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Palma Giovane (1548-1628)

The Expulsion of the Vices of the Church c.1581-84

Oil on canvas | 101.4 x 137.6 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external) | RCIN 402870

King's Drawing Room, Kensington Palace

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  • In this early work, Palma's central Italian and Venetian influences are both particularly evident. 'The Expulsion' depicts the just chastisement of sin, although the exact allegory is difficult to interpret. The painting was originally arched and was acquired without a frame, suggesting that it was originally set in the wall of a Venetian scuola (confraternity) or similar building.

    This painting clearly show the central Italian influences are particularly evident in his Palma's early work, of which this is an example: the clearly defined figure of the angel with outstretched arms and sword in hand can be linked to Michelangelo's 'Expulsion of Adam and Eve' on the Sistine Chapel ceiling: the raised hand of the nude on the left is similar to that of Adam. The clarity of the design and the way in which the two expelled figures in Palma's painting plunge neatly in opposite directions recalls Michelangelo's 'Conversion of St Paul' (Cappella Paolina, Vatican), as well as later interpretations of it such as the fresco of the same subject by Taddeo Zuccaro (Cappella Frangipane, San Marcello al Corso, Rome), commissioned in 1557 and completed by Federico. More important were Palma's great Venetian predecessors and he combines traits from each of them. He completed Titian's 'Pietà' (Accademia, Venice), left unfinished at his death, and it was from Titian that he derived his technique and understanding of light. The freely turning figures are from Tintoretto, who was the most crucial influence on Palma's work. The opulence of Veronese can be traced in the luxurious robes, particularly those of the angel, and the play of light on her flesh. Like the Bassano family, Palma was interested in naturalism; his portraits in particular are direct and scrupulous in the recording of specific features. It is not surprising, in view of these influences, that this painting has at various times been attributed to Tintoretto and Veronese, as well as to Palma Giovane.

    An x-radiograph reveals that the painting is now made up of several pieces of canvas. The earliest addition is a square, in a finer weave of canvas and with a different ground butt-joined at the bottom right-hand corner. Tears visible above this join suggest that the original canvas may have become damaged and an area removed for this reason, but it is more likely that it was adapted to incorporate a doorway where it was originally hung. If so, the painting was probably moved and the corner restored early in its life as the addition matches the original areas so well that it could have been by someone in Palma's studio. The original location for the painting also seems to have been arched, like a lunette (the curve of the angel's pose just fitted inside the original canvas border); the present rectangular shape has been achieved by adding sections with a rougher canvas weave to the top corners. It is interesting that Charles I acquired the painting without a frame, which suggests it was taken from an architectural setting where it did not need one. The power of the tight design was dissipated when the canvas was extended to an oblong shape. Abraham Van der Doort's measurements in his inventory 1637-9, record a slightly smaller size than the current one, which proves that the thin strips of approximately 2.5 cm in width on all the edges were added once it had arrived in the Royal Collection. The sky, which incorporates these strips, may have been repainted at the same time, possibly in the eighteenth century. Infra-red reflectography reveals that Palma drew the areas of flesh and the faces in thin, sweeping strokes of underdrawing, similar to the fluid modelling of muscles in his drawings.

    The painting has been dated to early in Palma's career, when he had completed major commissions for the Doge's Palace and was gaining favour with ecclesiastical patrons because of his ability to represent Counter Reformation doctrine in a direct and understandable form. The original purpose of 'The Expulsion' is not known and the allegory is difficult to interpret with certainty, although it clearly depicts the just chastisement of sin. The portraits cannot be identified and it is unlikely that the head of the central figure is a self-portrait, as is sometimes suggested, since it does not resemble Palma's most famous self-portrait of c.1590 (Brera). The subject was thought to represent the expulsion of Heresy in the nineteenth century, and the 1946 Royal Academy exhibition catalogue interprets it as the expulsion of the Protestants from Venice. Recently it has been proposed that the three men are magistrates (in which case the painting comes from a courtroom), or that they were the 'tre savio all' eresia', the three noblemen appointed by the Doge to assist the church authorities in trials against heretics. The best evidence as to its subject is provided by Van der Doort's inventory of 1637-9 (only a decade after Palma's death), which describes the allegory as Virtue 'separating the Vices' and specifically mentions 'Usury and Simony'. The fleeing figure with his back to us, holds papers, which could suggest Simony (the buying and selling of ecclesiastical privileges); the old man turning to look at the angel as he flees, holds a money-bag, which could suggest Usury (lending money at interest). The painting may have been painted for one of the Venetian confraternities (scuole), which were important patrons of Palma at this time, in which case these men are lay and clerical members of such a confraternity, working together to rid the church of these abuses.

    In 1773 Sir Joshua Reynolds and Dr James Beattie, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Marischal College, Aberdeen, visited the Queen's House (later Buckingham Palace) to see the Raphael cartoons and must have seen this painting as well. Reynolds used the composition when he painted his portrait of Dr James Beattie in 'The Triumph of Truth' (1733; University of Aberdeen), which shows an angel holding the scales of justice and chasing off a figure of Infidelity (given the features of Voltaire).

    Catalogue entry adapted from The Art of Italy in the Royal Collection: Renaissance and Baroque, London, 2007
    Provenance

    Nathaniel Garrett; acquired by Charles I; valued at £20 by the Trustees for sale; sold to Stone & others, October 1651; declared by John Stone to House of Lords Committee in May 1660

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas

    Measurements

    101.4 x 137.6 cm (support, canvas/panel/str external)

    122.6 x 157.2 x 5.6 cm (frame, external)

  • Alternative title(s)

    The Expulsion of Heresy, previously entitled