LACMA has reunited a Paolo Veronese painting cycle in “Four Allegories by Veronese: A Rediscovery and a Reunion.” The museum bought two of paintings in 1974 as a gift of the Ahmanson Foundation. They were always an odd couple: a river god-looking guy in classical dress and a younger, bearded man in Renaissance drapery. It was known that the two were part of a series of four, as copies of whole cycle exist. Recently the two other Veronese originals have been identified in Turin. The four paintings were reunited in two recent Italian exhibitions and are now being shown in the U.S. for the first time.
The Turin paintings are a female figure representing Sculpture and a a turbaned male clutching an armillary sphere. The Turin man fits in easily with the LACMA paintings (“Dudes and Their Navigation Instruments”). It’s harder to figure how Sculpture fit into the scheme.
W. R. Rearick identified the three male figures as as the Greco-Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (LACMA), Islamic philosopher-scientist Averroës (LACMA), and Zoroaster (Turin), based on attributes in woodcut illustrations to a 1556 edition of Vitruvius. With its colors and balletic pose, Averroës is the most engaging of the set, but it’s the least historically accurate. The philosopher, who lived in Spain and Morocco, is usually depicted with a beard and turban. His most famous imaginary portrait is in Raphael’s School of Athens (with turban but without beard). The bare head and mannerist costume of LACMA’s Averroës is a departure. In fact, the Turin man might pass as a more conventional Averroës. (Left to right: Raphael’s Averroës, LACMA’s Veronese Averroës, and Veronese’s Zoroaster.)
But the identification of the Turin man as Zoroaster has to be right. He’s shown holding an armillary sphere, a kind of celestial globe, and stands next to a terrestrial globe. Those are Zoroaster’s attributes, as seen in The School of Athens (where the sage appears close to Raphael’s self-portrait).
It remains uncertain who commissioned the cycle or why. A gallery text mentions the theory that the three sages were intended for the Marciana Library, Venice, but were ultimately rejected as unsuited to Jacopo Sansovino’s architecture. Veronese might have added a fourth painting—the outlier Sculpture—to make a set more appealing to another patron.
(Below, an Italian armillary sphere, too fancy to have gotten much use, c. 1600.)