This intense Conversion of St. Paul is a painting with an enormous impact on account of the theme that it addresses: the conversion to Christianity of Saul (later Paul), who went from persecuting Christians to becoming one of the founding fathers of the Christian Church. The circumstances of St. Paul’s conversion from Judaism to Christianity became extremely popular and appreciated in the 16th century, due to the then popular, moving narrative of Jesus’s divine appearance to Paul, his ensuing blindness and the recovery of his sight after receiving a blessing at the hands of the priest Ananias. All of these episodes, depicted both in large paintings and frescoes and in smaller works intended for private devotion, were particularly useful for the Church’s defensive strategy in view of the various reform movements, which had begun to emerge early in the century. In the second decade of the 16th century, for instance, we find a representation of the Conversion of St. Paul among the famous Raphael cartoons for the tapestries designed to deck the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It is precisely that model, so theatrically focused on the dramatic circumstances of the saint unhorsed and blinded by divine light, which was chiefly to inspire artists throughout the 16th century and beyond, and which is also the subject of the painting under discussion here. The picture, a large canvas most probably intended for a “portego” (the large gallery filled with artworks, typical of the palaces’ interiors in Venice), may be hypothetically identified as having been part of the collection of Andrea Odoni. Odoni was a wealthy Lombard merchant resident in Venice and owner of one of the city’s most celebrated art collections, which was reviewed by Marcantonio Michiel in his Notizie delle opere del disegno published in 1532.
Bonifacio de’ Pitati, heir to Palma Vecchio and close in stylistic terms to Lorenzo Lotto, was one of Venice’s most prolific artists between 1530 and 1550, when he ran an extensive workshop (in which he trained, among others, both the young Tintoretto and Schiavone) capable of meeting the requirements of public and private patrons alike, for example the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, the Scuola Grande della Carità and numerous Venetian churches.
Bonifacio de’ Pitati’s Conversion of St. Paul was acquired by the Grand Prince Ferdinando de’ Medici, in whose collection it is recorded from 1713, before being moved to the Uffizi in 1748. It is currently in storage in the museum’s own facility. A thick layer of yellowing varnish makes it difficult to read the painting correctly and blinds the observer to the mass of narrative detail that fills the scene. The painting is nevertheless of considerable quality and there can be no doubt that a proper restoration would not only allow the painting to be put on public display again in the Uffizi Galleries but would also make it possible to recover its compositional unity and a palette originally brilliant and dense: Indeed similar in every way to the palette that we can appreciate in the artist’s better-known works. The wooden frame, carved with a double laurel leaf design typical of the style of decoration chosen by Grand Prince Ferdinando, is an item of considerable quality in its own right, as much for its technical and construction features as for the richness and thickness of its gilding.
Estimated cost of restoration by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure following an examination conducted on 20/11/2019
Proposed by Anna Bisceglia, curator of sixteenth-century painting.