1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sebastiano del Piombo

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SEBASTIANO DEL PIOMBO (1485-1547), Italian painter, was born at Venice in 1485. His family name was Luciani. He belongs to the Venetian school, exceptionally modified by the Florentine or Roman. At first a musician, chiefly a solo-player on the lute, he was in great request among the Venetian nobility. He soon showed a turn for painting, and became a pupil of Giovanni Bellini and afterwards of Giorgione. His first painting of note was done for the church of San Giovanni Crisostǒmo in Venice, and is so closely modelled on the style of Giorgione that in its author's time it often passed for the work of that master. It represents Chrysostom reading aloud at a desk, a grand Magdalene in front, and two other female and three male saints. Towards 1512 Sebastiano was invited to Rome by the wealthy Sienese merchant Agostino Chigi, who occupied a villa by the Tiber, since named the Farnesina; he executed some frescoes here, other leading artists being employed at the same time. The Venetian mode of colour was then a startling novelty in Rome. Michelangelo saw and approved the work of Luciani, became his personal friend, and entered into a peculiar arrangement with him. At this period the pictorial ability of Michelangelo was somewhat decried in Rome, the rival faculty of Raphael being invidiously exalted in comparison; in especial it was contended that Buonarroti fell short as a colourist. He therefore thought that he might try whether, by furnishing designs for pictures and leaving to Sebastiano the execution of them in colour, he could not maintain at its highest level his own general supremacy in the art. In this there seems to have been nothing particularly unfair, always assuming that the compact was not fraudulently concealed; and the facts are so openly stated by Michelangelo's friend Vasari (besides other writers) that there appears to have been little or no disguise in the matter. The pictures are there to speak for themselves; and connoisseurs have always acknowledged that the quality of Michelangelo's unmatched design is patent on the face of them. Some writers, however, jealous for Buonarroti's personal rectitude, have denied that his handiwork is to be traced in the pictures bearing the name of Sebastiano.

Four leading pictures which Sebastiano painted in pursuance of his league with Buonarroti are the “Pieta” (earliest of the four), in the church of the Conventuali, Viterbo; the “Transfiguration” and the “Flagellation,” in the church of S. Pietro in Montorio, Rome; and, most celebrated of all, the “Raising of Lazarus,” now in the National Gallery, London. This grand work — more remarkable for general strength of pictorial perception than for qualities of detailed intellectual or emotional expression — is more than 12 by 9 ft. in dimensions, with the principal figures of the natural size; it is inscribed “Sebastianus Venetus faciebat,” and was transferred from wood to canvas in 1771. It was painted in 1517-1519 for Giulio de' Medici, then bishop of Narbonne, afterwards Pope Clement VII.; and it remained in Narbonne cathedral until purchased by the duke of Orleans early in the 18th century — coming to England with the Orleans gallery in 1792. It used to be generally admitted (yet it is now increasingly contested) that the design of Michelangelo appears in the figure of Lazarus and of those who are busied about him (the British Museum contains two sketches of the Lazarus regarded as Michelangelo's handiwork); but whether he actually touched the panel, as has often been said, appears more than doubtful, as he left Rome about the time when the picture was commenced. Raphael's “Transfiguration” was painted for the same patron and the same destination. The two works were exhibited together, and some admirers did not scruple to give the preference to Sebastiano's. The “Flagellation of Christ,” though ordinarily termed a fresco, is, according to Vasari, painted in oil upon the wall. This was a method first practised by Domenico Veneziano, and afterwards by other artists; but Sebastiano alone succeeded in preventing the blackening of the colours. The contour of the figure of Christ in this picture is supposed by many to have been supplied by Buonarroti's own hand. Sebastiano, always a tardy worker, was occupied about six years upon this work, along with its companion the “Transfiguration,” and the allied figures of saints.

After the elevation of Giulio de' Medici to the pontificate, the office of the “piombo” or leaden seal — that is, the office of sealer of briefs of the apostolic chamber — became vacant; two painters competed for it, Sebastiano Luciani, hitherto a comparatively poor man, and Giovanni da Udine. Sebastiano, assuming the habit of a friar, secured the very lucrative appointment — with the proviso that he should pay out of his emoluments 300 scudi per annum to Giovanni. If he had heretofore been slow in painting, he became now supine in a marked degree. One of the few subject-pictures which he executed after taking office was “Christ carrying the Cross” for the patriarch of Aquileia, also a “Madonna with the body of Christ.” The former painting is done on stone, a method invented by Sebastiano himself. He likewise painted at times on slate — as in the instance of “Christ on the Cross,” now in the Berlin gallery, where the slate constitutes the background. In the same method, and also in the same gallery, is the “Dead Christ supported by Joseph of Arimathea, with a weeping Magdalene” — colossal half-length figures. Late in life Sebastiano had a serious disagreement with Michelangelo with reference to the Florentine's great picture of the “Last Judgment.” Sebastiano encouraged the pope to insist that this picture should be executed in oil. Michelangelo, determined from the first upon nothing but fresco, tartly replied to his holiness that oil was only fit for women and for sluggards like Friar Sebastian; and the coolness between the two painters lasted almost up to the friar's death. This event, consequent upon a violent fever acting rapidly upon a very sanguine temperament, took place in Rome in 1547. Sebastiano directed that his burial, in the church of S Maria del Popolo, should be conducted without ceremony of priests, friars or lights, and that the cost thus saved should go to the poor; in this he was obeyed.

Numerous pupils sought training from Sebastiano del Piombo; but, owing to his dilatory and self-indulgent habits, they learned little from him, with the exception of Tommaso Laureti. Sebastiano, conscious of his deficiency in the higher sphere of invention, made himself especially celebrated as a portrait painter: the likeness of Andrea Doria, in the Doria Palace, Rome, is one of the most renowned. In the National Gallery, London, are two fine specimens; one canvas represents the friar himself, along with Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici; the other, a portrait of a lady in the character of St Agatha, used to be identified with one of Sebastiano's prime works, the likeness of Julia Gonzaga (painted for her lover, the aforenamed cardinal), but this assumption is now discredited. There were also portraits of Marcantonio Colonna, Vittoria Colonna, Ferdinand marquis of Pescara, Popes Adrian VI., Clement VII. (Studj Gallery, Naples) and Paul III., Sanmicheli, Anton Francesco degli Albizzi and Pietro Aretino. One likeness of the last-named sitter is in Arezzo and another in the Berlin gallery.

See his general histories of art; and, with regard to his designs, Bernhard Berenson, The Drawings of Florentine Painters (1904). The decision as to the authorship of various pictures which may or may not be attributable to Sebastiano del Piombo is necessarily a matter of contemporary connoisseurship, and it need only be noted that Mr Berenson is inclined to give increased importance to this master.

(W. M. R.)