Monday, December 10, 2012

Veronese’s Allegories: Virtue, Love, and Exploration in Renaissance Venice

This exhibition, at the Frick April 11, 2006, through July 16, 2006, was the first in this country since 1988 devoted to the work of the Venetian Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese (c. 1528–1588). The exhibition explored a particular aspect of the artist’s production by bringing together all five of the large-scale allegory paintings that are owned by American museums. The Frick Collection’s canvases,

The Choice Between Virtue and Vice and

Wisdom and Strength, inspired this dossier exhibition.

Joining these masterworks were three others on special loan to the institution:

Venus and Mars United by Love (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and

Allegory of Navigation with an Astrolabe and

Allegory of Navigation with a Cross-Staff (Los Angeles County Museum of Art).

Installed in the Oval Room, these grandly scaled theatrical canvases surrounded the viewer with sumptuously costumed, sensuous figures and provided the opportunity to view closely the vibrant brushwork and vivid colors that are the hallmarks of Veronese’s mature style.

Together, these five works will demonstrate Veronese’s masterful ability to convey messages and ideas through allegorical devices. Comparing these paintings for the first time in an exhibition also challenges long-held assumptions about the works’ dating, original commissions, and meanings.

These are issues discussed in the exhibition’s accompanying illustrated full-color catalogue that traces the history of the paintings, the different interpretations of their iconography, and their place within the artist’s oeuvre. Veronese’s Allegories: Virtue, Love, and Exploration in Renaissance Venice was coordinated for the Frick by Andrew W. Mellon Curatorial Fellow Xavier F. Salomon in conjunction with Associate Curator Denise Allen.


Paolo Veronese was born in Verona, but his fame is inextricably linked to the nearby city of Venice, where he moved in the early 1550s. During his prolific and highly successful career, Veronese produced more than three hundred works, ranging from complex fresco decorations of villas and palaces to large-scale altarpieces, smaller devotional paintings, portraits, and mythological, historical, and allegorical paintings in different formats. Throughout his life, Veronese was involved at different stages in the decoration of the Ducal Palace and of the church of San Sebastiano in Venice, both of which are considered among his masterpieces. Of the several villas he decorated, the most celebrated—and the only surviving example—is the Villa Barbaro at Maser, frescoed around 1560 with complex allegorical figures. Known for his grandiose and opulent pictures, Veronese was admired for his “outlandish and majestic Gods, grave characters, matrons full of graces and charm, kings dressed in rich adornments, the diversity of draperies, various military spoils, ornate architecture, cheerful plants, beautiful animals and many of these curiosities,” as the art historian Carlo Ridolfi wrote in 1648.


The Frick’s Wisdom and Strength and The Choice between Virtue and Vice present the viewer with subject matter that is meant to promote virtuous living, while Venus and Mars United by Love in The Metropolitan Museum of Art presents the all-conquering power of love. The three paintings, together with a fourth, Hermes, Herse, and Aglauros (Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge), traveled together for centuries, and their presence in many highly distinguished collections makes them important for the history of collecting and display. They are first recorded together in Emperor Rudolf II’s inventory of the Castle of Prague in 1621. After the 1648 sack of Prague, they were taken by the conquering Swedes to Stockholm, where they entered the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden. After her abdication and conversion to Catholicism, she took the paintings with her to Rome. They subsequently passed through the collections of Cardinal Azzolini, the Odescalchi family, and the Duc d’Orléans, after which they went separate ways. Venus and Mars United by Love (below) was purchased by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1910, while the other two paintings—having been in Thomas Hope’s collection in London—entered The Frick Collection in 1912. Owing to loan restrictions on the Fitzwilliam painting, the work cannot travel; therefore, this exhibition reunites three of the four canvases for the first time in more than two hundred years.

In 1913 the art historian Von Hadeln first proposed that the four paintings had been created as a coherent cycle for Emperor Rudolf II. The subsequent discovery of a document from 1567 in which the antiquarian Jacopo Strada listed the Frick paintings among possible acquisitions for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria disproved this theory. It now seems unlikely that the four paintings were conceived as a series. Recent technical examination seems to indicate that even the two Frick paintings, always considered a pair in their own right, might in fact be two independent pictures. The three paintings in the exhibition, however, all share a similar vision.


While these three paintings focus on topics such as virtue and love and represent them with multiple figures depicted on large canvases, the two allegories of navigation on loan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art present monumental individual figures isolated against an architectural background, holding nautical instruments. Possibly identifiable with historical characters, these two allegories were probably part of a set of four paintings representing different types of navigation. In a city such as Venice, with its strong seafaring interests, these pictures might have decorated the palace of an admiral or merchant or the seat of a maritime or mercantile public office. Unfortunately, their provenance—from a Scottish collection in the nineteenth century—provides little information about their original commission and destination.


Not only is the precise meaning of all five canvases unclear—as is the case with most of Veronese’s allegorical paintings—but issues such as their original commission and dating are also problematic. The patrons who commissioned these five works are unknown, although they were probably prominent members of the Venetian aristocracy. The Frick paintings can be dated to around 1565, thanks to documentary evidence, and the Los Angeles allegories are usually dated about that time. The painting from The Metropolitan Museum of Art is usually dated to the 1570s. In presenting these works together, the Frick’ exhibition will allow a side-by-side comparison of the paintings for the first time, inspiring new insights on dating and other points of discussion.