Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombe: friendship and rivalry

It was competition with Raphael that brought Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombe together in early 16th century Rome. The Pope through Raphael the superior artist because he could draw as well as Michelangelo but was a better painter, particularly in his use of colour. This judgement must have infuriated Michelangelo–“a terrible man,” as the Pope called him–and his response was to team up with Sebastiano del Piombo, a master of colour. The result was some remarkable paintings, some of them on show in the National Gallery exhibition.

The Florentine Michelangelo, born in 1475, was 10 years older than the Venetian Sebastiano del Piombe. As the exhibition shows, Michelangelo was more of a sculptor than a painter, and even his great paintings, including those in the Sistine Chapel, have a sculptural feel. As he was taught to do, he began his paintings with detailed drawings. In contrast, Sebastiano del Piombe was a painter in the Venetian style, taught by Giorgione https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/how-giorgione-reinvented-venetian-art-in-a-decade/, with a love of colour.

Lamentation mast

Perhaps the most arresting painting in the exhibition is Sebastiano del Piombe’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ. The dead Christ, who lies horizontally at the feet of his mother, was based on drawings by Michelangelo. The picture was painted for the church of San Francesco in Viterbo, and the dead Christ would have seemed to the congregation to be lying on the altar. When I first saw the picture I thought of Gaugain, not only because of the lie of the body but also because of its colour. The background is evocative and mysterious, bathed in moonlight.

The Raising of Lazarus is one of the National Gallery’s most famous paintings, and perhaps it was the inspiration for the exhibition. Again the body of Lazarus follows the design of Michelangelo, but the composition and colours are all Venetian, particularly the green that occurs all over the painting.


One of the most effective collaborations between Michelangelo and Sebastiano del Piombe was the paining of the Borgherini Chapel. It couldn’t be brought to the exhibition, but it’s been cleverly reproduced using digital technology at just smaller than life size. The centrepiece of the painting is the flagellation of Christ, which has all the movement and muscular power we associate with Michelangelo.


With Michelangelo being such a terrible man, it was probably inevitable that the friends would fall out–and they did over the preparation for Michelangelo’s painting of The Last Judgement. Despite being older than Sebastiano del Piombe Michelangelo outlived him by 17 years, dying in 1564. Michelangelo is much better remembered than Sebastiano del Piombe, but both benefited from their collaboration. But how would Sebastiano del Piombe have developed if he had never met Michelangelo? I wondered that as I looked at a beautiful but unfinished painting of The Judgement of Solomon that Sebastiano painted before teaming up with Michelangelo.



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