Bonifacio de’ Pitati: Venice’s technicolor painter

Bonifacio de’ Pitati – also known as Bonifacio Veronese – acquired a considerable reputation in Venice as a painter of sacre conversazioni (sacred conversations) or compositions of the Virgin and Child that were both grand and informal. Praised as a brilliant colourist, Bonifacio’s popularity – judged by the size of his workshop and the vast number of paintings – was based on his ability to blend the qualities of Titian, Giorgione and Palma the Elder, and present them anew in vivid colours.

Born in Verona (hence his other name: Veronese), Bonifacio’s family moved to Venice where he entered the workshop of Palma the Elder. The subject of the sacra conversazione was Palma’s specialty and Bonifacio too made it the cornerstone of his career. He created many images of the Virgin and Child surrounded by saints and set in an expansive landscape, in fact so many that scholars have speculated there must be multiple artists named Bonifacio to account for all of them.

Made popular in the early 16th century, sacre conversazioni were devotional paintings, in which attendant saints are shown sharing in a meditation on the importance of the central characters – the Virgin and Child. With no basis in scripture or within Catholic doctrine, the idea of a private devotional image of the Virgin and Child owes more to Byzantine models. Usually set in a gentle and languid landscape, it often incorporates saints and donors who may not have lived at the same time.

Bonifacio received one of the largest public commissions in Venice – to decorate the recently refurbished Palazzo dei Camerlenghi which housed the offices responsible for state finances and trade. The enormity of this project – close to 100 canvases – required a big studio and Bonifacio managed to assemble one of the largest in the city. Here he trained many of the key artists of the latter half of the 16th century in Venice, including Tintoretto, Jacopo Bassano and Andrea Schiavone.

Bonifacio’s glowing Adoration of the Shepherds, my favourite, which now hangs in The Hermitage in St Petersburg, is a variation on a full-length sacra conversazione against the background of an urban and rural landscape. In it, Bonifacio has created a well-balanced composition with the Virgin and Child taking their rightful place in the centre, elevated above the Shepherds and St Joseph. The serenity of mood throughout the painting is reminiscent of Giorgione.