After two centuries, St Michael restored to Veronese's altarpiece

Renaissance work reconstructed after missing piece is discovered in Texas
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He was part of an elite artistic triumvirate alongside Titian and Tintoretto, and his imposing altarpieces featuring saints, celestial creatures and supplicating patrons were the most admired in Renaissance Italy.

Then one of the 16th-century painter Paolo Veronese's largest works, an altarpiece, was cut up and sold off to different buyers across the world.

Until now, the face of St Michael from the Petrobelli Altarpiece, which was regarded as the work's crowning glory, had been missing and art historians thought it had been destroyed when the altar was dissected and sold.

But next week, the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London will reveal the reconstructed altarpiece in its full glory for the first time since 1780. The work is part of an exhibition opening next Tuesday. It will be the first show staged in Britain to focus on Veronese's work.

The reconstruction comes a year after the gallery's curator, Xavier Salomon, discovered the missing piece while on a visit to Texas. He had been researching for years and was convinced that the central image of St Michael was lost rather than destroyed.

"I knew about it from descriptions but nobody had seen it and people thought it had been destroyed when the altarpiece came down," he said.

Then, on a trip to Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, Texas, he came across an image catalogued as the "head of an angel" that struck him as familiar.

"I couldn't remember where I'd seen it before. Then it struck me suddenly. I thought 'St Michael was an angel' and when I examined it further, the picture joined up the jigsaw perfectly."

The altarpiece was painted around 1565 to sit in the family chapel of Antonio and Girolamo Petrobelli. As one of the largest altarpieces produced in Italy in the 16th century, it took pride of place there until the 18th century.

But it was torn down during the Napoleonic Wars, when the Order of the Franciscan Friars Minor Conventual was suppressed.

Writing about the altarpiece and its dismemberment, an Italian scholar noted how "it was sold in quarters, as one does with butcher's meat".

Veronese remained popular after his death, but as tastes shifted in the 20th century the work of his contemporaries came to be favoured above his own.