cover image Wisdom and Strength

Wisdom and Strength

Peter Watson. Doubleday Books, $21.95 (395pp) ISBN 978-0-385-18449-6

Watson has chosen a single Renaissance painting, Paolo Veronese's Wisdom and Strength , on which to base a freewheeling group portrait of some 20 of the richest, most powerful art patrons of the last 400 years, from ``mad Hapsburg Emperor Rudolph II,'' who commissioned the painting, to robber baron Henry Clay Frick, whose estate now owns it. By explaining how and why the painting journeyed from owner to owner, Watson ( Caravaggio Conspiracy ) sheds light on topics ranging from the ``secret meanings of allegory'' to the dominant hues of Thomas Hope's (of Hope Diamond fame) drawing room. Yet, though he describes his book as the biography of a painting, Wisdom and Strength itself receives only a fraction of the attention lavished on the characters and habits of its owners. And while the author discusses such art historical developments as the rise of mannerism, the relationship of the baroque to the Counter-Reformation and the changing role of the artist in society, Watson's main concern is the nature of high-powered art dealing. Photos not seen by PW . (May)