Colnaghi Foundation Journal 02 - Page 95

The taste for Paolo Veronese in early Stuart London
Some three decades before the first Venetian paintings,
including by Veronese, began to reach London in
significant numbers, an inventory of the collection of
the Earl of Leicester at Leicester House on the Strand,
dated May 1582, records a newly acquired portrait “of
Mr Phillipp Sydney when he was a Boye.” 5 Although
the artist is not named, the picture was almost certainly
identical with the portrait of the earl’s nephew, the
courtier-poet Philip Sidney, which is known to have
been painted by Veronese when the sitter visited Venice
in the spring of 1574. The nineteen-year-old Sidney
had commissioned it as a gift for his mentor and friend
Hubert Languet; but when he and his uncle happened
to visit Antwerp soon after Languet’s death there at
the end of 1581, they were able to recover it from his
estate. Sidney’s premature death in 1586 was followed
by that of Leicester in 1588, and thereafter the portrait
– which is known to have shown the sitter as looking
even younger than his age, and almost certainly in a
modest, bust-length format – disappeared.
The loss of the portrait by Veronese of Sidney is
much to be regretted, not least because of its historical
significance as a very rare instance of the commission
by an Elizabethan of a work by a major Italian artist,
and as one of the very first Venetian paintings to enter
an English collection. Its significance, however, as a
precursor to the Veroneses brought to London in the
reigns of James and Charles should not be exaggerated.
Sidney, although described by Nicholas Hilliard as “a
lover of all vertu and cunning” 6 seems, from the way
he wrote to Languet (“This day one Paul of Verona has
begun my portrait”) never to have heard of Veronese
before he sat to him. Furthermore, the Leicester
inventory of 1582 is typical of its period in naming
the sitter, but not the artist. Very striking is the contrast
with the Arundel inventory of 1655, which, as will be
seen below, lists four portraits by Veronese, three of
which were of unknown sitters. The very fact that the
Sidney portrait disappeared after 1588 also indicates
that it did not catch the eye of the collectors of the next
generation, who were in pursuit of Venetian paintings
of a quite different type.
More indicative of future developments was an episode
of 1613-1615, involving the shipment from Venice of
fifteen paintings by major Venetian masters, together
with some antique sculptures, to the current favourite of
James I, Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset.7 These works
of art had been assembled by the Flemish dealer Daniel
The taste for Paolo Veronese in early Stuart London
Nijs, apparently on the instructions of the English
ambassador to Venice, Sir Dudley Carleton, who in turn
had been instructed, at the time of his appointment in
1610, to acquire “any ancient Mrpeeces of paintings at
a reasonable price,” on behalf of the Lord Treasurer,
the Earl of Salisbury, and of Henry, Prince of Wales.
Presumably the group assembled by Nijs was originally
intended for one or the other of these, and after they
both died in 1612, the paintings were sent by Carleton
instead to Somerset, at whose apartments in Whitehall
they had arrived by January 1616. But by this time,
Somerset had fallen from grace and was imprisoned in
the Tower; and by July of the same year, Carleton had
succeeded in passing on three of the paintings to Lord
Henry Danvers, and the other twelve to Arundel.
approximately 125 by 300 cm, was much larger than
the other two, which are described as a pair, with only
three figures each, and measuring about 100 by 140
cm.10 Subsequently Haro donated these two to the king,
and they are identifiable with the pair of very similar
dimensions (102 x 153 cm) now in the Prado, and
respectively entitled Young Man Between Virtue and Vice and
the Family of Cain (figs. 2 & 3).11 In the former, although
the youth dressed in a fashionable crimson doublet and
hose hardly looks Herculean, it is easy to imagine that
Nijs, or whoever compiled the list of Somerset’s pictures,
could have been reminded of the story of the Choice of
Hercules, especially because it apparently formed one
of an intended pair. In the latter picture (the real subject
of which remains very rare indeed), it would have been
natural to identify the couple as Hercules, dressed in
a lionskin and holding a club, and his wife Iole – even
though he bears no resemblance to the youth in crimson,
and the couple are not recorded as having a child.12
A list of the fifteen Venetian paintings destined for
Somerset itemizes their subjects and authors: sixteen by
Tintoretto, five by Veronese, and one each by Titian,
Jacopo Bassano, and Schiavone. While clearly they do
not reflect a marked taste for any master in particular,
but simply represented works by generally reputable
masters that happened to be on the market, the arrival
of five paintings by Veronese with mythological or
allegorical subjects must have done much to introduce
the artist to the London cognoscenti. The vagueness
of the titles and the lack of recorded dimensions
unfortunately make it impossible to identify the two
works by him described simply large in scale and
as “poetical histories.” But the search for the other
three – supposedly representing scenes from the life of
Hercules – is made possible by their likely reappearance
in the Arundel inventory of 1655, and then in a list
of Arundel pictures sent to Spain and in subsequent
Spanish inventories.
Of the various works by Veronese listed in the Arundel
inventory – again without dimensions – only two refer
explicitly to Hercules: a “Nascita d’Ercole” and an
“Iola & Hercule.” But it may be suggested here that
the third of Somerset’s paintings thought to represent
a story of Hercules is one in the Arundel inventory
entitled, “Vertu & Vitio,”8 and that at one point it was
interpreted as, and entitled, the Choice of Hercules. In
1659 these three paintings are included in a list of works
purchased from the collection of the late Countess of
Arundel by Cárdenas on behalf of Philip IV’s chief
minister of the period, Luis de Haro.9 This time the
listing includes dimensions and a note of the number
of figures represented, and it becomes clear that the
Birth of Hercules, which had nine figures and measured
By contrast, the larger Birth of Hercules was initially
retained in the Haro family collection, although it is no
longer recorded in the collection of Luis’s son and heir,
Gaspar, and is now lost.13
Fig. 2 / Paolo Veronese, Young
Man Between Virtue and Vice,
ca. 1580-1585, oil on canvas,
102 x 153 cm, Madrid, Museo
Nacional del Prado.
Fig. 3 / Paolo Veronese, Family
of Cain, ca. 1581-1585, oil on
canvas, 105 x 153 cm, Madrid,
Museo Nacional del Prado.
From this it may be concluded that the two paintings
now in the Prado, together with the other three
Veroneses originally destined for Somerset, were
displayed for nearly thirty years in the Picture Gallery
of Arundel House on the Strand, from 1616 until the
outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. Unless, as seems
unlikely, Arundel himself had already acquired another
example from another source, these would have been
the earliest works by the painter to be seen in London,
and would have served as a basic source of reference for
other collectors and their advisers. It may be admitted
that the Prado pair, modest in scale and composition,
are not particularly spectacular by Veronese’s standards;
nevertheless, the Virtue and Vice, with its display of
luxurious fabrics and its glimpse of luminous Palladian
architecture, may well have done much to whet the
appetite among amateurs for more of the same.


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