BOOKS AND ARTS MARCH 2, 2010
Paolo Veronese: The Petrobelli Altarpiece
Blanton Museum of Art
Combine a mystery and a masterpiece and what do you have? You have “Paolo Veronese: The Petrobelli Altarpiece,” a small, perfectly focused exhibition recently at the Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas at Austin. The show--which has also been seen at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa--comes with a backstory engaging enough to make museum-goers pay close attention.
In the 1560s, already in command of his genius for opulent decorative effects, Veronese painted a vast altarpiece for a Franciscan church in the town of Lendinara, not far from Venice. Two centuries later, after the convent with which the church was associated was suppressed, the altarpiece was acquired by an art dealer, and he cut it into pieces and sold them off one by one--“just like meat in a butcher’s shop,” as the Scottish artist Gavin Hamilton observed at the time. Only now, after decades of work resolving the relationship of fragments in London, Edinburgh, and Ottawa, plus the recent discovery of a fourth fragment in Austin, can we see what Veronese had in mind. No matter that several pieces are still missing and are unlikely to be recovered: the Petrobelli Altarpiece, some fifteen feet high, turns out to be an astonishingly powerful meditation on themes of mortality and immortality. Veronese brings a luxuriant gravitas to his representations of saints and sinners alike. The canvas, for all its bold public appeal, has undercurrents of haunted, dusky reverie.
Mounted in one of New York’s major museums, “Paolo Veronese: The Petrobelli Altarpiece” would be hailed as exactly the kind of brilliant, concise exhibition we need in these recessionary times. In Austin, the exhibition was embraced by a loyal audience that has come to expect world-class scholarly work from the curators at the Blanton. When I was last in Austin, a little over a year ago, the museum was host to a show unlike “The Petrobelli Altarpiece” in every respect except its sky-high quality. This was “Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group in 1960s New York,” organized by Linda Dalrymple Henderson, an art historian at the University of Texas. Henderson brought unexpected shadings to our understanding of New York in the 1960s by focusing on a group of artists--among them Mark di Suvero, Robert Grosvenor, and David Novros--who were re-imagining the old Abstract Expressionist swagger in terms of their own increasingly hard-edged, conceptual, and technologically oriented sensibilities. And two years before that, Jonathan Bober, the curator of European art at the Blanton who is responsible for bringing the Veronese show to Austin, organized a retrospective of the sixteenth-century Italian painter Luca Cambiaso. He is best known today for his geometricized drawings of the human figure, which have long had a cult following among painters, who see their sharply angled forms as a prefiguration of Cubism. In his paintings, Cambiaso’s mingling of analytical rigor and poetic fantasy occasionally brings to mind the uncanniness of Uccello. The Blanton was the only American venue for this unprecedented event.
“Paolo Veronese: The Petrobelli Altarpiece,” “Reimagining Space: The Park Place Gallery Group,” and the Luca Cambiaso retrospective epitomize a kind of offbeat, imaginative programming that is at risk in our museums even in the best of times, and is most certainly at risk today. There are perfectly good reasons why museum administrators prefer brand-name events. Monet--or, for that matter, Warhol--has a proven track record when it comes to bringing in a reluctant public. And if you seek sponsors for a Monet show, you won’t have to cope with the blank looks with which the name Cambiaso will be received. Innovative curators such as Bober and Henderson are fighting an uphill battle, no question about it.
Ned Rifkin, the new director of the Blanton, arrives at a museum where there is surely a desire to enlarge the audience for art in Austin. This is an altogether honorable objective. For the Blanton, which has in recent years considerably expanded its operations, fund-raising is perhaps more of a priority now than ever. One has only to consider the museum’s ambitious new building complex, which opened in stages between 2006 and 2008. There are civilized, invitingly proportioned galleries for the museum’s permanent collection, with strengths in mid-twentieth-century American painting, in modern Latin American art, and in late Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo painting, drawing, and printmaking. There is also an unfortunate tendency toward gigantism in these interiors, beginning with a sky-high atrium and formal staircase that a visitor cannot help finding simultaneously overbearing and bland. Behind such overblown public spaces--you see them in new museums all over the world--there is the assumption that if you build it big, big crowds will come. The truth is that the people who do come end up feeling small.
But what is the Blanton to do in these straitened times? A few months ago the National Endowment for the Arts released a rather bleak “Survey of Public Participation in the Arts,” indicating that although museums were faring better than other cultural institutions, attendance at art museums and galleries was down to 22.7 percent of the adult population in 2008, from a high of 26.7 percent in 1992. Frankly, I think there can be too much anxiety about that missing 4 percent. We are not selling Pepsi here. We are selling the experience of Veronese. Anybody running an arts organization must attend to the bottom line: we can all agree about that. What I would like to hear from more museum directors is an insistence that in a country as wealthy as this one--and this is still a rich country, recession or no recession--museums have an obligation to present the finest work in the most uncompromising way, because in the long run that is how you sustain a culture.
So far as I can see, that kind of old-fashioned thinking has powered some of the most exciting exhibitions at the Blanton, exhibitions in which the best art historical scholarship, closely linked to the academic values of the university, flows seamlessly into the dazzling showmanship that any museum needs to attract the public. And many of these exhibitions are supported by important catalogues, contributions to culture that museum patrons ought to be proud to leave out on the coffee table long after the show has closed. Is “Paolo Veronese: The Petrobelli Altarpiece” a life-changing show? Of course not. But it is a powerful example of a medium-sized museum building on its strengths and coming up with something truly substantial.
For decades there had been a mystery as to what precisely was at the center of the Petrobelli Altarpiece, because the large fragments in London, Edinburgh, and Ottawa came only from the top and the left and right sides of the canvas. The conservation of figure groups in London and Ottawa had revealed fragments of a missing figure, apparently the Archangel Michael, a sword in his right hand, a scale for weighing souls in his left, his feet firmly planted on the sprawling and defeated figure of Satan. But what that figure of Saint Michael looked like was anybody’s guess, until Xavier Salomon--a curator at the Dulwich in London who co-organized the show with conservator Stephen Gritt--remembered seeing a head of an angel by Veronese on a visit to the Blanton, and the mystery was solved. Art historians love this kind of whodunit. So does the general public. All you need are a few bankable movie stars and some ecclesiastical-satanic twists and you would have a Dan Brown–style Hollywood hit.
In Austin it also did not hurt that the region’s large Catholic community came out to see a masterpiece of sixteenth-century religious art. One afternoon I found myself looking at the painting along with a group of boys and girls in their early teens who were being home-schooled, and were taking in Veronese as part of the day’s studies. They were engaged not only by the story of how the pieces of the puzzle were put together, but also by the beauty of the painting itself. To see those children and their parents at the Blanton was to see elite culture working its magic in a democratic society.
There is nothing in the art of the old masters that exerts as much of a fascination today as Venetian painting. The public, without necessarily realizing it, finds the origins of modern art’s exuberance--of everything from Matisse’s color to de Kooning’s brushwork--in the painterly poetry that was evolving in Venetian art from the late fifteenth century onward in the work of Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, and others. The Blanton show, which included four canvases by Veronese and his workshop in addition to the altarpiece, was one of a considerable number of events that have in recent years focused on the Venetian Renaissance. Last summer, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston was host to “Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Rivals in Renaissance Venice,” the first exhibition at that museum to inspire real enthusiasm among artists I know since the Chardin retrospective in 1979. Three years ago, the National Gallery was host to “Bellini, Giorgione, Titian, and the Renaissance of Venetian Painting.” And in Europe there have been recent exhibitions devoted to Giorgione and late Titian at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
While the Blanton show cannot rival any of those exhibitions in artistic splendor, there is a particular pleasure in looking at a work such as the Petrobelli Altarpiece in something approaching isolation. This is, after all, how such devotional works were meant to be seen--as one-off experiences, not as paintings surrounded by other paintings in an art gallery. The generously proportioned room in which the altarpiece hung in Austin may well have echoed the scale of the space, long ago demolished, where the canvas was first seen. Certainly in Austin, Veronese’s conception, in equal parts dramatic and contemplative, had a chance to work its magic. The setting is a portico, with huge columns framing green distances, impressive hills, and a vast cloud-studded sky. In the altarpiece’s arched upper regions, the dead Christ appears, borne aloft by three angels and surrounded by cherubs holding the instruments of the Passion, especially the crown of thorns and the whip used for the thirty-nine lashes.
At the very center of the composition stands Saint Michael, of whom nothing survives except the beautiful head in Austin, with its softly sensuous features, gently downcast gaze, and cap of golden curls. Framing Saint Michael are two pairs of figures, the Petrobelli cousins and their patron saints, with Antonio Petrobelli kneeling beneath Saint Anthony Abbot on the left and Girolamo Petrobelli at Saint Jerome’s feet to the right. In a scheme not unusual among Renaissance altarpieces, there is a mingling in Veronese’s fictive space of different temporal and moral and spiritual worlds. The Petrobellis who paid for the altarpiece and live in the here and now are permitted a certain access to the saints and to the angels and even to the figure of Christ.
For anybody who counts on Veronese for a ripe theatrical atmosphere, with figures in chaotic profusion and compositions that are dynamically twisted and angled, the Petrobelli Altarpiece will come as something of a surprise. The luxuriant rhetoric that is one of Veronese’s glories is subdued here. His coloristic rubato and his hyperbolic dramaturgy are energizing a composition that is essentially stable, almost Byzantine in its formality. The tastes of Veronese’s patrons in Lendinara were probably a factor, for what was wanted in a small town may well have been a painting that would have looked retrograde by the up-to-the-minute standards of Venice. Much of the fascination of the Petrobelli Altarpiece is in how Veronese engages with what might be seen as a conservative structure. He deploys his most sophisticated sense of color and movement to animate an older idea of figures as relatively isolated sculptural groups in a composition that is hieratic rather than dynamic, the structure reminiscent of Giovanni Bellini’s work around 1500. The result is a radical reconsideration of what might be regarded as conservative values--not a loss of strength but a different kind of strength, a drama that is psychological rather than physical, with a more concentrated emotional temperature than we generally associate with Veronese’s maturity.
Especially astonishing are the two groups of male figures, with the Petrobelli cousins, strong-willed middle-aged men, kneeling in black before the towering presences of their patron saints. The theme of worldliness subdued, not uncommon in Renaissance art, is approached with particular urgency, so that you feel the conflict between self-assurance and submissiveness played out on the Petrobellis’ lively faces. Girolamo kneels right next to Saint Michael’s scale, on which a tiny trembling soul is being weighed. It is chilling to turn from that homunculus to the strong man, with his sleek beard and hands held in prayer, who gazes up at the enfolding figure of Saint Jerome. But nothing here is more beautiful than the interaction between Antonio Petrobelli and Saint Anthony Abbot, the saint bending down to instruct the man, the man’s finely shaped head with its close-cropped hair seen in strict profile, a head from a Roman coin now stamped with Christian piety.
The play of gestures in the altarpiece revolves around the dynamic figure of Saint Michael, with one arm raised and one arm lowered, as he weighs souls on Judgment Day. The outflung arms of Antonio are opposed to the praying hands of Girolamo. The downturned, instructing hand of Saint Anthony Abbot is opposed to the raised arm of Saint Jerome. And the men, even as they play their appointed roles, also suggest an allegory of the three ages of man. Michael is the beautiful youth who so fascinated the poets and painters of the Renaissance. Antonio and Girolamo represent the self-awareness of middle age. And Saint Anthony and Saint Jerome exemplify the contemplative wisdom of the old.
The painting has all the full, deep color of the Venetian Renaissance at its height: the velvety purples, the shimmering blacks, the wild greens and oranges. Here are the beginnings of the sense of color as pure sensation that became a keynote of Symbolism four centuries later. And as with all the great Venetians of the sixteenth century, Veronese’s painterly power has sculptural resonances. He creates a feeling of massiveness through the manipulation of color itself, recalling a Byzantine world where the shimmer of golden icons and mosaicked domes was a focus for ritual and prayer. In the Petrobelli Altarpiece, an artist at the height of his powers revisits the traditions from which his art emerged. The result is a plangent conservatism, a virtuosic primordialism. Even as Girolamo and Antonio are confronting the states of their own souls, Veronese is confronting the soul of Venetian painting.
‘Paolo Veronese: The Petrobelli Altarpiece” demonstrates how a museum can build an innovative exhibition program on the foundation of a solid permanent collection. Veronese’s head of Saint Michael arrived at the Blanton in 1998, as part of the Suida-Manning Collection, at that time the largest gathering of Old Master work still in private hands in the United States, with some 260 paintings and 400 drawings. This collection, put together by two generations of a family of art historians, had been an object of considerable interest among some of America’s major museums, where there had been hopes of cherry-picking its greatest hits. That the Blanton managed to acquire the entire collection was a coup. This involved convincing the heirs and some people in Texas that the museum needed a wide-ranging collection of Old Master paintings and drawings. The Suida-Manning Collection includes, in addition to paintings by Veronese and Claude Lorrain, an extraordinary gathering of work by Cambiaso and other figures mostly esteemed by specialists and connoisseurs.
In 2002 the Blanton brought off another miracle. The museum acquired the print collection of the art historian Leo Steinberg, a trove of some 3,200 works that contains, in addition to highly desirable images by Picasso and other famous artists, a huge group of prints meant to chronicle the importance of reproductive processes in the dissemination of Renaissance and Baroque art. This will be an invaluable resource for scholars. Jonathan Bober, who had a hand in bringing both the Suida-Manning and Steinberg collections to Austin, has spoken about organizing a show that would focus on prints related to the art of Michelangelo, a project that could double as a salute to Leo Steinberg’s pathbreaking studies of the Italian Renaissance.
At a time when high culture is often dumbed down, forced to fit some ill-examined notion of what the public wants, there are museum people at the Blanton who have refused to lower their sights. Even after you have factored in Austin’s long tradition of intellectual sophistication, there is something rather extraordinary about the amount of money that has been raised to support a program of collections and exhibitions at the Blanton that has focused, among other things, on the byways of late Renaissance and Baroque painting and printmaking. To a visitor from the east, the best developments at the Blanton do not seem entirely unrelated to the other extraordinarily sophisticated and even rarified museological adventures in Texas, the Menil Collection in Houston and the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth.
Each of these museums is of course a unique institution, the product of singular circumstances, but high culture is in some sense always an accretion of anomalies. What is interesting is that in the Lone Star State, where there is a lot of money that is often dismissed as dumb money, some of it turns out to be culturally astute money. The hankering for the loftiest artistic experiences arises everywhere and anywhere in a democratic society, and when somebody addresses that need, there is a public that comes. At the Blanton, there are curators and administrators who have never doubted that Texans might care about Luca Cambiaso, about the Park Place Gallery group in 1960s New York, about Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece. Is it odd to be contemplating the glories of the Venetian Renaissance in Austin? After you have spent an hour before the Petrobelli Altarpiece, it can seem like the most natural thing in the world.
Jed Perl is the art critic of The New Republic.