Michaelangelo & Sebastiano at the National Gallery

@NationalGallery until 25 June 2017 you can explore the relationship between two great Italian masters, Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo.

The contention of the Gallery is that this was an extraordinary friendship and collaboration in competitive times, and with Michelangelo who was famously prickly, and that it resulted in art that would not have been created by the men working completely alone.

To explore that argument fully, you need to be prepared to study sketches and read letters and consider copies and reproductions of art, or unfinished pieces, rather than see rooms full of finished masterpieces.  Now, it depends on how you feel about your art and how likely it is that you will ever go to Italy to see the originals whether you will enjoy this and feel it worth your while.

The North Galleries, to the back of the original building, are mainly rectangular rooms, arranged with compare and contrast work between the two artists or letters and sketches relating to the large work.  If you are following the booklet, you will find that in some rooms, you go clockwise and others you go anti clockwise or you start at the far end of the case in the middle.  It’s pretty confusing and difficult to navigate.

Room 1 contains work from before they met. The contrasts are Sebastiano’s bright colours and luxuriousness of the Venetian school and his more spontaneous approach, drawing and colouring at the same time.  In Michelangelo’s unfinished piece you can see his more methodical approach of planning, drawing, undercoat then finish.

In the second room, you encounter the first key piece, Michelangelo’s Pietà for S. Francesco in Viterbo.  Except that you don’t.  What you encounter is a cast of that sculpture.  I thought it was still wonderful to see but many people, including my partner, were unimpressed because the cast doesn’t have the same properties as the marble.

However, you can see the differences between it and Sebastiano’s painting of the same subject.  Michelangelo’s sculpture is realistic; the drapery looks like cloth and the body of Christ is heavy in Mary’s lap.  (I did think that the body of Christ was too small relative to Mary, though.)  Sebastiano’s painting is very large and I thought the depictions of people were not at all realistic.  In particular, it showed a very masculine looking Mary, at least in the body and the face.  I assume this is because they were not able to use female models but it did spoil the piece for me.  I thought the moon and the landscape in this picture was the best thing about it. By the way, for those who do not know, a Pietà is a portrayal of the Virgin Mary mourning the crucified Christ.

In Room 3 the exhibition reunites three altarpieces for the first time in 500 years.  I liked that, even if one is a copy.  Then there is The Raising of Lazarus, painted for the Cathedral of Narbonne in France, and a piece you can see normally in the National Gallery Collection.  Again, I like the landscape more than anything else about it.  There are a lot of letters in this room.  The hand writing is so neat!  I did wonder whether the letter was actually written by the artist or by a scribe or secretary.  There is also a rather lovely painting of the Holy Family, in a domestic setting.

Room 4 is where you’ll find the vaunted, exceptional loan of Michelangelo’s The Risen Christ (1514–15) from the Church of S. Vincenzo Martire in Bassano Romano, Italy.  It is in marble but was finished by another artist.  I actually preferred the other Risen Christ who seemed stronger and more lifelike, more animated with emotion, even though it is a cast again.

The other much publicised element of the exhibition is in Room 5: a “cutting-edge recreation” of the Borgherini Chapel in S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome.  Sebastiano decorated this to partial designs by Michelangelo so it is a clear example of their collaboration.  The Gallery has used 3D printing as well as standard construction methods to build the alcove.  I found this to be an impressive piece to see, looking at the perspective and how it changes as you move around.  I think the sweet spot to see the whole thing is slightly inside the rope, in the centre, which is a shame.  Anyway, this was the highlight of the exhibition for me.

Also in Room 5 is a portrait of Michelangelo by Sebastiano.  The woollen material and fur collar are exquisite.  Originally, this canvass or board, I forget which, held a Madonna and Child by one of Michelangelo’s rivals, Sato.  The patron it was painted for didn’t like it so didn’t want it and there would seem sweet revenge to Michelangelo to have his portrait painting out his rival’s the work like this.  How nasty they all were with one another!  And, how many other wonderful pieces of art, possibly ahead of their time, have been deleted because someone didn’t like them and had the power to destroy them?

In the final room is Sebastiano’s Visitation, painted at the same time as the Lazarus.  It shows the Virgin Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, dressed in bright clothing from Sebastiano’s Venetian roots.  I liked this but I actually liked the sketch of the two women better.  It had more life.  The younger woman’s face is smooth and lacking character – based on a boy, perhaps – while Elizabeth’s is much more realistic and full of character.

This was something I noticed throughout the exhibition.  In general, I found the art didn’t move me or speak to me even though it is representative of grand masters and praised by our culture.  I found the images of Mary were smooth and stylised.  However, I did like the glimpses of landscapes on many of the paintings and the images of the older people: Joseph in the picture of the Holy Family and Elizabeth, particularly in the studies for the Visitation, were full of character and compelling.

I came out, having not put in the work to read all the letters and study all the sketches, not being convinced of the main contention but knowing a little bit more about Sebastiano and having enjoyed seeing some key pieces, especially the recreation of the Borgherini Chapel, which really appealed to me.  I was, therefore, glad that I’d gone but it wouldn’t be the first choice of things to see if I had limited time.

As always, there is a lot of material on the website for you to study at your leisure.  Find links to it here.

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