According to Vasari, Sebastiano Luciani was born in Venice in 1485 and died in Rome in 1547. He was known as Sebastiano del Piombo as in 1531 Pope Clement VII had appointed him as Piombatore, as the keeper of the lead seal used to authenticate papal bulls and letters was commonly known.
Although he trained in Venice, first at the workshop of Giovanni Bellini and later in that of Giorgione, whose influence is evident in his early works, he nonetheless pursued most of his career in Rome and is therefore the Renaissance artist most skilled at reconciling the characteristic light and colour of the Venetian school with the expressive force of drawing and composition of the Roman school, particularly that of his mentor and protector Michelangelo, who supplied him with preparatory drawings for some of his works. Four such drawings survive: the Viterbo Pietà; the Flagellation of the Borgherini chapel in San Pietro in Montorio; the Raising of Lazarus; and the Pietà in the Chapel of the Saviour in Úbeda.
Piombo's Venetian period was fairly short, as in spring 1511, only months after the death of his master Giorgione, he accepted the proposal of the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi to move to Rome to paint some lunettes in his Trastevere mansion that was later known as the Villa Farnesina.
His first years in Rome were marked by his admiration for the work of Raphael, with whom he nonetheless soon began to compete, encouraged and aided by his friend Michelangelo who, to quote Vasari, regarded Sebastiano's mastery of colour as an opportunity to defeat those who, in Rome, "adhered more to the grace of Raffaello than to the depth of Michelagnolo". This rivalry came to a head in 1516 when the cardinal, Giulio de'Medici, the future Clement VII, comissioned the two to produce large paintings for the archbishop's palace in Narbonne, the Raising of Lazarus from Piombo and the Transfiguration from Raphael.
After Raphel died in 1520 Piombo did not, as he apparently hoped, take his place in official commissions in Rome and had to devote himself above all to medium-sized paintings and portraits, a genre in which he was unanimously praised.
The Sack of Rome in 1527 marked a turning point in Piombo's oeuvre. During the course of events he accompanied his protector, Pope Clement VII, to his refuge in the Castel Sant'Angelo when most of Rome's artists and courtiers had fled the city. This led to a double turning point in his output: on the one hand, after his appointment as piombatore, which was generously paid and involved few duties, his artistic activity diminished, though not his quality in the opinion of Vasari, as borne out by the fact that only ten of his works have been dated to the last two decades of his life, some of which remained unfinished on his death; and on the other, the melancholic and dramatic vein of his painting was reinforced in intensely and grippingly religious compositions such as this Pietà commissioned by Ferrante Gonzaga in 1533 to decorate the burial chapel of Francisco de los Cobos, the future Holy Chapel of the Saviour, which the secretary to Emperor Charles V was then planning to build in Úbeda, his birthplace. Piombo took six years to execute it.
Piombo's mature oeuvre made him the initiator of a "pittura senza tempo" without a narrative context, and post-Tridentine painters found the most consistent model in these latter works.
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