At Nightfall

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There is a distinct sense of hesitation to the work of the Italian Renaissance painter Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547). In spite of a high level of craft and an acute visual sensibility, many of his pictures are characterised by a searching insecurity, which also seems reflected in his notoriously low rate of productivity. According to Vasari’s biography, his longtime friend and mentor, Michelangelo, went as far as to describe him as plain lazy. He did this at a time when the two artists had fallen out — allegedly over the older master choosing fresco instead of oil as the medium for his Sistine Last Judgement — but is somehow characteristic of the professional relationship that more than anything determined Sebastiano’s career as an artist. The creative boost he got from the older artist’s Protean vision developed over time to become a crushing creative dependency.

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Sebastiano’s portrait of the Flemish ambassador to Rome Ferry Carondelet (c. 1512-13), which is part of the great monographic show of his work, the first ever, that just closed in Rome and will open in Berlin at the end of June, is a prime example of his searching acuity in front of a sitter. Carondelet has momentarily stopped dictating to his alertly awaiting secretary. In the left part of the frame another servant has just entered carrying a message; he sees us and stops. But Carondelet does not see us — he looks inward, plunged in thought, hesitating. And while the immediate surroundings are painted with Flemish precision — presumably to cater to the taste of the patron – the contours of Carondelet’s face dissolve in the slowly diminishing evening light.

Sebastiano’s venezianismo is apparent. He was born Sebastiano Luciani, either in Venice proper or somewhere in the immediate surroundings of the lagoon, and was a pupil of Giovanni Bellini’s, the artist who in the latter half of the 15th Century more than anyone had been responsible for bringing natural light into the art of painting. He was also a colleague of the slightly older Giorgione, who situated man in landscapes endowed with animated life and thereby effected a decisive change in Venetian painting. The haze of the evening landscape and Carondelet lost in thought owe a considerable debt to Giorgione’s lyricism, but Sebastiano brings to the work a greater sense of substance, not just in the decor but in the characterisation of the sitter himself. There is more of a concrete presence in this picture than in the few, fascinatingly elusive surviving portraits from Giorgione’s hand.

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Impressively, the show collects almost every single work still extant from Sebastiano’s time in Venice. This affords the viewer a great opportunity to appreciate just how innovative and ambitious an artist he was. The altarpiece for San Giovanni Crisostomo (c. 1509-10) is, for example, a radical interpretation of the traditional, frontally organized Sacra Conversazione (i.e. the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints), a genre in which Bellini had long been the master. Saint Chrysostom sits concentrating on his work, drenched in the late afternoon sun that also illuminates the Carondelet portrait and so many other pictures by Sebastiano. The primary innovation here is that the composition has been turned, so that we are seeing the protagonist and the surrounding architecture at a 90-degree angle. The framing and the diagonals created by the saints’ attributes tighten up the surface and set the scene for an elegant arrangement of the figures both across the surface and in depth. Sebastiano makes genuine conversation out of his sacred model.

This acute attention to both space and surface influenced Sebastiano’s younger colleague Titian — who at this time was yet to become the major figure we know him as — in important ways. The latter’s groundbreaking, diagonally-arranged so-called Pesaro Madonna in the Church of the Frari in Venice (1519-26) is, for example, a further development of the San Giovanni Crisostomo altarpiece. And the four gently stolid saints Sebastiano painted for the organ shutters of San Bartolomeo (c. 1510-11) exhibit passages of loosely expressive strokes of a kind Titian — who is famous for his open brushwork — would only fully exceed more than twenty years later.

As the premier painter of Venice, Sebastiano was hired in 1511 by the Pope’s banker Agostino Chigi, who at the time was providing crucial loans for Venice to fight the war it was involved in with France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. Chigi brought him to Rome, where he met Michelangelo and was almost immediately embroiled in the latter’s intense rivalry with the upstart Raphael, who was quickly becoming the favourite of Pope Julius II. A thankless situation for any artist, even one of Sebastiano’s talent, but at the same time one that initially led to the most productive and arguably creatively fertile period in his life.

Michelangelo’s larger-than-life treatments of the passion of the individual in his aspiration to the Divine fed Sebastiano’s sense of the monumental. In several important instances at different points in his career, he even worked on the basis of drawn designs sent to him by the older master from Florence where the latter spent most of his time between 1516 and the early 1530s. Sebastiano’s pictures of these years thus offer a unique synthesis of Venetian luminosity and Central Italian delineation. As time went on, however, the more subtle human qualities of his work waned in favour of greater abstraction. The best pictures of the 1520s and 30s have a gigantesque, at times almost iconic quality to them. Sculptural volume wedded to graphic clarity across the surface in a way that anticipates the high-contrast condensation of essential elements in the work of a Zurbarán, or the analytic treatment of basic form in that of a Poussin or a Cézanne.

But just as often, the figures appear as if modelled in wax and the compositions lack the command and vitality of earlier times, while chromatic richness is eschewed in favour of clear demarcation of local colour. Especially the work of the last 20 years of Sebastiano’s life, while still well crafted, is for the most part but a shadow of earlier glories. Part of the explanation for this should probably be sought in his presumably rather traumatic experiences during the Sack of Rome by Imperial troops in 1527 and what followed. In 1529, he returned to the city after a time in Venice to join his similarly newly returned patron, Pope Clement VII and in 1531 he was anointed piombatore, i.e. Bearer of the Papal Seal, for his loyalty and thereby acquired the moniker by which we know him today.

In the years following this major recognition, his productivity waned drastically. His newfound security was surely a contributing factor, but it seems his creative hesitation went deeper. Contemporary accounts suggest a creatively spent artist, an impression that is only reinforced by his own moving statement, late in life, that he felt it took him two years to complete what other painters in Rome would take two months to finish.

One thing he devoted a lot of his time towards from the early 1530s on was the development of new painting techniques, especially concerning the application of oil on stone. As initially mentioned, it was apparently his wish that Michelangelo adopt his generally successful findings in this area that led to his break with the older master who had returned to Rome in 1534 to paint his Last Judgement. We can only guess at what this estrangement from the man who had been such a dominating influence on him must have meant for Sebastiano, but it is clear that the shadow of the master lies heavy over his art to the very end. Michelangelo had both given and taken away.

As mentioned, their collaboration had culminated during the first years of their friendship, and is especially unforgettably embodied in the Pietà (i.e. the Madonna lamenting the dead Christ) that Sebastiano painted for a subsidiary altar in the church of San Francesco in Viterbo, North of Rome, in 1516. There is some disagreement about how much of the composition should be credited to Michelangelo, but the Madonna is obviously his invention, and if nothing else the body of Christ recalls his own, famous Pietà in St. Peter’s. (1498-1500). Whatever the case might be, Sebastiano made what in its basic concept is a quintessentially michelangelesque idea his own.

The picture is an almost insistently emphatic statement of a belief in transcendence. The crepuscular glow that as already mentioned illuminates so many of Sebastiano’s paintings is here giving final way to night. The soul of Christ has left his body and Mary is aware of this. With fragile yet resolute trust, she turns her face towards the moonlit heavens, and we as observers are invited to follow her beyond the dark and desolate landscape of our transient subsistence. This is fully conversant with Michelangelo’s doubting idealism and hope for Being beyond the flesh, but Sebastiano’s painterly lyricism imbues it with an acutely sensuous quality that is alien to the older master’s sensibility. The body of Christ is of such physical beauty that the eye of the beholder is tempted to linger with it and forget what lies beyond. To hesitate and remain in the dark.

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The exhibition, curated by Claudio Strignatti, is on display at Palazzo Venezia until June 2. It will open at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin on June 28. Hopefully it will be installed with greater sensitivity there. The show in Rome is one of the most poorly installed shows I have ever seen. The paintings are displayed in separate boxes that prevent one from taking in more than one at a time, properly comparing juxtaposed works, or getting sufficiently close to study Sebastiano’s brushwork. To make things worse, several of them are behind thick glass. The fascinating display of drawings is even worse: the works are also placed in boxes behind glass and placed on a plane surface instead of hung on a wall, making it almost impossible to properly study them. Everything is underlit, and the exhibition is given as egregious a theatrical design as I have ever seen. The hang is dissonant with the concept of the individual rooms as expressed in the accompanying texts, which by the way are marred by a translation into English that is unacceptably amateurish for such a high-profile show.

Nevertheless, the exhibition offers a singular opportunity to gain a retrospective overview of the work of a major and thoroughly fascinating artist of the 16th Century. Catch it in Rome or — surely better — Berlin. Also, take a look at the solid catalogue published in conjunction. The essays are of varying quality, but the actual catalogue by Mauro Lucco, Roberto Contini, Paul Joannides, and others — which covers the entirety of Sebastiano’s oeuvre, not just the works in the exhibition — is a welcome addition to the lamentably sparse literature.

The last image is the Budapest Christ with the Cross, painted with oil on marble in the late 1530s.

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