Exploring Michelangelo’s Rome

For the best of the master go to the Eternal City

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The National Gallery’s new blockbuster show celebrates the partnership between Michelangelo Buonarroti, arguably the greatest artist that ever lived, and Sebastiano del Piombo, the lesser-known painter who became Michelangelo’s vital ally in the bitter rivalry with Raphael in 16th-century Rome. The exhibition is crammed with treasures, but if you can get to Italy, there are even more wonders to see. Here are ten of the best…

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1. SISTINE CHAPEL

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The big one in any Michelangelo tour, and certainly the attraction with the biggest queue. Arrive early at the Vatican Museum, because the Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo invited Sebastiano onto the scaffold to watch him work, is unmissable. The Creation of Adam is a defining work, and looking up at God reaching out a finger to Adam remains a gobsmacking moment. Though, invariably, someone will be standing on your foot.

2. PAULINE CHAPEL

It’s less crowded in the Pauline Chapel – behind the Sala Regia, which links to the Sistine – because it is traditionally where the Papal Enclave gathered and is rarely open to the pubic. But if you get lucky you’ll encounter two huge Michelangelo frescos, The Conversion of Paul and the moving The Crucifixion of St Peter. Upside down on his cross, an outraged St Peter casts a withering eye on the spot where the altar used to stand (the gaze proved too disapproving for priests and the altar was moved).

3. RAPHAEL ROOMS

Afterwards, go upstairs to the Raphael rooms, the Vatican reception quarters decorated by the artist with fresco scenes and figures that a furious Michelangelo claimed were taken from his own work in the Sistine. Unabashed, Raphael put a portrait of a hulking, hairy-legged Michelangelo at the centre of his masterwork, The School of Athens.

4. ST PETER’S

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St Peter’s, the 16th-century basilica designed, in part, by Michelangelo, is a hot ticket with turn-stiles regulating entry but, again, it’s worth it to see one of Michelangelo’s masterpieces. Michelangelo was only 24 when he completed the Pietà, an exquisite marble sculpture of a broken Christ laid over his mother’s lap. It is the only work Michelangelo ever signed, carving his name on a strap laid across the Virgin’s breast.

5. SANTA MARIA SOPRA MINERVA

Overlooked by the brooding mass of the ancient Pantheon and parked behind Bernini’s statue of an elephant bearing an obelisk, the Santa Maria sopra Minerva is home to another remarkable Michelangelo sculpture. Like the Pietà, Michelangelo’s Risen Christ, depicting Jesus as a muscular classical figure, is presented at the National Gallery as a plaster cast, but nothing compares to the real thing. Take coins along to feed the metered spotlight or, even better, allow the luminous marble lines to emerge out of the gloom.


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 6. VILLA FARNESINA

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Conversely all is light at the Villa Farnesina. A sumptuous Renaissance palace built on the banks of the Tiber by the banker Agostino Chigi, it was the scene of the humiliation that led Sebastiano to team up with Michelangelo. Raphael’s fresco depiction of the nymph Galatea was supposed to complement Sebastiano’s brooding portrait of the giant Polyphemus. Instead, Raphael worked to a completely different scale, blowing Sebastiano out of the water.

7. SANTA MARIA DEL POPOLO

Like big religious paintings? Get to the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, where the Cesari Chapel contains two works by Caravaggio. And the Chigi Chapel features possibly the first use of pyramids in the Italian Renaissance; it was designed by Raphael but is dominated bySebastiano’s Nativity of the Virgin, an altarpiece painted on stone and restored in 2013.

8. SANTA MARIA DELLA PACE, CAPELLA CHIGI 

Famed for Raphael’s fresco of the Four Sibyls, which happens to be remarkably similar to Michelangelo’s preparatory sketches for the Sistine. Outrageous larceny or do we forgive sins that are so beautiful?

9. SAN PIETRO IN MONTORIO

Find San Pietro at the summit of the Janiculum hill; go in and turn right, to the Borgherini Chapel. The altarpiece, Sebastiano’s The Flagellation of Christ, is the first ever isolated painting of the flagellation and strongly influenced Caravaggio, but the figure of Jesus was designed by Michelangelo.

10. VITERBO

Catch a Rome Nord line train from Flaminio to the ancient city of Viterbo, north of Rome. The city’s civic museum is usually home to Sebastiano’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ, better known as the Viterbo Pietà, which is on loan at the National Gallery. But the Viterbo museum has another immense Sebastiano Flagellation of Christ – once more the saviour is by Michelangelo. Sebastiano, if nothing else, knew when he was on to a good thing.

The exhibition Michelangelo & Sebastiano is at National Gallery until 25 June 2017

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