The Credit Suisse Exhibition – Michelangelo & Sebastiano
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The Credit Suisse Exhibition – Michelangelo & Sebastiano

One of them is regarded as one of the most famous artists of art history; the other is just being rediscovered: Michelangelo Buonarroti and Sebastiano del Piombo. The National Gallery in London made the friendship between these two exceptional artists the focus of "The Credit Suisse Exhibition: Michelangelo & Sebastiano". Credit Suisse has been a partner of the National Gallery since 2008 and is also supporting this exhibition – the first of its kind. 

Michelangelo (1475–1564) is a household name; Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547) is not. Outside Italy, his name is familiar mainly to experts. The National Gallery in London is in the process of correcting that. Until June 25, it is remembering the little-known painter in a fascinating exhibition for a broad audience as a master painter of equal standing to, and as friend and work partner of, the famous Michelangelo.

In 1511, at the age of 26, Sebastiano Luciani, in the circle of Giorgione, leaves his hometown of Venice for Rome, where he soon meets his senior by a decade, Michelangelo Buonarroti, who, even though he sees himself primarily as a sculptor, is painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel by commission of Pope Julius II. Both artists are competing with their famous colleague Raphael, and a friendship is born between them that leads to a series of joint works.

Focus on the Main Works

The London exhibition focuses on the three most important collaborations between the two friends. First, from a purely chronological perspective, is Sebastiano's Pietà (1512–1516) from San Francesco in Viterbo, on loan from the local Museo Civico.

Second is his altar piece Raising of Lazarus (1517–1519), the foundation piece of the National Gallery, bearing the inventory number NG1 and acquired in 1824 as part of a group of paintings that formed the basis for a national gallery. Only a fragment of the original frame of this altar painting remains – in its original location, in the cathedral of Narbonne. Sebastiano deemed his painting to be only really complete when presented framed. Peter Schade, Head of the Framing Workshop at the National Gallery, thus created a new frame for the painting, based on the original base, specifically for this exhibit.

The third important collaboration is the wall decorations in the Borgherini chapel of San Pietro in Montorio in Rome (1516–1524). For obvious reasons, the original cannot be shown. Therefore, in January, using high-resolution photography and 3D technology, a facsimile of the chapel was created at 90 percent the original dimensions to fit in the gallery. It gives exhibition visitors an excellent impression of this third major collaboration between Michelangelo and Sebastiano.

Eye to Eye

A specific focus of the exhibition is the division of work between the two friends. "Their partnership came to be perceived as the ideal synthesis of Florentine disegno – with Michelangelo providing Sebastiano with drawn designs and figure studies – and Venetian colorito," explains Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery. Sebastiano was considered one the best portraitists of his time. Accordingly, he did not blindly execute Michelangelo's drawings. Rather, this was a collaboration marked by mutual appreciation, with both artists bringing their strengths to bear to achieve results that are greater than the sum of their parts. Neither Michelangelo nor Sebastiano would have managed to create such works without the other.

Drawings give the visitor insight into the working methods and creative exchange, some perhaps for joint projects that were never realized. Overall, around 60 works are on display, including some that Michelangelo and Sebastiano created before their first meeting. They are meant to give further insight into the artistic temperaments of both artists and their artistic backgrounds, shaped by different painting traditions. The visitor can imagine the starting point for their joint ventures.

The Credit Suisse Exhibition – Michelangelo & Sebastiano 

Interview with the Curator 

The End of a Beautiful Friendship

Michelangelo resided in Florence between 1516 and 1534, where he worked primarily for the Medici; Sebastiano, in contrast, stayed in Rome. When rampaging mercenaries of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V plundered the Eternal City in 1527 and put Clement VII under siege at the Castel Sant'Angelo, Sebastiano stayed at the side of his papal benefactor. In 1531, as a reward for his loyalty, he received the office of Papal Guardian of the Seal (piombatore), leading to the surname "del Piombo," under which he is now known. He still maintained correspondence with his mentor Michelangelo. Only in the 1530s did the friends become divided over the issue of whether Michelangelo's Last Judgment on the western wall of the Sistine Chapel should be executed in oil or fresco. Sebastiano's last known painting dates from 1537; ten years later, he died in Rome. Michelangelo survived him by 17 years. The friendship between the two is a little-known chapter of art history now being rediscovered thanks to the National Gallery. 

The Credit Suisse Exhibition – Michelangelo & Sebastiano

Reframing: The Raising of Lazarus