Michelangelo & Sebastiano

John Westbrooke visits an exhibition of Renaissance collaboration

The two painters in the latest National Gallery exhibition make an odd couple. Almost everyone’s heard of Michelangelo, not least because he’s also a teenage mutant ninja turtle. But Sebastiano has slipped off the radar for most who aren’t devout gallery-goers.

In their day, however, not only were they both highly regarded, they actually worked together and kept up a sort of friendship for a quarter of century, which we know about because many of their letters survive.

Sebastiano Luciani came from Venice and did things the Venetian way: he made use of colour and atmosphere, he depicted landscapes, and he painted in oils, which allow a lot of freedom in rethinking and repainting. When he went to Rome in 1511, he found artists working differently: Michelangelo studied in Florence, learning to plan everything with detailed drawings first, then apply paint – usually tempera, which dries a lot more quickly.

But Michelangelo had a problem: the popes were commissioning huge works, but preferred those by his hated rival Raphael (to make it worse, he’d grown up with Pope Leo in the Medici household; perhaps Leo wasn’t impressed). His figures were admired but Raphael’s modelling with colour was thought better. So Michelangelo was prepared to help out the newcomer, designing works that Sebastiano would realise in paint, and putting Raphael out of a job.

Their first collaboration was Lamentation over the dead Christ, Mary kneeling by her dead son in a moonlit countryside. Christ’s body – which would have been hung so it lay horizontally just above the altar – is dramatic, but Mary looks distinctly burly. Michelangelo drew her from a male model, since Man, having been created first by God, was thought nearer perfection than Woman. (In fact the default foetus is female until male hormones kick in, but Michelangelo wasn’t to know.) Also on display is a cast of his carved Pietá in St Peter’s, Rome, with a more tenderly feminine Virgin.

Michelangelo helped out again when Sebastiano was commissioned to depict the raising of Lazarus at the same time, and in the same cathedral, as a Transfiguration ordered from Raphael. If this was intended to provide both men with a bit of needle, it worked. Sebastiano slyly wrote that he was waiting until Raphael finished his work before presenting his own.

He started on Lazarus himself before Michelangelo sent him a design for the newly undead man stretching his hand out to Jesus like Adam receiving life from God on the Sistine Chapel ceiling he painted. This turned out not to fit the shape, so he provided another suggestion, Lazarus half turned, with his hand across his chest. It’s a typically Michelangelo pose, the twisted body adding dynamism to a picture in which other people adopt more sedate positions. It seems he was learning from the Venetian the virtues of reworking, just as Sebastiano was learning to make his figures more sculptural.

The painting was acclaimed a triumph, and is now tagged NG1 – the first painting in the National Gallery’s collection. Today we might think Raphael had again done better (his painting is not in the exhibition, but shown on the audioguide). But in a couple of weeks Raphael was dead, worn out, it was said, by his mistress. “May God forgive him,” wrote Sebastiano.

Michelangelo’s works – chiefly sculpture, frescos and architecture – generally don’t travel, but along with the Rome Pietá, a tondo (circular sculpture) of the Virgin and Child, usually at the Royal Academy up the road for free, and two statues of the risen Christ are on show next to each other. One, seldom seen, was abandoned when the sculptor found a flaw in the marble and subsequently finished by an unknown hand. When he tried again in 1519, it was with a more striking pose, arm across the chest like his Lazarus. (This too is a cast, but without the loincloth currently sported by the original.)

In addition, the many sketches on display present an unusually broad range of his work, showing not just his methods but how he was prepared to help out a younger man. It didn’t last; none of Michelangelo’s relationships ever did, and their friendship flourished best when they lived in different cities. When Sebastiano asked him for help in winning a commission, he wrote a letter of recommendation saying roughly “I’m an old fool, but you might like to hire Bastiano anyway”. Sebastiano didn’t get the job, and was indignant that the letter was passed around the Vatican giving everyone a good laugh.

Sebastiano did succeed in painting a mural with oil paints (represented by a digital copy in the exhibition), which is more than Leonardo did with his famously flaky Last Supper. But it seems Michelangelo resented his suggestion that he try it in the Sistine Chapel, and they fell out bitterly.

Sebastiano was given the job of overseeing the lead (piombo) seals attached to papal mail, and became known as Sebastiano del Piombo. He painted less, and his former friend denounced him as lazy. But he used to be big. To see why, have a look at the three Visitations at the end of the exhibition: St Elizabeth feeling her baby, St John the Baptist, leap for joy in her womb because he realises she’s embracing Mary, also pregnant with a saviour.

The story sounds silly but the painter has made it a tender meeting of a young woman and an old one. Michelangelo may be the hero of the day but his junior partner provides some unexpected pleasures too.

Michelangelo & Sebastiano, National Gallery, 15 March to 25 June. Tickets £18, £16 for seniors.