Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2010
Xavier F. Salomon, ed. Paolo Veronese: The Petrobelli Altarpiece Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2009. 160 pp.; 66 color ills.; 12 b/w ills. Paper $45.00 (9787100001212)
Exhibition schedule: Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, February 10–May 3, 2009; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, May 29–September 6, 2009; Blanton Museum of Art, Austin, October 4, 2009–February 7, 2010
Paolo Veronese. Head of Saint Michael, from the Petrobelli Altarpiece (circa 1563). Oil on canvas, 41 x 32.1 cm. (16 x 12 ½ in.). Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin, Suida-Manning Collection, 587.1999.

This exhibition and catalogue reassemble the surviving fragments of one of Paolo Veronese’s largest altarpieces, a work completed around 1565 for the cousins Antonio and Girolamo Petrobelli to adorn the family’s chapel in San Francesco at Lendinara, a town west of Rovigo in the Po valley. The church no longer survives, and Veronese’s altarpiece had disappeared by 1795. The three largest fragments have been known to relate for more than a century, but only recently has Xavier Salomon recognized the small Head of an Angel in the Blanton Museum of Art as the missing archangel from the center. Thanks to this exhibition, audiences can now witness Veronese’s Dead Christ Supported by Angels above Saints Michael, Jerome, Anthony Abbot and Donors in its fullest reincarnation in more than two hundred years.

Of the three essays that constitute the exhibition catalogue, the first is Jennifer Fletcher’s “Donor Portraits in Venetian and Veneto Altarpieces during the Renaissance.” This typological study covers a range of sitters from artists and craftsmen to cittadini and nobili. Fletcher’s decades of portraiture study are evident in the anecdotes and examples that animate her text. Yet for all its breadth one wishes the essay had more to say about Veronese. Bellini and Titian are the most frequently cited artists, and those familiar with Fletcher’s other works will recognize part of this essay to be a reprise, in particular of “The Renaissance Portrait: Functions, Uses and Display” in Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian (London: National Gallery, 2008). The few references to Paolo Veronese—his Adoration of the Kings (c. 1573–74, Vicenza), Pala Bevilacqua Lazise (c. 1546–48, Verona), Baptism of Christ (1561, Venice)—each merely illustrate a wider typological category rather than provide insights about the artist. As an introductory essay, one wishes that it addressed the Petrobelli Altarpiece in particular, or at least reached some broad conclusions about Veronese’s place within the donor portrait tradition.

Salomon’s essay recounts the circumstances of the altarpiece’s creation and destruction, the near century-long struggle to reconstruct it, and his own role in rediscovering the central fragment, Head of an Angel, in the Blanton. The fragment is the only solitary angel reproduced in Terisio Pignatti’s 1976 catalogue raisonné, but no earlier scholar had thought to connect it with the missing Archangel Michael. According to Salomon, the recognition of the Blanton’s Head of an Angel appeared to him in the middle of the night (Carol Vogel, “Angels Appear and Museums Rejoice,” The New York Times, July 25, 2008). Thanks to that midnight stirring, the angel at the center of the Petrobelli Altarpiece has been restored to its central post amid the other surviving fragments of Veronese’s altarpiece.

Salomon’s compilation of the altarpiece’s critical fortunes is both easy to read and comprehensive. He includes Peter Humfrey’s recent discovery of the wills of the Petrobelli in Lendinara (transcribed fully in an appendix of the catalogue) and utilizes Brendan Cassidy’s 2007 article, “come la carne al macello’: butchering a Veronese” (The Burlington Magazine 149 [July 2007]: 483–485). Cassidy’s article brought the altarpiece to scholars’ attentions by quoting from a 1788 letter by the Scottish artist and antiquarian, Gavin Hamilton, who lamented the altarpiece’s imminent demise. Hamilton wrote: “In a short time they will begin the cutting of the great picture of Paolo, it will be sold just like meat in a butcher’s shop, poor Paolo, poor painting.” The painting’s history is rife with violence and separation at the hands of merciless art dealers and collectors, events that make for engaging reading. Veronese’s altarpieces of the 1560s are also presented in a succinct chronology.

If the painting’s provenance can now be told with greater clarity, its pictorial language and iconography await further research. Here, the catalogue may disappoint. Salomon casually mentions some Brescian altarpieces Veronese would likely have known, but quickly passes over these to argue that the “closest compositional model” with “remarkable similarities” to the Petrobelli Altarpiece is Cosmè Tura’s Roverella Altarpiece of the 1470s. That this stiff polyptych, once in Ferrara, proved the point of departure for Veronese or his patrons seems dubious. No period evidence connects the two, and the compositions are markedly different. Tura’s polyptych features tunneling barrel vaults that were once further divided by actual wooden framing, perhaps even suggesting a triumphal arch. Tura’s setting with its stepped throne is also quite at odds with the unified and airy setting of the Petrobelli Altarpiece, which is essentially open at the center save for the silhouetted image of Michael battling the demon. The thread that appears to have led to this purported formal comparison is iconographic. An early description of the Rovarella Altarpiece wrongly mentioned the figures in the lunette to be “a dead Christ with angels.” The Pietà lunette survives in the Louvre, complete with Mary, John, and five others, none of them angels. Pietà imagery and Man of Sorrows depictions appear with frequency in altarpiece lunettes, and it might have been more profitable for Salomon to tackle the tougher iconographical question of why Christ supported by angels emerged as its own motif during this period. Judging from the works of Rosso Fiorentino and others, Christ supported by angels was an appealing subject, though perhaps rare in contradistinction to the Pietà and Man of Sorrows tradition.

Though he holds back from using the word retardataire, Salomon finds the iconography and composition to be “so straightforward and clear-cut” in the Petrobelli Altarpiece that in his estimation the work is “probably referring to old-fashioned models [i.e., Tura’s altarpiece]” (86). Certainly the static, bi-lateral arrangement of figures is not one Veronese would later repeat. But is the picture’s iconography so straightforward or clear? What about the unusual depiction of Gerolamo Petrobelli’s soul as a nude half-body, shown seemingly disfigured around the mouth? This particularity would seem to warrant discussion. Other symbolic elements are not mentioned even though their visual prominence suggests that the artist and/or patrons regarded them as significant. The foliage, for example, is striking when compared to that in Veronese’s other altarpieces. The tree bears peaches, a fruit generally understood to symbolize the silence of virtue and often equated with salvation in early woodcuts and herbals. One cannot take the peaches located near Christ to be merely a celebratory record of terraferma produce because grape leaves are also shown intertwining with the bottom branches—a Eucharistic reference amplifying the salvation theme. Understanding Veronese’s complexity as a religious painter entails probing some of the artist’s rich iconography. A monograph devoted to one altarpiece seems the appropriate venue for such research.

As to the composition, there is no need to look back to the 1470s and Cosmè Tura. Closer formal comparisons can be achieved by studying certain Brescian prototypes, especially sixteenth-century works by Moretto da Brescia. These include the main altarpiece for Sant’Eufemia in Brescia (c. 1526–30; now Pinacoteca civica Tosio e Martinengo, inv. no. 90), Madonna in Glory with Saints (1543; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan), and the main altar of San Clemente in Brescia (1548). All these comparably large altarpieces display a mixture of kneeling and standing figures more or less symmetrically arranged beneath columns or piers that guide the eye upward to a centrally placed image of Christ and Mary in the clouds. The Brera altarpiece’s architectural pavilion is open air, as is that in Veronese’s later Petrobelli Altarpiece, and both artists recognize the dramatic potential of placing the flanking figures against profiled, stone dados supporting a colonnade. The gray, architectonic backdrop of the Brera picture opens at the center of the composition so that the main figure stands silhouetted against the horizon. This is not the first time Veronese takes his compositional cues from Brescian painters; both his portraits and his religious istorie sometimes adopt Brescian formulae. For example, just a few years prior to painting the Petrobelli Altarpiece, Veronese adapted Girolamo Romanino’s design of St. George Before the Justices (1540) from the organ shutters of S. Giorgio in Braida, Verona, for his St. Sebastian Appearing Before Diocletian (1558) in the choir loft of San Sebastiano in Venice. Art historians as early as Joseph Arthur Crowe and Giovanni Battista Cavalcaselle in the nineteenth century have recognized a Brescian influence in Veronese’s work; a closer analysis of the Petrobelli Altarpiece might have helped clarify this relationship.

The catalogue ends with perhaps its strongest essay. Paintings conservator Stephen Gritt provides technical analysis of the Austin and Ottawa fragments as well as two other paintings by Paolo Veronese and his workshop from the National Gallery of Canada—the Repentant Magdalene (mid-1560s) and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (mid-1570s). Artists, art historians, and conservators will profit from Gritt’s discussion of technique. He offers a useful list of pigments and their appearance on the Ottawa canvases, a tool that if imitated by other conservators would quickly yield particulars about Veronese’s palette.

The figure of Christ in the Petrobelli Altarpiece appears based on a model, and Gritt notes that the transfer of such drawings was not likely achieved by a strict “squaring up” where the enlargement matrix is a grid. Instead, transfer seems to have been achieved by a loosely intuitive process involving a series of vertical lines still visible in the gesso (one of these passes right between Christ’s eyes). Besides their general function as reference marks, these vertical lines appear calibrated according to the relative scale of figures within the depth of the picture. For example, the vertical lines underlying Christ are half the distance apart as those underlying the foreground figure of Saint Jerome, while the relative proportion of these distances to the bodies is roughly even. The net effect of this method of transfer is that Veronese can achieve credible scale relationships between tiers of figures at different depths and distances from the viewer, even as the lines allow him to anchor the ever-dynamic anatomy. Audiences have long admired Veronese’s mastery of di sotto in su foreshortening; this essay proposes how the artist achieved such effects while moving from disparate figure drawings to a unified canvas.

Gritt’s skills as a writer appear to be matched by his talents as a conservator. Ottawa’s Petrobelli fragment, the top half of the altarpiece, suffered considerable damage in 1924 when it was submerged in water during a transatlantic voyage from London to New York. Despite earlier restoration efforts, the Dead Christ Supported by Angels had until recently languished in storage in Ottawa. Gritt’s restoration now allows this masterpiece to return to view. At the Blanton, curator Jonathan Bober organized a felicitous exhibition from the museum’s permanent collection, titled Prints and Drawings in the Time of Veronese.

For those lucky enough to see the fragments reassembled, there will be the lasting impression of the altarpiece’s scale and architectonic clarity. For the rest, the photo reconstructions offered by Salomon and Gritt will have to stand as the latest pieces in this puzzle cut by eighteenth-century dealers and reassembled by twenty-first-century curators and conservators. Readers will find the discussion of the altarpiece’s pictorial structure, iconography, and relationship to earlier precedents surprisingly thin for a monograph dedicated to a single painting. Nonetheless, this small, beautifully illustrated catalogue offers a full account of the altarpiece’s critical fortunes in the nineteenth and twentieth century and an excellent technical analysis of a few of Veronese’s canvases.

John Garton
Assistant Professor, Department of Visual and Performing Art, Clark University