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Art Detectives Fit Pieces of Petrobelli Puzzle Back Together


Okay, so it has a been a while since I wrote headlines for a living. But unlike a lot of tabloid headlines, this one is kind of true.

Restoration experts at the National Gallery of Canada have fixed up and fit together four very large fragments of this major altarpiece, originally painted by Paolo Vernoese around 1563 near Venice. Last weekend, I finally saw the restored and reunited Petrobelli Altarpiece on display at the National Gallery and it's a wondrous sight.

The Gallery has also done a smashing job on its website, carefully explaining -- in video and text -- the history of this beautiful work, how it came to be broken up and sold in pieces during the 18th century, and all of the careful restoration work as well as the efforts to piece it all back together, more than 200 years later.

Here's a link to the Gallery website, and to videos including a very interesting demonstration and explanation by Stephen Gritt, Chief Conservator at the National Gallery, of the physical history behind one very large fragment of Veronese’s work, The Dead Christ Supported by Angels.


The above photo is of another one of the four fragments, the face of the archangel Saint Michael, who appears in the restored altarpiece with one foot on a slain dragon.

According to the National Gallery website, the enormous altarpiece was commissioned around 1563 by the cousins Girolamo and Antonio Petrobelli, who wanted it for display in the church of San Francesco in the small town of Lendinara, near Venice.

"They turned to Paolo Veronese, a celebrated painter with strong ties to the region. The cousins hoped that the spectacular work would seal their status as one of the leading families in the town," according to the National Gallery.

"Set above the altar in their burial chapel, Veronese’s painting shows the two men protected by their name saints. The cousins are privileged to witness a miraculous apparition, a foretaste of the future: the archangel Saint Michael, who will weigh the souls of the dead at the Last Judgment. Above, we see the dead Christ, who according to Christian tradition died to redeem mankind. Veronese offered his patrons a compellingly realistic depiction of a visionary scene, and captured the hope of the faithful Christian for salvation."

In the late 18th century, the church of San Francesco was demolished, and the Petrobelli altarpiece sold. An art dealer, seeking to maximize his profit, divided up the painting into four pieces. Their history was quickly forgotten, and the fragments eventually came to rest in public collections in England, Scotland, Canada, and the United States. Close examination of the fragments, years of study, and careful restoration were needed to reconstruct the altarpiece’s original form.

Comments (2)

Fascinating! I bet that was fun to see. It blows my mind that people had the nerve to cut up paintings like this, but I think it happened fairly often back in the day.


Hi Annie, thanks! It was really enjoyable to see the altarpiece, and to watch the videos on the restoration.

I thought of you when I was looking at the altarpiece, you probably are very familiar with Paolo Veronese!

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