Cocktails with a Curator: Paolo Veneziano's "Coronation of the Virgin"
(soft piano music) - Good evening. I am Xavier Salomon. I am the Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator at The Frick Collection in New York. Welcome to this evening's episode of "Cocktails with a Curator."
At Frick Madison, on the third floor, as soon as you arrive you are confronted by these three beautiful busts of Renaissance ladies in marble. But as you turn to the side, you enter a room of early Italian paintings, most of which have gold grounds, which were acquired by Frick's daughter, Helen Clay Frick, and by the subsequent directors and Trustees of the museum. These paintings are usually displayed at 1 East 70th Street in a rather different context.
They're usually shown in what we call the Enamels Room, which was a space created by Henry Clay Frick for his collection of French decorative arts from the Renaissance, mostly Limoges enamels. You see some of them in the vitrine, of course, in the back. But you can see how this room was then used to display gold grounds. And so on the left you have Duccio's "Temptation of Christ," and on the right, the large panel is Paolo Veneziano's "Coronation of the Virgin."
And these were introduced into this room subsequently by Helen Clay Frick and by the subsequent directors and curators of the collection. At Frick Madison, these paintings are shown in isolation. And here again you have the Duccio, next to another Sienese picture by Barna da Siena. And to the left, again, Paolo Veneziano's grand "Coronation of the Virgin."
This evening, we will be talking a lot about materials, about the use of gold and silver in some of these paintings, the use of textiles, the precious materials of Venice. And because of that I've chosen a cocktail which is traditionally drunk in a silver goblet. This is a Mint Julep. It's actually one of the oldest American cocktails. It was invented in the eighteenth century.
The word "julep" comes from the Spanish and Arabic, and it is a word usually associated with medicinal drinks of one kind or another. And this was invented in the South of the United States. It is, of course, bourbon with mint and sugar and watered down and served iced, usually in a silver or metal goblet. Cheers! Paolo Veneziano's "Coronation of the Virgin" is the most important work by the artist outside of Europe. It is also his last signed and dated work.
So it is a very important picture for the history of Venetian art in general, and it is one of the most important early paintings at The Frick Collection. It represents the episode of the Coronation of the Virgin. This is, of course, an episode that doesn't appear in the Gospels. It is part of the apocryphal texts that follow the writing of the Gospels. And here you see the two figures of Christ and the Virgin enthroned together, surrounded by a glory of angels, and Christ is seen in the act of crowning his mother. After the death of the Virgin and her bodily assumption to heaven, Christ crowns her as the Queen of Heaven.
And so here you see Christ, on the right, with a crown and scepter. He's shown, obviously, as the King of Heaven, in the act of placing a crown over his mother's head. And the iconography of Mary, the Virgin Mary, as the Queen of Heaven, of course, is a very popular one in the late Middle Ages and Italian Renaissance.
And it is a very popular iconography in Venice itself. Here you see, for example, in this detail the wealth of the gold and how the gold is used with a number of different techniques to decorate the halos, the crowns, the jewels, but also the outfits of both Christ and the Virgin Mary with this wonderful combination of gold and red. The blue mantle of the Virgin, instead, would have been decorated with silver, which, of course, over time has tarnished.
Both of these outfits, as you can see here, would have been a combination of blue and silver. And you see that the Virgin and Christ are setting their feet over two really interesting objects. And these are actually representations of the sun on the right, in gold, and the moon on the left, which would have also originally been silvered. And the association of Christ with the sun and the Virgin Mary with the moon, of course, is a very old traditional one. Below that you see some inscriptions.
The gold inscription over blue is part of a religious text celebrating the Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mary, while the gold text on green is the signature of Paolo Veneziano, together with his son Giovanni, described as Giovannino, "the young Giovanni," and the date, 1358. Paolo Veneziano is documented as being already dead in 1362. So this, as I mentioned, is his last known documented work.
On the sides of the figures of Christ and the Virgin are these two extraordinary, almost identical angels, again, beautifully dressed in gold and blue, holding portable organs. And these are musical instruments, portable musical instruments, that they would have played. And of course, the metal parts of the organ, of course, would have also been originally silvered and had a different texture from what you see today. Above it, above the architecture, is this wonderful glory of angels. This is a large group of angels all richly dressed, playing a number of different musical instruments.
There are lutes and harps and trumpets and tambourines, and so on. And these are traditionally figures that accompany the Coronation of the Virgin, like real coronations of kings and queens in Europe at the time. The idea that the Coronation of the Virgin was accompanied by a music-making choir and orchestra is very much part of the depiction of this work. Paolo Veneziano was one of the key artists in Venice in the fourteenth century, and he is really seen as the father of Venetian painting in a number of ways.
The fourteenth century was a very important time in Venice. A lot of the main buildings, many of the main buildings, of the city were being redecorated and rebuilt around this time, the Doge's Palace, of course, being one of them. A lot of the decoration, most of the decoration, of the Doge's Palace is from the fourteenth century. But of course, work was also carried out on the ducal chapel, the Basilica of Saint Mark's, with its spectacular mosaics. And Paolo Veneziano, as we will see, was directly involved with the redecoration of the high altar of the church.
Venice had a longstanding tradition of relationships with the East, with Byzantium, with Constantinople, and this reaches the key moment in 1204 when, during one of the Crusades, the Venetians and other Europeans, instead of traveling all the way to Jerusalem, stop in Constantinople and sack the city. And many of the objects, the spoils of war, that are brought back to the city, to Venice, are still there. One of the most famous images is this painting, this icon, of the Virgin and Child known as the "Nicopeia," which was kept in one of the key churches in Constantinople and carried by emperors in battle to protect them and make them victorious. It's the Virgin that provides victory for the ruler. Of course, this is carried to Venice, and it's now one of the great treasures of the Basilica of Saint Mark's and one of the most sacred images in the city.
But this is to say that the tradition of Eastern painting as we think of it, of Byzantine painting, gold grounds with very static figures, it's something that is very much part of the Venetian DNA. And Paolo Veneziano comes out of this tradition, of course. These are the sort of great works of art he would have grown up with and would have known about. Paolo is the son of a painter. His children are painters.
He runs the most important workshop in Venice in the fourteenth century. And together with his workshop he produces many religious works like this, small portable triptychs. This one is in Parma now, in the Galleria Nazionale, and this, of course, shows again the Virgin and Child, Crucifixion, and a number of saints. But he also worked on much more monumental works.
This is his first known dated work, from 1333. It represents the Dormition, the death of the Virgin, in the center, with Christ carrying in two stages the soul of the Virgin up to heaven. And of course, eventually the body of the Virgin also, through the Assumption, will be carried to heaven before she's crowned.
And this is flanked by two Franciscan saints: Saint Francis of Assisi on the left, and Saint Anthony of Padua on the right. Paolo Veneziano and his family were particularly close to the Franciscan Order. They produced a number of works for the Franciscan Order.
And they're known to have lived close to I Frari, the main church of the Franciscans in Venice. And in fact, this is a work that Paolo Veneziano produced for the Franciscans at I Frari in 1339. This is a lunette that shows the Virgin and Child enthroned with Saint Francis and Saint Clare on each side, and the doge, Francesco Dandolo, the head of the state in Venice, and his widow on the right. And this is placed over this sculpted ark, which is actually the tomb of Francesco Dandolo, the doge. And it shows the relief, again, the Death of the Virgin. So Paolo Veneziano is clearly working for the highest levels of Venetian society, for the head of state, and for some of the most important commissions and locations.
And this is true in 1345, when he completes, signs and dates also this, which is a series of panels which made the cover of the high altar of the Basilica of Saint Mark's, the so-called Pala Feriale. The high altar had a golden decoration, a golden object on it, which was only shown during feast days. And during normal days, Paolo Veneziano's paintings would have covered that precious altar. This again shows the dead Christ in the middle with the Virgin and a number of saints, and below it a series of scenes.
There are seven scenes of the life of Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice. The altarpieces by Paolo Veneziano are particular extraordinary. And this is another Franciscan altar made for the nunnery of Santa Chiara. And this has many elements of its original frames, not all of them, but a large chunk of the frame is considered to be original.
And again, this shows a number of different scenes. The center scene is the Coronation of the Virgin, and to the left and right are episodes from the life of Christ and episodes from the life of Saint Francis. "The Coronation of the Virgin" comes at the end of all these works.
As I mentioned, it is the last known work by Paolo, in 1358. So it is more than a decade after the Pala Feriale and after the Santa Chiara polyptych. And it is one of the largest panels by Paolo Veneziano for a large altarpiece. And as I mentioned, it is the only one in the United States of this size. It arrived at the Frick in 1930, so it was acquired under the interest of Helen Clay Frick, when the museum was in an interesting phase between being founded in 1919, when Henry Clay Frick died, and opening to the public in 1935. So during this interval of time, the museum was not quite open to the public but was being created as an institution, and many great works of art were acquired to increment the collection.
And this is one of the ones that Helen Clay Frick buys. It is first documented in this palace in Ravenna, in Italy, and this is the palace of Count Baccinetti. It is a Neoclassical palace where there was a collection of works of art. And in the nineteenth century the painting is there with a supposed provenance from a chapel outside of Ravenna.
And we don't know what that building was and where it was exactly. From Count Baccinetti, through a German dealer, the painting reaches in the early 1870s, between 1873 and 1874, the Castle of Sigmaringen. And this is a very important castle in the southern part of Germany which belonged to the Sigmaringen branch of the Hohenzollern family. And the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen branch had a picture gallery here in their castle, in their main residence. And the Paolo Veneziano was there between the 1870s and 1928, when so much of the collection from Sigmaringen is dispersed. And through dealers, The Frick Collection acquires the painting in 1930.
"The Coronation of the Virgin," as a subject, is not dissimilar from the Coronation of the Virgin that Paolo Veneziano had painted in the 1340s, a decade earlier, as the center of the Santa Chiara polyptych. And you see here so many similarities: the pose of Christ and the Virgin, Christ with his raised right hand placing the crown over his mother's head, the Virgin Mary with her head slightly tilted, the glory of angels above, the incredible textiles. As I mentioned, the ones in The Frick Collection painting somewhat looking different now because of the tarnishing of the silver, the wonderful gold so clearly visible in the Santa Chiara one. And of course, the two angels with the portable organs in both paintings in slightly different positions, and the great glory of angels above. The Santa Chiara "Coronation," as you've seen, it is the center of a very large polyptych. So the question is also, you know, what is our painting? Was it an independent painting or not? And as many other great works of art from this period, and as most of the gold grounds at the Frick, the "Coronation" was in fact a fragment of a much larger group of works.
In 1925, just a few years before the "Coronation" was acquired, Helen CLay Frick had traveled to Central Italy, and she kept a scrapbook in which she attached photographs of great works of art she had seen. And one of the things she saw was, in the Pinacoteca of San Severino Marche, this work by Paolo Veneziano, which is a set of saints, full-figure saints and half-figure saints on two tiers, which has been on display since the nineteenth century at San Severino. San Severino Marche is a city in the region of the Marche, towards the Adriatic. And the painting is still there in the Pinacoteca. You see it here in a more recent photograph.
And this is in fact also part of a dismembered work of art. What was proposed in 1977 by the German art historian Hanna Kiel is that the Frick "Coronation" and this polyptych in San Severino were originally part of the same ensemble. The polyptych in San Severino is documented in the 1820s in the church of Santa Maria del Glorioso just outside the city, but it probably originally came from the church of Santa Maria del Mercato, now renamed San Domenico, which is the main Dominican church of the city. And in fact, many of the saints in the polyptych are Dominican saints that would have been associated with this church, a church that was heavily refurbished in the sixteenth and seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So in fact, the interior and the façade are probably very different from what they would have looked like in the fourteenth century, but it is likely that the "Coronation" was originally part of a very significant polyptych made by Paolo Veneziano for San Severino Marche. This is a reconstruction done very recently by our conservator Joe Godla, and you see that there are many parts missing.
There are at least two half-length figures on the second tier of the altarpiece that are not there anymore. And the central part, what was above the "Coronation," is still somewhat unclear. Was it a single scene? Was it a group of scenes? We don't actually know. There's been several proposals about what may have been there, but we have absolutely no evidence for it. This altarpiece is not documented, but it is likely to have been commissioned for the Dominicans by the Dominicans in San Severino. And of course, the relationship between Venice and the Adriatic coast was a very strong one, actually.
And there are works by Paolo Veneziano on both sides of the Adriatic, in today's Croatia, what would have then been Dalmatia, and all the way down to Puglia and through the Marche, of course. So Paolo, as a great artist in Venice, was clearly producing works of this importance for other regions of the Adriatic Sea. What we see today, of course, is just a fragment of this large altarpiece, but through the reconstruction and through the studies of it we can get an idea of what it originally must have looked like. How the "Coronation" was separated from the San Severino panels, we don't know. Clearly they left the church of Santa Maria del Mercato possibly even in the fifteenth, sixteenth century before being separated.
How our picture reached Ravenna, we don't really know. The other panels clearly remained in San Severino, and some of the smaller panels are still to be found, and maybe one day they will be located. At Frick Madison, we display the Paolo Veneziano in conjunction with another great work by another artist active in the Marche, who is Gentile da Fabriano, and you see his "Virgin and Child, with Saints Lawrence and Julian" on the left. And because of the wealth of textiles that is shown in these two paintings, we juxtaposed them with the Mughal carpets, which of course were only created much later in the seventeenth century.
But this wonderful combination of different objects, you know, carpets made with geometrical and vegetable decorations with plants and flowers as opposed to these Catholic works of art draws attention to the fact that there was a relationship between Italy and the East at that time, not only through Byzantium but also further away through textiles. And some of the textiles that are represented in the Paolo Veneziano and in other paintings by the artist are actually based on Chinese and Mongolian models, not quite Indian ones. But the rooms are designed to give you a sense of this wider world and how an artist like Paolo Veneziano, active at the center of Venice, one of the most international cities in the fourteenth century, was part of a much more complex and much larger workshop of artists, of inspiration, of materials.
We hope one day to be able to bring the "Coronation" back together with the San Severino polyptych, hopefully both in New York and in San Severino. But until then, I hope you will all come and enjoy looking at Paolo Veneziano at Frick Madison. And I hope you're all enjoying your Mint Julep.
And I look forward to welcoming you again soon for another episode of "Cocktails with a Curator." Good evening.