Portraits by Sebastiano del Piombo: Olympic gravitas

Sebastiano del Piombo,

"Christopher Columbus", 1519, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

According to Philippe Daverio, Sebastiano del Piombo (Venice, 1485-Rome, 1547) was “a great precursor” because “some of his paintings seem ready for a 19th-century portrait gallery”.

The French-Italian art historian also adds, “Anton Francesco degli Albizzi must have been very happy to be portrayed in such a determined and rhetorical pose. Andrea Doria must also have been very happy to appear so stern and powerful, above the antique frieze representing the ancient rostrum of a Roman ship. Sebastiano’s success was rising just as Rome’s was dwindling, under the weight of Northern art and the fact that by then you could be brilliant even outside of major cities: his buyers loved him, but he was forgotten by history and rediscovered only recently.”

In the 16th century, Como-born historian Paolo Giovio (1483-1552), in mentioning contemporary artists such as Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Titian, and Dosso Dossi, noted that “in portrait painting, the Venetian Sebastiano surpasses all the others without a doubt; he stands out for the extraordinary way in which he brings life to his paintings.”

In his “Storia dell’arte italiana”, Giulio Carlo Argan (1909-1992) wrote that Sebastiano grasped “very early the lyrical aspects of Michelangelo’s art; and, one could say, gave the first romantic interpretation of his art. In fact, he wished to make it more human within an ethical-religious view of history, as we can see in paintings such as Andrea Doria’s portrait, which prove him as the inventor of the ‘heroic portrait’.”

Finally, Federico Zeri (1921-1998) has seen in the people Sebastiano portrayed a look of worry for the dramatic historical changes underway at the time: “In Rome, the splendidly peaceful, ornate season populated by the men and women portrayed by Raphael was short-lived; the horrors of the Sack were about to come, and erudition as a natural way of being – such as had flourished under Pope Leo X – would never resurrect. Even before 1527, Sebastiano del Piombo’s subjects reflect worries that were not relegated to the desk or library where they studied; in their Olympic gravitas, these supreme champions of intellectual decorum pondered immense problems, which after a moment of hope would be

buried one after the other, by the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation.”

Here is a gallery of Sebastiano’s “champions”.

October 29, 2015