Technical experimentation in the art of Sebastiano del Piombo: some further thoughts
Technical experimentation in the art of Sebastiano del Piombo: some further thoughts
Discussion of the three paintings mentioned above
should begin with the Doria portrait (see fig. 2), for
two reasons: first because it is a version of an existing
portrait, but on a different support (something not
unknown elsewhere in Sebastiano’s oeuvre), and because
it is the first alternate version ever to be discovered of the
original Doria portrait. Sebastiano’s striking half-length
Portrait of Andrea Doria, now on display in the Villa del
Principe in Genoa (fig. 4), is one of very few portraits for
which there is secure contemporary evidence, allowing it
to be dated with certainty to the summer of 1526.10 The
painting has always been viewed as one of Sebastiano’s
masterpieces, and it had seemed unusual that no other
version was known.11 The newly emerged version, still in
the family collection in Rome, presents an exact replica
of the face – save for a longer beard – but it is painted on
slate; furthermore, it has been reduced to just the head
and the format has been revised to an oval tondo.
Fig. 4 / Sebastiano del
Piombo, Portrait of
Andrea Doria, ca. 1536,
oil on slate, 62.3 x 46.5
cm, Genoa, Palazzo del
Perhaps most significantly, if this painting is indeed
Sebastiano’s own work, as I believe, it could throw new
light upon the chronology of Sebastiano’s paintings on
stone surfaces. Andrea De’ Marchi, who first published
the portrait, remains convinced that it must also date
to 1526.12 Sebastiano’s corpus of paintings on stone
has traditionally been dated to after his sufferings in
the Sack of Rome in 1527, in part as they have been
perceived as a response to that traumatic event; and,
more conclusively, on the basis of the famous letter
written in June 1530 from Vittore Soranzo to Pietro
Bembo, recording Sebastiano’s discovery of the
technique.13 Thus, De’ Marchi’s dating of the second
Doria portrait to 1526 would present a radical revision
of Sebastiano’s accepted chronology.
correct, either Sebastiano had in fact begun painting
on stone before the Sack, or else he was making
versions of his own paintings several years post factum.
Unfortunately, no other slate painting can be dated
so early and, at present, little more can be said about
the Doria painting as it has not yet been submitted to
a sustained technical examination which could yield
new information; although it would appear from the
remains of mortar adhering to the rear surface that it
was once attached to a wall.
It is logical to question why a version of the Portrait
of Andrea Doria, painted before the Sack, should
be repeated later – especially since Doria was no
longer in Rome, where his political importance had
rapidly dwindled after the Sack?14 If De’ Marchi is
The Portrait of a Man in Armour (Ippolito de’ Medici?)
(see fig. 1), in a private collection, can be dated to
around the early 1530s.15 Recent restoration has
revealed that this this figure is painted in oils over a
grey under-layer on the same thinly sliced support
Fig. 5 / Sebastiano
del Piombo, Head of
Clemente VII, early 1530s,
oil on slate, 145 x 100
cm, Naples, Museo di
as others of Sebastiano’s paintings on slate, using
the same innovative techniques. It not only has the
restricted colour palette typical of Sebastiano’s late
work, but the surface also allows for the stone support
to show through in places, an effect often used in his
works on slate. The work might have been conceived
primarily as a study rather than a finished portrait
– like the head of Clement VII in Naples (fig. 5) – or
may, like a number of Sebastiano’s other late works,
have remained unfinished. The portrait itself shows
the head of a bearded man, turned to three-quarter
profile and clad in highly polished armour; he gazes
directly at the viewer and is set against a neutral
sculpture, always present in Sebastiano’s works on
slate, is particularly evident here. Alessandro Ballarin
draws an interesting parallel with the statue of Giuliano
de’ Medici that was carved by Michelangelo for San
Lorenzo in the late 1520s and early 1530s; both
figures for example have the same “swan neck”.16
Furthermore, two late letters from Sebastiano in Rome
to Michelangelo in Florence, dated 17 July and 25 July
1533, prove that Sebastiano had seen the Giuliano
statue for himself when it was being completed by Fra’
Giovanni Angelo Montorsoli.17 This visual evidence
could be used to date this Portrait of a Man in Armour
more precisely to around the time of the final rift
between the two artists later that year.
The head itself has the blocky solidity and fixed gaze
characteristic of Sebastiano’s late portraiture, which
has been so well revealed by the recent restoration
of the Pitti Baccio Valori. In addition, the paragone with
In relation to the possibility that this painting
remained unfinished, or formed a study for a larger
work, the inventory of the contents of Sebastiano’s
studio, discovered and published by Michael Hirst,
has been endlessly discussed. However, the fact that
the inventory lists a great number of alternate versions
of known works, painted on surfaces that differ to the
surviving originals, has never been remarked on. For
example, the inventory’s listing of a reduced version
on canvas of the Pitti portrait of Baccio Valori on
slate has been barely considered in the Sebastiano
literature: nor for that matter have the different stone
surfaces that were ready for use and also listed in the
inventory.18 Vasari says that Sebastiano experimented
with several different surfaces besides slate – “l’argento,
rame, stagno e altri metalli” – but no further evidence
has survived for this.19 Were these works on different
surfaces recorded in his studio studies for the final
versions? Or were they secondary versions of his own
compositions made by Sebastiano himself? Were they
finished or unfinished? This inventory in fact presents
more questions than answers. As will be explored
below, Sebastiano would appear to have used slate at
least not just for finished paintings. Still, what would
be the reasons behind this reiteration of the same
composition on different supports?


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