The two masterpieces presented in this exhibition were created by Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) for a small chapel on the island of Murano, half a mile northeast of Venice in the Venetian Lagoon. Murano is known today mainly for its glassmaking factories, so tourists tend to miss its striking medieval churches, among them, San Pietro Martire, where these impressive works have been on display for two hundred years.
The paintings were originally intended for a small chapel near the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, on another part of the island. In 1566, a priest named Francesco degli Arbori, the chaplain of the Augustinian nuns of Santa Maria degli Angeli, was given a plot of land in the nuns' cemetery, adjoining the church, to construct a chapel dedicated to St. Jerome; it was for this chapel that Veronese's two canvases were painted. Contemporaneous descriptions indicate that the chapel was decorated simply, with the two canvases the main images in its interior. At the time, Veronese was one of the most successful and highly paid painters in Venice, creating magnificent works of art for the European aristocracy. (Just a few years earlier, about 1565, he had painted The Choice between Virtue and Vice and Wisdom and Strength, now in the West Gallery of The Frick Collection.) How a priest on a small island met such a prominent painter and came to commission such costly paintings remains a mystery. Little is known about Degli Arbori's life, but the research conducted in preparation for this exhibition has uncovered two important documents relating to him: his deed of gift of the chapel to the nuns of Santa Maria degli Angeli, in 1566, and his will, written soon before his death, in 1579.
In 1667, after hanging for a century in the chapel, Veronese's canvases were relocated to the main church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The nuns had determined that they were "notably suffering damage from the injuries of time," and they were also worried about possible theft. With the fall of the Venetian Republic and the Napoleonic invasion of Italy in the early nineteenth century, most religious institutions were suppressed, and, in the late spring and summer of 1810, many monasteries and convents in Venice were closed. Such was the fate of the nun's monastery at Santa Maria degli Angeli, in July of that year. By 1815, Veronese's paintings had been moved to a neighboring Dominican church, San Pietro Martire, where they have remained. The chapel for which they were originally painted was left empty and eventually demolished, in 1830.
The two canvases have left Italy for the first time for this exhibition. Thanks to Venetian Heritage and the sponsorship of Bulgari, they have been fully restored and returned to their original glory.