Only once did Michelangelo sign a sculpture. It was the ‘Pietà’ of 1497–1500, and he did so using an incomplete sentence in the past imperfect: ‘Michelangelo Buonarroti the Florentine was making…’. The implication was that actually completing a perfect masterpiece was an unattainable goal, so instead he just had to leave off (a great many artists still feel the same about finishing a picture).
The ‘Pietà’ is included in Michelangelo & Sebastiano, a remarkably ambitious new exhibition at the National Gallery: not, of course, the original marble, which remains in St Peter’s, but a plaster cast from 1975. Nonetheless, in some ways, the cast gives you a better view than the real thing, which is overlit, too high and has to be seen from far away amid a scrum of other tourists. At the National Gallery you can contemplate it from a few feet away, in all its poignant detail.
Glimpses of Michelangelo in close-up provide many of the best moments in the exhibition. Its main theme is his working partnership, over a period of two decades, with the painter Sebastiano del Piombo. At times, the artistic personalities of these two men almost merged. There are drawings of Lazarus, newly raised from the dead, about which scholars are still divided: is this Sebastiano imitating Michelangelo, or — a startling thought — vice versa?
On the face of it, it is puzzling that this double act ever came about at all. Sebastiano and Michelangelo were, as the opening section of the exhibition reveals, very different artistic personalities. The former, a decade or so younger, was from Venice. His real name was Luciani (the ‘Piombo’ came from a Vatican sinecure he was awarded late in his life, ‘Bearer of the lead seal’). The early, Venetian phase of his career when he was close to Giorgione is the most easily enjoyable. There is a poetic blend of the naturalistic and the classical in his ‘Judgment of Solomon’ (c.1506–9) that Sebastiano later lost.
In 1511 he went to Rome, saw the first part of the Sistine Ceiling and was never the same again. Like Proust’s character Swann, he fell in love with somebody who wasn’t really his type. In Sebastiano’s case — it is clear from the tone of the letters between him and Michelangelo — the passion was artistic rather than physical. But it did not result in a harmonious marriage.
The works they produced together tend to have wonderful bits, such as the body of Christ in the Borgherini Chapel, conceived by Michelangelo, executed by Sebastiano and reproduced in an amazingly convincing facsimile in the exhibition. But the pictures tend to be less than the sum of their parts. These two talents didn’t quite cohere; there was an awkward touch of cut-and-paste about the blend. The burly Madonna Michelangelo conceived for the ‘Viterbo Pietà’ (c.1512–16), with the shoulders of a rugby forward, does not quite sit in Sebastiano’s marvellous twilight landscape, a panorama from Hieronymus Bosch with flickering tongues of fire.
Sebastiano could be a tremendous painter in his own right. Some of his religious pictures, such as the mural ‘St Francis’ in the Borgherini Chapel, anticipate the dark, austerely pious world of Zurbarán. His first portrait of ‘Pope Clement VII’ (1525–6) is one of the finest images of Renaissance power. Clement, said when he was elected to be the best-looking pope anyone could remember, which might still be the case, has superb ecclesiastical hauteur plus just a touch of Machiavellian shiftiness (portraiture, like landscape, was a genre Michelangelo disdained).
However, poor Sebastiano’s fate was to be overshadowed, in life and ever since. Even with helpful tips and drawings from Michelangelo, Sebastiano’s ‘Raising of Lazarus’ (1517–19) was judged inferior to Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’, painted in direct competition — and it’s not hard to see why. Sebastiano lacked Raphael’s ability to compose a group of figures with melodious grace. In a word, he lacked charm. But he was even more overshadowed by Michelangelo’s titanic force.
This exhibition is unlikely to change that: it’s Michelangelo who commands the eye — and there’s a considerable range of his work to look at, including fabulous drawings, but also paintings and sculpture.
In the first room of the show are the National Gallery’s own two early unfinished panels — the ‘Manchester Madonna’ and the ‘Entombment’. Nearby is the marble relief of the ‘Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John the Baptist’ (c.1504–5) — the ‘Taddei Tondo’ — making an unprecedented journey from its home at the Royal Academy. This is the only Michelangelo marble in a British collection, and one of only a handful outside Italy.
The ‘Madonna’ is one of his most feminine female figures, dignified if distant (real motherly affection seemed to be out of his range). The ‘Taddei Tondo’ — beautifully displayed and lit and looking much better than it does tucked away at Burlington House — is one of the greatest pleasures of the exhibition. This is Michelangelo at his most tender, competing with Leonardo and a direct influence on Raphael.
The climax, though, is an extraordinary confrontation of two naked men, both representing ‘Risen Christ’. Michelangelo had almost completed the first (1514–15) when he discovered an ugly black flaw in the marble where Christ’s face was to be carved. So that was abandoned. Eventually, despite enormous pressure of other work, he produced a second version in 1519–21.
In the exhibition there is a cast of the latter — plus the first marble, lost for centuries until it was rediscovered in the 1990s. Because the flawed block was tidied up in the 17th century by an unknown artist, it is debatable how much of the surface is actually by the great man (the curator, Matthias Wivel, believes that it’s mostly Buonarroti with the exception of the head and right hand). Even so, this is something close to a new, hitherto unknown Michelangelo.
This is the first time the two Risen Christs have been side-by-side since they left Michelangelo’s studio. In a way, they are not two separate works, but two points in the evolution of one; or — for a Platonist like Michelangelo — two different, failed attempts at a perfection that was inevitably unattainable. But, of course, the fact that he was perpetually dissatisfied was one of the reasons why he was so good.
Michelangelo & Sebastiano is at the National Gallery until 25 June.