Venetian Painting – Sebastian Del Piombo

IT was very natural that Rome should wish for works of the masters of the new Venetian School, but the first-rate men were fully employed at home. All the efforts made to secure Titian failed till nearly the end of his career. On the other hand, Venice was full of less famous masters following in Giorgione’s steps. When Sebastian Luciani was a young man, Giorgione was paramount there, and no one could have foretold that his life would be of such short duration. It was to be expected, therefore, that a painter who consulted his own interests should leave the city where he was overshadowed by a great genius and go farther afield. The influence of the Guilds was withdrawn in the sixteenth century, so that it was a simpler matter for painters to transfer their talents, and painting was beginning to appeal strongly to the dilettanti, who rivalled one another in their offers.

Only one work of Sebastian’s is known belonging to this earlier time in Venice. It is the S. Chrysostom enthroned,” in SS. Giovanni Crisostomo, and its majesty and rich colouring, and more especially the splendid group of women on the left, so proud and soft in their Venetian beauty, make us wonder if Sebastian might not have risen to greater heights if he had remained in his natural environment. He responded to the call to Rome of Agostino Chigi, the great painter, art collector, and patron, the friend of Leo X. Chigi had just completed the Farnesina Villa, and Sebastian was employed till 1512 on its decoration, and at once came under the influence of Michelangelo. The ” Pietâ ” at Viterbo shows that influence very strongly ; in fact, Vasari says that Michelangelo himself drew the cartoon for the figure of Christ, which would account for its extraordinary beauty. Sebastian embarked on a close intimacy with the Florentine painter, and, according to Vasari, the great canvas of the “Raising of Lazarus,” in the National Gallery, was executed under the orders and in part from the designs of Michelangelo. This colossal work was looked on as one of the most important creations of the sixteenth century, but there is little to make us wish to change it for the altarpiece of S. Crisostomo. The desire for scientific drawing and the search after composition have produced a laboured effect ; the female figures are cast in a masculine mould, and it lacks both the severe beauty of the Tuscan School and the emotional charm of Sebastian’s native style. We cannot, however, avoid conjecturing if in the figure of Lazarus himself we have not a conception of the great Florentine. It is so easy in pose, so splendid in its, perhaps excessive, length of limb, that our thoughts turn involuntarily to the Ignudi in the Sixtine Chapel. The picture has been dulled and injured by repainting, but the distance still has the sombre depth of the Venetians. All through Sebastian’s career he seeks for form and composition, but, great painter as he undoubtedly is, he is great because he possesses that inborn feeling for harmony of colour. This is what we value in him, and he excels in so far as he follows his Venetian instincts.

The death of Raphael improved Sebastian’s position in Rome, and though Leo X. never liked or employed him, he did. not lack commissions. The ” Fornarina ” in the Uffizi, with the laurel – wreathed head and leopard-skin mantle, still reveals him as the Venetian, and it is curious that any critic should ever have assigned its rich, voluptuous tone and its coarse type to Raphael. Sebastian obtained commissions for decorating S. Maria del Popolo in oils and S. Pietro in Montorio in fresco, but in the latter medium, though he is ambitious of acquiring the force of Michelangelo, he lacks the Tuscan ease of hand. Colour, for which he possessed so true an aptitude, the deep, fused colour of Giorgione, is set aside by him ; his tints become strong and crude, his surfaces grow hard and polished, and he thinks, above all, of bold action, of drawing and modelling. The Venetian genius for portraiture remains, and he has left such fine examples as the “Andrea Doria” of the Vatican, or the ” Portrait of a Man in the Pitti,” a masterly picture both in drawing and execution, with grand draperies, a fur pelisse, and damask doublet with crimson sleeves. In the National Gallery we possess his own portrait by himself, in company with Cardinal de Medici. The faces are well contrasted, and we judge from Sebastian’s that his biographer describes him justly, as fat, indolent, and given to self-indulgence, but genial and fond of good company.

After an absence of twenty years he returned to Venice. There he came in contact with Titian and Pordenone, and struck up a friendship with Aretino, who became his great ally and admirer. The sack of Rome had driven him forth, but in 1529, when the city was beginning partially to recover from that time of horror, he returned, and was cordially welcomed by Clement VII., and admitted into the innermost ecclesiastical circles. The Piombo, a well-paid, sinecure office of the Papal court, was bestowed on him, and his remaining years were spent in Rome. He was very anxious to collaborate with Michelangelo, and the great painter seems to have been quite inclined to the arrangement.

The ” Last judgment,” in the Sixtine Chapel, was suggested, and Sebastian had the melancholy task of taking down Perugino’s masterpieces ; but he wished to reset the walls for oils, and Michelangelo stipulated for fresco, saying that oils were only fit for women, so that no agreement was arrived at.

Sebastian’s mode of work was slow, and he employed no assistants. He seems to have been inordinately lazy, fond of leisure and good living, and his character shows in his work, which, with a few exceptions, has something heavy and common about it, a want of keenness and fire, an absence of refinement and selection.


Florence. Uffizi : Fornarina, 151z ; Death of Adonis.

Pitti : Martyrdom of S. Agatha, 1520 ; Portrait (L.).

London. Resurrection 0f Lazarus, 1519 ; Portraits.

Naples. Holy Family ; Portraits.

Paris. Visitation, 152I.

Rome. Portrait of Andrea Doria (L.).

Farnesina : Frescoes, 151 1.

S. Pietro in Montorio. Frescoes.

Treviso. S. Niccolo ; Incredulity of S. Thomas (E.).

Venice. Academy : Visitation (E.).

S. Giovanni Chrisostomo : S. Chrysostom enthroned (E.).

Viterbo. Pietà (L.).