Paolo Veronese: The Conversion of Mary Magdalen, c. 1548, oil on canvas, 117.5x163.5 cm (National Gallery, London).
Famed Venetian art historian David Rosand contributed an essay on a Veronese painting in the same June 2011 edition of the Burlington Magazine that featured Renata Segre’s discovery of the inventory of Giorgione’s estate. Segre’s archival find attracted much attention but Rosand’s essay could provide much more insight into the work of Giorgione and other Venetian Renaissance artists.*
Rosand discussed a work by the twenty-year-old Paolo Veronese that London’s National Gallery currently labels “Christ addressing a kneeling woman.” Rosand noted that the painting has variously been thought to depict Christ with the woman taken in adultery; Mary Magdalen laying aside her jewels; or Christ and the woman with the issue of blood. Actually, a recent National Gallery catalog leans toward the “Woman with the issue of blood” but its website still calls her only a kneeling woman.
Not only does Rosand agree with those who see Mary Magdalen in the painting but he also has found a source text for Veronese’s depiction. The National Gallery catalog rejected the Magdalen interpretation because there is no mention of a scene like this one in either the gospels or the apocrypha. However, Rosand discovered that Pietro Aretino, the notorious scoundrel and self-promoter who was also a close friend of Titian’s, had written a popularization of the gospels that provided a fourteen page description of the events surrounding the conversion of Mary Magdalen.
Written in 1535 the name of the work was "Humanita di Christo" and it was extremely popular until it and other works like it were banned by the Church after the Council of Trent. Today it is almost impossible to find. A search of the New York Public Library’s vast online catalog found nothing. Rosand’s extensive quotes were from a 1539 Italian edition. **
In Rosand’s words Aretino’s text provided an “imaginative expansion of the generally laconic text of the Gospels ” that his artist friends were quick to exploit. Aretino gave artists “a new novelistic gospel replete with pictorial possibilities.”
Aretino’s description of the conversion of the Magdalen begins the evening before her meeting with Christ. Her sister Martha had persuaded her to go to the Temple but the courtesan decides to throw a party and have one last fling. She puts on a sumptuous banquet “to celebrate her hedonistic life.” Aretino dwells on her worldly beauty and her “fine linen gown trimmed in gold and studded with pearls.”
The next morning Mary Magdalen sets out for the Temple looking like a “rising sun” and followed by a great multitude “drawn to this vision of splendid beauty.” Nevertheless, the meeting with Jesus is life changing.
Jesus addresses her in an intimate tone…and then proceeds to inflect her worldly beauty to a spiritual one, her eroticism to divine love: her splendour can only have a higher source, a gift from heaven.
Afterwards, Martha leads her contrite sister home where she locks herself in her room and “throws her jewels to the ground.”
|Bernardino Luini: Martha and Mary Magdalen|
In the Burlington essay Rosand does not spend much time discussing the other figures in the painting. He doesn’t even call the modestly dressed woman supporting the Magdalen by name even though it must be Martha. He doesn’t mention the man in the foreground with the red cap who appears to be dropping a small notebook. Could this be the Magdalen’s procurer discarding her client list? What about the man clutching the column on the left? Is he suffering from the previous evening’s celebration? There is also a nude youth and a dog. Were they normal parts of a courtesan’s retinue?
There is no doubt that Rosand has found the source of Veronese’s painting in Aretino’s gospel popularization. However, one question remains. What was the source of Aretino’s account? Did he just make up his embellishment of the conversion of the Magdalen or did he draw from an already existing tradition?
Pietro Aretino was born in 1492 into a poor family in Arezzo. At about the age of fourteen he left his hometown to make his own way in the world. He didn’t journey to nearby Florence but for reasons unknown walked the 50 miles to Perugia. According to James Cleugh’s biography, “The Divine Aretino,” Pietro probably arrived in Perugia around 1506 and stayed for about six years.
In those years he tried his hand at a number of things and even studied painting. He achieved some competence but realized early that he would go nowhere as a painter. Nevertheless, there is one incident concerning Aretino that throws light on Veronese’s painting. Cleugh relates a prank attributed to the young Aretino.***
According to the Perugian poet Caporali he had been offended by the sight of a mediocre fresco in the Piazza Grande depicting Mary Magdalene at the feet of Christ. Her arms outspread in an absurdly awkward attitude of adoration and the two conspicuous tears rolling down her cheeks lent in Pietro's view an utterly incongruous aspect to the buxom citizeness who had been used as a model. He decided to correct this artistic impropriety and call the perpetrator to order in the only way he could be expected to understand--pictorially.
One morning, early risers were horrified to find that the pious Magdalene had been transformed overnight into the courtesan she was said to have been before her conversion. A lute had appeared in her hands and she was gazing at Jesus with a far from sorrowing expression. Pietro had spent a couple of hours the night before with his brushes and palette, and a discrete torch, on a ladder propped against the wall….
The joke, however, did not amuse the clergy or the ruling Baglioni family or the municipality of Perugia. Pietro could usually talk himself out of trouble, but this time his laughing apology did not help him. While the picture was being restored he was sternly given to understand that if he did not remove himself forthwith from the precincts of the city he could expect an examination by the Holy Inquisition.
Cleugh warns that practically anything by or about Pietro can be taken with a grain of salt but it would be impossible to doubt that there was a painting on a wall in Perugia that depicted a kneeling, penitent Magdalen at the feet of Christ, a scene only implied in the gospels. Moreover, it is not hard to imagine that this “Conversion of Mary Magdalen” by an unknown artist was not the only one in Perugia. Indeed, it is more than likely that such depictions could have been found all over Italy.
|Faded image over door in Piazza S. Stefano, Venice|
Aretino’s scandalous writings have survived but Rosand noted in the Burlington Magazine that the Church banned works like his gospel popularization after the Council of Trent. Professor Rosand was correct to remind the National Gallery that there was more to the religious art of the Renaissance than could be found in the gospels or the apocrypha.
*David Rosand: “Veronese’s Magdalen and Pietro Aretino,” Burlington Magazine, 153, June 2011, pp. 392-395.
**All quotations from Aretino are taken from Rosand's article.
***James Cleugh, "The Divine Aretino", NY, 1966. p. 28.