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Ottawa gallery reunites fragments of Renaissance altarpiece

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05/28/2009 12:43 AM
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Ottawa gallery reunites fragments of Renaissance altarpiece
[link to www.cbc.ca]

The National Gallery of Canada has brought together the scattered fragments of an altarpiece by Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese in an international restoration effort.

The Ottawa-based gallery worked with Dulwich Picture Gallery of London to locate and reunite pieces of an altarpiece painted in 1563 by the Venetian painter, also known as Paolo Caliari.

"It is a landmark event, because while people have known for quite a while that the individual fragments from the various institutions belong together, no one's really seen them together, or no one's thought about them together in quite the way we have," Stephen Gritt, chief of the NGC restoration laboratory, told CBC News.

The full altarpiece, minus some of the pieces that were lost in its long journey over the past 200 years, was unveiled in Ottawa Wednesday and will go on public display Friday.

The altarpiece began life as a commission for the wealthy cousins, Antonio and Girolamo Petrobelli who lived in what is now northern Italy.

"In 1563, Paolo was commissioned by two cousins to paint an altarpiece. They had themselves painted into the painting, and it was installed on their family altar in a chapel in a rather small town, and when they died they were buried beneath it," Gritt said at the unveiling.

The richly coloured piece shows the dead Christ, supported by angels, along with Saint Anthony Abbot and Antonio Petrobelli and Saint Jerome and Girolamo Petrobelli.

A little over 200 years later, however, Venetian dealers saw an opportunity to make a profit on a work by a Renaissance master.

"They travelled to the small town of Lendinara, they de-installed the painting, and they cut it up into four pieces. They put on a cart, and they took it back to Venice, and the various sections were then sold off and have moved around the world," Gritt said.

The pieces ended up in the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh, the Blanton Museum of Art, in Austin, Texas, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada.

The NGC's piece was the largest, but it also was in the worst condition, Gritt said.

"It's the only piece that came across the Atlantic until fairly recently … and it got wet in the ship. So as well as being cut off and then trimmed and then soaked, it had the hardest life of all these fragments — and they've all had hard lives," he said.

Since it was bought in 1926, the piece has not been displayed because of the damage it suffered.

The National Gallery Foundation and private donors covered the cost of restoring the painting, which took over two years. The restored section showing Christ and the angels will remain as part of the NGC's permanent collection after the exhibition tours.

The Head of Saint Michael, also believed to be part of the original work, was discovered at the Texas gallery, which will host an exhibition of the restored painting after it leaves Ottawa in September.

"In a sense, we’ve added a major work to the corpus of one of the most important and influential painters of the 16th century," Gritt said.