Technical experimentation in the art of Sebastiano del Piombo: some further thoughts
Perhaps the most controversial of Sebastiano’s
paintings has been the famous portrait of Ludovico
and Piero Gonzaga’s sister, Giulia, painted at the
request of Ippolito de’ Medici and extolled both by
the poets of her circle, as well as by Vasari.25 The date
of the painting is the only certain fact, as Sebastiano
records himself in a letter of 8 June 1532 as having
been sent to Fondi to take the portrait. While
arguments around the Spirituali and Sebastiano’s
relationship with this group of religious dissidents to
which Giulia belonged remain inconclusive, no fewer
than nine portraits of Giulia Gonzaga survive, in
two different compositional types and on a variety
of supports. Around this group there has been much
animated debate which shows no signs of resolution.26
The compositions are Sebastiano’s but which, if any, is
the original portrait? The most plausible candidate is
the only one painted on slate, the three-quarter length
portrait now in the Museum at Wiesbaden (see fig. 3).27
Here the sitter, clad in sombre widow’s dress, stands
before a table, with one hand resting on it and the
other holding a small animal that has been muzzled;
there are no other props. She has the same swan neck
that appears in the new Portrait of a Man in Armour in a
private collection and the Portrait of a Lady, painted on
panel and currently on loan to the National Gallery
from a Private Collection.
Inspecting at first hand the Wiesbaden painting it
becomes clear immediately that the picture surface is
in a parlous condition and that the painting is in urgent
need of restoration. If conservation treatment were
undertaken it is plausible that the lost original might be
revealed; there is a monumentality and a presence to
the painting even in its current state. Another obstacle
to a certain identification, however, is presented by
a lack of information for the Wiesbaden painting’s
provenance before the early twentieth century, when
it was in a private collection in Kiel. Vasari makes no
mention of the original portrait’s support, although
he does specify that the portrait of Piero Gonzaga,
Giulia’s younger brother, was painted “in una pietra”.28 A
version of the portrait of Giulia went to France after
Sebastiano’s death, although its surface is unknown;
the Wiesbaden painting may or may not then be the
painting on “preda” of Giulia that was inventoried in
Sebastiano’s studio at his death.29
Technical experimentation in the art of Sebastiano del Piombo: some further thoughts
Finally, to round off this debate, a similar discussion
continues to surround the versions of the portrait of
Clement VII, of which one was also included in the
same consignment for France. There are innumerable
versions of these, even more than there are of the
Giulia, and on a variety of supports. Again, in
particular, there are a number of versions listed in
Sebastiano’s post-mortem inventory on varying surfaces
– although neither here nor in Vasari are there any
references to a version painted on slate – and new
versions continue to come to light. Two well-known
versions survive on a slate surface: the head in Naples
(see fig. 5) is universally accepted as Sebastiano’s
own work; the Getty painting may also originally
have been only a head, with the remainder of the
painting completed by a later artist (fig. 8).30 This is
not implausible in light of Vasari’s comment that
Sebastiano was asked to send a head of Clement –
probably on paper – to Florence so that Giuliano
Bugiardini could make use of it for a large double
portrait.31 With the various images of Clement VII
then, there is rare hard evidence for Sebastiano’s
working practices, at least for his later career.
Indeed, the use of slate as a support was far more
widespread than is usually thought, albeit in the main
for religious subject matter. Almost every important
late sixteenth-century artist working in Rome chose
this surface at least once, and often for important
commissions, as did Giovanni De’ Vecchi in the case
of his altarpiece of Saint Jerome, painted on slate for the
Delfini chapel in Santa Maria in Aracoeli; the work
constituted his major public debut in Rome and seems
to represent the only example of the artist employing
this support.
For all that it presents an original take on its subject, in
style and technique this altarpiece has correctly been
described as having “put down its roots in the late work
of Sebastiano del Piombo”: this is true not only in terms
of the style, but also the technical means used.35 The
Saint Jerome presents an excellent example of visual
dissemination too as several versions of it survive, the
majority of which are now in Spain. Another classic
case of both phenomena is that of Marcello Venusti, an
artist who was in close contact with both Sebastiano and
Michelangelo and painted on a slate surface a number
of times, but also on paper: some of these works have
sometimes even been mistaken for Sebastiano’s own.36
It was in Spain that Sebastiano’s compositions had a
resounding success and thanks to Spain’s global reach
they spread throughout the known world.
By way of a conclusion, another point, beyond the
question of surface, raised by a discussion of these
paintings is the continued popularity of Sebastiano’s
compositions and technique in Rome in the second
half of the sixteenth century. Several volumes have
recently been published that examine Michelangelo’s
legacy into the second half of the sixteenth century, but
there has been little or no discussion of Sebastiano’s.32
Subsequent artists working at Rome and elsewhere
continued to look to Sebastiano as a model and some
of the copies and versions of his compositions on
varying supports must have been painted by this later
generation; these were also, in their turn, copied more
than once.
Elsewhere, I have discussed this transmission process
through the case study of Sebastiano’s Saint Anthony
Abbot.33 Little is known about this securely autograph
painting, other than that there are at least five
surviving versions of the original; one or more of
these is the work of Girolamo Muziano. Another,
more problematic, example concerns the only known
Fig. 8 / Sebastiano del
Piombo, Pope Clement
VII, ca. 1531, oil on slate,
105.4 x 87.6 cm, Los
Angeles, Getty Centre.
alternate version of the magnificent Portrait of a Lady,
painted on panel and currently on loan to the National
Gallery, itself a puzzling portrait with fundamental
questions about the sitter’s identity and the date
still open. The other version of the painting in the
Louvre is of not the highest quality and certainly not
by Sebastiano, but it is executed on a slate surface.34
What conclusions can be drawn from this study of
these three paintings? On the one hand our thinking
about Sebastiano needs to be less fixated on certain
preconceived ideas about his life and career, while
on the other there evidently remains a wealth of
new information that is still to be discovered. Such
rethinking, and the continuing discovery of new
material, will allow for an expanded understanding of
the fundamental importance of Sebastiano as an artist
for the sixteenth century, both within his lifetime and
after his death, in Europe and beyond.


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