by Roderick Conway Morris

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Credit Gerard Blott/Musee du Louvre, RMN
The Supper at Emmaus by Paolo Veronese,1555

A Pair of Exhibitions Celebrate an Italian Old Master

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON, England 16 May 2014


'He is the treasurer of art and of colors,' wrote the art historian Marco Boschini of Paolo Veronese in 1660. 'This is not painting, it is magic that casts a spell on people who see it.'

Veronese will be working that magic in two major exhibitions this year. One, at the National Gallery in London through June 15, is the first show entirely devoted to the artist to be held there. The other, at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in his birthplace, Verona, from July 5 through Oct. 5, will be the most comprehensive in Italy since the one in Venice in 1939.

That there has been no major Veronese exhibition in Britain before now may be explained by the fact that the National Gallery has no fewer than 10 of his works on permanent display. Veronese's 'Consecration of St. Nicholas' was the first Old Master painting acquired by the nascent national collection in 1811. His 'Adoration of the Kings' and 'The Family of Darius before Alexander' were subsequently bought by the gallery's first director, Sir Charles Eastlake. The latter picture was the most expensive of all that director's acquisitions, leading to questions in Parliament and a vigorous public defense of the purchase by the art critic John Ruskin.

With 40 additional paintings from other collections in Britain, Europe and the United States, many of them of grand proportions and all of them undisputed autograph works, the London exhibition, curated by Xavier F. Salomon, is one of the most important Old Master events that the gallery has held.

Nicholas Penny, the gallery's current director, has also taken the rare step of temporarily re-arranging the permanent collection, so that the exhibition can be staged in the main floor's lofty halls with their natural top lighting.

The Verona show, curated by Paola Marini and Bernard Aikema, will display more than twice as many works, including 31 of the London exhibits, and 46 drawings. Veronese's drawings are of particular interest since, unlike Titian and Tintoretto, his great Venetian contemporaries, he used preparatory drawings extensively and seldom made significant changes to overall compositions while painting.

'We discovered in Verona early on that the National Gallery was also planning a Veronese show,' said Bernard Aikema at the London opening. 'But instead of trying to compete for loans, we got together with the National Gallery, put in our requests jointly and agreed which pieces should be in each show. I think this constitutes a new model for co-operation and means that the exhibitions will complement each other and visitors will profit from seeing both of them if they possibly can.'

Drawing on recent research, the Verona exhibition will present various aspects of the artist's career not explored in London, including the artist's early training; his close relationship with leading architects of his day, such as Michele Sanmicheli, Sansovino and Palladio; his workshop practices; and his heirs, Mr. Aikema said.

The Verona exhibition will also have the advantage of being close to a wealth of oils and frescoes in situ, in the city itself and in other towns nearby, including Venice - at the Doge's Palace, the Marciana Library, the Accademia Gallery and in over a dozen Venetian churches. A handy guide to these works, edited by the curators of the Verona show, has just been published: 'Paolo Veronese: Itineraries in the Veneto.'

Born in 1528, the fifth child of Gabriele Bazaro, a stonecutter whose family originally came from Lombardy, Paolo initially trained in the stonecutting business, but by 1541 he was already being described as a painter. His mother was the illegitimate daughter of a local aristocrat, Antonio Caliari, whose family name Paolo adopted. Antonio Caliari was involved in the textile industry, while Paolo's older brother Antonio was an embroiderer, which may well have given Paolo early access to the sumptuous fabrics that abound in his works. By 1555 the 17-year-old artist was already styling himself Paolo Caliari Veronese.

The precociousness of Veronese's talent is revealed in the first room of the London show, 'Early Works: 1545-1560.' That the artist was an innovator even at this stage is demonstrated by a pair of reunited, full-length portraits - 'Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida' and 'Livia da Porto Thiene and her daughter Deidamia' (from Florence and Baltimore, respectively) - and by 'The Supper at Emmaus,' which was allowed to leave the Louvre for the first time since the 18th century.

Full-length portraits were a novelty in Venice before 1560, and to this pair Veronese brought a particular charm and informality - depicting, for example, Livia da Porto's coy little daughter peeking out from behind her mother's voluminous silk robes. More formal likenesses are displayed in 'Portraits' in the second room, including the famous 'Bella Nani' (also from the Louvre).

In the early 'Emmaus' masterpiece of 1555, which will travel on to Verona, the artist introduces into a religious scene full-length portraits of a family group with their household pets, set in a classical architectural space against a backdrop of Roman ruins that were clearly inspired by Verona.

By the time he was nearing 30, Veronese was still executing commissions on the mainland but was also well established in Venice. This period is unfolded in the third section, 'Altarpieces and Paintings for Churches: 1560-1570.'

The Bonaldi Altarpiece here, from the Accademia, was commissioned for the San Zaccaria church, which already contained one of Giovanni Bellini's finest altar paintings. But Veronese rose to the challenge, producing a companion piece with an asymmetrical structure in the modern manner but with a sumptuous gold background, echoing the Byzantine mosaic cupola above the enthoned Madonna of the Bellini altarpiece.

Veronese applied his skills as a dramatist to both sacred and profane themes, as is vividly illustrated in the fourth room, 'Theatricality and Magnificence: 1565-1580,' where 'The Martyrdom of St. George,' from the high altar of San Giorgio in Braida in Verona, is shown next to 'The Family of Darius before Alexander.'

As the Counter-Reformation gathered force in the later 1500s, the Council of Trent laid down dictates on what should and should not appear in art and even distinguished artists came under scrutiny. In 1573 Veronese was called before the Inquisition in Venice to justify details such as 'buffoons, drunkards, German soldiers, dwarfs and other such absurdities' that he had included in a 'Last Supper' painted for the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo in Venice.

Rather than amending the picture (now at the Accademia in Venice) as instructed by the Inquisitors, he merely changed its title to 'Feast in the House of Levi.' Veronese could get away with this response because of the marginalization of the Inquisition in Venice, the government of which jealously guarded its right to be the ultimate arbiter of the state's religious affairs.

He could also count on the local esteem in which he was held as a painter and, at a time when accusations of heresy were not uncommon, Veronese's Catholic piety seems never to have been doubted.

In the fifth section, 'The Art of Devotion: 1570-1573,' two enormous canvases of 'The Adoration of the Kings,' one from the National Gallery and the other from the Santa Corona church in Vicenza, show that Veronese's style and propensity for filling his pictures with brilliantly observed figures of all kinds, from princes to peasants, was never cramped by the Council of Trent's pronouncements.

Boschini, in his 1660 writings on the artist, has Venus say: 'When I wanted to be portrayed, I went to Paolo, who knows how to imitate my beautiful features better than anyone.' The sixth section, 'Allegories and Mythologies: 1570-1580,' displays a series of profane works featuring the goddess of love and other voluptuous female nudes. These include the National Gallery's 'Four Allegories of Love,' whose meanings have been endlessly discussed. All four will travel to Verona.

A notable example of the humor that Veronese often brought to these mythological scenes is a small canvas, 'Mars and Venus,' from Turin (also going to Verona), in which the adulterous couple's love-making is interrupted by the sudden appearance in the bedchamber of the god's embarrassed-looking horse, led down a spiral staircase by a mischievous cupid.

The final room, 'Late Works: 1580-1588,' displays religious and mythical works and two portraits. In several of these a darkening palette suggests the influence of Titian and Tintoretto. Veronese's last known painting, 'The Conversion of St. Pantalon,' is from the church of that name in Venice. The composition's humble setting, dramatic chiaroscuro and raking light uncannily anticipate the works of Caravaggio.

Veronese died relatively young, at 60, compared with Tintoretto, who died in his 70s, and Jacopo Bassano and Titian, in their 80s. His studio did not long outlive him - his most talented son, Carletto, died prematurely at 26 in 1596 - but his influence on subsequent artists was immense. These ranged from Cortona and the Carracci family to Rubens and Van Dyck - and, above all, Giambattista Tiepolo, the greatest Venetian painter of the 18th century, in whom the 16th-century master seems sometimes virtually to have been reborn.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023