Curator’s Introduction | The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano | National Gallery


Hello and welcome to the National Gallery and this introduction to the
Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition. My name is Matthias Wivel. I’m the curator of 16th century
Italian paintings here at the Gallery and the curator of this exhibition. Thank you for coming,
it’s great to see you. And it’s great also to see, or not see,
our online viewers. This is our first live broadcast event and welcome to all of you too. The exhibition concerns these two fellows, Michelangelo on the left, in a portrait probably painted by
Sebastiano, which is in the exhibition, in the late teens,
when their friendship was at its height, and Sebastiano del Piombo, in a woodcut engraving,
the only portrait we have of him, from Vasari’s ‘Lives of the Artists’
from the 1550s. You see him here in his monk’s outfit,
because he was made a Capuchin monk when he was given the Order of the Piombo
by Clement VII in 1531. That’s really why he’s called
Sebastiano del Piombo, it’s a nickname referring
to this leaden seal with which he would stamp
documents from the apostolic chamber. It was a signature given to him as
a reward by the Pope much later in life. Unfortunately,
it’s the only image we have of him, so it’s not
chronologically appropriate here. This is an exhibition not so much about comparing the genius of the two artists
or setting up a competition with them, but more an exhibition that deals with
the extraordinary relationship they had, creative relationship and friendship, and the works of art that came out of it, and also the meeting
of the two traditions. Michelangelo was from Florence, he was schooled in
the Florentine way of working and epitomised it in many ways, and Sebastiano, who came from Venice, a very different tradition, as one of the great painters
of his generation, the same generation that begat Titian. So it’s really about
two traditions meeting, two very different individuals
with different artistic sensibilities, who create some incredible works
on their own, and obviously, in Michelangelo’s case, there’s
a much bigger verve around all of this, but Sebastiano too, who benefitted
a lot from this relationship, developed a very original approach
to painting and to his subject matter. The first thing you see
as you enter in the exhibition is this extraordinary
relief carving by Michelangelo, which is usually at the Royal Academy, which has been lent extraordinarily
to the exhibition, and I would encourage all of you who visit
the exhibition to look at it up close. It’s really fantastic to see
the subtlety of the carving, the changes of texturing
that Michelangelo has left with it. And although it’s unfinished, it’s clearly part of his aesthetic
of different levels of finish, and it’s just marvellous. This relief also introduces us
to the other important character of the exhibition, which is Christ,
you see the Christ Child here. You meet him as a child
as you come into the exhibition, and here he’s with his mother
and John the Baptist comes up, he’s on the left, he’s also a child, and he hands Christ a bird,
it’s probably a goldfinch, the goldfinch is symbolic
of Christ’s Passion and Death. The Christ Child then squirms,
startled at this fluttering bird, but then he turns his head and looks back. And this is the moment
where he recognises his fate, he’s going to die on the cross
for our sins. So it’s a very poignant moment and very
typical of Michelangelo to include that. You’ll see his face is not
psychologically individualised, it’s very much in the classical tradition
of Greek sculpture with a sort of, not really with an expression. The expression is in the body
and that’s really what Michelangelo does. He puts a lot of expression,
emotion, spiritual engagement into his articulation of the human body and that’s his thing and that’s what
he masters more than anybody. This picture then is juxtaposed
in the exhibition with this painting, which comes from
the National Gallery’s own collection. It’s a painting from the 1510s,
it’s dated 1517, never mind that date down there,
it’s wrong. So this is after Sebastiano
has met Michelangelo and it shows, if you look at
the Christ Child and the two, but really the monumentality of form,
also the Virgin, you see how Sebastiano has assimilated
Michelangelo’s approach to form. Sebastiano probably didn’t know
the relief carving, but he knew Michelangelo’s way
of drawing the figure and here he shows that he’s understood it
as well as anyone could. This relief sums up the narrative
of the whole exhibition. We see Michelangelo’s
sculptural carving, his figures, and we see Sebastiano lending them
a deeply saturated, nuanced colour in the Venetian manner, as you see here. Sebastiano came from Venice and this is one of his
great Venetian works, unfinished. It’s in the exhibition
and you see it’s kind of blurry because it’s not finished,
it’s The Judgement of Solomon. Solomon sits in judgement
over the two women… Let’s see if this works. It doesn’t really seem to. Right and left, the two women, and it’s a maternal dispute
over the maternity to a child. You don’t see the children,
they’re not painted. But it’s the episode,
it’s the moment where Solomon orders his executioner on the right, who doesn’t have a sword,
it’s not finished, to cleave the living child in half. There’s a dead child and a living child. Who is the mother of the living child? So the mother,
probably the woman on the right, but might be on the left, offers to give the child
to the other one to save it. And that’s the moment you see here. What’s really interesting
in terms of understanding Sebastiano’s technique and how
it differs from Michelangelo’s, you can really see that in this painting, it’s that there’s something underneath,
you see there’s a face there in the shoulder of the executioner. That’s the earlier iteration of
the executioner, who’s entirely different. You see him, it’s that section
over there on the right, so it’s sort of the back and shoulder
of the executioner as he is now, and you can see some lines
behind the executioner too. And in the infrared, you can see that there’s
a lot of underdrawing here of an earlier composition,
including a man on horseback and then the executioner
who faced front… I just wish this worked, but anyway. He’s holding the child there and facing front, he’s under… I’ll just show you. I mean, because it’s quite difficult
to look at an infrared, but you see this figure here, and his hand is coming down,
the child would have been here. So, Sebastiano is somebody who improvises,
who works and changes as he’s working, who alternates between drawing
and painting when he’s working. This is a detail of the dead child,
which would have been the emotional crux, right in front and it’s central,
just under Solomon. This is an amazingly
foreshortened child here, we see the genitals here,
it’s a real baby. It really shows the power
of his draftsmanship. Michelangelo, on the other hand, and this is one of the important
juxtapositions early in the exhibition, this is a very early painting
by Michelangelo, painted probably in Florence, sometimes it’s said to be in Rome,
but anyway early, it’s in the National Gallery’s collection, also unfinished, and you see
this is very, very different. Everything is planned,
the lines on the left, which are, you see these lines here,
they’re sort of mechanical, they’re stiff. And those lines are
the result of a transfer from a cartoon or
another full-scale drawing, transferred onto the panel
before painting commenced. Everything is planned out in advance. Because everything’s
planned out in advance, he can paint each section as he wants to and finish sections entirely
before starting on others. So there’s a very different method. These two methods meet in Sebastiano’s
and Michelangelo’s joint work. Later they would go on to be consolidated in the critical theory as disegno
and colorito, design and colouring, and one was associated with Florence,
the other was associated with Venice. But that’s really
kind of a false dichotomy, and I hope the exhibition shows that,
that it’s more complicated than that, but there’s something to it, obviously. So, the two meet in Rome in 1511. Sebastiano comes there in August of 1511 in the train of a very wealthy banker,
Agostino Chigi, and Michelangelo’s already there, he’s been there since 1505,
working for Julius II, the Pope. And this is a very auspicious moment, the moment of the greatest opening,
probably in the history of art, the greatest art opening,
it’s the opening of this, the Sistine Chapel ceiling. It’s not finished yet,
it’s two thirds finished. And there’s been a lull in activity on it
because the Pope has been away. But it’s finally unveiled, the two thirds,
and it of course causes a sensation, it’s so full of invention, of figures that people
had never seen before, it becomes a repository for artists for centuries after that,
for ideas. So, a great sensation. The other thing that is opened is this, the Stanza della Segnatura
in the papal apartments, just upstairs, by Raphael, a slightly younger
but contemporary of Sebastiano, ten years younger than Michelangelo,
he’s been in Rome since 1508, and has quickly muscled in on this
commission, the papal apartments, they’ve been painting them
in conjunction with each other, or in competition with each other,
and they’re unveiled at the same time. This is the decoration that has
the famous School of Athens, you see there on the right. And inevitably they’re compared, it’s a competition,
it’s a competition for mastery of art. And while people are incredibly impressed
with Michelangelo’s command of figure and the three-dimensionality
of his figures, they think his colouring,
as you see on the left, is very harsh, very old-fashioned, it’s not naturalistic, it doesn’t look like colour
as you see it in real life. Whereas Raphael,
this is not a fantastic slide, Raphael has a much greater nuance
in his colouring. It’s much closer to life. So the reaction is a bit that Raphael
can do anything Michelangelo can do, but he colours better. This really bothers
the paranoid Michelangelo, who feels that Raphael
is muscling in on his territory and getting the great commissions. And also he happens
to be younger, more handsome, more charming, just like, really annoying. So Michelangelo feels bothered by this. That is what leads him
to his alliance with Sebastiano. This is their first work, produced between 1512 and 1516,
we don’t know exactly when. It’s one of the centrepieces
of the exhibition, arguably their great masterwork, the Pietà, it’s the Virgin
mourning the Dead Christ. He’s lying in front of her,
isolated from her, and she sits there in the night. The idea of this alliance between
Michelangelo and Sebastiano, which starts with this painting, is that Michelangelo provides Sebastiano
with drawings that he then paints. So Michelangelo has designed
the two figures, Sebastiano has transferred them
onto the panel and painted them, and then painted
the landscape around them. Landscape is not something
Michelangelo was interested in, so it’s one thing Sebastiano
really added to the mix. But you also see the sensuality
of the body of Christ here, who’s placed in front of us
as if on the altar. When taking Eucharist, when symbolically
eating the body of Christ, the worshippers would look
at this incredibly sensual body of Christ, you want to touch it. The tactility and the beauty of it
is really striking and it’s testament
to Sebastiano’s skill at modelling and bringing out the qualities
of this pallid, dead flesh and still making it attractive. The modelling comes from Michelangelo,
the actual modelling of the figure. Then there’s, of course,
this very muscular Virgin. It’s based on Michelangelo’s
breakthrough sculpture, which was in the Basilica of St Peter’s, which is included in the exhibition
as a plaster cast, obviously the original
would never leave St Peter’s. And it’s based on that, but where in the first Pietà,
the sculptural Pietà, Christ is cradled by Mary
in this very tender moment, in this they’re isolated, and it accentuates her grief, I think,
and the fact that she’s alone. This, I think more than anything, there’s lots
of theological subtext to this, but what’s really important is that
this is a mother with her dead son, and she’s alone and has to forge on, and this, I think, is what makes it
so incredibly moving. What people were really amazed by
when they saw this painting was not so much Michelangelo’s figures,
because after all they had, I’ll just show you, we also have
the wonderful drawing here, just to show you how he worked up part of an idea of the figure,
the hands and the torso of the figure, and on the other side is a study for one
of the nude figures in the Sistine Chapel, so it’s very closely connected to
the Sistine Chapel ceiling, all of this. But what people were really amazed
by was this landscape, not so much Michelangelo’s figures
but this landscape, nobody had seen anything like it,
this is the reason for their alliance. It’s that we have an artist
who comes in from Venice with the most sophisticated,
cutting-edge oil technique that nobody has seen in Rome before and really amazes people
with what he can do. This is an oil technique
developed in the circle of Giorgione, who was Sebastiano’s mentor, and Titian would, of course, make his
own in the following decades in Venice. And this was where Sebastiano
was a threat to Raphael, because Raphael was a great colourist,
great technical ability, but there are things Sebastiano could do
that he hadn’t yet learned. And that was the reason why
Michelangelo thought, “Okay, we can marginalise Raphael
by working together, my drawings, your painting,
we’ll take out Raphael.” Look at these, they’re just astonishing. It’s almost like
an impressionist painting, the brushwork is so fluid,
it’s so atmospheric. You get a sense of why
people marvelled at this. It’s the freest and most virtuosic
of passages in Sebastiano’s art. I think these are just fantastic. Raphael responded very quickly to this
and there has always been this question about why did Raphael’s style
change so much? Why did he go much more
for stronger contrasts and greater atmospheric qualities
in the Stanza di Eliodoro, next to the Stanza della Segnatura,
the one he did afterwards? I think it’s very largely
a response to Sebastiano that prompts this change in Raphael’s art. And this is his spectacular
nocturnal image of ‘The Liberation of St Peter’
in that room. So, Julius died in 1513, Julius II, and his successor was Leo X,
who was a Medici pope. He was son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, the former de facto ruler of Florence, and in his youth had known Michelangelo, Michelangelo was in the house of Lorenzo
when he was young, learning sculpture. So, Leo becomes Pope,
and he is very taken with Raphael, and really gives all the jobs to Raphael. But the chap next to him, to his left, or to the left of him, to his right,
is Giulio de’ Medici, his cousin, and his closest advisor,
the Cardinal. And he commissioned
the next great work from Sebastiano, the National Gallery’s
The Raising of Lazarus. And that picture
was commissioned alongside an equally large altarpiece by Raphael, so it put them in direct competition,
and clearly intentionally, as he wanted to get the most
out of these artists. It was for the Cathedral of Narbonne
in southern France, where Giulio had been awarded
a very important bishopric, which was part of the peace dealings
that Leo had with France. It was a very important commission. So he commissioned the two greatest
painters in Rome to work on it. And Sebastiano did this,
‘The Raising of Lazarus’ from the Gospel of John,
the moment where Christ speaks the words, “Lazarus, come forth”, and his friend who has been laying
in his tomb for four days, walks out of the tomb
and he comes back to life. Lazarus’s two sisters,
Mary and Martha, Martha and Mary, are both there too, as described in this gospel,
Mary falls to her knees and Martha recoils in awe
at what has happened. This is key to understanding this image, the different psychology
of the various characters. This is something Sebastiano does,
even more than Raphael, he psychologises the individual figures. And you see here it’s like
this teeming mass of figures and everybody has a different reaction. We have the people who
immediately recognise the miracle, St Peter and Mary. We have the disciples here discussing it,
debating it intellectually, we have people being shocked. We have people holding their noses
at the smell coming from the tomb. We have Martha’s reaction of awe. We have the attendants who act like contractors
solving a practical problem of unwrapping Lazarus. And Lazarus himself
has just drawn his first breath, life has returned to his body
and he’s like physically in shock and he looks wide-eyed at Christ. And his body is still stiff,
you see there’s a stiffness to it, which is sort of lingering rigor mortis. You see the colour also of his skin, it’s very similar to Christ in the Pietà,
he’s been dead. He’s very athletic for someone
who’s been in the tomb for four days. But this is then the way of painting,
you idealise your figures at this point. And not least Michelangelo,
who did this figure. I’ll just return to that in a minute. But just to go back
to this idea of interaction, that comes from Raphael,
Sebastiano emulating Raphael. This is the great Disputa, in the Stanza della Segnatura,
there’s this rhythmic interaction between the figures down here. Nobody can do this like Raphael,
he’s so eloquent at placing figures next to each other
and having them interact. Sebastiano is trying to do that,
have this interaction around a central event, not as successfully
as Raphael would do it, but he gets something
interesting out of it and something very generous, because we, as the viewer
and the worshippers at the time, are encouraged
to think about this miracle, just like the characters
in the actual painting. So we’re encouraged to debate it, and I think that’s
a really generous gesture and quite distinct to the way
Sebastiano works. Some discoveries we’ve made
in connection with this, so as I said,
Michelangelo designed this figure and the figures around him,
that’s always been recognised, people knew it at the time. It’s the most memorable figure by far
in the painting. I think that’s inarguable. This is really what Michelangelo
gives to Sebastiano. He gives him memorable, dynamic, figural inventions that he can use. And Sebastiano’s not able to do this, to articulate a figure
you just remember immediately, whereas Michelangelo, he’s incapable
of drawing a boring figure. He poses a figure and it’s etched
into your mind as soon as you see it, and that’s what he’s doing here
for Sebastiano. People would know
this was Michelangelo’s contribution, that was quite clear, it’s like
a cameo inserted into his painting. But that figure was then recognised, it had always been recognised
as Michelangelo since the 16th century, and it’s always been thought that
Michelangelo was part of the commission and he actually
contributed to it from the start. But that appears not to be the case. With new infrared recordings
of the painting, we’ve managed to discern
a figure underneath which corresponds to this outline sketch in a drawing in the exhibition
by Sebastiano, which is a sketch for Lazarus,
I think quite clearly. This is a very little seen drawing which
is exhibited for the first time here. And you see here it is in pink,
that figure. And it’s fully painted,
the facial features, everything’s there. That figure is most likely
Sebastiano’s own first version of Lazarus. So it was a commission
that he was dealing with. As I will explain in a minute, Michelangelo was not there,
he’d gone to Florence to work on Leo X’s order
so he was actually not there. So Sebastiano was painting this in 1517
and he painted that figure. Then Michelangelo comes back
from Florence in January of 1518 to ratify a contract for one of the Medici
projects that he’s doing in Florence. And he comes into Sebastiano’s studio, and what we imagined happened
is that he looks at it and immediately zeroes in
on the Lazarus figure and says, “This is not good enough, he gets lost
in the crowd, how about we do this?” And then he does this drawing
which is an inversion of the great creation of man
from the Sistine ceiling. You see it’s just a vertical,
so animated by touch. And Sebastiano paints that
with the arm out. So he paints that. Then they realise, while Michelangelo is
still in town, he’s there for a few weeks, they realise it doesn’t work
because it doesn’t meet the hand and it’s like awkward,
there’s an awkward fit. So he does this drawing. And then that drawing
is what ends up on the surface. So this is a new discovery which lends to Sebastiano much greater
initiative in terms of this composition, and it is really a commission for him,
and it’s done in the Venetian manner, whereas the Viterbo Pietà
was done using a cartoon, using Michelangelo’s drawings
and the cartoon transferred to the panel, this is done in the improvised manner
you saw with The Judgement of Solomon, where Sebastiano
is changing his mind a lot, he has a lot of changes
across the surface of the painting, where Michelangelo enters those premises
working with Sebastiano in a Venetian way. This is Raphael’s response,
it is hugely famous and amazing. It’s in the Vatican and can’t be lent
so it’s not in the exhibition. I wish! Raphael is showing Sebastiano,
“I can do this better”. He takes the figures,
the apostles reacting to the miracle much more harmoniously, a kneeling woman
much more three-dimensional. He has this floating Christ,
it’s the transfigured Christ, on Mount Tabor where his divinity
is confirmed by this vision with Moses and Elijah here
and the apostles see it. It’s just an astonishingly memorable
painting and it’s what Raphael does best. This is his last painting
and he died just before it was finished. And it was first exhibited
next to his bier, in his studio where he lay
after he died. So the conversation in a sense
ended at that point. It was tragic, he was only 37, which for that time wasn’t so young,
but still… He was such a powerhouse,
a creative powerhouse, that it was a shock to everybody
that he would suddenly pass away. Anyway, that picture takes off also from
another composition by Sebastiano, the third great collaboration
between Michelangelo and Sebastiano, which is a chapel,
the mural decorations of a chapel in San Pietro in Montorio in Rome. And the commission came to them in 1516
from a banker, Pierfrancesco Borgherini, a friend of both artists,
and with whom Michelangelo was infatuated, and so he went out of his way to help him. And this commission
was a joint commission, Michelangelo was to design it,
do the drawings, and Sebastiano was to paint it. In the event,
he only actually managed to do this, I’ll return to that in a minute. But this is Sebastiano using
Michelangelo-esque ideas and painting by himself. And here you see,
this is what Raphael did, “You have a very heavy,
muscular Christ standing very impressive, but I can make him fly,
make him float, levitate.” So it’s a last gesture
of Raphael’s superiority, I guess, before he died. And actually Sebastiano
kept working through Raphael after his death and sort of competing
with him even after he was dead. This is really remarkable and especially
for this Flagellation of Christ. I don’t want to get into iconography,
it’s complicated, very interesting, but it would take the rest
of the afternoon to talk about. It’s very tied into the religious
reform movement at the time and this church was the centre
of a congregation of Franciscan monks who were especially reform-oriented,
everybody wanted to reform the Church. And what is happening at this time
is the run-up to the Reformation, to Luther’s thesis in Wittenberg. And everybody, including the Pope, realised that something
is wrong with the Church. And this iconography,
which is very dense and complex, is a way of addressing that. But I will encourage you
to look at the catalogue for further elucidation of that
because it’s so complicated. But this was really their… But very interesting,
so please do if you can. This is their most famous collaboration, the one that had
the greatest reverberations, and again, it’s Michelangelo
doing something really memorable. And in the exhibition,
we are exhibiting it with Michelangelo’s drawings
and Sebastiano’s drawings for this chapel. So you can take a closer look there. It’s any, almost any and every depiction of
the Flagellation of Christ after this uses this as the model, including Caravaggio’s
famous one in Naples. Caravaggio was indebted
to Sebastiano in many ways, although he was a completely
different artist, and very much his own he looked at Sebastiano, and really many, many artists did
and I think this is something that has been overlooked a bit, because Sebastiano has been overlooked
but his importance is seen in Poussin and in Spanish painting
of the 17th century, you see it in Zurbarán,
it’s really in a lot of places, but artists that are so great that
they also of course have their own… The most lavish of Sebastiano imitators
die out in the latter 16th century. Anyway… This chapel in the exhibition is exhibited in
an almost full-scale replica, made by a group called Factum Arte
based in Madrid, who specialise in rematerialising
works of art, as they call it, and they record archaeological sites
for preservation, so endangered archaeological sites, they go out and record the objects there to have 3D digital models of them. And they can really reproduce works of art
to an astonishing level of fidelity, which they’ve done
for the exhibition and this chapel that is almost there full-size. Here you see them recording, they just take photographs
and that’s how they do it. Then they make a digital model
based on the photographs, they stitch it together into
this three-dimensional model and then they can print it. Here you see the half-dome
being constructed with the printouts being adhered
to this stage set model. Here they are printing The Flagellation. Here they are fashioning the skirting at the bottom out of plaster, copying the original skirting
using traditional methods, that’s really amazing. Another thing in the exhibition that is spectacular and
a real privilege to be able to do is the near juxtaposition
of these two statues. These are two statues by Michelangelo. The one on the left is in the exhibition,
and the original, it’s a model, over life-size model of The Nude Christ, it comes from a church in a monastery
north of Rome in Bassano Romano, and it was only rediscovered 20 years ago. It had sunken into obscurity,
it’s documented in the sources, but nobody knew what had happened to it,
and this is it, this is the Michelangelo. The other one is much more famous, it’s in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva
in Rome, and what is interesting is they
were made for the same commission, for Santa Maria sopra Minerva,
for a family chapel there. And Michelangelo started carving
the first one around 1514 or 1515, something like that, for this family and the manager of the project
was a friend of his, a humanist who was very well versed
in humanist thinking and theological reform thinking and so on. And the idea here is to update the classical tradition
into a Christian context, which is really what the Renaissance
very much is about. So, to draw upon the classical tradition, to have this Greek god
that’s like an Apollo, but rendered
in the form of Christ basically. And then nude to show his humanity, full humanity, his unblemished humanity, he is… He is idealised as a heroic,
triumphant Christ after his resurrection. And, as I told you, we started
with Christ and the Christ Child realising he was going to die,
then we had the Dead Christ, in the Viterbo Pietà then we have the Lazarus,
The Raising of Lazarus, a resurrection that prefigures
Christ’s own resurrection, which we then have here. Christ’s resurrection
obsessed Michelangelo, it was the redemption promised by Christ
on the last day. The redemption for our sins
really obsessed him and it was a very personally resonant
subject matter for him, as indeed for any Christian, but really it’s something
that he works on again and again, and here, in sculptural form. So it’s fantastic to be able to do this. What happened to this statue
was that he was carving it and he was very busy and
had other much more pressing and prestigious commissions
going at the same time from the Pope and so on, but he wanted to do this
because it was for a friend of his. And then he discovered, in this wonderful
piece of shining white marble, you’ll see how it’s almost translucent,
it’s wonderful marble, there was a flaw, there was a flaw running through it,
a fault line. And not just anywhere,
but what would be Christ’s face. So, I mean, just horrible,
all the work was wasted, he had abandoned it in frustration,
left it unfinished, eventually gave it
as a gift to the patron, and suddenly it’s gone
and sunk into obscurity, as I said. It was acquired
for the Giustiniani family in the early 17th century, and then it was finished
by an unknown sculptor at that time, that’s why it looks finished,
the back is by this other artist, the face is finished by this other artist. If you go to the exhibition, something instructive is
to look at the left and right hand, the left hand down there
holding the shroud is very full articulated,
it’s real Michelangelo. The right hand is pasty and flat, probably because it’s finished
by this other artist. The cross, of course also added. So that was an unfinished sculpture, but then even though he didn’t have time, he eventually fulfilled the commission with the second statue,
which went into the church. It was delivered in 1521 and
Sebastiano was involved in installing it. And you see the difference
between the two. The first one is at rest, in classical contrapposto,
like a Greek sculpture, self-contained. The second one is dynamic,
moving, turning, looking out, and it’s engaging with its surroundings
as if something is going on around it. We’ve become part of the story
when we look at this statue. This is the beginning
of Baroque sculpture, I think, the beginning of Michelangelo
thinking of sculpture in the round. Most of the sculptures are really
meant to be seen from one angle or at least from
a very few angles from the front, not meant to be walked around. This is not fully three-dimensional, it’s not meant to be seen from every
angle, but it’s the beginnings of it. If you walk around the statue, which is represented by plaster cast,
we could never borrow the original, so we have a very high quality
plaster cast from the 19th century. And if you walk around that,
you see how it moves with you. It looks very different from
different angles, and that’s the point. It’s Michelangelo developing towards
a much greater dynamism in his art. He’s internalised the academic lessons from classical antiquity and now
he’s doing incredible things with them, infusing them with emotion
and spiritual energy. So, as I said, Michelangelo,
by the time he did the second one, he was in Florence,
where he stayed until 1534. So most of the relationship between Sebastiano and Michelangelo
is a long-distance one. From 1516 to 1534,
they only see each other a couple of times when Michelangelo visits Rome on business. And this has yielded a fascinating
correspondence between them. And we have examples of that
in the exhibition, which is just so lively, and it really gives you an insight
into their daily lives, daily problems they were encountering,
their ideas, the rivalry with Raphael
is very pointed in the early letters, how much Sebastiano hates him and by proxy how much
Michelangelo hates Raphael, and so on. This letter, this is just an example,
this letter from the British library starts with Sebastiano
thanking Michelangelo for becoming godfather to his first son, who was born the same year
he finished the Lazarus, 1519. And it’s very, very touching. So he addresses, from this point on, he addresses Michelangelo as compare,
which means godfather, and which really connotes kinship. So they’re very close and probably
because it’s a long-distance relationship, they remain close for a long time,
paradoxically. Here, this is Clement VII,
this is Giulio de’ Medici, patron of The Transfiguration
and The Raising of Lazarus, he becomes Pope in 1523. And he’s the greatest patron that Sebastiano had
and one of the greatest and most understanding patrons
that Michelangelo had, extremely important to both artists. And whereas his cousin preferred Raphael, he clearly loved Michelangelo
and knew him from his youth. Here you see
Sebastiano’s two portraits of him from the exhibition,
one is painted in 1525-26, and it’s very Michelangelo-esque, it looks like the prophets
of the Sistine ceiling, but it’s based on
Raphael’s portrait of Julius II, the paradigm for papal portraiture. It’s in our collection in Gallery 8,
we haven’t put it into the exhibition. And he was famously handsome, and there’s an arrogance, it’s a real portrait of power,
this portrait. Then you have the second one,
which is some years later, and you see it’s a very intimate,
almost unfiltered likeness. It’s not a finished portrait,
it’s probably a sketch. And he’s looking inward. He’s a broken man,
he’s also sick at this time. And he’s affected
by what has happened in the meantime. I’m certain that this
is partly what’s happening, because in the meantime, this happened. Clement’s time as Pope was really fraught. He was dealing with the Reformation,
which was in full gear and then he was dealing with the constant
proxy wars being fought in Italy by the great powers of Europe. And through an unfortunate alliance
with France, he antagonised the Holy Roman Emperor,
Charles V, whose troops eventually marched
to Rome and sacked it, thousands of people were killed,
people were raped, buildings were burned,
they took people ransom. A horrible, horrible disaster
for the papacy and for European civilization. That was really
how it was cast at the time, this is one of these events that
makes everything change in history. After this, there was a darkness,
you see it in art and so on. This engraving shows the Pope was under siege in
the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome by the Imperial forces for seven months, watching his city being
initially pillaged and burned and then later under the domination
of these troops. And Sebastiano was
probably there with him. He was probably
there with him at that time during the siege so it was
a really traumatic experience. And, finally, the Pope
managed to escape to Orvieto, where he set up a makeshift court. Sebastiano escaped to his native Venice and some years went by
before they both returned. When they returned, and this is
the late phase of Sebastiano’s career, there’s a touching letter to Michelangelo where he describes how
he’s never going to feel the same, he’s never going to be the same Sebastiano
that Michelangelo knew from before. He’s sort of a shattered, traumatised man and he can’t really work so much anymore,
but he still does. This is one of the few major works
he almost finished in his later career in the 1530s. It is one of two large commissions
taken over from Raphael, the Chigi Chapel
in Santa Maria del Popolo, which is a church
very important to Julius II. And you see this is
Raphael’s mosaic ceiling, and the architecture is all Raphael
and the sculpture and so on. But this altarpiece,
The Nativity of the Virgin, is Sebastiano’s last great work, not in the exhibition, can’t travel,
painted on stone, which is something that is very important
to Sebastiano at this time, he’s developing oil techniques
for applying to stone, and that’s something
that was not very well known in Italy and in Rome. And it allows him to create,
it’s a terrible image, I’m sorry, it allows Sebastiano to create
greater nuance and atmosphere and contrast in his mural paintings, something he really wanted to do,
he was an oil painter through and through and did not really like fresco much. He did paint fresco, he was trained in it,
but he really preferred this. And this is a great example of it. You see it’s the Virgin here
with the midwives. Here is Elizabeth,
Joachim and Joseph meeting each other. And behind that, there’s a vanishing
point, there’s a classical sculpture. That’s the old order, the Old Testament,
the New Testament. Here is God presiding over it,
turning to the side that has the mother and the child here. This was something for which Sebastiano
solicited drawings from Michelangelo. Michelangelo apparently did not send any, but Michelangelo would help Sebastiano
with drawings occasionally, he would send him drawings
to use in his paintings. And Sebastiano would help Michelangelo
with his business in Rome. He became a middle man and helped him
negotiate contracts and so on. So they had a sort of
mutually dependent relationship during these years. This is a drawing where Sebastiano
gets closer to Michelangelo than almost anywhere. You see this is God, the Father,
probably meant for that figure up there, floating in the air. And this is of course its source
of inspiration, the Sistine Chapel. And you can see
there’s a great energy here but there’s not the three-dimensionality, the muscularity and
the clear definition of the body that you see in Michelangelo. But it’s very much, it’s patently a… an assimilation of Michelangelo’s
very sculptural way of drawing. It’s in the exhibition. The other commission taken over from
Raphael is at Santa Maria della Pace. They’re both Chigi commissions, and Chigi was, as I said,
the man I introduced at the beginning, who brought Sebastiano to Rome. And these two family chapels
were first given to Raphael, then Raphael died, Chigi died,
then Sebastiano took them over. He was meant to paint a Risen Christ here,
these are Raphael’s beautiful frescos, very inspired by the Sistine Chapel
to Michelangelo’s great irritation. He’s taking the Sistine Chapel sibyls
and turning them into this elegant, melodious composition up here,
very irritating for Michelangelo. Probably because Michelangelo
was irritated with this, he helped Sebastiano with
several drawings for this Risen Christ, and we believe this might be the one,
we don’t know for sure. This is in the exhibition,
an extraordinary drawing of the Risen Christ,
a heroically risen, nude Christ. Sebastiano never painted it. And really in the later 30s, he probably
painted very little, if anything at all, and this is something
Michelangelo disapproved of. Indeed this is great,
this is a great juxtaposition, I’ll show something about Michelangelo,
I’ve talked a lot about Sebastiano. This is a sketch for that drawing, and look at the energy,
the vigour of that, the black chalk he’s using here. He’s trying to position the legs and it becomes
this incredibly dynamic figure, that almost attains
a spiritual energy to it, because it has this vigour. And all of that energy and vigour is corked up and sort of contained in the very finished,
highly modelled drawing over there, it has all that energy inside it. And this is Michelangelo’s secret,
he imbues his figures with such energy. Indeed, this is what he does here
with The Last Judgement. And Michelangelo
was called back by Clement in 1534 to paint this
in the Sistine Chapel. It’s a reflection of the dark moments
the Church had come through. He was going to paint this and
‘The Fall of the Rebel Angels’, which he never finished or even started, on the other side of the Sistine Chapel, two very dark, apocalyptic scenes. This one, of course, he did finish
and he finished it in fresco, but initially something else happened. And this is the direct cause
of their falling out. They’d been friends for so long. Michelangelo comes back,
Sebastiano is ecstatic, they’re going to be together again,
they’re going to help each other. And there are accounts
of people seeing them together in the first year or so that
Michelangelo was back in Rome. But then, he started painting this,
and as Michelangelo tells it, Sebastiano went
behind his back to the Pope, and convinced him that Michelangelo
was going to paint it in oil, in this new technique he had developed. And obviously Michelangelo
would never paint in oil. The idea is absurd. If he’s a painter at all,
he’s a fresco painter. And oil is a medium
for women and lazy artists, like Sebastiano. So he dismissed him
and they never spoke again. This is the story we hear from Vasari
and there’s some truth to it surely, they must have fallen out
and probably over this. However, it seems very unlikely that Sebastiano would be able to
convince the Pope to do something against Michelangelo’s
will, that just seems unrealistic. And a follower of Michelangelo
describes in the 1580s, Pellegrino Tibaldi is his name,
he’s writing about something else, and he writes that Michelangelo had initially intended
to paint this wall in oil. We don’t know for sure, but we know that the plaster preparation
that was initially put up, which was for oil, probably for oil, was taken down by Michelangelo,
demolished by him, a new preparation was put up
and he finished it in fresco, as he really always had wanted,
according to himself. But the fact that there was a first
preparation and about nine months went by, indicates that Michelangelo
was entertaining the idea of painting it in oil. He may have tried painting it in oil and then realised “I can’t do this,
I hate it, this is not working. I’m going to do this in fresco.” And it would make sense, because Michelangelo hadn’t painted
anything monumental for 20 years, since the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and back then he surely still remembered
the sting when people preferred Raphael’s colouring to his. So he’s probably listening to his friend, who’s developed
this spectacular new technique, which he’s applying with great success
at various places around Rome, including ‘The Nativity of the Virgin’. And just decides,
“Let me try it, I can do anything.” Then he realises he can’t
or doesn’t want to or hates it or whatever. And indeed it would have been impractical
to paint this very large painting in oil. What happens in this painting
is that actually there are moments of revision, of the kind you don’t see in the ceiling,
you don’t see those kinds of revision, revisions on top of the paint layer
in dry medium, al secco, so fresco is painted in the wet plaster and the paint fuses with the wall
and becomes very stable. But then sometimes
you retouch on top of that, just with the paint on the dry plaster, that’s called al secco, and there are
many revisions here of that kind. Some of them are of practical nature, because you have to have
a continuous blue across this surface, for that you have to have secco. But others are to the figures and
that’s very how Sebastiano worked. Also, down here it’s been determined
that some of this is oil paint. There are some hues and colours that are not achievable in fresco,
so he’s used oil. So this is the moment where Sebastiano
actually has an influence on Michelangelo, not an influence in terms of ideas, not an influence in terms of
direct creativity or anything like that, but technical, at least initially. So it’s not as pure and as cut and dry
as Michelangelo makes it out to be when he tells this story to his
biographers, to Vasari and others. And really what happens when he does that is that he disparages Sebastiano
to an extent that helped destroy his reputation
or at least diminish it. It was also, of course, Sebastiano’s reputation
was damaged by the fact he was working alongside Raphael
and Michelangelo, two great geniuses, of course, it’s very difficult
to be next to those two. And in Venice, where he came from, Titian became one
of the greatest artists of the time. So he sort of recedes in the background
because of those. But I think Michelangelo contributed
to our slightly negative take on Sebastiano,
which goes back to the 16th century, and it comes directly to Michelangelo. So it’s a kind of a sad ending. In the exhibition,
we don’t talk much about that, we talk more about
continuities in their life. So we have an upbeat ending. And as we had the Child Christ
at the beginning, we had the Dead Christ,
we had the Risen Christ, at the end we have
the Promise of the Unborn Christ, in the form of The Visitation
from the Louvre, a fantastic painting, finished at the same time as the Lazarus, and probably the most
emotionally resonant and powerful of Sebastiano’s paintings. It’s the Virgin and Elizabeth
meeting while they’re pregnant. One of course with Jesus,
the other with John the Baptist, and John the Baptist leaps in the womb when Elizabeth approaches Mary
because he’s close to Christ. So it has a beautiful Venetian landscape, very Michelangelo-esque strong figures with these foreshortenings
and just an astonishing light. Then you see these forms,
these blocky forms of the figures, that is where Sebastiano is going. He’s somebody who tries
to pare down forms, he eschews sentimentality, wants to simplify, simplify, simplify,
so we can just contemplate the essential, spiritual message
of his paintings. That’s what he does in the second version,
which is in the exhibition. The second version he did in the 1530s, in Santa Maria della Pace,
sorry I only have black and white images. But you can see it out there
and it’s extraordinary. This is a mural painting
in oil on plaster, oil on the wall, this new technique. And it’s quite damaged,
it was never finished. Like most of Sebastiano’s projects
in the 30s, it was never finished and was taken down
in the early 17th century, and three fragments survived,
these are the other two. They’re at Alnwick Castle
in the Northumberland Collection, exhibited here for the first time
outside of Alnwick. And you see these pictures
and they’re a little sort of rebarbative, they might put you off
a little bit initially. Two things you have to remember. One is that they’re meant to be seen
at a distance of 8 to 9 metres. The other is the extraordinary
development that they evince, from this atmospheric,
deeply saturated colouring of the late teens, to this austere, monumental,
still very sharply coloured, but this monumental, pared-down,
blocky, proto-Cubist, as the great Sebastiano-Michelangelo
scholar Michael Hirst called it. It’s almost as if Picasso would have
painted something like this in the 20s, it’s that modernist in a way,
before the fact. So a fascinating development and one that has little to do
with Michelangelo, Michelangelo is always there, he’s there in the block,
in the great forms, he’s there in the idea
of condensing a spiritual message. These are frozen in time,
sort of still images, where Michelangelo was extremely emotional and dynamic in his late years. This painting could not come to the show,
it would have been wonderful. It’s in Budapest, it can’t travel,
it’s painted on slate, his preferred medium in these years. This could have been painted
in the 20th century, not that makes it anything better, but it’s really an extraordinarily
powerful image that shows you where Sebastiano evolved,
where to he evolved. He was always, I think, the point is that he was
always a very original artist. He was very beholden to Michelangelo, he hero-worshipped him clearly, and he was dependent on him
for a lot of things. But he was a different artist
and had a different sensibility, and it really comes out
in these late images that are less directly beholden
to Michelangelo’s example. So, I will end on that note
and say thank you for listening, both here and online. And I just want to advertise
that we have a conference, it will be in our programme,
it will be announced soon. We have an international conference
open to the public. The 23 and 24 of June
at the end of the exhibition’s run. Thank you.

13 thoughts on “Curator’s Introduction | The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano | National Gallery

  1. I really enjoyed! Very interesting. I always loved "The Death of Adonis" by del Piombo in the Uffizi in Florence, but now I understand more about his style.

  2. Great Talk! I enjoy the technical analysis and understanding of how the of the great Italian artists work. Thank you.

  3. This was a most enjoyable lecture. It is good to hear someone who understands fuly the Christian background of the works of art, and the impact that they must have had on the sensibilities of the viewers.

  4. Very interesting but the speaker needed to slow down a little in his delivery; it was bordering on 78rpm in places.

  5. Okay, I'll say it. I love these lecture but Matthias' voice is grating on my nerves. His cadence leaves so much to be desired–like someone else's voice. Yuck.

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