by Roderick Conway Morris

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Veronese and the Myth of Venice


By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 19 March 2005

 

Paolo Veronese was the most adventurous illusionistic Venetian painter of the 16th century, offering a colorful and theatrical expression to the myth of Venice - an image of effortless grandeur, stability and superiority that the Most Serene Republic held up to the world.

Giving such vivid form to this myth depended on Veronese's unrivaled ability to combine the sacred and the profane, to present in cogent visual terms a man-made state, inspired by Roman republicanism and divinely sanctioned from on high. The consummate ease with which Veronese moved between religious and secular themes, between likenesses of saints and modern portraiture, was a central feature of his tireless and hugely productive career.

"Veronese: Myths, Portraits, Allegories" is a moderately sized but well chosen exhibition at the Correr Museum of about 30 canvases and drawings from collections around Europe and the United States. It concentrates on the artist's secular output, but will also surely send most visitors off to the Accademia and the dozen churches in Venice where his religious works are preserved. (The show continues until May 29.)

As his nickname indicates, Veronese was born in Verona, in 1528. He was the son of one Gabriele, a stonemason, who appears not to have had a surname, the artist only adopting the noble Veronese name Caliari in 1555, when his fame in Venice seems to have made him feel that he had better acquire one. His gifts had become evident early, and the Veronese architect and engineer Michele Sanmicheli, according to the contemporary Florentine art historian Vasari, took him under his wing and "treated him like a son."

Verona had a distinct artistic heritage of its own, but more decisive in the artist's formation was the proximity of Mantua - where the great innovative illusionistic painter of the previous century, Mantegna, spent much of his career and where the followers of Michelangelo and Raphael thrived under the latter's favorite pupil and heir, Giulio Romano - and Parma, home of Correggio and Parmigianino. Veronese brought together the lessons of Roman and Emilian mannerism and locally dominant Venetian schools of painting. The result was a sure draughtman's hand and a palate of extraordinary richness and luminosity, accompanied by a brilliantly original sense of design and composition and innate panache in handling and deploying figures.

When still only 23, Veronese secured a commission for an altar piece for the church of San Francesco della Vigna in Venice, and for a portrait of the Vicentine nobleman Francesco Franceschini. Two years later he was called to collaborate on the three-year project to decorate the rooms of the Council of Ten at the Doge's Palace, where on the ceilings he had the opportunity to demonstrate his mastery of illusionistic "sotto in su" techniques of representing foreshortened figures seen from below.

There followed an invitation to join seven other young artists in providing roundels for the ceiling of Jacopo Sansovino's new St. Mark's Library. Sansovino and Titian chose the artists; Tintoretto, who was later to become Veronese's chief rival and whom Titian did not like, was not included. Veronese won the prize, a gold chain, for one of his roundels, an allegory of "Music." Titian, Vasari records, subsequently publicly embraced the young man in the street, which was taken as a symbolic demonstration that the grand old man of Venetian painting saw the young man as worthy to be his successor.

Meanwhile, Veronese had embarked on the decoration of the San Sebastiano church, which was to become his enduring monument and burial place. Soon after his appointment in 1555 as prior of the monastery attached to the church, Bernardo Torlioni asked Veronese to begin the internal embellishment of the building, which was to occupy him on and off for the next 20 years. By the time Veronese had finished, he had covered almost every wall and ceiling in fresco and oils - instituting structural adjustments to accommodate them - and even designed the organ, high altar and other elements of the church furniture.

In 1560, Veronese was commissioned by the Barbaro brothers, Daniele and Marcantonio, to fresco the villa built for them by Palladio on the mainland at Maser. Here he intermingled sacred and profane imagery in the complex, but delightfully domestic decorative scheme in which both the Christian and classical worlds are celebrated, with landscape views and witty trompe l'oeil figures peering over balustrades and coming through illusionistic doors - Veronese had already experimented with some of these tricks at San Sebastiano.

The diverse elements in Veronese's by now epic repertoire of images achieved their most magnificent expression in a series of gigantic canvases for monastic refectories; they represented biblical feasts, notably "The Marriage at Cana" (now at the Louvre), "Dinner at the House of Simon" (now at the Brera, Milan) and "The Last Supper" (now at the Accademia, Venice). All have scores of figures, in opulent and superbly rendered 16th-century dress, framed by impressive Palladian architecture.

But in the case of "The Last Supper" for the refectory of the SS Giovanni e Paolo monastery in Venice, Veronese's tumultuous mélange of classical and Christian, religious and profane, had apparently gone too far. In July 1573, he was arraigned before the Inquisition and cross-questioned as to the significance of the details of the picture's contents. In his replies, Veronese bravely defended the right of painters "like poets and madmen" to follow their own invention.

The inquisitors remained unsatisfied, and ordered him to remove from the canvas "the buffoons, drunkards, German soldiers, dwarfs and other such absurdities." He afterwards responded merely by changing the name of the painting to "Feast at the House of Levi." The inquisition was unusually weak in Venice, and kept that way by the Venetian state to minimize external, especially papal, interference. In another place, Veronese's impertinent response could have cost him his liberty, if not his life.

In the last decade before his death in 1588, nonetheless, some of Veronese's works took on a more austere and pious quality. It is uncertain whether this derived from growing personal religiosity, whether he was bending before the Counter-Reformation or if this was now demanded by his patrons.

The artist's appearance in the religious court clearly did nothing to lessen his reputation among the lay authorities in his adopted city. In the late 1570s and early 1580s, he was called back to the Doge's Palace to provide new works for three of its most prestigious spaces: the Sala del Collegio, its anti-chamber and the Great Council Chamber.

Here he depicted Venice's sunlit apotheosis with more pomp and mystical suggestiveness than ever. In "The Triumph of Venice," his oval ceiling panel over the Doge's throne in the Great Council Chamber, which is more than nine meters long, or 30 feet, he showed the gorgeously attired female figure of the Republic gazed upon by Venetians high and low, being crowned and trumpeted by angels descending from the azure, cloud-billowing heavens.

In 1571, Venetian ships had played a major part in nearly annihilating the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto. The Venetians had won the battle but they lost the war. By the next spring, the Turkish fleet had been rebuilt and the Ottomans had gained possession of Cyprus. But the beautiful illusion of the Serenissima's invincibility had to be maintained. And in the maritime empire's decline, Veronese could deliver, as no other artist could, an abiding sense of glory.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016