Michelangelo & Sebastiano review: The National Gallery's compelling visual investigation of an overlooked artistic partnership

Olivia McEwan
Michelangelo & Sebastiano

You probably haven’t heard of Sebastiano del Piombo, the Venetian born artist and contemporary of the Renaissance superstar Michelangelo. Frankly the dynamic, superlative output of Michelangelo blows Sebastiano’s relatively diminutive works out of the water.

Thankfully, this show is unconcerned with ‘rediscovering’ a lost master, or using Michelangelo’s name to sex-up a generic Italian Renaissance exhibition; instead, this is a rigorously academic – and utterly fascinating – exercise in exploring a working artistic relationship through collaborative paintings, drawings and correspondence.

The two men shared a friendship that lasted 25 years, enduring twists and turns up to its acrimonious end. Revealingly intimate letters exchanged between the two create a vivid impression of an unforgivingly competitive art scene in early 16th century Rome.

Some fascinating theories are put forward by the show, each one backed up with visually compelling evidence. It suggests Michelangelo joined forces with Sebastiano against his ‘detested’ rival Raphael, demonstrated by the shift in Sebastiano’s typically atmospheric Venetian style towards the brilliant primary colours that were recognised as Raphael’s main selling point.

The juxtaposition of a preparatory drawing of clasped hands by Michelangelo are directly borrowed in Sebastiano’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the back of which bears doodles by Michelangelo anticipating certain sections of his Sistine Chapel composition.

The exhibition is stuffed with such thrilling cross-pollination of designs by Michelangelo worked into paintings by Sebastiano.

It’s undeniable that the utterly beautiful Michelangelo drawings lose their vitality in the versions painted by his friend: the Lamentation, though directly influenced by Michelangelo’s Pieta (a copy of which is loaned here from the Vatican) lacks grace and refinement; likewise, the centrepiece of the Raising of Lazarus is clunky.

This justifies the National’s radical decision to recreate Sebastiano’s Borgherini Chapel in S. Pietro in Montorio using ground-breaking technology; we gain an awesome impression of its scale and presence, but there’s not much in the way of fantastic paintwork to see.

It’s refreshing to see an exhibition set out not to champion a lesser known artist but to use his friendship with a true master as a starting point for a compelling visual investigation.