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  • Luigi Di Castri

Antonio Verrio – whose mistake?

Aggiornamento: 13 giu

On Friday 7th June, 2024, Circolo Berkeley was welcomed to the home of Susan and Corrado to hear Susan Arculus and Hilda Caffery introduce us to the life and work of Antonio Verrio, the internationally acclaimed baroque artist from Lecce, and to consider why he is largely uncelebrated in the place of his birth.

Susan spoke first. Armed with a wooden ruler emblazoned with a dated list of English monarchs, and relying for precision both on the ruler and Hilda’s memory, Susan began by recounting Verrio’s early career.

Verrio was born in Lecce in 1606, at the height of the Italian Baroque period, where he was a student of Giovanni Andrea Coppola. (More on that name later.) In the early1660s Verrio travelled to Rome and Venice and, in 1665, to Toulouse where he was commissioned by wealthy aristocrats to paint portraits and decorate their private residencies. Two of the portraits remain in the Musée des Augustins de Toulouse. In 1670 Verrio moved further north, to Paris, where he studied at the French Academy and, again, worked for private clients, decorating their luxurious homes while building his own reputation.

In 1672 Verrio moved to England where he remained until his death. He began working for aristocratic clientelle, as he had in France, but soon acquired the patronage of King Charles II. Suspicions may have been raised – a catholic artist working for a protestant king – but the king described Verrio as his ‘principal painter’ and gave Verrio the most important commission of his career, the North Range of Windsor Castle. This included twenty ceilings, three staircases, the King's Chapel and St George's Hall but, as Hilda explained, numerous fires at Windsor Castle destroyed all but three ceilings. We were shown pictures which demonstrated the scale and quality of Verrio’s work.

When Charles II died in 1685 Verrio lost his royal connection and returned to working for the aristocracy. From 1687 to 1692 his patron was the 1st Duke of Devonshire for whom Verrio painted the Great Chamber at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, the country estate owned by the Cavendish family. Antonio Verrio’s most notable aristocratic commission, though, was Burghley House in Stamford, Cambridgeshire. Susan had recently visited Burghley and passed around some excellent books and postcards to provide background information as she talked. Burghley House was built in 1555 for Sir William Cecil, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I and has three hundred rooms! Verrio worked for John Cecil, the 5th Earl of Exeter, who commissioned him to paint a series of those rooms including, most-famously, between 1697 and 1699, "Hell Staircase" and "Heaven Room", which were inspired by Odyssean mythology and provide spectacular evidence of Verrio’s vision and skill. Verrio lived at Burghley for ten years but, on leaving Burghley, was granted a new royal commission working on the redecoration of Hampton Court Palace first for William III and then for Queen Anne. He received an annual pension of £200 until he died there in 1707.

Verrio’s self-portrait of 1704 hangs in the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square in London. As the talk progressed copies of the picture were circulated. Verrio’s brilliance was obvious which again called into question his status in Lecce. As we looked at the picture and observed Verrio’s elegant clothes and visage Susan recounted some humorous insights into his personality. He was married in Lecce when he was very young but the bride seems to have disappeared from history and almost certainly from his life. Meanwhile Verrio became a notorious womaniser, regularly chasing cooks and cleaners along the corridors to have his wicked way. (At Burghley the head of the kitchen despised Verrio for his exploits with her staff; he supposedly took his revenge by painting her as a six-breasted woman into one of the murals.) For all his womanising, Verrio was famous in his lifetime and was paid fabulously for his work. He kept a retinue of assistants, whom he rewarded very well, and he liked to drink and eat as if he were himself an aristocrat: records account for copious purchases of wine and port. Verrio was, however, less attentive to his book-keeping, and accumulated debts at hostelries which remain to this day, the debts and hostelries.

Hilda went on to explain some of the difficulties facing Verrio as a catholic working in England under the newly-restored protestant Charles II, and it was suggested that Verrio’s unpopularity in Italy may be linked to this conflict. The name of Verrio’s teacher in Lecce – Coppola – was also mentioned, giving rise to some wishful claims of association in respect of Mary Coppola, Hilda’s daughter.

The talk closed by trying to answer the question of Verrio’s reputation in Lecce. Elsewhere he is celebrated as perhaps the greatest baroque artist of all but his legacy in Lecce is limited to one painting in the Museo Sigismondo Castromediano and a small number of pictures in churches around the city. (There is also a fresco attributed to his brother, Antonio on the wall of Sant’Irene.) Verrio’s lack of fame in Lecce can be explained, perhaps, in three ways. Firstly, he left Lecce before his career really began, so most of his work was done abroad and on walls and ceilings which were either destroyed or, if they remain, are impossible to transport and exhibit. Secondly, mural painting, while once fashionable, went out of vogue. Art is a fickle mistress. Thirdly, comes the question of technique. It was suggested that Verrio liked working on staircases and ceilings because they made it hard to observe his skills in close quarters, while critics at the time said his colours were garish. But, as Mary Coppola explained, this can be attributed to his youth in Salento, where the sky and light encourage a different palette to that of northern darkness and wishy-washy watercolours. As a group we concluded that Antonio Verrio is Lecce’s to treasure. And as for the sky, well, who could argue.

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