This is one of a group of relatively small-scale Annunciations by Veronese and his workshop, which by common consent date to the last decade of the painter’s career. An obvious point of reference is provided by the large altarpiece in the Escorial, which Veronese signed and dated in 1583 [fig. 1] [fig. 1] Veronese, The Annunciation, 1583, oil on canvas, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo, Escorial, Madrid. Album / Art Resource, NY; and although it is not such a close replica of the altarpiece as another, smaller version, formerly in the Kisters Collection, Kreuzlingen, the Gallery’s picture shares many features of composition with that in the Escorial. As in the altarpiece, the Angel Gabriel points upward to a vision of God the Father surrounded by clouds and angels; between the figures of God the Father and the Virgin, kneeling at her prie-dieu, is another blaze of light, containing the Dove of the Holy Spirit; and in both pictures the architectural setting includes a tall fluted column behind Gabriel and a marble balustrade, which closes off the paved foreground and leads to a view of the Virgin’s hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden. Most of these compositional elements are clearly derived from Titian’s Annunciation of circa 1536, now lost, but recorded in the well-circulated engraving of 1537 by Gian Jacopo Caraglio [fig. 2] [fig. 2] Gian Jacopo Caraglio, after Titian, The Annunciation, 1537, engraving, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection (and, probably more accurately, in a workshop copy in Galashiels, Scotland). In the Gallery’s picture, Veronese has added a number of details traditionally associated with the iconography of the Annunciation, including the view of the Virgin’s thalamus, or bedchamber, on the right, and the crystal carafe in front of her, symbolic of her purity. The cat, here seen crouching in front of the balustrade, occasionally also appears in scenes of the Annunciation, but it is not clear whether in the present case any symbolic allusion is intended.
There exists some critical disagreement about the chronological relationship between the Escorial Annunciation and the present picture, and also on the extent of workshop collaboration in the latter. Critics who have insisted on the high, autograph quality of the painting include Rodolfo Pallucchini and Teresio Pignatti; others, however, including Daniel Catton Rich, Edoardo Arslan, Remigio Marini (proposing the intervention of an assistant such as Benedetto Caliari or Francesco Montemezzano), Richard Cocke, and Fern Rusk Shapley (downgrading her own previous assessment), have judged it to be essentially a shop product. Indeed, while the intervention of the master is evident in the energetic brushwork and rich scumbling, especially the execution of the God the Father group and the background is more perfunctory and may be regarded as the work of an assistant. Pallucchini proposed a dating to circa 1580/1583, apparently because he justifiably regarded the altarpiece as a work of collaboration and considered it logical that what he regarded as the finer painting should precede the less fine. He was followed in this opinion by Pignatti in 1976.
In his monograph of 1995, however, Pignatti described the Escorial altarpiece as the first in the series of Veronese’s late Annunciations, an apparent change of opinion that seems fully justified. The Escorial picture was commissioned as part of the multipaneled retablo for the high altar of the royal basilica; and although it was never in fact incorporated, it was clearly painted according to strict instructions regarding subject and dimensions and according to precise information about its intended placing at the bottom left of the ensemble. Commissioned to paint a large Annunciation for King Philip II of Spain, Veronese would have found it natural to draw inspiration from Titian’s version of half a century earlier. Although he would have known this picture only in the form of Caraglio’s engraving, Veronese would have been perfectly aware that Titian had sent the original to Spain as a diplomatic gift to Philip’s mother, the empress Isabella. By drawing a parallel between his own version of the Annunciation and that by his recently deceased colleague, he would have been paying a gracious compliment to both Titian and Philip, while also perhaps angling to inherit his predecessor’s mantle as preferred painter of the Spanish monarch. Then, having met the terms of a major foreign commission, it would have been equally natural for Veronese to have maximized on his invention by producing a number of smaller versions, of greater or lesser quality, for the local market. No longer bound by the intended context of the Escorial altarpiece, Veronese adopted a squarer picture field for the Gallery’s picture and showed the light coming from the left rather than from the liturgical south. The pose of the Angel—moving forward, as in Titian’s prototype, rather than balletically hovering in the left corner—may also reflect the change of context and function.
In keeping with the officially sanctioned belief that the city of Venice came into existence on the Feast of the Annunciation in the year 421, the image of the Virgin Annunciate traditionally formed a central element of Venetian political iconography, most notably in the Annunciation group represented in the mid-14th century by Guariento on either side of his monumental fresco depicting the Coronation of the Virgin in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doge’s Palace. In a study of Veronese’s series of Annunciations of the 1580s, Daniel Arasse found it no coincidence that the subject should have found particular success in the context of private devotion in the decade following the destruction of Guariento’s fresco by fire (1577) and coinciding with a particularly terrible outbreak of the plague (1575–1577). The author argued that the Venetian authorities, while replacing the Coronation with Tintoretto’s Paradise in the council chamber, actively encouraged the more intimate subject of the Annunciation in the context of private devotion. He also argued that in the post-Tridentine period, the Virgin Mary was more actively promoted as a protector against the plague than the traditional plague saints Sebastian and Roch, and that the dignified, noble style of Veronese was regarded as more appropriate to Marian iconography than that of other leading Venetian painters, such as Tintoretto or Bassano. Although interesting, these arguments remain somewhat speculative, and Arasse did not mention the commission from Philip, which surely provided the most significant stimulus for Veronese’s preoccupation with the subject of the Annunciation in the 1580s.
From the time of its earliest known record, at the Carignan sale in Paris in 1742, until its sale at Christie’s in 1785, the Annunciation was paired with a Noli Me Tangere by Veronese of the identical format and dimensions. Since the latter picture has now disappeared, it is difficult to judge whether the two were always intended as pendants. Although their respective subjects are not closely linked, their compositions, involving two figures in close psychological interaction but without physical contact, could have been complementary.
March 21, 2019