VERONESE, Paolo
(b. 1528, Verona, d. 1588, Venezia)

The Family of Darius before Alexander

1565-70
Oil on canvas, 236 x 475 cm
National Gallery, London

The protagonists in this ancient story, painted for a palace of the Pisani family, wear a mixture of contemporary dress and fancy costume: the ermine collar and cape of the wives of Venetian doges, modern jousting armour and operatic Roman battle dress - anachronisms which have become identified with Veronese's Venice. The episode principally illustrates the magnanimity of Alexander the Great. Having defeated the Persian King Darius at Issus, Alexander spared his foe's mother, wife and children, sending word that Darius lived and that their royal persons would be respected. The following morning he went to visit them with Hephaestion, his dearest friend and general. When they entered the royal pavilion the Queen Mother, Sisygambis, prostrated herself in front of Hephaestion mistaking him for Alexander as he seemed the taller of the two. Hephaestion recoiled, an attendant corrected her, but Alexander himself courteously alleviated her embarrassment by saying, 'It is no mistake, for he too is an Alexander.' The gestures of Sisygambis and the courtier towards Darius' beautiful wife may refer to the secondary theme of the epoch-making 'continence' of Alexander, who abstained from claiming the Persian Queen as a concubine.

The huge canvas must have been designed to hang above head height, for Veronese has deployed the figures - some of them surely family portraits - in three groups at the very edge of the picture, on a terrace in front of a thinly painted open colonnade.