The exhibition of works by Paolo Veronese at the National Gallery is astonishing but epitomises how museums tend to de-contextualised these kinds of images.This is why, it is problematic when art critics and journalist look at these images as ‘works of art for an art gallery’ when many of them are altarpieces or even State room decoration. I could go on and on with how wonderful this artist is but I want to do that by applying my critical eye to the way the National Gallery’s curator of Early Modern art, Xavier Salomon discusses these works in the catalogue that accompanies this exhibition and also in the way, art critics such as Richard Dorment (the Telegraph) quickly jump into stereotypical conclusions and clichés. I am setting these two coordinates in order to show how the paradoxical work of someone like Veronese needs a bit more than, on one hand, a dry biographical account (Salomon) and, on the other hand, of complexity in order to avoid the simplified formulae of some sort of art journalism.
The Telegraph’s Richard Dorment starts his review by saying: ”It may be doubted whether, as mere painter, Paolo Veronese has ever been surpassed.” That deliciously feline “mere” in Bernard Berenson’s assessment of the Venetian master neatly pinpoints the strength and weakness of his art. For if Veronese never quite achieved the moral stature or depth of feeling you find in the art of Titian or Tintoretto, his mastery of each component in the craft of painting – drawing, composition, brushwork and colour – resulted in some of the most sensuously beautiful works of art ever painted. And if Veronese wasn’t exactly an intellectual, so what? Who else conveys the sensation of bare flesh coming into contact with soft fur, luminous silk or lustrous pearls? Without his example it is hard to imagine the careers of other “mere” painters such as Tiepolo or Boucher’. Ok, after this initial paragraph, I would say that if bad art criticism were a crime, Richard Dorment should be in jail. His opening paragraph is so wrong that threatens to push the whole reading of the show in exactly the wrong direction.
I am saying this because he constructs his argument over the artificial opposition between what he calls ‘intelectual painters’ and ‘manual painters’. Very little is known about the way the iconography of these artists was conceived. What we know is that painters were always advised by iconographers and ‘intellectuals’. This means that more often than thought, painters had no idea what subject to paint and that there were people (usually at court) dedicated to tell them what to do. Thus, Titian had Aretino and Bambo, Velazquez had de Rioja and Veronese had, amongst others, Danielle Barbaro. The problem with Dorment argument is that he transforms Veronese into the decorative ‘rococo-ish’ Venetian painter par excellence and that, added to the fact that he mainly decorated palaces, comes across as a superficial and theatrical artists.
Similarly and from the other side of the ‘academic’ spectrum, It is very difficult to see Veronese’s relevance after reading the NG curator, Xavier Salomon’s catalogue where he tells us that Paolo Caliari (Il Veronese) was born in 1528 in Verona, the mainland city in which the ancient world is vividly present in the form of well-preserved Roman buildings and archaeological remains. The son of a stone cutter, he trained as a sculptor – something I think you can detect in The Anointing of David from about 1650, where the densely packed frieze of figures could easily have been inspired by a carving in low relief on an ancient sarcophagus. Coming into close contact with the architect Michele Sanmicheli, who was then very active in Verona, the young man became a skilled painter of frescos and ceilings who learnt to think of a painting (even a painting on canvas) as an integral part of its architectural surroundings.
By the time Veronese arrived in Venice in the 1550s, he was a fully formed artist whose work looked more like that of central Italian painters – Giulio Romano, Parmigianino, Correggio – than it did like any Venetian artist. Generally speaking, Veronese’s use of bozzetti or preliminary sketches and preparatory drawings was at odds with the colourist approach of the Venetian school, where the artist typically paints the under drawing directly onto the canvas.
In works like ‘The Feast in the House of Levi’ (1573), to give just an example, we can see how relevant Ancient Rome was for presenting this biblical scenes as theatrically staged and choreographed. Even though, he is not an accurate antiquarian like Nicholas Poussin, we can still see recently (I am referring to the times of Veronese, the XVII century) unearthed ruins inserted as fully functional pieces of building in his paintings. An example of this is the Pilaster with acanthus scrolls from the First Century AD (at the Museo Maffeiano in Verona) which he inserts as a step in Veronese’s ‘Four Allegories of Love – Happy Union’ (1570). Something similar did Velazquez with ancient roman statuary and Poussin with ancient sarcophagi. So it is very difficult, from this point of view, to sustain The Telegraph’s view that Veronese was decorative and not intelectual. Another example of this in the NG show is ‘The Anointing of David’ which is set in an open landscape in which the presence of ruins recalls a distant past.
One of the characteristics of the work of Veronese is the idea of concealing figures and revealing their presence through half hidden details of their features. This allows his figures to interact and balance one another. However, when they did not interact, Veronese made some of the most astonishing portraits such as the ones of Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida and his wife Livia da Porto Thiene and her daughter Deidamia. One can see an homage to the source of the couple’s wealth in the way their fabrics are carefully and lavishly depicted. The Thiene family fortune was based on the textile trade with the East. Another portrait that is just astonishing is The Portrait of a Gentleman (1555) in its dynamic representation of fur.
There is one thing about Veronese that does not fit Dorment’s analysis and it is the blurry area between iconography and painting. I am referring to the intertwined relationship of concept and composition. Veronese masterfully combines different accounts in one scene and also, as is the case of his ‘Rape of Europa’ includes different moments of the same episode.
And it’s not colour Veronese learnt from the Venetians, but tonality. Compare the way colour registers as separate patches of paint in an early work such as The Conversion of Mary Magdalene to the tonal unity you find in his huge altarpiece, The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine. Here, despite the strong blues, rose red, gold and silver, our overall impression is of a picture surface suffused with light. He did not paint through layers but he applied the colours individually and already hued. His brushwork was thin which puts him closer to Velazquez than Titian, if you ask me. This allowed him to paint quickly and to have a larger number of commissions. It should not be forgotten that Veronese, after being invited by Ponchino, to paint one of the ceilings of the Council of Ten at the Palazzo Ducale, was seen as a ‘decorative’ painter. However, the way these humanists decorated their palaces is a world away from the way Tiepolo or Boucher decorated ceilings for the French and Roman aristocracy of the XVIII century. The entire meaning of architecture had changed by then.
I would have liked to read more from Solomon and the curating team about the way the Allegories of Navigation functioned in the original architecture where they were painted. If you want, this is the problem with this show. Everything is out of context and there is not much effort to reconstruct that. That is why Solomon’s biographical account does not compliment the show but lives the reader/visitor high and dry.
The show rises to its climax in the room in which the National Gallery’s Four Allegories of Love are displayed alongside the Metropolitan Museum’s Mars and Venus United by Love. I find Dormant’s ‘frivolous’ reading when saying about this work: ‘It is hard not to feel that in these gently erotic mythological scenes we come close to his heart and soul’. In that painting, Cupid interrupts the unfaithful couple’s fornication bringing a donkey into the room. This image is not erotic but comic and Veronese is faithful to the Ovidian account according to which the couple are laughed at by the Gods after Vulcan (Venus’ husband) discovered them infraganti.
That hardly matters as we feast our eyes on the way Veronese deploys pearl grey, violet, rose, lemon yellow, gold and silver against a soft blue background: to step into the gallery where they are shown is to experience something like a whoosh of air as we look up as though through a ceiling to the open sky. Suddenly we find ourselves in an amoral, playful world such as we won’t encounter again in art until Watteau, Fragonard and painters of the Fête galante. If that’s “mere painting”, there’s a lot to be said for it.