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It would cost £15m to keep this Italian drawing in the UK. Here’s why it matters

25 April 2016

Culture minister Ed Vaizey recently placed a temporary export bar on Veronese’s preparatory sketch for Venice Triumphant (c. 1581), which fetched more than £15 million when it was put up for sale by the Earl of Harewood. What makes this drawing so valuable, and why are experts so eager to keep it in the country?

I first saw this piece in 1977, when I was a student working on Veronese’s drawings. It is a key item in the study of the artist’s working process, showing how he would set down his initial thoughts in pen and ink, and then produce a final composition, legible to his assistants, for production in the studio – and possibly for the eyes of his patron as well.

In this case, the patron was no less than the Venetian government, which was refurnishing and redecorating the Ducal Palace after the fire of 1577. Throughout the 16th century, the government had some of the greatest artists in the world at its disposal – Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese chief among them. It did not hesitate to use them to produce splendid images that glorified the Venetian state and its power, even though it was significantly on the wane.

For the ceiling of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, three artists were commissioned to produce large canvases to fit into a wooden framework that was all the soft earth of the Venetian terra firma would allow (large stone vaults were out of the question, being so close to the sea). The chosen artists, Veronese, Tintoretto and Palma il Giovane, must have been aware of each other’s work; otherwise the figures in each panel could have been on different scales. Palma il Giovane’s finished design was in pen and wash, and sold in the Rudolf sale at Sotheby’s in 1977.

Venice Triumphant

Venice Triumphant (detail; c. 1581), Veronese

Veronese and his studio produced the great painting of Venice Triumphant for this commission, but connoisseurs might prefer this wonderful painted sketch, which is entirely from the hand of the master. It is completed on a brown prepared background so that the artist’s paintbrush can glide over the surface. Figures on different levels represent Venice sitting amongst the gods of Olympus, while below her, her subjects rejoice. (Prior to this work, Veronese produced a number of the more typical pen and wash drawings of figures.) The architecture was first laid in with dark brown pen, and then the figures were added in brown and white oil paints. The whole glistens like a jewel, and is very clearly the product of his genius, without the intervention of assistants and later restorers. The squaring up process – which enabled the composition’s translation into the huge canvas still on the ceiling – brings us back down to earth, and reminds us that it is a working drawing, to be seen by the studio, but not (as far as is known) by the general public of the time.

The drawing – if we can call it that, since in technique and handling it qualifies as a small painting – has been in some very famous British collections since the 16th century. The artists Sir Peter Lely and P.H. Lankrink, and the Earls of Pembroke at Wilton House all owned it before it entered the collection of the Earl of Harewood. It no doubt fulfilled all three criteria for an export bar under the British system – historical importance, artistic quality and association with British life (in this case, collecting). It would be an outstanding addition to any of the great collections of drawings in Britain, though sadly these do not attract grant aid for purchases in the way that paintings by famous artists do.

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