The astonishing mystery surrounding Paolo Veronese’s historic work The Petrobelli Altarpiece will be solved when this enigmatically beautiful painting by celebrated Venetian Renaissance artist, Paolo Veronese, is unveiled to the public at the National Gallery of Canada on May 29, 2009. Fragments of the original work will be reunited some 400 years after their original creation, and together they will tell a remarkable tale of 18th-century vandalism, 19th-century collecting, modern conservation and 21st-century scholarship. For further information on this piece which will be on view until September 7, please see the exhibition’s website, which has been generously funded by the NGC Foundation’s Distinguished Patrons.
“The reunification of these four pieces will make this marvelous work accessible to the public and scholars alike,” said NGC Director, Marc Mayer. “Critical to the success of such an ambitious project has been the enthusiastic research partnership between the National Gallery of Canada, and the Dulwich Picture Gallery London, and the collaboration with the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas and the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh.”
Paolo Veronese – renowned Renaissance artist
Veronese ranks alongside other great masters, such as Titian and Tintoretto, as one of the great Venetian triumvirate of late Renaissance Mannerist painters. He was particularly renowned for his ability to convey colour and for the extraordinary incandescence in his work.
The surprising story of survival
The incredible story of this piece and its remarkable survival bear all the hallmarks of a good thriller complete with sharp instruments, damaging sea voyages, false leads and sudden revelations. Bringing about its reassembly has been similar to piecing together an immense and fascinating jigsaw puzzle requiring a combination of academic research and technological expertise.
It begins around 1563 in the tiny town of Lendinara in the Veneto Region of Northern Italy. This was one of the homes of the two merchant Petrobelli cousins − Antonio and Girolamo − who commissioned Paolo Veronese to create a large altarpiece that was to be hung in their family chapel in the church dedicated to San Francesco. Veronese planned a large, arched work to be placed in a high stone portico which comprised three main groups of figures standing in a triangle – a dead Christ supported by angels, the Petrobelli cousins kneeling and receiving blessings from saints, and a St. Michael trampling Satan.
Two centuries ago, like many other large works of that period, it suffered a cruel fate and was cut into pieces by shrewd art dealers who saw the value in selling it in smaller sections. These changed hands many times. Eventually, one came to the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (U.K.) and another to the National Gallery of Scotland; a third piece, the Dead Christ Supported by Angels, was purchased by Eric Brown, the NGC’s first director, and made its way to the National Gallery of Canada in 1925. However, en route to a previous buyer it had suffered serious damage during the transatlantic crossing during which it travelled upside down in salt water. A fourth piece, the head of an angel, was discovered at the Blanton Museum in Austin, Texas.
Restoring the Dead Christ to much of its former glory
The NGC fragment – Dead Christ − presented multiple challenges to the Gallery and its restoration team, comprising Stephen Gritt and Tomas Markivicius. Starting in 2007, it has been a two-year undertaking. Physical and technical difficulties abounded. The painting had also been cropped to an asymetrical rectangular format, and to restore its original compositional dynamism, it needed to be returned to its initial width and arched form. Two other artworks by Veronese – the Repentant Magdalene and the Rest on the Flight into Egypt also needed to be examined and sampled for numerous technical purposes including different thread sizes in the canvas, complexities of the colour palette and variations in the style of Veronese’s workshop assistants who also participated in the painting’s creation. In addition, it was challenging to reconstruct the pieces relative to each other.
The Dead Christ was in very poor condition. Its initial restoration by Frank Colley in 1926 did not stand the test of time and the painting’s soaking in seawater compounded the problem. Thus, with its surface sullied, discoloured and partially illegible, this work had been relegated to the Gallery’s storage area for much more time than it appeared on the walls. Its state of disrepair also precluded it from being reunited with the other fragments.
“The oddly shaped tangle of problems associated with this project has proved complex but fascinating and rewarding,” said the NGC’s Chief of Restoration and Conservation, Stephen Gritt. “Now that it is restored as nearly as possible to its former glory, the NGC fragment is not only being exhibited at the museums partnering in this project but it will also take its rightful place within the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection and within Veronese literature.”
Funding the restoration of the Dead Christ
The restoration of this invaluable piece could not have taken place without the generosity of the Members, Supporting Friends and Donors of the NGC and the NGC Foundation who funded the restoration of the National Gallery’s portion of this painting. Its legacy is now assured.
“The extraordinary story of this masterpiece captured the heart and imagination of more than 800 households in our community who stepped forward with donations to ensure that it could be beautifully restored and rediscovered by the public,” said the President and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, Marie Claire Morin. “Their tremendous support also made it possible for the National Gallery to present this remarkable exhibition. We are deeply grateful to them for their invaluable contribution to this important project.”
About the National Gallery of Canada Foundation
Established in 1997, the National Gallery of Canada Foundation is dedicated to providing the National Gallery of Canada and its affiliate, the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, with the additional financial support needed to preserve and promote Canada’s rich visual arts heritage and make art accessible and meaningful to Canadians. The blend of private philanthropy and public support is vital to the National Gallery’s ability to carry out its programs and fulfill its unique mandate. The Foundation welcomes immediate and deferred gifts for special projects and endowments.
About the National Gallery of Canada
The National Gallery of Canada is home to the most important collections of historical and contemporary Canadian art in the world. In addition, it has pre-eminent collections of Indigenous, Western and European Art from the 14th to the 21st century, American and Asian Art as well as drawings and photography. Created in 1880, it is among the oldest of Canada’s national, cultural institutions. As part of its mandate to make Canadian art accessible across the country, the NGC has one of the largest touring exhibition programs in the world.