Veronese has been hiding in plain sight. The pomp and drama of his vast works deserve a closer look
Early last year the National Gallery staged an exhibition of the work of the late-Renaissance painter Federico Barocci and in doing so brought to light a virtually unknown Old Master. Now the gallery is doing something similar with an artist who has been hiding in plain sight: Paolo Caliari (1528-88), better known as Veronese.
Veronese is so familiar that one sometimes forgets to look properly at his pictures. The National Gallery has ten of his works and with their decorative drama, their spatial swooping, and the sumptuousness on display in their architecturally theatrical, people-packed scenes, they can seem more of a fantasy of the Venetian Republic in its pomp than individual works of art. Being a painter of beautiful pictures does not in itself make him an interesting painter and of the great Venetian triumvirate that also comprised Titian and Tintoretto, Veronese remains the least studied. Michael Levey, a former director of the National Gallery, described Veronese’s image problem back in 1967: “Veronese’s art seems all solutions and no hard problems, never trivial but perhaps never profound: art that, in its avoidance of extremes, has run the risk of pleasing without engaging the spectator.”
Engagement is the motivation behind Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, an exhibition that brings together 50 of his paintings and is the first major show of his work to be held in Britain. Veronese’s personality, however, offers little to latch on to: his early biographers describe a devout and self-effacing man devoted to his family and his art. He was born in Verona to a family of stonecutters and was not himself particularly learned although he was both well versed in the Bible and possessed of mental sharpness. One of the few contemporary documents to record his voice is a transcript taken by the Inquisition, which in 1573 questioned the painter as to various profane elements he had included in his huge picture of the Last Supper. Why, his inquisitors wanted to know, had he included two German — and hence Protestant — soldiers, a dwarf playing with a parrot and a servant with a bleeding nose, in such a sacred scene? Veronese protested that “painters and poets have always enjoyed the right to take liberties of almost any kind” and he was doing simply that. Also, “if in the painting there is an empty space, I decorate it with figures.” He meant no harm (“I never thought of causing disorder”). Veronese was ordered to correct these infelicities within three months at his own expense. What the painter did though was simply to add an inscription that changed the subject to the Feast in the House of Levi. Levi was a rich man and according to St Luke his house contained “a great company of publicans and of others that sat down with them”: the soldiers, dwarf and other extras now had their justification. With one nose-thumbing bound, Veronese was free.
Veronese had made his name on the mainland, working for the Giustiniani family in his native Verona and the Gonzaga in Mantua. He didn’t move to Venice until some time around 1553 and once there he rarely left again. Philip II of Spain, the greatest temporal king of the age, was said to have invited Veronese to Spain after Titian’s death to decorate the Escorial but the painter refused, saying he was “sorry to leave his own nest for adventure”.
His output in Venice though covered every genre from portraiture and altarpieces to allegories and mythologies, and he worked in palaces, churches, private villas and public buildings, including collaborations with the architects Palladio and Sansovino.
If Titian had an unrivalled emotional depth and breadth of technique and Tintoretto looked to transmit feeling through a dark and brooding atmosphere, Veronese sought his effects through pomp, colour and sheer facility. It was a manner he had established on the Veneto and which developed little afterwards. It didn’t need to: he had a large and professional studio, necessary for the large-scale commissions at which he excelled and which remained in great demand by the Church in particular.
His mastery of scale was extraordinary and his ability to marshal his mises-en-scène unrivalled. His Wedding at Cana of 1662-63 in the Louvre, for example, covers 66 sq canvas and contains more than 100 separate figures, each one dressed in a different costume and each engaged in a different activity. Perhaps looking for spiritual insight in such an overwhelming display is to look for the wrong thing. His conception of biblical or mythological set-pieces as opulent visual events is in itself an original imaginative leap.
Veronese’s real interest was in filling the painting surface with life. He did this even with a traditionally calm subject such as The Rest on the Flight into Egypt (1570-72) where rather than a static group of Jesus, Joseph and Mary in the desert Veronese includes a retinue of angels preparing their campsite: one climbs a date palm and, while holding on with one hand like a monkey, tosses the fruit down to another who catches it in a cloth, a third angel meanwhile drapes a shirt to air on the branches of a tree. The donkey looks on approvingly (Veronese was a great one for animals). In the painter’s mind reverence and delight are not mutually exclusive — the great crime was to be dull.
In 1909 Henry James described visiting Veronese’s The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565-67) at the National Gallery. It was, he said, a painting that “sends a glow into the cold London twilight” and he advised his readers “to sit before it for an hour and dream you are floating to the water-gate of the Ducal Palace”. It seems good advice for this exhibition as a whole.