Technical experimentation in the art
of Sebastiano del Piombo: some further thoughts
This brief article is a necessary addition to the
literature on Sebastiano del Piombo. Even in the short
space of time that has elapsed since I last wrote on
the background to and the reasons for Sebastiano’s
continuing experimentation with artistic technique
throughout his Roman career, especially his discovery
and practice of painting on stone surfaces, two
developments have changed the state of the question
radically.1 Firstly, a number of previously unknown
works painted on stone supports by, or related to,
Sebastiano have been discovered – or rediscovered –
in recent years. Secondly, the restoration of some of
his known works on stone has been revelatory, both
in terms of techniques used, confirming much of
what Vasari wrote, and in terms of the exceptionally
high artistic quality.2 These developments reveal
that Sebastiano’s fascination with technical
experimentation was more continuous and wideranging than previously imagined; they also raise a
number of important questions about his career, and
his artistic practice more generally.
Fig. 1 / Sebastiano del
Piombo, Portrait of a
Man in Armour, early
1530s, oil on slate,
47.5 x 36 cm, Private
Vasari, and other contemporaries, state conclusively
that the technique of painting on a stone support was
Sebastiano’s own invention.3 My original research on
this subject, which was framed within this parameter,
examined what has become the standard corpus of
paintings on stone by Sebastiano, the majority of
which depict religious subjects. The newly discovered
works, however, demonstrate that Sebastiano’s
technical experimentation was not confined to
religious imagery, but that he also experimented
extensively with technique in his portraiture.4 This
development also leads naturally into my continuing
research on the role of copies and alternate versions
in Sebastiano’s art, as well as in sixteenth-century
Rome more broadly. There is no mention by Vasari
or others of this practice but it now seems clear that
Sebastiano himself repeated his own compositions,
sometimes more than once. On occasion, he reused the
same composition over a broad period of time and on
different supports, in a manner similar to his erstwhile
colleague Titian in, for example, his series of Ecce
Homo.5 Finally, these discoveries also raise the question
of Sebastiano’s afterlife in Rome which was far greater
in the second half of the sixteenth century than has
previously been thought, and included conscious
imitators of not only his style and subject matter, but
also his technique.
From 1995 until very recently, the recognized corpus
of surviving independent works on slate by Sebastiano
(excluding the Chigi chapel in Santa Maria del
Popolo, a fixed structure and painted on a surface of
peperino blocks) has remained the following: three
versions of Christ Carrying the Cross, in Madrid, Saint
Petersburg, and Budapest; the Úbeda Pietà, now in
Madrid; the Madonna del Velo in Naples, the Baccio
Valori in Florence; the double portrait of Paul III and
a Nephew in Parma; and the half-length, unfinished
Clement VII in Naples. This amounts to only eight
paintings on a stone support in total, nine if one
accepts the Clement VII acquired by the Getty as an
entirely autograph work; furthermore, two of these
are more or less unfinished. Combined with the fact
that the techniques used by Sebastiano did not age
well, this made it hard for earlier scholars to judge
the quality of these works; indeed, the second Christ
Carrying the Cross in Madrid was only returned to
Sebastiano after restoration.


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