Sebastiano in Berlin — Some Thoughts

Austin_Portrait_t.jpg I’ve just returned from a short visit to Berlin where I had the opportunity to visit the German iteration of the large Sebastiano del Piombo retrospective that showed in Rome earlier this summer. Since the article I wrote after having seen it there was a more general assessment of Sebastiano’s art and career, I figured I would append a few comments on specific works here.

As I wrote about the Rome show, it was hampered by a terribly overconceived installation — amongst the worst I’ve seen — so I’m happy to report that the Berlin display goes the obvious and straightforward route that so many exhibition designers fail to grasp these days: hanging the pictures on the wall and lighting them well. The Gemäldegalerie’s exhibition rooms have their limitations, which results in an at times slightly illogical hang where early and late pictures are juxtaposed for no other evident reason than the purely logistical, and certain works such as the strange Spezia Adonis pictures (see below) hang on opposite sides of the room instead of next to each other, which would obviously have been preferable.

Also, several works weren’t able to travel to Germany. The Genova Giacomo Doria, the Pitti St. Agatha, the National Gallery Portrait of a Woman as St. Agatha, the Barcelona and Harewood Female ‘Colonna’ Portraits, and — most sadly — the San Giovanni Crisostomo Altarpiece aren’t there. As partial compensation, the beautiful Kimbell Head of a Woman tondo and an exquisite, richly saturated small Portrait of Clement VII from a private collection, which to me looks bona fide, are included. While sad, these omissions are understandable, and that the curators have actually managed to secure for both venues such major works as the San Bartolomeo organ shutters, the Kingston Lacey Judgment of Solomon, the Viterbo Pietà and the Burgos altarpiece is in itself hugely impressive. Also, the display of drawings is, as promised, entirely different.

The crucial advantage the Berlin show has over the one in Rome is that you can actually see the works up close, and next to each other, something the display boxes, low light and occasional thick plexiglass panes of the Rome installation prevented. This fact alone clearly makes this the superior iteration of this fantastic show. So, you know, go see it.

In the following, I’ll mostly be commenting on the attribution and dating of certain works included in the exhibition. I’ve generally picked out things I disagree with in an otherwise superbly curated show and sagely considered catalogue, so please be assured that the points are made are in no way reflective of my opinions on the work done by the curators as a whole. In any case, the data on these works is sufficiently unclear that what one believes comes down to stylistic assessments. My comments will thus serve to illustrate the difficulties and uncertainties of connoisseurship, and hopefully also make sense.

Birth of Adonis, Death of Adonis, La Spezia, Museo Civico
Now that I’ve actually seen these small panels up close, I’m somewhat doubtful about the attribution to the young Sebastiano. The catalogue dates them to around 1505, which would situate them a year or two before such works as the Budapest Portrait of a Young Woman and the Metropolitan Sacra Conversazione, both indubitably by Sebastiano and here dated 1505-6 and c. 1507, respectively, which may be a little early but still seems reasonable.

Yes, the woman on the left in the Birth looks somewhat similar to the false mother in the Judgment of Solomon (c. 1507-10), and as co-curator Mauro Lucco points out in the catalogue, the dead Adonis possibly anticipates the same character in the 1511 Uffizi Death of Adonis, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that Sebastiano painted these two small paintings.

Even allowing for the difference in size, the Adonis panels seem too weak in their grasp of anatomy and volume when compared to the substantially modelled figures in the Budapest and Metropolitan pictures. Also, the thick, saturated strokes used to evoke the evening skies are a far cry from the subtlety at display in the finely modulated fading light of that of the Metropolitan picture. At the very least, the Spezia pictures would have to be further apart in the young painter’s development from the later pictures for these discrepancies to make sense. This would probably have to mean backdating them, which I guess is a possibility.

What most troubles me about the attribution, however, is the conspicuously oily rendering of the foliage and tree trunk in the Adonis pictures. While quite original and striking as a means of texturing, it looks like nothing else in Sebastiano’s oeuvre. It could be an early experiment subsequently abandoned, but when considered along with the other discrepancies between these and the secure works closest to them, I would tend towards giving them to one of the many still unidentified giorgionesque painters of this exciting period in Venetian painting, perhaps the same one who painted a tondo showing Rhea Silvia with Romulus and Remus, at one time in Milan (Pietro Zampetti, Giorgione e i giorgioneschi, Venice 1955, no. 55). I haven’t seen this painting in the flesh, but judging from this black and white reproduction, it looks similar in handling.

If accepted as by Sebastiano, however, the Adonis pictures would entirely rule out another attribution to the master made by Mauro Lucco in the catalogue — the so-called Pastoral Idyll deposited in the Fogg Art Museum, here dated to 1505 (not in the exhibition). I don’t believe this picture is by Sebastiano, preferring the common attribution to the young Titian around 1509, but were I to accept either of these pictures as by Sebastiano, I would still find them impossible to reconcile. It could be argued that the figures in the three pictures are similar in type, but the foliage in the Idyll is light and airy, and the setting sunlight bathes the picture in a glow of an entirely different quality than the rather emphatic lustre of the Adonis pictures. To my mind, they simply cannot be by the same painter.

detroit_triple_portrait_t.jpgTriple Portrait, Detroit Institute of Arts
According to an old annotation, no longer visible, on the back of this canvas it was painted jointly by “Sebastiano del Piombo, Giorgione, Titian”, each of them handling a figure — Sebastiano at right, Giorgione in the centre and Titian at left. It seems to me rather rash of the curators to accept this wet dream of an attribution, dismissed by most of the scholarship. It is indeed tempting to imagine the three greatest artists of the new Venetian painting of the early 16th Century jamming on the same canvas, but when one looks a little closer at the result, it should be clear that the idea is untenable.

The “Giorgione” bit is the best. There’s volume to the modelling and a muted sense of brooding to the shaded expression of the man in the middle. He even vaguely recalls the San Rocco Christ Carrying the Cross (c. 1510), the attribution of which has traditionally been evenly split between Giorgione and Titian (I favour the former myself). The handling is dry, with the paint rather thinly applied, and as such not entirely out of step with Giorgione’s technique. I guess I could just about believe the attribution were it not for the other two figures.

The woman allegedly by Sebastiano — a master of volume — is flat and lifeless, staring emptily into space. Her profile is definitely to type, resembling as it does that of the Berlin Ceres (c. 1507-10), but the quality of the handling doesn’t fit his at all. It has none of his sense of modulation, and certain passages entirely fail to match his vigour of handling. This is particularly clear in the delicately rendered, finely combed hair — a pedantic imitation of the energetic strokes animating the hair of the London Salome or the Washington Wise Virgin (both 1510).

Most unconvincing, however, is the attribution to Titian of the woman in white. Besides its anatomical awkwardness, the dryly brushed surface of her skin — pinkish tint showing through from underneath — shows none of the confidence or subtlety of his finely modulated approach. And her almost haphazardly rendered, broadly highlighted sleeve is utterly unlike anything he would do. It postulates rather than evokes, and seems to me of a considerably later moment in the 16th Century. The texturing of her hair is where the artist best approximates Titian’s style, but this part also lacks the intelligence and grasp of form that underlies his expressive brushwork in passages such as these.

Should one still choose to accept it, the female type represented is of a phase in Titian’s art, the mid-1510s, that is irreconcilable with his style the late years of the first decade, the only time the three painters could conceivably have collaborated. As is probably evident, I agree with the scholars that have described this painting as a later 16th-century pastiche by somebody familiar with the work of the artists in question. This was made evident by its inclusion in the exhibition. It paled in comparison.

Holy Family, Burgos Cathedral
One of the centrepieces of the exhibition, this little seen major work is a fascinating if somewhat disheartening acquaintance. Hailed in the catalogue as a masterpiece on par with the Viterbo Pietà, it is nothing of the sort. While of an impressive monumentality and dazzling chromatic brilliance, it is heavy-handedly composed and stiff and overbaked in execution. Lacking of the stirring emotional tenor of the Viterbo altarpiece and Sebastiano’s other best work from his early years in Rome, it seems to me emblematic of his development towards monumental inflation in the 1520s.

And the painting has indeed traditionally been dated sometime in that decade, with documentary evidence showing that it was in place in the cathedral in 1528. In support of a date in the mid-1520s, scholars have pointed out that the two angels also appear in the initial, abandoned design — an Assumption of the Virgin — for the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo around 1526, as documented in an elaborate presentation drawing also included in the Berlin show. Equally significant, the Madonna bears an undeniable resemblance, especially in her hands, to the one that appears in the Olomuc Madonna of the Veil, commonly dated to c. 1525.

It is therefore surprising to see Mauro Lucco antedating it by almost a decade, to c. 1516-19, making it contemporary with the aforementioned masterpiece in Viterbo. Lucco argues that its bright colouring is of a different phase in Sebastiano’s development than the darker tonalities of the Olomuc picture and other 1520s work, and rightly points out that the recurrence of figures between this and the abandoned Assumption does not necessarily mean that the two works were created at the same time. Sebastiano could easily have picked up an already developed angel when working on the Chigi design.

The problem with his earlier dating, however, is that it relies on exactly the same kinds of arguments as those that place it in the mid-1520s, only less compelling. Lucco posits a number of similarities of detail between the Burgos altarpiece and work of the 1510s, not all of them equally convincing. Amongst the more obvious is the use in the background of a body of water with a small waterfall, and a tree stump, both of also appear in the Viterbo Pietà. He also points out the similarity between the profile of the angel on the right and the Magdalen in the massive National Gallery Resurrection of Lazarus (1517-19, not in the exhibition). The rest of his comparisons, however, are less persuasive.

As already outlined, I find it very hard to believe that the Burgos picture would be of the same moment as the Viterbo altarpiece. During the late teens, Sebastiano’s work was still characterised by a singular psychological sensitivity that is entirely absent from the Burgos Holy Family. It shares much more with his portraits of the 1520s, such as the vivid Barcelona ‘Vittoria Colonna’ (c. 1520-25) or the magnificent Anton Francesco degli Albizzi (1525), than it does with those of the 1510s, such as the lyrical Budapest Portrait of a Man (c. 1515) or the intimate Dublin Portrait of a Cardinal (1512-14), for example.

Lucco is somewhat closer to the mark in his comparison with the in every way more original and inventive Resurrection of Lazarus. I would therefore propose that the Burgos altarpiece grew out of Sebastiano’s work — partly based on designs by Michelangelo — of that great composition, evincing the gigantism that would come to characterise his work through the 1520s and anticipating the Madonna of the Veil and the Assumption. The pictures it resembles most, in fact — both in colour and conception — are the similarly broad and bright Louvre Visitation of 1521 and the Compiègne St. Anthoy Abbot of a year or two later (neither of which are in the exhibition), whose protagonist is strikingly similar to Joseph in the Burgos picture. The early years of the 1520 thus seem a much more convincing date than the more spectacular but forced placement in the late teens proposed here.

Portrait of a Young Man, University of Texas, Jack S. Blanton Museum of Art
This small portrait was one of the revelations of the show for me. Probably painted in the early 1510s, it encapsulates how great a portraitist Sebastiano was, especially in the first couple of decades of his career, and especially of men. Its size is surprising – from the very beginning his portraits were larger than was customary, and they only grew larger — in every way — through the 1520s. But while such monumental representations as the Albizzi, Giacomo Doria (1526) and Clement VII (1526) are astonishing in their larger-than-life presence, they lack the psychological insight and humanist poetry of such pictures as the Ferry Carondelet (1511) — which I’ve already written about — the Budapest Man, or this one.

With his groomed hair, trimmed beard and large blue eyes, there’s a cultivated air to this unknown sitter. His demeanour is gentle, yet masculine, and his gaze reveals both intelligence and empathy. It is hard to know to what extent this flattering portrayal reflects the human qualities of the man portrayed, but Sebastiano makes it feel genuine, as if he were inspired by the individual in front of him to paint what across the centuries becomes a projection of ideal humanity, full of confidence.

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