Sebastiano del Piombo
Biography of High Renaissance Portrait Painter.

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Portrait of Pope Clement VII (1526)
By Sebastiano del Piombo
Capodimonte Museum, Naples.
An unforgettable papal image of
the late Italian Renaissance.

Sebastiano del Piombo (1485-1547)


Early Career as a Painter
Venetian Paintings
Sebastiano's Relationship with Raphael and Michelangelo

For more about the pigments
used by Sebastiano del Piombo
in his colour painting,
see: Renaissance Colour Palette.

For top creative practitioners, see:
Best Artists of All Time.

For a guide to oils, see:
Oil Painting.


One of the important Old Masters of the High Renaissance, Sebastiano del Piombo is noted for combining Venetian colourism with the monumental forms of the Roman school. Originally from Venice, he maintained an aesthetic link with Venetian painting through his use of colour, as well as his respect for colorito. Trained by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) and strongly influenced by Giorgione (1477-1510), his greatest forte was portrait art, although his friendship with Michelangelo (1475-1564) had a beneficial impact on the grandeur of his altarpiece art and frescoes. In 1531, Pope Clement VII appointed him to the lucrative position of Keeper of the Papal Seals [the seals were made from lead (piombo) hence his nickname] after which his artistic activity declined. The most celebrated examples of Sebastiano del Piombo's High Renaissance painting include: Portrait of Pope Clement VII (1526, Capodimonte Museum, Naples); The Raising of Lazarus (1517-19, National Gallery, London); The Martyrdom of St Agatha (1520, Pitti Palace, Florence); Salome (1510, National Gallery, London); Portrait of Cardinal Carondelet and his Secretary (1512-15, Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid); Portrait of Andrea Doria (1526, Galleria Doria Pamphili, Rome).



Early Career as a Painter

Sebastiano di Luciano, known as Sebastiano Veneziano - or after receiving a papal sinecure in Rome (1531) as Sebastiano del Piombo - is one of the most dramatic examples of an artist with a strong local orientation (in Venice) who shifted centres and modified his expression to conform to the style of his new home (Rome). According to Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574), who was personally acquainted with him, Sebastiano began as a musician before joining Giovanni Bellini's workshop where he absorbed painting and sketching. Later he was associated with the studio of Giorgione. In 1511 he was summoned to Rome by the wealthy Sienese merchant Agostino Chigi - an influential patron of Raphael (1483-1520) and Baldassare Peruzzi (1481-1536) - to decorate the Villa Farnesina with fresco painting: see, for instance, Polyphemus (1511). Once in the papal city, Sebastiano stayed there for the remainder of his life with the exception of a two-year trip to Venice following the Sack of Rome in the late 1520s. He served as one of the most important vehicles by which the new Venetian style of Giorgione was transmitted to Rome, where it was received with great enthusiasm.

After working at Chigi's villa, the Farnesina, where he came into direct contact with Raphael, Sebastiano apparently gravitated toward the circle of Michelangelo. Extensive correspondence between the two artists still exists, and Michelangelo is said to have supplied drawings and a number of sketches for Sebastiano's paintings. In addition, Michelangelo was godfather to Sebastiano's son (born in 1520). A Deposition in the Hermitage Gallery in St. Petersburg, is signed and dated 1516, the same year Sebastiano undertook the decoration of the Borgherini Chapel in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio (Rome), where work on the frescoes lingered on until 1524.

In 1517 Cardinal Giulio de' Medici, a member of the powerful Medici family in Florence, a cousin of Pope Leo X and a future pope, commissioned the altarpiece Resurrection of Lazarus (1517-19) from Sebastiano for the Cathedral of Narbonne, in competition with Raphael's Transfiguration (1518-20, now in the Pinacoteca Apostolica, Vatican, Rome). Sebastiano finished his painting two years later, while Raphael died before he was able to fully complete his work. Soon afterward, Sebastiano probably began the striking Martyrdom of St. Agatha (1520), and the Visitation (1521, Louvre, Paris). From the time of his arrival in Rome until the later 1520s, Sebastiano produced his greatest portrait paintings, a genre in which he excelled. There is a noticeable slackening off of his productivity by 1531, when he obtained a fixed income from his post as Keeper of the Seal and took holy vows. Thereafter, he virtually stopped painting. In 1532 mention is made of a Nativity of Mary for the Chigi Chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo, but it was left unfinished.


Venetian Paintings

Of the Venetian works associated with Sebastiano, none is signed or documented, although indirect evidence and stylistic considerations permit convincing attributions. Older sources suggest a collaboration with Giorgione in the Three Philosophers (c.1511, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) where Sebastiano's share was limited to the completion of the work, left unfinished at Giorgione's death. The organ shutters for the little Venetian church of San Bartolommeo al Rialto, where Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) left an important altarpiece in 1506, seem to date from 1507 and 1508. On the outside face of the shutters (they are painted on both sides) there are paired saints in shadowy niches. The old pilgrim St. Sinibaldus on the right exemplifies not only the closeness of Sebastiano's style to Giorgione's at this time, but also their mutual dependence upon Giovanni Bellini, whose head of St. Zaccaria, from the altarpiece of 1505, is a model for both Sebastiano's St. Sinibaldus and the oldest of Giorgione's Three Philosophers. The understatement achieved through the use of shadow for the sake of expression and mood, in which not only are the forms softened but the atmosphere is also charged with an ambiguous reality, leaves much to the viewer's imagination.

The shift from the Renaissance in Venice to the Renaissance in Rome brought Sebastiano into a very different artistic environment, where Italy's most powerful artists, with the exception of Titian (c.1485/8-1576), had been drawn by well-paying and abundant commissions. In Rome at this time (c.1511), the monumental style of Renaissance art was favoured; there was a desire among the artists, and presumably their patrons as well, to come to terms with Roman antiquity. Sebastiano was quickly put to the test, working beside Raphael on the frescoes for the Villa Farnesina, where we can see his hand in the Polyphemus (1511) and in the lunette above, depicting the Fall of Icarus (1511). Sebastiano portrays the beautiful Icarus hovering over his father, while the feathers of his wax wings begin to melt from the heat of the sun. He shows a certain insecurity with the medium of fresco and an uneasiness with human anatomy, when compared to the confident Raphael, but he manages to inject a poetic mood through the use of soft modelling.

Sebastiano's Relationship with Raphael and Michelangelo

Sebastiano soon became personally and artistically associated with Michelangelo. In the Deposition Altarpiece (1516, Hermitage), notably its central panel on the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ, he incorporated figurative imagery from Michelangelo, without sacrificing his own interest in landscape and a mood reminiscent of Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione. Although the picture coincided with the stay of Leonardo in Rome (1513-16), there is little in it that is suggestive of the Florentine, except perhaps the flowery meadow in the front. The composition is constructed somewhat like Raphael's Spasimo (Prado, Madrid), painted about the same time. In addition, there are paraphrases of the latter's figures taken from the Raphael Rooms, in the two figures in the middle distance on the right, looking or gesturing downwards.

It is in the use of light, both for modelling form and for expression, that Sebastiano excels. The competition between him and Raphael soon became a major talking point. All Rome was alive with excitement over the contest between Resurrection of Lazarus and the Transfiguration. It is known that Michelangelo provided advice and possibly even drawings for Sebastiano's use. The force of gesture, memorable in Michelangelo's Creation of Adam from his Genesis fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and alluded to in the bald figure pointing in the Deposition, is monumentalized in Sebastiano's Christ in the Resurrection of Lazarus. The parchment-skinned figure of Lazarus is also Michelangelesque as he gradually begins to regain life after being dead and buried for three days.

Other insights obtained from Michelangelo include the woman with hands raised, who is a reversal of Adam in Michelangelo's Expulsion. Sebastiano was able to incorporate the best of several worlds: the powerful figures of Michelangelo (and Raphael, for that matter), with a sympathy for landscape painting and the more poetic use of chiaroscuro and colour that are characteristic of his Venetian origins. In the Resurrection of Lazarus, despite the borrowings, Sebastiano still continues to be his own man. Some passages are of great beauty, and if the picture fails to attain the supreme level of Raphael's Transfiguration, the explanation lies not in the mismanagement of his sources, but in the fact that his artistic abilities could not sustain the heights of his towering contemporaries, leading Sebastiano eventually to give up painting altogether. The death of Raphael, his most potent rival, in 1520, opened the field in Rome, but after a burst of activity, Sebastiano was unable to fill the gap, except in the area of portraiture.


One of Sebastiano's most impressive Renaissance portraits is that of Andrea Doria, painted in 1526, which shows the severe Genoese admiral standing magisterially behind a marble parapet on which is carved a Roman relief with marine iconography. Gesture takes control. According to some (not all) critics, what is absent here and in the distinctive Portrait of Pope Clement VII, painted in the same year, are insights into the personality and inner emotions of the sitters. Based on Raphael's portrait of Pope Julius II (National Gallery, London), Clement is shown as a similar three-quarter-length figure. He is not only more self-assured as he turns away from the axis of the torso, but the image is also more rhetorical than Raphael's introspective Julius. In Sebastiano's painting, the hand that holds a folded letter provides a strong visual focus that tends to compete with the head rather than supplement it, preventing, as does the dramatic expression, a rapport between subject and viewer. In another time, Sebastiano del Piombo might have ranked as the first painter of Italy, but the competition between High Renaissance artists was too keen, and he seems to have been overcome by it.

Paintings by Sebastiano del Piombo and his pupils can be seen in some of the best art museums in the world.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from James Beck's erudite work "Italian Renaissance Painting" (published by Konemann, 1999).

• For more Venetian Renaissance painters, see: Homepage.
• For analysis of important pictures, see: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

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