Portrait of Pope Clement VII
Sebastiano del Piombo
Portrait of Pope Clement VII
Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte
The painting is a portrait of Pope Clement VII, born Giulio di Giuliano de’ Medici, and elected Pope in 1523. The Pope is sitting on an armchair of which only the two armrests are visible. His body is slightly turned to the opposite direction of his face. Sebastiano represented him with imperious attitude, looking at somewhere distant, with motionless essence to emphasize the nobility of his subject. The vanishing point is lowered, and this increases drastically the sense of monumentality of the character. The painting plays with tonal contrasts whish were typical of Venetian painting: the green in the bottom, the blood red and the white of the papal robe. Despite the disinterested look, the portrait of Clement VII maintains contact with the observer, who inevitably feel intimidated by the noble figure of the Pope. He holds a piece of paper in his right hand, perhaps a letter. This detail together with his expression increase the curiosity of the observer, who would like to understand better the thoughts of the Medici Pope, who almost seems to predict the terrible things that would soon happen in Rome.
Thanks to a letter written by Sebastiano to his friend Michelangelo Buonarroti in 1531, it is known that there are two portraits of Pope Clement VII made by Sebastiano Del Piombo, both prior to the Sack of Rome in 1527. Vasari mentioned the both works as well, remembering one of them in the house of cardinal Girolamo Bencucci da Schio, and another one, probably the one in Capodimonte, still in the artist’s study. This second portrait, passed by several hands, arrived from Rome to Parma, then to Naples in 1734, placed in the Royal Palace (Capodimonte), then taken by the French in 1799. It returned to Rome and finally to Naples, first in Galleria di Francavilla before it was returned to the museum of Capodimonte.
The attribution of the artwork has never been doubted, even though there have been some assumptions regarding the identity of the subject over the years. Only with the iconographic studies of the early 20th century it was assured that the portrait certainly represented Pope Clement VII, the Medici Pope of the Sack of Rome.
The work is dated between 1523, the year of his election and 1527, the Sack of Rome. A letter between Leonardo del Sellaio and Michelangelo mentions a work by Sebastiano, finished in June, and therefore the work was probably made in 1526.
Bernardini G., Sebastiano del Piombo, Bergamo 1908, p.5;
Rolfs W.,Clemens VII. Und Peter Cornesecchi, in “Repertorium fur Kunstwissenschaft”, XLV, 1925, pp. 121 ss.;
Pallucchini R., Sebastian Vineziano (Fra Sebastiano del Piombo), Milano 1944, pp. 66, 132, nota 136, 168, tav. 66;
Longhi R., Viatico per cinque secoli di pittura veneziana, Firenze 1946, p. 19;
Hirst M., Sebastiano del Piombo, Oxford 1981, pp. 106-108, 110-112, 156, figg. 126-127;
Leone de Castris P., in Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte. La Collezione Farnese. I dipinti lombardi, liguri, veneti, toscani, umbri, romani, fiamminghi, Altre scuole. Fasti Farnesiani, Napoli 1995, pp. 47-48 (con bibliografia precedente);
Irlenbush C., commento a Giorgio Vasari , Das LAben des Sebastiano del Piombo neu ubersetzt und kommentiert, Berlino 2004, pp. 22 fig. col., 58-59 nota 68;
Di Monte M., Luciani (De Lucianis), Sebastiano, detto Sebastiano del Piombo, in Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, 66, Roma 2006, pp. 325-331;
AA.VV, in Sebastiano del Piombo 1485-1547, scheda di catalogo (Roma-Berlino 2008), pp. 210-211;
Sebastiano Luciani, known as Sebastiano del Piombo, was born in Venice in 1485. The nickname “del Piombo” derives from his appointment as the official of the apostolic chancery and registrar of the Papal seals, conferred in 1531 by Pope Clement VII.
After an early career as a musician (Vasari recalls him as a lute player) he devoted himself to panting by attending Giovanni Bellini’s workshop, whose influence can be seen in Madonna with Child and Two Saints of the Gallerie dell’Accademia (1504-1505). Other than Master Bellini, Sebastiano’s work was influenced by Giorgione and especially by some of his works which nowadays have been lost, such as the frescoes of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. He adopted the same nuanced pictorialism, preferring the compositional monumentality that later facilitated his insertion to the Roman environment. From this period are the figures of saints in niches on the organ-shutters of San Bartolomeo in Venice (ca. 1508) and the unfinished Judgement of Solomon (1508-1509).
In 1511 Sebastiano moved to Rome where he worked for Agostino Chigi and met Michelangelo with whom he had a long friendship. His first assignment, in competition with Raphael, was the representation of Polyphemus for Villa Farnesina, placed next to the Triumph of Galatea of the master of Urbino. Among the masterpieces of the Roman period, which were characterized by austere and melancholic religiosity, are the Pietà of the Museo Civico of Viterbo (ca. 1516), one his greatest masterpieces painted for Giovanni Botonti, dignitary of the pontiff, The Hermitage (1516), situated in St. Petersburg, the decoration of the Borgherini chapel in San Pietro in Montorio (1517-1524) the Visitation (1521), situated in Louvre, which was made for the wife of king Francesco I, the Flagellation in the Museo Civico of Viterbo (1525), Christ Carrying the Cross, of which there are several versions and finally the altarpiece of the Chigi chapel in Santa Maria del Popolo (1532). In 1517 he received a commission from the future Pope Giulio de’ Medici and found himself again in competition with Raphael. They both were commissioned a work for the Narbonne cathedral in France. Raphael made the Transfiguration and Sebastiano painted the Resurrection. Eventually cardinal decided to keep the Transfiguration to himself and he sent to France the Resurrection, which is today preserved in the National Gallery of London.
In 1527 Sebastiano escaped the Sack of Rome to his hometown Venice, were he stayed until 1529. In 1531 he was nominated Keeper of the Seal (piombatore, “of the lead”) by Pope Clement VII and from that moment he had less activity as a painter. In 1534 the long-term friendship with Michelangelo ends in a bad way, when he refused Sebastiano’s technical advice during the execution of the Last Judgment and cut off their friendship for good.
Del Piombo’s most important works, both quantitatively and qualitatively, are his portraits, which were stylistically independent from the works by Raphael and Michelangelo. Among them are the Portrait of a Shepherd with a Flute, Portrait of Cardinal Sauli and Portrait of Pope Clement VII made in 1526.
Sebastiano died on 21 June 1547 in Rome.
All the artworks of
Sebastiano del Piombo
The collection of Capodimonte has the origins in the refined and elegant collection of the Farnese family. The first assemblage was formed in 1534 thanks to the initiative of Alessandro Farnese (1520-1589) and Pope Paul III, both interested in ancient objects (conserved today in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale of Naples) and the most important artists of the period. In 1734 Charles III of Spain took the throne and inherited mother Elisabetta Farnese’s collection which was moved from Rome to Parma during the 18th century. In this occasion he felt the need to find a suitable location for the collection. The construction of the Capodimonte building on the hill started in 1738 and it was used both as a residence and as a gallery. The place was first only visited by famous persons, such as Johann Winckelmann, Antonio Canova and Marquis de Sade. The museum was inaugurated in 1957, thanks to the insistence of Ferdinando Bologna Raffaello Causa, opening to the public extensive collection of 2900 paintings, 150 sculptures, 17700 objects of decorative art, 26000 drawings, extended over 12000 square meters and divided into 114 rooms.
During the 18th century, the collection was enriched with the works commissioned by the sovereigns of the Bourbon family, but the lootings by French troops in 1799 marked the beginning of decline as its function as a museum. In the 19th century the building was mostly used as a residence. French general Joachim Murat lived in the building with his wife and they brought new furnishing and interior decorations to Capodimonte. Only after the arrival of the Savoys and thanks to Annibale Sacco, the new era of the museum started: the art objects which were spread in various residences of the Bourbon family were collected and moved to Capodimonte and there was a new attention to contemporary figurative production of art.
For this reason, there are two main groups in the collection. The Farnese collection includes the portraits of Cardinal Alessandro Farnese, Giorgio Vasari and Andrea del Sarto by Raphael, portrait of Bernardo de’ Rossi by Lorenzo Lotto, portraits of Paul III and Paul III with his Grandsons Alessandro and Ottavio Farnese and Danae by Titian, Portrait of Antea by Parmigianino and the cartoons by Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci and pictorial cycles of Carracci, donated in 1600 by Fulvio Orsini. The second collection includes the historical pieces of Neapolitan art from circa 1200 to 1700. Among them are the works by Simone Martini and Colantonio’s St. Jerome, an example of the lively and rich Aragon period, and the works of foreign influence such as Pinturicchio’s Assumption of the Virgin. The 17th century was considered as the golden era of Neapolitan art, influenced by the works of Caravaggio and his followers. From this era there are Caravaggio’s Flagellation from 1606-1607, Ribera’s Drunken Silenus, Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holofernes, Guido Reni’s Atalanta and Hippomenes and Mattia Preti’s St. Sebastian.
The current layout of the museum is a result of the series of restorations in the 1980s’ and 1990s’ which determined the division of the collection onto three floors. The ground floor includes the educational rooms, the mezzanine floor holds the department of drawings and prints, the Farnese collection, the Borgia collection and the royal apartment are in the first floor and finally on the second floor the Neapolitan gallery, the D’Avalos collection, the 19th century gallery and the photographic gallery.