Colnaghi Foundation Journal 03 - Page 47



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The presence of portraits in Paolo Veronese’s narrative paintings
Fig. 1 / Paolo Veronese,
Portrait of a Lady, “La Bella
Nani”, ca. 1555-1560, oil on
canvas, 119 x 103 cm, Paris,
Musée du Louvre.
Fig. 2 / Paolo Veronese,
Baptism of Christ, 1560-1561,
oil on canvas, 204 x 102 cm,
Venice, Chiesa del Redentore.
The most traditional manner in which to show patrons
in religious works, altarpieces in particular, was to
depict them half-length, at the bottom of the painting,
praying toward celestial creatures. This method of
representation is known in Italy as a portrait in abisso,
as if the bodies of the contemporary figures depicted
are dissolving at the bottom of the altarpiece into an
“abyss”.6 While this genre of portraiture was outdated
in Italy’s main artistic centres by the mid-sixteenth
century, it was still somewhat popular with patrons on
the terraferma. Giovanni Caroto in Verona, for example,
used this approach in some of his works. It is therefore
not surprising that one of Paolo’s first paintings, the
Pala Bevilacqua Lazise, created for the church of San
Fermo Maggiore in Verona, includes portraits of a man
and a woman praying in abisso.7 The commission for this
work may have been related to Veronese’s own family
connections: Paolo’s mother’s half-sister, Cassandra,
was the daughter of Leonardo Bevilacqua Lazise.
Probably painted about 1546, the altarpiece survives
in Verona (at the Museo di Castelvecchio) in a rather
damaged state, but there is also a preparatory drawing
for it (at Chatsworth) and a modello in oil on paper (at
the Uffizi). Veronese likely used models for them as the
features of the donors in the drawing and the sketch are
different from those in the altarpiece. It is not known if
the donors of this altarpiece were Giovanni Bevilacqua
Lazise and his wife, Lucrezia Malaspina, or his brother
Giovanni Battista and his wife, Francesca Pellegrini.
While it is understandable that Veronese would include
portraits in abisso for his first altarpiece in Verona, it
is surprising that he worked on similar compositional
solutions later on in Venice. About 1560, the merchant
Bartolomeo Stravanzino and his son Giovanni
commissioned from Veronese a small altarpiece of
the Baptism of Christ (fig. 2) to decorate the altar of
the church of San Giovanni Battista, adjacent to the
Capuchin church on the Giudecca.8 The altarpiece
must have been completed by 1561, as that is when the
church was dedicated. The subject of the painting was
particularly appropriate, both because of the dedication
of the church and because of the first name of one of
the patrons. While the Gospel scene occupies most of
the painting, father and son appear at bottom right, in
contemporary clothes, from the waist up, in abisso. They
are shown together, one against the other – the son in
profile, the father, behind, in a more meditative attitude.
Christ’s baptism is not witnessed by crowds along the
banks of the Jordan; instead, the scene seems to take
place for the salvation of only the two Stravanzino
patrons. The way in which they are portrayed was no
doubt established by them rather than by Veronese.
A number of terraferma patrons chose to be included in
their altarpieces by Veronese. The brothers Antonio
Maria and Giambattista Marogna appear in the Virgin and
Child with Saints Anthony of Padua and John the Baptist for the
church of San Paolo in Verona.9 Instead of being shown
in abisso, they are full-length, kneeling and accompanied
by their patron saints. The cousins Girolamo and
Antonio Petrobelli are portrayed in the company of Saints
Jerome and Anthony Abbot, in the large altarpiece that
they commissioned for the church of San Francesco in
Lendinara about 1563.10 In 1573, Marcantonio Cogollo,
a prosperous cloth merchant, commissioned an altarpiece
for the chapel of the Santa Spina, to the left of the high
altar in the church of Santa Corona in Vicenza.11 The
painting, the Adoration of the Kings, includes a portrait
of Cogollo, in profile at extreme left, witnessing the
scene behind the three kings. His family coat of arms is
depicted on the mule’s harness, at bottom right.

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