Spotlight on Sebastiano del Piombo

The eternal innovation of paintings on stone

This Spotlight is focused on one of the great innovators of the Italian High Renaissance, Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547) and his Portrait of a Man in Armour, Said to Be Ippolito de’ Medici (c. 1530–1535).

A student of Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516) and Giorgione (1478–1510) in Venice, a collaborator of Michelangelo (1475–1564) and a rival to Raphael (1483–1520) in Rome, Sebastiano del Piombo was a pivotal figure during one of art history’s most transformative periods. As a portraitist, Vasari described Sebastiano’s talents as unparalleled, and his highly naturalistic and sfumato likenesses made him one of Rome’s most sought-after artists. Almost two decades after arriving in Rome from his native Venice in 1511, Sebastiano was credited by some contemporary sources as the inventor of a new method to paint in oil on stone supports.1 Although he only started using this technique more readily in the 1530s, his experiments began immediately after his arrival in the Città Eterna, if not earlier.2 As early as 1515–1516, Sebastiano carried out trials using alternatives to the established fresco technique by painting directly onto the wall with oil paint. Although he was not the first to explore this technique, he was the first who successfully prevented it from ‘running down the wall’, as the artist put it.3

A student of Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516) and Giorgione (1478–1510) in Venice, a collaborator of Michelangelo (1475–1564) and a rival to Raphael (1483–1520) in Rome, Sebastiano del Piombo was a pivotal figure during one of art history’s most transformative periods. As a portraitist, Vasari described Sebastiano’s talents as unparalleled, and his highly naturalistic and sfumato likenesses made him one of Rome’s most sought-after artists. Almost two decades after arriving in Rome from his native Venice in 1511, Sebastiano was credited by some contemporary sources as the inventor of a new method to paint in oil on stone supports.

It remains unclear why Sebastiano turned to this new support. One of the earliest claims about painting on stone was that it would endure the ravages of time, as it was deemed ‘pittura poco meno che eterna’ or ‘painting little less than eternal’.4 The appeal of this seemingly durable medium can therefore be understood in the context of the devastation caused by the Sack of Rome in 1527, yet it stands in sharp contrast with reports by both contemporary sources and Sebastiano himself on the stone’s intrinsic fragility. While this argument has also long been interpreted in the context of the paragone discussion, which debates the merits of painting versus sculpture and, in this instance, the longevity of the respective art forms, it seems that ‘eternal’ had a symbolical rather than literal meaning. Instead, it seems that Sebastiano’s experimentation was aimed at harnessing the unique artistic properties of the smooth support to achieve the levels of naturalism and illusionism aspired by any leading portraitist.5

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait of a Man in Armour, Said to Be Ippolito de’ Medici, c. 1530–1535

Although he only started using this technique more readily in the 1530s, his experiments began immediately after his arrival in the Città Eterna, if not earlier.2 As early as 1515–1516, Sebastiano carried out trials using alternatives to the established fresco technique by painting directly onto the wall with oil paint. Although he was not the first to explore this technique, he was the first who successfully prevented it from ‘running down the wall’, as the artist put it.3

It remains unclear why Sebastiano turned to this new support. One of the earliest claims about painting on stone was that it would endure the ravages of time, as it was deemed ‘pittura poco meno che eterna’ or ‘painting little less than eternal’.4 The appeal of this seemingly durable medium can therefore be understood in the context of the devastation caused by the Sack of Rome in 1527, yet it stands in sharp contrast with reports by both contemporary sources and Sebastiano himself on the stone’s intrinsic fragility. While this argument has also long been interpreted in the context of the paragone discussion, which debates the merits of painting versus sculpture and, in this instance, the longevity of the respective art forms, it seems that ‘eternal’ had a symbolical rather than literal meaning. Instead, it seems that Sebastiano’s experimentation was aimed at harnessing the unique artistic properties of the smooth support to achieve the levels of naturalism and illusionism aspired by any leading portraitist.5

Sebastiano’s Portrait of a Man in Armour, Said to Be Ippolito de’ Medici,6 one of the first portraits ever executed on stone, showcases the qualities of this novel technique to the fullest extent. The stone support allowed him to paint the finest details with extraordinary attention, as seen in the delicate glazes and the minute highlights that make up the flesh tones. The impermeable slate surface heightened the sombre blue and grey tones —unlike other surfaces where dark colours may sink in or be absorbed to some extent, on stone supports, dark colours remain more concentrated, appearing richer and more vibrant — enhancing the chiaroscuro effect typical of Sebastiano’s Roman career.7 The artist managed to depict every nuance of the sitter’s face and capture an apparent complexity of character and vulnerability beneath the outward façade of strength. Sebastiano’s paintings on stone were rightly praised for their naturalism and likely also for their rhetorical and poetic potential. Art historian Elena Cavillo proposed that the stone supports could also evoke a parallel between the support and the sitter, as a metaphor for a touchstone.8 From antiquity, touchstones were used to discern the true composition of precious metals. When a portrait is painted onto what contemporaries could have associated with a touchstone, this analogy might underscore the authenticity of the sitter’s likeness and the purity of their character, qualities eloquently portrayed by Sebastiano in his portrait of the man in armour.

The new medium of stone rapidly became a part of the discourse of art and a large part of Sebastiano’s legacy. By the early seventeenth century, works on stone adorned almost every significant church in Rome.9 The proliferation and endurance of works in the technique of Sebastiano’s invention allow for a different interpretation of ‘eternal’, one that reflects Sebastiano’s everlasting place alongside Leonardo and Raphael as one of the greatest minds in art history.

Notes
1. Vittore Soranzo to Pietro Bembo, in Delle Lettere da diversi Re et Principi et Cardinali et altri huomini dotti a Mons. Pietro Bembo scritte, Venice, 1560, 110.
2. More information on what is discussed in this Spotlight can be found in the excellent overview of Del Piombo’s invention: P. Baker-Bates and E. Calvillo, eds., Almost Eternal: Painting on Stone and Material Innovation in Early Modern Europe, Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, vol. 10, 2018.
3. Sebastiano del Piombo to Michelangelo, in Il Carteggio di Michelangelo, ed. P. Barrocchi and R. Ristori, 5 vols, Florence, 1965–83, vol. 2, 315.
4. Delle Lettere, 110.
5. E. Calvillo, “‘Un paragone con oro su’: Material Innovation, Invention and Sebastiano del Piombo’s Papal Portraiture,” in Almost Eternal, 113.
6. The identification of the sitter as Ippolito de’ Medici was first suggested by Alessandro Ballarin in A. Ballarin, “Un nuovo ritratto su lavagna di Sebastiano del Piombo,” Nuovi Studi, Rivista di arte antica e moderna, vol. 21, 2015, pp. 71–80.
7. A. Cerasuolo, “Osservazioni sulla tecnica di Sebastiano del Piombo,” Nuovi Studi, Rivista di arte antica e moderna, vol. 21, 2015, pp. 81–86.
8. E. Calvillo, 103–127.
9. The 2022 exhibition ‘Paintings on Stone. Science and the Sacred 1530–1800’ curated by Dr. Judith Mann offered an insight into the many resourceful ways artists would use stone supports in Sebastiano’s wake.

Spotlight on Sebastiano del Piombo

The eternal innovation of paintings on stone

This Spotlight is focused on one of the great innovators of the Italian High Renaissance, Sebastiano del Piombo (1485–1547) and his Portrait of a Man in Armour, Said to Be Ippolito de’ Medici (c. 1530–1535).

Sebastiano del Piombo, Portrait of a Man in Armour, Said to Be Ippolito de’ Medici, c. 1530–1535

A student of Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516) and Giorgione (1478–1510) in Venice, a collaborator of Michelangelo (1475–1564) and a rival to Raphael (1483–1520) in Rome, Sebastiano del Piombo was a pivotal figure during one of art history’s most transformative periods. As a portraitist, Vasari described Sebastiano’s talents as unparalleled, and his highly naturalistic and sfumato likenesses made him one of Rome’s most sought-after artists. Almost two decades after arriving in Rome from his native Venice in 1511, Sebastiano was credited by some contemporary sources as the inventor of a new method to paint in oil on stone supports.1 Although he only started using this technique more readily in the 1530s, his experiments began immediately after his arrival in the Città Eterna, if not earlier.2 As early as 1515–1516, Sebastiano carried out trials using alternatives to the established fresco technique by painting directly onto the wall with oil paint. Although he was not the first to explore this technique, he was the first who successfully prevented it from ‘running down the wall’, as the artist put it.3

It remains unclear why Sebastiano turned to this new support. One of the earliest claims about painting on stone was that it would endure the ravages of time, as it was deemed ‘pittura poco meno che eterna’ or ‘painting little less than eternal’.4 The appeal of this seemingly durable medium can therefore be understood in the context of the devastation caused by the Sack of Rome in 1527, yet it stands in sharp contrast with reports by both contemporary sources and Sebastiano himself on the stone’s intrinsic fragility. While this argument has also long been interpreted in the context of the paragone discussion, which debates the merits of painting versus sculpture and, in this instance, the longevity of the respective art forms, it seems that ‘eternal’ had a symbolical rather than literal meaning. Instead, it seems that Sebastiano’s experimentation was aimed at harnessing the unique artistic properties of the smooth support to achieve the levels of naturalism and illusionism aspired by any leading portraitist.5

Sebastiano’s Portrait of a Man in Armour, Said to Be Ippolito de’ Medici,6 one of the first portraits ever executed on stone, showcases the qualities of this novel technique to the fullest extent. The stone support allowed him to paint the finest details with extraordinary attention, as seen in the delicate glazes and the minute highlights that make up the flesh tones. The impermeable slate surface heightened the sombre blue and grey tones —unlike other surfaces where dark colours may sink in or be absorbed to some extent, on stone supports, dark colours remain more concentrated, appearing richer and more vibrant — enhancing the chiaroscuro effect typical of Sebastiano’s Roman career.7 The artist managed to depict every nuance of the sitter’s face and capture an apparent complexity of character and vulnerability beneath the outward façade of strength. Sebastiano’s paintings on stone were rightly praised for their naturalism and likely also for their rhetorical and poetic potential. Art historian Elena Cavillo proposed that the stone supports could also evoke a parallel between the support and the sitter, as a metaphor for a touchstone.8 From antiquity, touchstones were used to discern the true composition of precious metals. When a portrait is painted onto what contemporaries could have associated with a touchstone, this analogy might underscore the authenticity of the sitter’s likeness and the purity of their character, qualities eloquently portrayed by Sebastiano in his portrait of the man in armour.

The new medium of stone rapidly became a part of the discourse of art and a large part of Sebastiano’s legacy. By the early seventeenth century, works on stone adorned almost every significant church in Rome.9 The proliferation and endurance of works in the technique of Sebastiano’s invention allow for a different interpretation of ‘eternal’, one that reflects Sebastiano’s everlasting place alongside Leonardo and Raphael as one of the greatest minds in art history.

Notes
1. Vittore Soranzo to Pietro Bembo, in Delle Lettere da diversi Re et Principi et Cardinali et altri huomini dotti a Mons. Pietro Bembo scritte, Venice, 1560, 110.
2. More information on what is discussed in this Spotlight can be found in the excellent overview of Del Piombo’s invention: P. Baker-Bates and E. Calvillo, eds., Almost Eternal: Painting on Stone and Material Innovation in Early Modern Europe, Art and Material Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, vol. 10, 2018.
3. Sebastiano del Piombo to Michelangelo, in Il Carteggio di Michelangelo, ed. P. Barrocchi and R. Ristori, 5 vols, Florence, 1965–83, vol. 2, 315.
4. Delle Lettere, 110.
5. E. Calvillo, “‘Un paragone con oro su’: Material Innovation, Invention and Sebastiano del Piombo’s Papal Portraiture,” in Almost Eternal, 113.
6. The identification of the sitter as Ippolito de’ Medici was first suggested by Alessandro Ballarin in A. Ballarin, “Un nuovo ritratto su lavagna di Sebastiano del Piombo,” Nuovi Studi, Rivista di arte antica e moderna, vol. 21, 2015, pp. 71–80.
7. A. Cerasuolo, “Osservazioni sulla tecnica di Sebastiano del Piombo,” Nuovi Studi, Rivista di arte antica e moderna, vol. 21, 2015, pp. 81–86.
8. E. Calvillo, 103–127.
9. The 2022 exhibition ‘Paintings on Stone. Science and the Sacred 1530–1800’ curated by Dr. Judith Mann offered an insight into the many resourceful ways artists would use stone supports in Sebastiano’s wake.