by Roderick Conway Morris

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Sebastiano del Piombo refound

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 14 March 2008
Sebastiano's 'Pietà' was considered exceptional
for its rendering of Christ.



Sebastiano del Piombo was one of the greatest portrait painters of any age. Some of his images - of Pope Clement VII, Christopher Columbus, the admiral Andrea Doria and several striking young women of now uncertain identity - are instantly recognizable, but many would find it hard to name the artist who painted them.

In his own time, Sebastiano was as famous as his contemporaries Michelangelo, Raphael, Giorgione and Titian. But while individual works of his never ceased to be admired, a broader view of the man and his career was gradually lost.

A splendid exhibition 'Sebastiano del Piombo: 1485-1547' at Palazzo Venezia, the first of its kind, both highlights Sebastiano's exceptional skills as a portraitist and convincingly demonstrates why his work once enjoyed such high esteem. There are over 100 works by him - many of them familiar faces from galleries in Europe and the United States - and a score more by Michelangelo, with whom the painter collaborated closely for some 20 years, and other artists, Italian and Spanish, directly influenced by Sebastiano. Roughly half his known drawings are on show here, while the other half will be shown at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, when the exhibition travels there. (The Palazzo Venezia show continues until May 18; the Berlin version will run June 28-Sept. 28.)

Born in Venice, Sebastiano Luciani seems to have begun his art training relatively late. It was said his first love was music, that he was a fine lute player and singer and was known for his urbane and convivial manner. He first entered the studio of Giovanni Bellini and then seems to have studied with Giorgione. Inevitably these titans formed his early style. But Sebastiano was also an innovator and a contributor to the development of Venetian painting, something that has tended to be overlooked.

In his altarpiece of the titular saint in the San Giovanni Crisostomo church near Rialto, Sebastiano overturned existing conventions by showing the principal figures in profile and those accompanying them choreographed in a new manner, their faces turned at various angles. The young Titian adopted this innovation in a fresco cycle in Padua a year later, and Bellini himself, the grand old man of Venetian painting, represented the central figure in profile in his subsequent side altarpiece for the Crisostomo church.

Another key work, 'The Judgment of Solomon,' with its equally unorthodox arrangement of figures, also had a palpable effect on Titian, notably in his St. Mark altarpiece (now at the Salute church in Venice). Sebastiano's large-scale 'Judgment' remained uncompleted when he departed for Rome, but this did not reduce its impact. It also reveals the extraordinary care Sebastiano took in angling the faces and figures of his subjects, a sensitivity that lent a distinct quality to his portraiture.

The 'Judgment' canvas was little known until the 1980s, when Kingston Lacy, the Dorset country house where it and other artworks had been virtually hidden away, became part of the British National Trust and open to the public. Happily it has been possible for the painting to journey from Dorset to Rome, where it offers ample evidence of Sebastiano's originality.

In 1511, the immensely rich Sienese banker Agostino Chigi - financier to popes, emperors and kings - visited Venice. He clearly reckoned Sebastiano to be the finest young artist Venice had to offer and invited him to return to Rome with him. On the same shopping expedition, the banker also acquired the beautiful Francesca Ordeaschi, a Venetian shopkeeper's daughter, who was to bear him four children, but whom he did not marry until 1519, under pressure from the pope. It is plausible that Sebastiano's at once wholesomely sexy and enticingly elusive 'Portrait of a Young Woman,' one of his most renowned images (now owned by the Gemäldegalerie) is indeed of Francesca.

Chigi put Sebastiano to work immediately decorating his suburban villa on the banks of the Tiber, now known as Villa Farnesina. Shortly afterward Raphael also painted his famous 'Galatea' fresco there. Michelangelo befriended and promoted Sebastiano, partly because he saw him as a useful rival to Raphael, whose alarming popularity seemed to the Florentine to be undermining his own. The sculptor provided advice and drawings for many of Sebastiano's undertakings, including the much praised and discussed Viterbo 'Pieta.' While Michelangelo did the drawings for the grieving Virgin, the Venetian seems to have been mainly or wholly responsible for the body of Christ at her feet. This amazing study of male beauty, with its fine musculature and wonderfully rendered flesh tones - which seems much more a living, sleeping body than one from which the spirit has departed - is almost the male equivalent of Giorgione's stupendous reclining female nudes.

Cardinal Giulio de' Medici engineered a public contest between Sebastiano and Raphael by almost simultaneously commissioning a painting of 'The Resurrection of Lazzarus' from the former and a 'Transfiguration' from the latter. The 'Lazzarus' was shown first, and critical opinion compared it favorably with Raphael's latest works. Raphael became anxious to prevent the two pictures from being exhibited side by side, and this only happened after his death in 1520.

In 1523, Giulio became Clement VII. Ever more concerned with asserting himself as a temporal rather than a spiritual ruler, and more occupied with high-level diplomatic maneuverings than with the Lutheran crisis that was shaking the church to its foundations, Clement's constant switching of sides and proverbial perfidy finally led to the catastrophic sack of Rome in 1527 by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and an international rabble of mercenaries, freebooters, criminals and cutthroats. Sebastiano's pre-sack portrait of the pope (almost certainly done in 1526) is the most unsparing of any incumbent of St. Peter's throne. This study of Machiavellian melancholy was still in the artist's studio and listed on the inventory of his possessions at the time of his death.

It was Clement who, in 1531, appointed Sebastiano to the lucrative post of the Keeper of the Papal Seal (del Piombo), from which he derived his nickname. This was not entirely a sinecure, since it demanded frequent attendance on the Pontiff, including on papal excursions outside Rome. It also involved taking orders as a friar, despite the fact that Sebastiano was married with two children.

Sebastiano spent a lifetime experimenting with methods of painting in oil on slate and stone in order to prolong the life of works - in which he was a great deal more successful than Leonardo, whose 'Last Supper' in Milan was a technological fiasco.

So it was with the best motives that Sebastiano persuaded Clement VII to request that Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel's 'Last Judgment' in oils, rather than fresco, on a surface prepared by Sebastiano. This led to the end of the artists' fruitful relationship, Michelangelo somewhat bizarrely pronouncing painting in oils effeminate, and going ahead in fresco.

The works that Sebastiano left behind him on panels, canvas and slate were very well crafted and have retained an arresting freshness. Vasari quotes him as saying it was 'as prudent to live quietly as to be ever striving to leave behind a name for oneself after death.' His last instructions were for the simplest possible burial and for all his worldly wealth to be distributed among the poor.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023