Michelangelo is famous for frescoes and statues, not work that you would think would travel well. After all, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is hardly going to decamp to Trafalgar Square for a Spring break. As for Sebastiano, I concede that prior to this week I would not have been able to tell you who he was. So the latest National Gallery exhibition didn’t fill me high hopes. How wrong I was, every room has jaw dropping stuff to see and the story of the friendship between the pair is the stuff of a page turning novel.
Michelangelo was already a star by the time Sebastiano arrived in Rome. Snapping at his heels for renown was Raphael, whom he hated. Raphael was an oil painter, the chink in Michelangelo’s armour. Sebastiano was pretty handy with the oils, so Michelangelo reckoned that a combination of his draughtsmanship and Sebastiano’s painting would knock Raphael off his perch. A friendship was born.
Michelangelo decamped to Florence to work for the Medici’s, but the friends continued to correspond and managed to fit in the occasional visit. On one of these Michelangelo advised his friend on the composition of a depiction of The Raising of Lazarus, this went on to be the first painting to be catalogued in the National Gallery collection, NG1, it is where the collection started.
Lustrous oil paintings and sculptures are not the only things on display. Letters that they wrote to wrote to each other and preparatory sketches show how ideas for composition changed. Somehow these make them more real, like people who have just left the room. My favourite is this sketch on the back of Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the first painting Michelangelo and Sebastiano collaborated on.
Michelangelo started creating the statue of the nearer Risen Christ for a friend, but stopped when he discovered a fault in the marble. He was unable to start afresh due to other work commitments but letting his friend down niggled at him. Many years later he finished the second version. This is the first time they have ever been in the same room (even if one of them is a high class cast). The first glimpse of this room is one of the most stunning first views of anything that I have ever seen.
Having maintained a long distance friendship for many years things fell apart when Michelangelo returned to Rome to work on the Sistine chapel once more. Sebastiano had cracked the art of oil painting on plaster and urged his friend to try out the new technique. Nobody knows what happened for sure but Michelangelo soon reverted to the fresco method and stopped talking to Sebastiano. Not only that when Sebastiano died, Michelangelo was ran down his friend. Deriding him as lazy and destroying his posthumous reputation, that’s why I’d never heard of him.
MICHELANGELO & SEBASTIANO
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN
15 March 2017 – 25 June 2017
Open: Daily 10am – 6pm (9pm on Friday)
Admission: Adult £18, concessions available, under 12’s and members free