Alexander the Great, the Macedonian emperor, visits the distraught family of King Darius III of Persia, who he has defeated in battle. Darius’s mother Sisigambis mistakes Alexander’s friend Hephaestion, who wears plate armour and an orange cloak, for the victor. Alexander comforts Sisigambis, who calls on him to be merciful to Darius’s wife and children. Alexander insists that the family be treated as royalty and retain their finery.
It’s likely that Veronese was commissioned to make this painting by the Venetian Pisani family, who continued to own it until it was purchased in 1857 by the National Gallery. It has often been assumed that The Family of Darius is a glorified Pisani family portrait, but this is unlikely as the faces reappear in other unrelated paintings by Veronese.
Few if any of Veronese’s large paintings are likely to have been painted entirely by him; they would have been completed by studio assistants. However, the superior quality of this impressive painting suggests he worked on every part of it.
After defeating King Darius III of Persia, who fled after the Battle of Issus in 330 BC, Alexander the Great, the 23-year-old Macedonian emperor, visited Darius’s distraught family. Dressed in a blue ermine-lined cloak, Darius’s mother Sisigambis kneels before Alexander’s friend Hephaestion, mistaking him for the victor. Hephaestion, in armour and wearing an orange cloak, seems literally taken aback and points to himself in surprise. Alexander comforts Sisigambis by graciously observing that Hephaestion is ‘another Alexander’ – so close a friend that they are ‘as one’. Veronese has used hand gestures to indicate this dialogue between Alexander and Sisigambis.
Sisigambis is accompanied by Darius’s wife – and sister – Stateira, and their two young daughters dressed in matching robes. The family are wearing Venetian dress of the 1560s and Hephaestion wears Italian plate armour of about 1560–90, but Veronese has combined these contemporary elements with exotic details and imaginative archaeological features. Alexander wears a costume of deep rose and his armour is derived from antique sculpture, although his chain mail and sword are based on sixteenth-century examples. Echoing contemporary buildings by the architect Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) in Verona, the architectural backdrop is fashioned like a theatre set, while the low horizon recalls the experience of seeing a stage play from the front row.
Sisigambis gestures to Stateira, as does the man behind her, perhaps calling on Alexander to be merciful to Darius’s family. The elder daughter, also named Stateira, carries her mother’s crown on her arm and Darius’s young son, dressed in red, shelters beside his grandmother. The huge horse towering above the figures at the far right is probably intended to represent Bucephalus, Alexander’s famous charger. Below the horse, a page boy leaning on a shield has an imperial eagle – the emblem of the Holy Roman Emperor – on the back of his doublet, and seems to be peering round the warriors' legs at Darius’s son.
Although the family of Darius were Alexander’s captives, he received them nobly and insisted that they all be treated as royalty and retain their finery. When Darius died he declared that the gods would reward Alexander for the kindness he had shown to his mother, wife and children. The Roman writer Plutarch mentions that Darius’s daughter, Stateira, eventually married Alexander and his younger daughter married Hephaestion.
Plutarch’s Parallel Lives could have been Veronese’s source for this episode, but that account does not really accord with what is shown in the painting. A more likely source is Factorum et Dictorum Memorabilium by Valerius Maximus, which was readily available in Italian with various editions printed in Venice from 1504 to 1537.
It is likely that the painting was commissioned by the Venetian Pisani family, who continued to own it until it was purchased in 1857 by the National Gallery. The original owner was probably Francesco Pisani, who died in 1567. He was the son of a prosperous banker and lived in a splendid villa built for him by Andrea Palladio and adorned with sculpture by Alessandro Vittoria (1525–1608), which stands just outside the walls of Montagnana on what was then the Venetian mainland. Francesco Pisani may have used his influence in 1555 to obtain for Veronese the commission for the high altarpiece of the Transfiguration for the Cathedral of Montagnana, as the agreement records that it was signed in his villa. The Family of Darius may have been made for the Pisani villa at Montagnana – it was definitely in the villa when Francesco Pisani died in 1567 as his widow was accused of attempting to remove it.
It has often been assumed that The Family of Darius is a glorified Pisani family portrait, but the faces reappear in other unrelated paintings by Veronese, suggesting that they were types he used for different characters in various pictures. Even if the Pisani are not represented here, it is likely that the subject of the painting had special associations for them. It was a familiar subject, commissioned by at least two other prominent Venetian families during the same period.
Few of Veronese’s large paintings are likely to have been painted entirely by him; they would have been completed by studio assistants. However, the superior quality of this painting suggests he worked on every part of it. The fact that the original design was altered to a degree which is unusual in Veronese’s large paintings also suggests he himself was wholly responsible for its execution. Traces of preliminary drawing, probably in charcoal, can be seen in the thinly painted background figures and in the architecture.
Although the painting is in good condition, the blue pigment smalt used for the sky has deteriorated to grey. It is likely, however, that the sky was always intended to be a pale blue with clouds. Changes over time to the paint have meant that the architecture has become translucent in parts, as have the horses and figures on the balustrade. The figures were surely meant to be pale, but probably not as pale as they are now.
The celebrated German writer Goethe went to Venice in 1786, and The Family of Darius was the only painting that he described in the account he gave of his visit in his Italian Journey. It was probably the most celebrated privately owned picture in the entire city, and it remains one of Veronese’s most impressive paintings.
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