Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice

It is extraordinary to consider that Venice in the mid-C16 was both the home and principal workplace of three great artists, Titian (1488-1576), Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Veronese (1528-1588), all at the height of their powers. Even more extraordinary to consider that 500 years later these same artists are still seen to represent a collective pinnacle in the development of Western art and a reference point for artistic excellence right up to the present day. The artistic patron living in or in contact with Venice had masters to choose between, provided his pockets were sufficiently deep and his influence sufficiently great to hold their attention.

Titian, Venus of Urbino
Titian, Venus of Urbino

Of the three, Titian was very much the ‘man of the world’, even though he hardly ever left Venice: distinctive for his professional and personal assurance; comfortable in the company of Emperors and Princes; assured in his treatment of the sensuous and erotic; and a true master of colour and composition.

Tintoretto, The Penitent Magdalene
Tintoretto, The Penitent Magdalene

Tintoretto by contrast was a man whose emotions were always close to surface and shine through in every picture. Much of his work presents an almost anguished piety to the modern eye.

Veronese, The Family of Darius before Alexander
Veronese, The Family of Darius before Alexander (detail)

And Paolo Veronese? He perhaps was the greatest story-teller, able to construct complex narrative pictures, filled with life and character, that tell great historical and religious stories.

The National Gallery holds some ten works by Veronese, including the first ever work bought specifically to form the core of a national collection. But despite the artist being well-represented, there has never been a large national exhibition dedicated to the work of Veronese. This exhibition therefore fills a long overdue gap with 40 works drawn from across the world to add to the Gallery’s own collection. It is a magnificent show and when one reflects on the logistic challenges (wonderfully described here: http://artseer.wordpress.com/2014/03/10/nail-to-nail/) and costs associated with bringing this exhibition together one might wonder whether this could be the last blockbuster.

The scale of this exhibition makes it almost exhausting to visit. There is so much to see and absorb and many of the pictures are so large and filled with incident that they are almost overwhelming. Veronese was certainly comfortable with scale. Some of his biggest canvases could not come to the show because they simply would not fit in the gallery. And even to include the Martyrdom of St George, leaving the altar of Chiesa di San Giorgio in Braida, Verona for the first time since it was plundered by Napoleon, the gallery had to build a artificial wall in the centre of the gallery to hold the picture. (By the way, approaching this picture is the highlight of the show. I recommend that you go back from the entrance to the room so that you can just see the bottom of the picture through the gallery door. Approach slowly letting the picture appear gradually through the doorway until you reach the entrance and it towers above you. It will take your breath away).

I am not qualified to give a comprehensive view of the exhibition but there were a number of things which really stood out for me.

Veronese, Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida, 1552
Veronese, Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida, 1552

 

Veronese, Portrait of a Lady, known as the Bella Nani, 1560-65
Veronese, Portrait of a Lady, known as the Bella Nani, 1560-65

The first thing which really struck me was Veronese’s remarkable ability to capture his sitters as real human beings, with real feelings and sentiments. He was not primarily a portrait painter so there are relatively few portraits shown. And most of them can be reasonably assumed to be of rich patrons and major figures of the time, and these pictures designed to record them for posterity. Often the result of such commissions is stiffness or pomposity, but these attributes are entirely absent from Veronese. His portraits brim with life and with real feelings; just look at the tenderness of father and son in the picture above.

That same humanity flows through his large narrative works. The Supper at Emmaus tells a religious story. But I was inclined to set aside the larger narrative and concentrate on the two beautifully realised little girls playing with their dog. There is a very human ‘mini-narrative’ wrapped up in the bigger picture.

Veronese, The Supper at Emmaus, c.1555
Veronese, The Supper at Emmaus, c.1555

 

Veronese, The Martyrdom of St George, c.1565
Veronese, The Martyrdom of St George, c.1565

The second thing which struck me about Veronese is his marvellous ability as a story teller, and his ability to construct complex set-piece compositions which tell that story. Both The Supper at Emmaus and The Martydom of St George are superb examples, with the Martydom perhaps being the standout piece in the whole exhibition.

The audio guide for the exhibition includes commentary from opera director Kaspar Holten who comments on the need for effective design to include both a strong overall effect and a series of compelling details so that each member of the audience can select their own details to absorb. These pictures achieve this same result very effectively.

Holten also comments on how effectively Veronese subjugates historical accuracy and consistency to the needs of the picture. In the picture The Family of Darius before Alexander, for example, there is a curious mixture of contemporary and ‘Roman’ costumes, and the Roman costumes are a romantic interpretation of what they might look like. But it doesn’t matter at all; the inconsistent elements come together to form a totally consistent whole. And that is helped of course by Veronese’s extraordinary ability to render in paint images of material so real that you feel that you could pull them out of the canvas. Again, just look at the little girls in the The Supper at Emmaus.

Veronese, Venus and Mars, 1575-80
Veronese, Venus and Mars, 1575-80

 

The final picture I want to comment on is Venus and Mars, actually one of three treatments of this subject in the exhibition. This is one of the smallest pictures on show and reminds us that Veronese obviously had an excellent sense of humour. Venus and Mars are here caught in a naked embrace by Cupid wandering down the stairs with Mars’ horse. It is a delightful little picture which also demonstrates that Veronese was equally at home with small scale as large scale canvases.

I commented in a previous review that a paying exhibition at a major London gallery really requires three things. The first is the opportunity to see work which is not otherwise available in London. The second was good supporting scholarship and the third a worthwhile catalogue. The Veronese scores full marks on all three. There are some forty major works of art here from outside the UK and it seems certain that this is a unique opportunity to see them all together. The catalogue is superb, containing both high quality reproductions of all the pictures and what is likely to be for some time the definitive account of Veronese’s life and works. And the audio guide, if you like a guide when viewing an exhibition, really is like have a series of world experts whispering in your ear. This is a must see exhibition.

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