NG1 (Framed) Sebastiano del Piombo, incorporating designs by Michelangelo. The Raising of Lazarus, 1517-19 Oil on synthetic panel, transferred from wood. 381 x 289.6 cm With new reproduction frame, the predella based on surviving parts of the original frame and incorporating an antique entablature. © The National Gallery, London (NG1)

It sounds like the plot of a Wall Street thriller.

Three rivals, all competing for the same type of business.

Two of the rivals, possessed of complementary talents, band together to squeeze out the third guy.

But this isn’t a movie. Instead, it’s the true story of the sometimes competitive, sometimes cooperative relationships among three of the best artists the world has ever known – Michelangelo, Raphael, and Sebastiano del Piombo.

The relationships among these men are the subject of the groundbreaking new exhibition at London’s National Gallery, Michelangelo & Sebastiano, on view until June 25.

Here’s how the whole competitive thing shook out.

Michelangelo was trained in Florence, where the ability to draw and understand the human anatomy was prized above perhaps all other skills.

He was also a pretty good sculptor.

Sebastiano, ten years Michelangelo’s junior, was trained in Venice, where the ability to create extraordinary color was the summum bonum or most prized talent.

Michelangelo, known for his sculpting, drawing, and competitive nature, finds himself in Rome, going up against the equally great artist Raphael for commissions.

Raphael has got the color thing that Michelangelo lacks.

So Michelangelo turns to Sebastiano and proposes a partnership – you handle the color, and I’ll handle the composition.

The result is one of the most powerful artistic collaborations the world has known.

The fruits of that arrangement include The Raising of Lazarus, one of the centerpieces of the National Gallery exhibition.

The painting demonstrates Michelangelo’s extraordinary ability to arrange the body in dynamic, eye-catching positions, alongside Sebastiano’s ability to create colors that arrest the eye.

Another work on display at the National Gallery is Michelangelo’s world-famous Pietà. The original doesn’t travel, but a plaster cast of the great work is present, opposite a version of the same subject Sebastiano painted to Michelangelo’s design.

These days, the best museum exhibitions – the ones art lovers will jump on a plane to go see – don’t just provide retrospectives of a given artists work but instead tell a story.

That’s the case here with the Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition, which has received a five-star rating from The Times of London and The Mail on Sunday, and four-star ratings from The Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Evening Standard.

It’s hard to get five British newspapers to agree on anything (perhaps with the exception of their disdain for our current President), but they all agree that this exhibition is not to be missed.

Michelangelo and Sebastiano actually corresponded about their rivalry with Raphael and at the exhibit you can find original letters between the two men, in which they lay bare their conspiracy to keep Raphael out in the cold.

Specifically, they warn each other to delay the delivery of a particular work so that Raphael cannot see it and copy it.

That’s what makes this exhibition so compelling – not only do you see great art but you also get to experience the artists as all too human.

Alas, and as it often happens, not every collaboration ends happily. The final room of the National Gallery exhibition details the breakdown in their relationship and parting of ways after 25 years of friendship.

If you’re thinking about what trip to take next, you may just want to hop across the pond and witness the result of the once-in-a-millennium collaboration between Michelangelo & Sebastiano for yourself.

But don’t worry about Raphael. He did all right for himself, too.


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