Antonio Verrio. Chroniques d’un peintre italien voyageur (1636-1707)

Antonio Verrio. Chronicles of an itinerant Italian painter (1636-1707)

Toulouse, Musée des Augustins, from 27 March to 27 June 2010.

1. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
The Transverberation of Saint Theresa
Oil on canvas - 360 x 250 cm
Toulouse, église Saint-Exupère
Photo : Didier Rykner

Antonio Verrio. The artist’s name is barely known today and yet he became painter to the king of England, Charles II, achieving international status and leaving behind painted murals in many British residences, including Windsor castle. Although some of his décors have since been destroyed, others remain but strangely enough, have not made him any more familiar to the general public.

So why is this artist being highlighted with an exhibition, part case-study and part-retrospective, at the Musée des Augustins in Toulouse ? The answer is that the city holds three of his important works, corresponding to the period between 1665 and 1670 when Verrio lived and worked there. One of these, The Transverberation of Saint Theresa (ill. 1), a large pala with an emblematic Baroque subject, can be found in the church of Saint-Exupère ; another, one of his most aspiring compositions representing The Wedding of the Virgin, belongs to the Musée des Augustins and was painted, as was the preceding one, for the discalced Carmelites ; the last one, Saint Felix of Cantalice, would alone deserve an exhibition given the extraordinary restoration it has just received.

This canvas, painted for the church of the Capuchin friars, was severely damaged sometime before 1999 while in storage, from flooding in the museum and the bottom part seemed to be permanently ruined. The photographs taken before the restoration (ill. 2) speak for themselves. Little or nothing was visible in the foreground of the step (a compositional element often found in the artist’s work), the folds in the monk’s habit or the bag on the floor, revealed in an old photograph.

2. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
Saint Felix of Cantalice
Before restoration
Oil on canvas - 217 x 177 cm
Toulouse, Musée des Augustins
Photo : Daniel Martin

3. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
Saint Felix of Cantalice
After restoration
Oil on canvas - 217 x 177 cm
Toulouse, Musée des Augustins
Photo : Didier Rykner

The very long work of restoration consisted in laying the canvas flat again after it had contracted severely by stretching it progressively with a special frame in a humid atmosphere. Then the flakes of paint were put back in their original place, the canvas was solidified and simply doubled, rather than lining it, much less traumatizing for the work, then finally replaced on a new stretcher.
After cleaning, removing and reintegrating the different elements, the results are spectacular (ill. 3), and the painting has entirely recovered its unity as well as practically the same aspect as before the accident.

4. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
Joseph recognizedby his brothers, c. 1655-1656
Oil on canvas - 270 x 250 cm
Lecce, chiesa del Gesù
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
The Stoning of Saint Stephen, c. 1656-1658
Oil on canvas - 248 x 163 cm
Lecce, chiesa Sant’Irene
Photo : Didier Rykner

6. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
The Gods Assemble on Mount Olympus, c. 1693
Oil on canvas - 90.2 x 118,1 cm
Northampton, Museum and Art Gallery
Photo : Northampton Museums

This painting is in fact representative of the artist’s skills, but also his flaws. Though he favors complex compositions with many figures, some of these are sometimes awkward such as here in the very curious perspective of the altar. His figures are often of beautiful quality, influenced by Neapolitan, Florentine or even French painting which he knew before even traveling there thanks to Giovanni Andrea Coppola with whom he collaborated in Lecce, probably his home town, unless it was perhaps Naples [1]. This Saint Felix of Cantalice recalls both Vouet and Stanzione.
Several paintings at the beginning of the exhibition are early works, close to Coppola (also unfamiliar to the lay person) and held in Lecce, as are the only two remaining canvases of the story of Joseph (ill. 4) part of a Machine des Quarante Heures (a forty-hour machine), a temporary décor which unfortunately is not explained in the catalogue and also The Stoning of Saint Stephen which also shows a strong Florentine influence (ill. 5). Another altarpiece (Saint Justus Converting Saint Oronze) is probably a joint effort, with Verrio having completed it after Coppola’s death.

7. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
Charles II, c. 1677
Oil on plaster - 81.9 x 62.2 cm
Packwood House, The Graham Baron Ash Collection
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
Map of the Royal Communication Canal
of Waters in Languedoc with allegorical figures

Drawing - 91.5 x 155 cm
Vincennes, Service historique de la Défense
Photo : Defense’s office

Evoking Antonio Verrio’s decorative art in the exhibition was a difficult task as certain British collections refused to lend works, notably sketches of large compositions. The only one on display, The Gods Assemble on Mount Olympus (ill. 6) is a bit disappointing. However, the catalogue photographs representing works on location reveal a talented decorator, at times influenced by Venetian painters, more evidence of the artist’s extensive visual culture and his ability to adopt different styles. We point out that in Paris there are four ceilings by Verrio at the former Hôtel Brûlart, 7bis-9 rue du Perche, published in 1998 by Joëlle Barreau in the Revue de l’Art [2], of great quality but difficult to view.
A curious addition to the exhibition is a portrait of Charles II, one of four preserved fragments of a destroyed ceiling at Windsor castle, The Restoration of Charles II (ill. 7).

9. Antonio Verrio (1636-1707)
William III dominating a group of Roman emperors
Hampton Court Palace,
King’s Staircase
Photo : All rights reserved

Along with a moving Self-Portrait done shortly before his death, the exhibition ends with the few drawings which have been acknowledged as being by the artist. An immense sheet held at the Service historique de la Défense, at the château de Vincennes, was found to be a drawing during the preparation when in fact the exhibition curators had thought it was an engraving [3]. This beautiful discovery represents the Map of the Royal Communication Canal of Waters in Languedoc with allegorical figures (ill. 8).
We highly commend the Musée des Augustins for presenting such a fascinating exhibition which allows us to rediscover a painter who worked in France, particularly in Toulouse, and enhances the museum’s own collections. Finally, we would like to observe that Verrio has thus been fully reinstated in art history, not only thanks to this retrospective and the catalogue but also with the help of a monograph, which includes a catalogue raisonné, by the artist’s specialist and co-curator of the show, Raffaele de Giorgi. We offer one of its illustrations (ill. 9), an invitation to visit Verrio’s décors in England, sadly forgotten by the British themselves.

Collective work under the guidance of Axel Hémery, Antonio Verrio. Chroniques d’un peintre italien voyageur (1636-1707), Musée des Augustins, 2010, 132 p. 30 €. ISBN : 2-901820-39-5.

Visitor information : Musée des Augustins, 21 rue de Metz, 31000 Toulouse. Phone : +33 (0)5 61 22 21 82. Open every day from 10 to 18 (open Wednesday evenings until 21). Rates : 3 € (full price), 1.5 € (reduced price).

Raffaele De Giorgi , “Couleur, couleur”, Antonio Verrio un pittore in Europa tra Seicento e Settecento, Edifir Edizioni Firenze, 2010, 240 p., 45 €. ISBN : 978-88-7970-449-6.

Didier Rykner, jeudi 10 juin 2010


[1] We would like to point out that two of the catalogue authors, Axel Hémery and Raffaelle De Giorgi, do not agree on the question. The first states that he was born in Naples (p. 11), the second hesitates between Naples and Lecce (p. 23).

[2] Joëlle Barreau, “Antonio Verrio à l’hôtel Brûlart », Revue de l’Art, n° 122, 1998-4, pp. 64-71. This article is available on Internet, but without the illustrations !

[3] The catalogue was published before this correction could be included.

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