As the feature of an exhibition,16th century religious altarpieces by Paolo Veronese can make for arcane subject matter. This is all well and good for the Old Masters connoisseur. But how does one reach the interests of the masses, whose knowledge of art history is scant at best?
The Blanton Museum of Art in Austin was recently presented with this dilemma, and has wisely opted to recount the CSI-like story line behind an unknown fragment of work depicting an angel. The piece was recently discovered to be the head of St. Michael, and identified as a key portion of the “Petrobelli Altarpiece”- a vintage Veronese exercise in the grandiose that had been dismembered for centuries.
What exactly happened to it in the first place? The piece fell victim to the persecution of religious orders in Italy, a movement propelled by the spirit of Revolutionary France, and later extended to neighboring territories. As a cause of such fervor, the church of San Francesco in the small Northern Italian town of Lendinara- which had been the work’s original home, was demolished in 1782.
Seven years later, the altarpiece itself was destroyed. A Venetian art dealer who had salvaged the painting diced it up to create numerous religious portraits, and sold them off to the highest bidder. Over the next few centuries, these pieces spread off into many different directions. Two key fragments ended up in the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London, and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, which were quickly linked back to the original canvas during the early part of the 19th century.
The Blanton piece, however, remained shrouded in mystery after crossing the Atlantic by way of Suida Manning. Mr. Manning was a major private collector, who bequested his prodigious haul of Old Master works to the museum during the early 1990s.
Fast forward to 2006, and Dr. Xavier Solomon, a prohibitive authority on Veronese, visits the Blanton Museum to see their angel. Soon thereafter, Mr. Solomon telephoned Blanton Museum curator Jonathan Bober, to what Mr. Bober described as a hunch that their small portrait may be a part of “something big.” The rest, as they say, is history.