The Fabulous Theatrics of Veronese at London’s National Gallery

I don’t think the National Gallery has ever looked better. For “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” (through June 15), many of the grandest rooms in the building have been cleared of their normal contents. Instead they are hung with a simply staggering sequence of loans to the exhibition: on view are pictures that one would never have believed would ever leave Italy and France.

Everything about it works. The scale and mood of the paintings fit the ornate classicism of the architecture, the mid-grey color the walls have been painted sets off Veronese’s palate to perfection. You walk out convinced he was truly a great painter. A more intriguing question is what kind of artist Veronese (1528-88) — Paolo Caliari, or alternatively Bazaro (his humble father’s name, which he dropped) — really was. Beside the door of the first gallery in gold lettering you read the resounding, if slightly back-handed judgement of Bernard Berenson. “It may be doubted whether, as a mere painter, Paolo Veronese has ever been surpassed.”

There were depths the artist did not investigate. The spiritual grandeur of Rembrandt, violent drama of Caravaggio, and carnal sense of flesh and mortality that fills the work of his older Venetian contemporary Titian: all these were out of his range. What Veronese painted best — in modern terms — were parties. But what festivities! These are feasts and pageants displaying the whole pleasure and opulence of life.

“The Supper at Emmaus,” circa 1555, from the Louvre was one of his earliest masterpieces. It depicts the moment when two disciples recognized the resurrected Jesus while sharing a simple meal. The three holy figures are all there, at the table, but Veronese has surrounded them with a jostling, extended aristocratic family: husband, wife, lots of children, servants, a baby, an older uncle or father. Front and center, two young girls play with a marvellous reclining dog.

This sort of thing might seem a bit too frivolous to be devout. Indeed, the figure of Christ is — as art — quite a bit duller than the household pets (early on it was noted that dogs were one of Veronese’s specialities). Veronese famously got into trouble with the Inquisition for the amount of extraneous detail he put into his religious pictures, but as you walk around, you realize he was not insincere. His rich textiles, vigorously healthy people, and noble animals added up a vision of how the world should be.

Suffering and death were not really his subjects. “The Martyrdom of Saint George,” circa 1565, is one of his masterpieces — the catalog calls it “arguably Veronese’s finest work.” But it does not dwell on torture and decapitation. The saint — flanked by two of Veronese’s trademark horse observers — approaches his fate with equanimity. The picture shifts seamlessly into a vision of heaven, opening out above.

Veronese has been accused of being “theatrical,” and so he was, in a fabulous fashion. His pictures take place on sets made up of stately classical architecture, borrowed from the Roman remains of his native Verona (in later life he moved to Venice). And they are animated by light and color. The Pharaoh’s daughter in “The Finding of Moses” is spot-lit, so her gold and white brocade dress shimmers. That’s a favorite effect. Veronese was a magician with white. “The Martyrdom of Saint George” is a patchwork of gleaming clouds and marble columns, set against blue sky. The highpoints of many pictures are richly embroidered clothes and sunlit flesh.

He was a master of lighting, therefore also of shadow. The soft shade that covers the chained nude’s body in “Perseus and Andromeda,” circa 1575-80, is a good example. Towards the end of Veronese’s life, the shadows seem to deepen. His last dated work, “The Conversion of Saint Pantaleon,” 1587, is somber by Veronese’s standards but, still, a divine glow from above offers hope and reassurance.

On the back of a drawing, Veronese once jotted an aspiration. If he ever had time, he wrote, he “would like to represent a magnificent banquet under a noble loggia.” There the Holy Family — the Virgin, Christ Child, and St. Joseph — would be waited on by “the richest cortège of angels that one can imagine,” serving “regal food,” such as “sumptuous fruits in silver and gold dishes.” Though he never painted this exact picture, he succeeded spectacularly in his ambition. No one has ever transformed religious art into such superb scenes of worldly splendor.

This exhibition does not present his entire achievement. Naturally, the frescoes are absent, and there is little sense of the aerial fantasy of his Venetian ceilings. Veronese’s very largest pictures, such as the “Marriage at Cana” in the Louvre, really are too big to move. But what is on display here is absolutely overwhelming.

First published at Blouin Artinfo

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