Xavier F. Salomon, Curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery, describes how he discovered a missing fragment of Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece, thought lost.
When I first started working on Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece, I never dreamed that I would find the elusive fragment that once formed the central part of the painting.
The idea for the exhibition, in fact, pre-dates my days as Curator at Dulwich. In 2006, while working in New York at The Frick Collection, I was organizing my first Veronese exhibition, reuniting his allegorical pictures in American collections. At a lunch with my colleagues Kristel Smentek and the National Gallery of Canada’s curator Graham Larkin, the topic of Veronese’s Petrobelli Altarpiece came up and how a reunion of the three main fragments (in Ottawa, Edinburgh and Dulwich) should be attempted. Initial discussions proved that the three institutions concerned were all interested in the plan, but nothing came out of that original idea.
After my appointment at Dulwich, I put forward the proposal for the second time and, in this instance, it was decided that Dulwich Picture Gallery should go ahead and lead the project in collaboration with the National Gallery of Canada.
I then travelled to the small town of Lendinara in Northern Italy, to do archival research on the painting. My time spent in Lendinara, transcribing documents on the Petrobelli family and their chapel in the local library, was incredibly fruitful and I managed to reconstruct most of the early history of the painting.
While staying in Lendinara, I rented a room in a small B&B, run by a charming couple, Elena and Aldo. Over dinner – tired after a full day in the library – I would report back on my exciting archival discoveries. Elena and Aldo did not know that the town in which they lived once had one of Veronese’s largest altarpieces. My account of what we knew about the picture and the sad vicissitudes that saw this masterpiece being savagely cut to pieces (between 1788-89), and then scattered between Dulwich, Scotland and Canada, inflamed their imagination. And of course they asked the obvious question: “What happened to the central Saint Michael?”
The main figure of the altarpiece – which we know was a Saint Michael from early descriptions – had always been considered lost. So, like all art historians before me, I explained to my friends in Lendinara that this fragment was probably thrown away at some point and the likelihood of anyone finding it would have been very slim indeed.
I returned to London. But still in my head I had Elena and Aldo’s question. What did really happen to Saint Michael? The more I thought about the issue, the more I realized that it was pointless to look for a full figure of Saint Michael.
The Dulwich fragment of the altarpiece has one of Michael’s hands left over from the cutting-up. The Edinburgh canvas has Michael’s right arm. So if a full figure ever existed it would have been a mutilated one, which didn’t make much sense. Thinking about it logically, once the altarpiece was cut, the only thing that could have been saved would have been Michael’s head. As that thought crossed my mind, I suddenly realized that I had seen a head that looked just like that. The problem was, where? I kept thinking about Michael’s head for a few days. And then, as it often happens with names or faces long hidden in some dark and dusty corner of our brain, in the middle of the night, the image became clearer in my head and I remembered: Texas!
In the summer of 2006, I had travelled to Texas on a Grand Tour of their exceptional art collections (the Kimbell in Fort Worth, the Museum of Fine Arts and The Menil Collection in Houston, and Donald Judd’s minimalist dreamland in Marfa). As part of the trip I travelled to Austin, a city famous for its music scene and for its bats (their departure at night from under a bridge is truly a sight to behold – you have to see it to believe it!). The Suida-Manning collection, which had travelled from Austria to New York – a group of Italian Baroque pictures mostly – had been acquired by the Blanton Museum of Art in 1999. I was curious to see the paintings and was surprised to see among them a stunning “Head of an Angel” by Veronese.
When I first saw it I remember noticing its incredibly high quality and wondering where this fragment could have come from. Two years later in London that same painting came back to my mind. As the thought came to me, half asleep, I immediately rushed to my papers and rummaged through my notes and photos from that Texas trip . There was the angel. In my head everything made sense: the way in which it was painted, the bright orange tunic, the green sash (part of which flourishes in the Dulwich painting).
The next morning I wrote to Jonathan Bober, the Blanton’s Curator. I asked about dimensions and type of canvas for further evidence. The answer I was dying for came through. It all matched. Further research after that has proved beyond any doubt that the Austin angel is all that remains of the Petrobelli Saint Michael.
Discoveries like this one are always incredibly exciting. The lesson for me is that good answers only come when good questions (even if very basic) are asked. And, at the end of it all, it is always worth going back, asking more questions and not giving up.
The Dulwich exhibition which opens on February 10th (and then travels to Ottawa and Austin) will reunite the fragments for the first time since the 1790s.