“Dearest friend, dearer to me than a father, greetings.”
Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombo’s works have been married at The National Gallery, where their paintings and sculptures – as well as their correspondence (as above) – are exhibited alongside each other in the first exhibition seeking to study the creative relationship between the two.
It is a bold move: to challenge how one of the world’s most famed and most beloved artists of all time may have been influenced by a relatively unknown Venetian painter who happened to be working in Rome at the right moment (1510s). Yet the National Gallery successfully pulls it off, with viewers feeling both satiated and eager to know more. We hear so much more about Michelangelo’s influence on others, and the exhibition obviously has much to say about how Michelangelo’s work affected Sebastiano’s, but it also ambitiously – and persuasively – emphasises how Sebastiano also altered Michelangelo’s style.
Much is made of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Pietà), a vast and imposing painting in which Christ lies lifeless at the feet of his mourning mother, depicted almost as a giantess and illuminated by moonlight against dark and barren lands. The Virgin, usually portrayed as Full of Grace, tender and gentle, is instead verging on grotesque in her largesse. (The exhibition tells us that Mary’s enlarged scale was Michelangelo’s acknowledgment of her importance as mother of the Church.) The painting is widely thought to be the first collaboration between the two artists and it is quite possible that the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, in all its glory, was the seed of conception for this exhibition – so striking is the painting, and so unusual. It is particularly poignant that the artists’ rough charcoal studies are shown on the reverse – one imagines Michelangelo and Sebastiano, pregnant with ideas, visually explaining the masterpiece to each other as they worked away.
But there is no shortage of powerful portraiture, sculpture and sketches on display. Quite the opposite: every room (there are six) offers a different spectacle. Even the letters reveal a touching insight into the relationship between the two greats: in 1519, Sebastiano writes to Michelangelo that he is “extremely grateful that you did me the honour of agreeing to be my son’s godfather.” Six years later, Michelangelo tells Sebastiano “don’t say, henceforth, that you are not unique, when I write and tell you that you are.”
Such is the National Gallery’s dedication to this partnership that they have courageously exhibited copies – casts of both St. Peter’s Pietà and The Risen Christ among them, as well as a recreation of the Borgherini Chapel. This will undoubtedly trigger some debate in the ongoing conceptual artistic conflict, “is the masterpiece the same if it’s not the same” (think Damien Hirst and Sharkheadgate) but to over-intellectualise would be foolishly mathematical. No, the Pietà is not the original Pietà, but it is certainly has a rightful home in this exhibition.
We are informed of an “acrimonious” fall-out between Michelangelo and Sebastiano. Their divorce is mentioned a few times, but arguably without enough detail, given the preceding microscopic analysis of their acquaintance. Despite this, Michelangelo & Sebastiano is august, brave and powerful, successfully showing a remarkable marriage of two greats, and as informative as it is majestic.
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The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano is on at the National Gallery until 25th June 2017.