Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice

To many Veronese is the least well-known of the three great painters of Cinquecento Venice. Though even behind the shadow of his elders Titian and Tintoretto, Veronese’s magnificence demands to be seen in his own light.

Paolo Caliari (1528-1588) of Verona (the town which gave him his famous name) was apprenticed at an early age to local artist Antonio Badile. His formative years cemented his artistic roots in the colloquialisms of Northern Italy, looking back to the classical for composition and adopting the contemporary Mannerism stylistically. From these foundations the teenage painter began to forge his own identity, and it is this growth and establishment that the exhibition sets out to chronicle.

Upon entering the exhibition the first thing that struck me was the colours. On every wall were the exquisite tones typical of Veronese’s work, those which distinguish him and betray his Venetian inclinations. In 1553 he moved to the island city of Venice where he remained for the rest of his life. The influence of Titian and Tintoretto, titans of the Venetian school, is undeniable. That spectrum of bold, warm colouring could have come from nowhere else. However, looking around this first room it is clear there is more to Veronese than what meets the eye.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene (c.1548) is the first painting to grab my attention. One of the many belonging to the gallery, this ambitious subject is portrayed by a 20 year old Veronese with confidence and mastery. The Magdalene has fallen to the floor at Christ’s feet in the temple, looking up at him with eyes full of sorrow and humiliation. A jewelled necklace uncoils from around her neck, drawing attention to her inappropriately low cut bodice. Her gaze remains unbroken as she takes the steady hand of a waiting lady. She is dressed in a contemporary gown of cornflower blue draped with golden cloth, colours symbolising truth, grace, hope and strength. The figure of Christ, swathed in rose pink (love and compassion) and a vivid blue (heaven) looks down upon Mary with a serene but discerning look, a look of knowing. His hands, though slightly oversized, elegantly bestow a blessing, gesturing forgiveness. The surrounding figures fill the temple with bustling action. The enormous fluted columns and architectural backdrop gives dimensionality and stages the scene. These details are indicative of Veronese’s ruin-strewn hometown, and perhaps hint at his stonecutter father’s profession. You can almost hear the echo of shocked breath in reaction from the peering faces. Amongst all this detail what continuously attracts my eye is the exchange of looks. Mary’s face reflects the realisation of utter shame, wide eyes pleading, and her mouth ajar betrays a heavy breath, perhaps a sob escaping. Her face tells a thousand words, and it is this human element that tells the story.

The portrait of Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida (1552) was commissioned by the sitter to fill in a niche of his new Palladian family home. The overall feeling is a casual one. It is strikingly clear he is wealthy and of good reputation. Simply dressed in black cloth and furs it is his pose that does the talking. His stance is at once relaxed, powerful and self-assured. His stare holds the viewer’s, I almost feel as though he’s summing me up, analysing me as I am him. Although his face is stern, there is something else going on. His ungloved hand rests upon the shoulder of his heir, it is a gesture of protection and pride. Leonida holds it with both of his, portraying trust and closeness. He plays with his father’s fingers while something more interesting than the viewer catches his eye. The tradition of portraiture (imagine a sitter covered in jewels and ornate fabrics, surrounded by symbols of wealth and virtue, a face full of their own self-importance) has been completely disregarded by Veronese. As with the allegorical painting of Mary Magdalene, he has gotten to the core of what painting should be. It should be personal, relatable, readable and engaging through emotions. From this portrait, the first of many civic commissions, it is clear why he became so popular so fast. And I think it shows what Veronese does best; people.

Another of my highlights is Lucrezia (c.1580-85). The semi-legendary allegory derives from Livy’s History of Rome. A tale of tragedy, tyranny and the subsequent overthrowing of the Monarchy by the Republic, this story would have been close to the heart of the Italians. Here, the tale is told through the portrait of Lucrezia herself, and depicts her final moments. She is captured as dishevelled woman, one hand pulling at the green and golden cloth covering her, the other piercing the skin at her breast with a dagger. The colours she wears represent freedom, mercy and new beginnings. She wears pearls (symbol of purity and salvation) about her neck and hair, and golden bracelets set with emeralds. Emerging from a dark background frames by rich drapery and a supporting stone pillar, features that are reminiscent of Titian, and set a Classical backdrop for the scene. The contrapposto of her body is weak and weighty, and she leans on the pillar for support. Her sheer chemise falls over one shoulder unveiling an expanse of ivory skin. A typical Veronese heroine with her fine blonde hair, curled at the temples, Lucrezia is beauty idealised. However she is not presented to us to be worshipped, but to be revered for her strength of morality and honour, as a martyr. With her pale face downcast, slightly puffy eyes and bloodless mouth her expression is one of utter grief and stern resolve. She was raped by the licentious Etruscan Prince, who blackmailed her in order to have his way with her. If she refused he intended to murder her and a slave, setting them up in a scene of adultery. To avoid bringing shame upon her family and being the cause of a murder she agreed to his sexual advances, though ‘he found her obdurate and not to be moved even by fear of death’. After telling her father and husband what had passed she is overcome with dishonour and disgrace and decides to take her own life. The defilement of her innocence and virtue is a fate unbearable. Veronese captures this moment, this decision, and it is all told through the pose and expression of a woman.

I think it would be very easy to conclude by comparing Veronese to his contemporaries, and pick apart his works by similarities to his artistic influences. That would be unfair. He was unquestionably influenced by Titian and Tintoretto, but in turn his influence would be of great importance to future artists such as Tiepolo, Rubens and Delacroix. Despite very much being a product of his time in terms of subject (the Counter Reformation demanded religious works, wealthy patrons grand portraits and allegorical scenes) and style (the dominating High Renaissance/Mannerist fashions and the unavoidable Venetian tonality and love of texture) it is his unique spark that sets him apart as a magnificent artist. This ability to electricity canvases with emotions, illuminating what would otherwise be a static tableau, and without which he would merely be a good painter. The eye contact or telling facial expressions of his figures breathe life into his images, in turn making them real, readable and, moving for the viewer. Creating this out of paint is what makes Veronese magnificent.

The room dedicated solely to altarpieces and works for churches highlights a period of important commissions, and the growth of his reputation as a master of religious subject on canvas, wood and ceiling. The Consecration of Saint Nicholas (1562), another National Gallery owned work, was painted for the chapel of Saint Nicholas in San Benedetto Po. The story goes that on the eve of nominating a new bishop for the city of Myra (Asia Minor), one of the bishops had a dream that the first person to enter the church would be the rightful next bishop. This man, of course, was Nicholas. So, the consecration of a saint for a chapel in his honour should be a big deal, right? A saint crowned, bathed in holy light and all around him astounded, his future as a ‘miracle worker’ hinted at in a monumental canvas. No. Veronese, positions the saint at the bottom of the canvas, half obscured by a clergyman whose eyes look past Nicholas. As the soon-to-be saint kneels in reverence of the elaborately dressed priest, with a look of reverence on his face, hands crossed on his chest, ready to receive his blessing, a boy dressed in church vestments is the one paying the most attention to Nicholas, perhaps a hint at his future title of patron saint of children. As with The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, the first noticeable thing is the bold colour palette. Again that apple green, blushing pink and bold blue pick at the scene and separate the characters. Again there is a hint at the drama of the moment, faces show the emotions and hands gesture at what is going on; the priest blessing, the saint pious. Again we have architectural details to set the stage, a fluted column and a decorated plinth. The overriding feeling is a human one. Yes, something of religious importance is happening. But the characters are real people, they are not idealised, they have emotions. This, above all makes the scene relatable. Religious or not, one can comprehend human emotion, and that (slightly awkward winged angel aside) is what makes Veronese’s visions captivating.

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