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Michelangelo and the great art feud

A National Gallery show reveals how the master painter found an ally to defeat Raphael

It’s a tale of friendships and feuds, a heady drama from High Renaissance Rome. The National Gallery’s big spring exhibition, Michelangelo & Sebastiano, will follow a story of ambitious collaborations and fierce rivalries in the first show to cast a spotlight on the artistic partnership between Michelangelo Buonarroti, arguably the world’s most famous and influential artist, and his once much-fêted, but now all-but-forgotten colleague, Sebastiano del Piombo.

The story begins in the central Italian town of Viterbo, where I travelled to see a monumental Lamentation over the Dead Christ, also known as the Viterbo Pieta. It comes to the National Gallery on a very rare loan. A strapping Madonna, her huge eyes rolling heavenwards, her strong hands pleadingly clasped, presides over the dead son who lies stretched at her feet. The last rays of the sun glow in the distance of an eerily desolate landscape of broken-down buildings and wind-blasted trees. The forms and the faces of the figures in the foreground are ethereally touched by the silver of a rising full moon.

This striking panel painting was the first collaborative effort between the two artists. Young Sebastiano, emerging from under the wing of that master of atmospheric painting Giorgione, was being hailed as the most talented Venetian of his generation — ahead even of his younger colleague Titian. When he met Michelangelo, the famed Florentine was nearing the end of his labours on the Sistine vault.

Michelangelo invited Sebastiano on to the scaffolding. It was a rare honour and the start of a partnership that, however one-sided its advantages may appear in hindsight, brought together not just two different creative sensibilities, but two contrasting artistic traditions. In their meeting, the disegno of Florence, where draughtsmanship was primary, and the colorito of Venice, which prized painterly mood, merged.

The years of their closest collaboration were brief, from about 1512 to the early 1520s. And although their relationship was close and affectionate — as a beguiling, intimate portrait of Michelangelo painted by Sebastiano and a handful of the letters that passed between them suggests — their joining of forces was provoked by a fierce feud.

The handsome, charismatic and prodigiously talented Raphael had recently pitched up in Rome. His star was rising fast among rich patrons who were charmed not just by the inventive lyricism of his designs, but by the rich colour and illusionistic reality of his work. Neither Sebastiano nor Michelangelo was pleased to see him.


Sebastiano’s Salome, from 1510

Sebastiano went head to head with Raphael in the Villa Farnesina in 1508. To visit the villa, as I did, is to witness the opening moves in a war. Both were commissioned to create decorative frescoes, and Sebastiano began with a symbolically sophisticated scheme, including an image of the cyclops Polyphemus hopelessly in love with Galatea, the comely sea nymph. He had probably been admiring Michelangelo’s monumental Sistine figures; he painted the huge lumbering giant squatted moping on a rock. Raphael, for his part in the scheme, followed the same theme, but he offered a direct challenge to Sebastiano. He didn’t bother to respond to his scale. Instead he produced his world-famous and utterly ravishing Triumph of Galatea.

Certainly to me, looking upwards, neck cricked, there is no comparison. Would you prefer to gaze up into the crotch of a great lumpen giant or watch the flirtations of semi-naked blonde nymphs? It’s easy to understand why an envious Sebastiano would have felt in need of back-up. What is harder to comprehend is why Raphael should have felt threatened too. Yet apparently he did. He envied the atmospheric Venetian subtleties of Sebastiano’s work.

Michelangelo, meanwhile, was far from amused. The first of Raphael’s Stanze in the Vatican (the Stanza della Segnatura) was unveiled to great praise, accolades that came at the cost of unfavourable comparison with his own Sistine frescoes. Even more galling, Raphael had pinched his designs. According to the Renaissance painter and writer Giorgio Vasari, the charmer had slipped furtively into the Sistine while Michelangelo was not there and, sneaking a look at the scattered preparatory drawings, had adapted them for his own decoration before their designer had even had time to put them to use.

A vitriolic rivalry flared between two of the greatest names of the Italian High Renaissance. And Sebastiano, who might otherwise have remained one of art history’s bit-part players, slipped in — like an understudy to a lead role — and found himself part of a story much greater than his apparent talents. Michelangelo, all too aware that his greatest skills were those of the draughtsman and sculptor, recognised Sebastiano’s proficiency with oil paint. He understood the alluring novelty of the Venetian innovations to which the Romans, through his paintings, were being introduced. That was why he teamed up with him. By helping Sebastiano to create more vivid compositions, he decided that he would compete with and so marginalise Raphael. Sebastiano, meanwhile, far from unambitious himself, seized the opportunity to benefit not just from the talents, but from the influential contacts of this master.

The Viterbo Pieta, the star of the National Gallery’s show, was the first significant product of this collaboration. Greeted with rapturous admiration in 1516 when it was unveiled, it was “held to be exquisite by anyone who saw it”, declared an excitable Vasari.

Why did it cause such a fuss? Michelangelo had already sculpted the eloquent Pieta that stands in St Peter’s. (The Vatican’s cast of this iconic marble comes to Britain for comparison.) However, in a composition that Michelangelo almost certainly dreamt up (among the several preparatory sketches going on show in London is a sheet of his studies of clasped hands for Sebastiano’s Virgin) the body of Christ is taken, for the first time, from the lap of the Virgin.


The Manchester Madonna, by Michelangelo

Imagine how movingly evocative that single innovation must have felt to the first viewers. They saw the corpse of a son removed from his grieving mother, his chill body laid down upon the wasteland at her feet. And that’s even before you start unpicking the complex symbolism of this picture. (As Constanza Barbieri explains in the National Gallery’s catalogue, it contains a host of allegorical meanings.) Sebastiano’s main contribution is to set the Madonna amid an ethereally atmospheric landscape. The night setting would, at this time, have been new to a Roman audience, and this picture is often described as the first monumental nocturne. To us the image might look hefty, even leaden, but it was revelatory to contemporaries.

Raphael was impressed and, rushing back to work on the second of his Vatican Stanze, he introduced the sort of three-dimensional vitality that Sebastiano had created. He added chiaroscuro (an effect contrasting light and shade) to his compositions and, in a vivid depiction of the liberation of St Peter, produced an even more dramatically incandescent nocturne.

The success of the collaborative Viterbo Pieta laid the ground for the artistic relationship that the National Gallery will follow. It brings Michelangelo’s preparatory sketches together with the Sebastiano paintings that emerged from them. It asks us to look again at such complex and ambitious works as The Raising of Lazarus. This is an important work in the National Gallery’s collection because it bears the inventory number “NG1”. Acquired in 1824 as part of the group of paintings that formed the basis of a new national collection, it is the gallery’s foundation picture. It is also all that remains to record a Sebastiano commission for the Cathedral of Narbonne — because only a fragment of this ambitiously complex painting survives. And yet, in its day, it was commissioned in direct competition with Raphael’s world-famous Transfiguration, for the same church, and drew on studies by Michelangelo. This is the mountaintop scene in which Christ is revealed as a divinity to his awestruck disciples, paired with the miracle in which he casts out the demons from the soul of a possessed boy.

Raphael slipped into the Sistine, sneaked a look at the preparatory drawings and adapted them

Other highlights include Michelangelo’s drawings for a 1516 fresco commission in the church of San Pietro in Montorio, in Rome. Its focus is the Flagellation of Christ and, as a direct result of the success of the Viterbo Pieta, Sebastiano was appointed to realise the work with the proviso that Michelangelo would execute the designs. The piece itself, painted on walls, cannot travel. And while it’s well worth going to Rome to see it, for those who can’t, the National Gallery will present what it promises will be a spectacular reproduction of the work using advanced digital imaging.

For the first time the flagellation itself becomes the main focus of an altarpiece. Sebastiano, painting on the walls in oil, a technique not seen before in Rome, created a monumental, spiritually charged, shadowily atmospheric composition. He must have felt it was all the more successful because when Raphael tried to do the same thing he couldn’t make the oil adhere. Every subsequent flagellation — including Caravaggio’s celebrated work, now in the Capodimonte museum in Naples — is indebted to it.

It is probably no accident that shortly after Raphael’s premature death in 1520, Michelangelo and Sebastiano stopped working together so closely. Michelangelo returned to Florence. And although Sebastiano remained highly fashionable, Michelangelo started to ignore his pleading letters to secure him commissions, at one point even writing a blatantly ironic letter when the badgering became too much.

Yet Sebastiano remained Michelangelo’s stalwart intermediary in Rome. One of the high points in the National Gallery show will be Michelangelo’s life-size marble sculpture The Risen Christ. Don’t imagine that Sebastiano collaborated with him on this creatively — but he did organise its installation.

As the exhibition continues, it will focus more on Sebastiano than the master with whom he collaborated. It will show us his later success as a portraitist in his pictures of Clement VII. It will also trace the ways in which he continued to adapt ideas, sketching from the Sistine Chapel and lifting its figures. Nor will Raphael be forgotten. In such important loans as the Madonna del Velo, Sebastiano pinches directly from Raphael’s tenderly devotional (and extremely popular) Madonna of Loreto.

Sebastiano was certainly influential. Later Spanish painters drew on his severe piety. Poussin loved his classicism. In the long run, however, it was this artist’s misfortune to be working at the same time as Michelangelo and Raphael, and to have Titian, then Caravaggio coming hot on his heels. Sebastiano did not have a chance. Who was the winner between him and Raphael? Even with a friend such as Michelangelo behind him, it was game, set and match to Raphael.
Michelangelo & Sebastiano
is at the National Gallery, London WC2 (0800 9126958), March 15 to June 25

The fine art of rivalry
By Gabe Jagger

Caravaggio and Giovanni Baglione
Caravaggio was enraged by Baglione’s response to his Amor Vincit Omnia. Both artists had been commissioned by members of the Giustiniani family, but Baglione’s painting put Caravaggio’s head on the Devil’s body, suggesting the younger artist lacked morality, even that he was a sodomite. Caravaggio responded with poetry that was so libellous against his rival that he was briefly imprisoned.

Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso
As contemporaries, Matisse and Picasso saw each other, rightly, as competition. They paid close attention to the progress of each other’s work and often met. Picasso said: “No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I, and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he.” Yet they exchanged artworks throughout their lives and their rivalry mellowed into a friendship of sorts, fuelled by mutual respect.

John Constable and JMW Turner
In 1832 Constable’s The Opening of Waterloo Bridge was hung at the Royal Academy alongside Helvoetsluys, a seascape by Turner. Before the exhibition opened, Turner walked into the show, took one look at Constable’s vivid painting, and added a smear of red, representing a buoy, to his own work. “He has been here and fired a gun,” was Constable’s shocked response. Gallingly, the Morning Herald declared: “Mr Constable appears to think he is a Turner.”

Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin
The friendship between the post-impressionists was turbulent, although Gauguin did join Van Gogh at the Yellow House in Arles, which Van Gogh hoped to nurture as a place for artists to work together. However, the pair were in constant conflict, which worsened Van Gogh’s mental illness to the extent that he cut off his ear. Gauguin, perhaps understandably, fled.

Banksy and King Robbo
Bansky dominated the street art scene in the 1990s, but in the 1980s Robbo had ruled the roost. The two didn’t get along, with Banksy partly painting over a famed Robbo work in London. This disrespect brought Robbo out of retirement and he went back over the piece, splitting the graffiti world between Team Banksy and Team Robbo. The feud continued for several years until Robbo’s death in 2014 at the age of 44. His rival’s website read “RIP Robbo”.

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