative partnership that was to last for twenty five years and is absorbingly recreated for the National Gallery’s current exhibition Michelangelo & Sebastiano.

    Michelangelo Buonarroti was the initiator of the alliance, driven we are told not by any altruistic desire to enhance the career of Sebastiano Luciani but rather as a result of his bitter hatred of Raphael Sanzio, whom critics felt the better all-round artist. Michelangelo and Raphael were hard at work on the Vatican’s extensive decorative programme – Raphael had finished his acclaimed fresco in the library, Michelangelo was still labouring over the Sistine Chapel ceiling – when Sebastiano arrived in Rome. It was then that the joint attack on the precociously talented Raphael took shape.

    Michelangelo began to supply Sebastiano with sketches and drawings that the latter could work up, overlaying the former’s precise poses and compositional formality with sumptuous colour and atmosphere. The hope, in Michaelangelo’s mind, was that the finished composite would address a perceived gap in his skills and trump anything Raphael could offer.

    Sebastiano, too, grew to dislike Raphael, criticising his actions and encouraging Michelangelo to inform on him to the authorities for his lavish expenses. The younger painter was also, it is clear, besotted with Michelangelo, almost certainly painting his portrait over the rejected effort of a rival, begging him at one stage to seek new commissions for himself and expressing his feelings of betrayal when discovering Michelangelo had agreed to this yet appeared not to take it seriously.

    The pair worked together on large altarpieces, chapels and tryptychs, with Michelangelo’s preparatory drawings pushing Sebastiano toward a more considered yet dynamic form for the final image. Sebastiano learned to combine the best of the Venetian and Florentine schools, mixing for example the softness of his home town with the sharp underpinnings of Florence, whilst his own drawings also improved. Michelangelo, in turn, adopted something of his follower’s style, the better for the younger man to follow the older but also recognising its inherent value.

    Michelangelo continued to astonish with his own works, striving to better his already powerful and originall approach to sculpture in particular. Thus when forced to abandon one life-size statue of the risen Christ after discovery of a hidden flaw in a crucial spot in the marble, Michelangelo not only returned to the same subject but contrived to better its pose.

    Ultimately the two artists fell out, victims perhaps of the ultra-competitive milieu of the Papal court. Michelangelo outlived his sometime partner by almost two decades, and it is Michelangelo of course that the world now remembers, despite the obvious debt he owes to his friend, colleague and correspondent for at least a part of that acclaim.

    The exhibition sets out all of the above and much more in a sequence of rooms that is utterly refreshing in its innovation, variety and content. Far, far more than a simple, repetitive display of paintings hung on walls, each is arranged differently, like a journey, with unexpected treasures around every corner. Each also holds items that cover one particular aspect of the story. Though not strictly chronological, the broad arc of the allying of Michelangelo and Sebastiano is nevertheless also conveyed. And, neatly, the rooms also cover the three general periods in the life of the person they mostly depicted – Christ and his birth, crucifixion and resurrection.

    Vitally, the works are shown in many ways. Drawings and sketches, finished and unfinished canvasses, actual sculpture and plaster casts, cartoons squared and pricked for pouncing; all can be seen. Both sides of many of the drawings are visible, a frustratingly rare thing that serves to reveal exactly twice as much art since paper was expensive and Michelangelo especially is well known for using every corner of every sheet as a tool. Indeed, one of his drawings is marked by something so prosaic and recognisable that one almost misses it – the distinctive ring left by the base of a wet mug or glass that has at one time been left standing on the page. Wonderfully, this decision to show so much more than usual is extended to the rear of one large oil – by Sebastiano, but to drawings by Michelangelo – on panel, unveiling rough sketches on the bare wood that confirm the piece was being made in parallel with Michelangelo’s efforts in the Sistine Chapel.

    Works once split have been reunited; others are represented by later periods’ interpretations. An architecturally-inspired wooden frame has been made afresh for one altarpiece yet incorporating fragments of genuine 16th century material; a range of digital technologies has been used elsewhere by the noted Factum Arte group to present a slightly reduced but accurate reproduction of an entire apsidal chapel.

    This wealth of materials, purposes, copies and reconstructions yields an astonishingly immersive insight into the times and methods of these artists, in a rich layering of experiences. Its focus on the why and the how, on the way these works emerged, has much of Neil Macgregor’s ground-breaking and much-missed ‘Making and Meaning’ series at the gallery at its heart.

    Fittingly, perhaps, the third man in this sometimes corrosive triangle, Raphael, appears not at all, though oddly this increases his presence. This is because the exhibition is immeasurably enhanced by the showing of letters written by both Michelangelo and Sebastiano, through which the pall that Raphael cast on the two men’s friendship can be detected. Alternately catty, pleading and analytical, they show just how powerful his influence was. The documents themselves are extraordinary, not least because a couple represent original letter and related reply, an astonishing thing to have been preserved for half a millennium.

    This exhibition is an exemplar of its type. It should not be missed.

    Michelangelo & Sebastiano: The Credit Suisse Exhibition continues at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 25 June.

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Chris Rogers writer on architecture and visual culture

Click blog images to expand; pre-Sept 2011 posts here

final cover

Chris's third book reveals the hidden gems and well-known landmarks of London's rich built history, from shops that survived the Great Fire to the 2012 Olympic village's Deconstructivism, from Royal palaces to pleasure palaces, and from extravagent banks to Modernist apartments. Chris appeared on London Live to chat with presenter Reya El Salahi about the book; click on the still below. Follow the book's Facebook page for more events and news.

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