Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice

Veronese: Conversion of the Magdalen

(National Gallery, London, until 15 June 2014)

The National Gallery’s Veronese exhibition is already being described as the one show that you have to see this year and glowing opinions have proliferated: from The Times’s five-star review to the enthusiastic post by the exacting Grumpy Art Historian. Needless to say, I’d been very much looking forward to it. And I was especially excited because, a couple of weeks ago, I went to a very enjoyable lecture by Matthias Wivel, one of the curators, who’d suggested a way of ‘reading’ Veronese’s pictures that I was keen to put to the test.

‘Follow the hands,’ Wivel urged us. ‘The hands always show you where you should look.’ I devoutly followed this advice as I walked around, and it’s absolutely true. Veronese’s articulate use of gesture adds an extra level of detail to his paintings: an unexpected note of humour, perhaps, or a touch of hands that unlocks the emotional core of the commission.

Rather amazingly, this is the first exhibition dedicated to Veronese that has ever been held in the UK and it aims to show us an artist who is so much more than just the third wheel in the Titian-Tintoretto-Veronese triumvirate. Born in Verona in 1528, Paolo Caliari was a fully-formed artist even before he moved to Venice, and the show kicks off with the young artist in action at the age of around eighteen. His little oil sketch of The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus, from the Louvre, still feels a little awkward as the figures self-consciously cluster on one side of the picture, with an opening onto a sunlit vista on the left. For all the crowding of the figures, he’s already experimenting with hands: the gestures of the foreground figures all lead the eye inwards to that key detail of Christ grasping the ill child’s wrist. And he quickly got the hang of things.

Veronese: Supper at Emmaus

Paolo Veronese, The Supper at Emmaus

In 1548, at the age of twenty, he painted a picture with a very similar kind of composition: The Conversion of Mary Magdalene; and here he has it nailed. The figures are still crowded together but they’ve lost the stiffness of the earlier group; the monotony is broken up by twisting figures whose craning heads direct your attention to the Magdalene’s shadowed, awestruck upturned face. And here the hands become ever more explicit: framing, directing and welcoming.

But hands can exclude as well as include. In the Supper at Emmaus, which Veronese painted seven years later, we’re plunged into a rather overcrowded scene. This isn’t a simple inn on the road to Emmaus but some classical portico on the edge of the Forum; and Christ’s moment of revelation is witnessed by the large brood of a noble family. At first the patrons and their numerous children seem to press too tightly onto the sacred scene (you begin to see that exuberant lack of distinction between secular and sacred which was going to lead him into trouble with the Inquisition later on). But then you notice the hands. The arms of the tavern keeper and the two apostles serve to create a kind of sacred boundary: a circle within which there is only the bread, and Christ’s placidly folded hands. Despite the tumble of dogs and children around it, the central motif of the picture is one of divine peace.

Hands seem to be becoming a theme and heaven forbid I should break it. Another of the paintings which most impressed me was the Pala Bonaldi from the Accademia in Venice, painted around 1562. At first glance (which would have been my only glance, without Wivel’s comments) this shows Veronese paying tribute to the great altarpieces of Bellini and Titian; but it’s also a painting which is rich with emotional resonance. It was commissioned by Francesco Bonaldi, who had recently lost both his brother Girolamo and his son Giovanni. The namesakes of all three appear in the painting: St Francis, for Francesco, moves in from the left; while St Jerome, for Girolamo, strikes a scholarly pose on the right. But the focal point of the painting is not either of these saints, or the Madonna and Child, but the very young St John the Baptist, little more than a toddler, who perches on the Madonna’s pedestal, representing Francesco’s dead son. And just look at how St Francis, in the painting, gently reaches out to support the little Baptist, in a very slight, passing touch of hands, which takes on a whole other register of meaning in light of Francesco Bonaldi’s bereavement. It’s understated but incredibly moving.

Veronese: Pala Bonaldi

Paolo Veronese, Pala Bonaldi (detail)

But Veronese wasn’t always so serious, especially with children. He had a bit of a gift for them. In The Supper at Emmaus two little noble girls tumble on the floor with their dogs, oblivious to the sacred drama unfolding behind them; in the magnificent Family of Darius before Alexander, Darius’ daughter is distracted by the antics of a dwarf holding a dog; and in the two full-length portraits of the da Porto family, the liveliness of the children adds a playful note to the staid grandeur of the adults. Iseppo da Porto’s son Leonida wriggles under his father’s gently restraining hand, while his daughter Deidamia peeks out at the viewer from behind her mother Livia’s skirts.

Children were certainly one of his strengths. Fabrics were another: rich patterned brocades in crimson and gold; cut velvet; swags of red. And he had a gift for composition: not only in making sense of jostling groups of figures, but in his sense of drama. The splendid St Menna looks as if he is about to stride straight out of his niche, with one sabaton already poking over the edge, and many of the larger scenes look almost like theatrical sets, unfolding in a shallow plane with an architectural backdrop in the background and sometimes even a ledge running along the bottom of the picture, as if to emphasise that we’re watching something develop on a stage. These strengths make up for some of his weaknesses, which become apparent when you see a large number of his pictures in close quarters: he had trouble with foreshortening toes on several occasions; and, like many artists of the time, he simply could not paint camels.

I hate to jump on bandwagons – it’s uncomfortably crowded, for one thing – but there’s no doubt that the star of the show is the monumental Martyrdom of St George (c. 1565), which has been brought all the way from the church of San Giorgio in Braida in Verona. It’s a stunner. Catching sight of its lower half from the first room, seen through a series of doorways, I felt as if I was looking at some kind of fabulous set. The figures are very slightly larger than life size, the light is splendid and the colours are astonishingly rich. The vigour and energy of the picture makes it even more compelling, as the gestures of the figures lead the eye through the crowded scene. It’s a testament to its power that it could command my attention even with my beloved Family of Darius before Alexander hanging off to one side.

And in fact, here the curators have chosen an intriguing juxtaposition, because The Family of Darius hangs alongside the Christ and the Centurion from the Prado. While the comparison didn’t do much for Christ and the Centurion, which looked rather weak, it does show something interesting about workshop practice and the use of stock gestures. Look at Alexander’s pose in The Family of Darius: the left hand extended in a gesture of magnanimity: the right in reassurance (yes, we’re back to hands, I’m afraid). Now look at the kneeling figure of the centurion in Christ and the Centurion: almost the same gesture, but used in an entirely different way to show the elderly soldier’s beseeching of Christ. I’m sure I would never have noticed that without seeing the two hanging side by side.

Mounting an exhibition on Veronese is a challenge, because a curator runs up against two significant problems. First, many of his greatest works are fixed to walls, either as frescoes in the Palladian villas of the Venetian terrafirma, or as canvases in the state rooms in the Doge’s Palace. You’re obliged to automatically forego the chance of showing Veronese’s splendid allegories of Venice, or the sumptuously sensual Rape of Europa. And two of his most impressive pictures – arguably his masterpieces – are so enormous that it’s physically out of the question to bring them to London. The Wedding at Cana remains at the Louvre; The Feast in the House of Levi, eighteen feet tall and forty-two feet wide, is still in the Accademia. These are obvious gaps – unavoidable, but noticeable.

One might also ask where the drawings are (well, ‘one’ might not, but I certainly did). To give a full picture of Veronese’s artistic production, it might have been interesting to see some examples of his draughtsmanship and the National Gallery wouldn’t even have had to go that far for them. The British Museum has some fine examples and there is at least one excellent sheet in a private English collection. Someone in the know has told me that the drawings have been claimed for another Veronese exhibition happening in Verona at the moment, so that explains their absence. But the result is something that – at the risk of being seen as overly pedantic – is not quite the full monographic retrospective you’d hope for. It’s a splendid introduction and should definitely be seen, but bear in mind that to really get an idea of Veronese as an artist, you also have to visit the Doge’s Palace and the Villa Maser and the Accademia, or the Louvre.

There’s still no doubt that this is one of the most impressive exhibitions we’ll see in London this year, and it’s beautifully curated. In a stroke of genius, the curators haven’t put notes on the wall labels but there’s a free booklet you can take in which there are short discussions of every picture. That’s a trend that other museums would do well to follow, rather than subjecting visitors to the misery of jostling to read a label in an inaccessible place. When the Grumpy Art Historian went, he noted the overcrowding; but I’ve now been twice and I’ve obviously been lucky because it hasn’t been that bad (mainly because I’m comparing it to the scrum at the Vikings exhibition). The catalogue, it’s true, isn’t an old-fashioned exhibition catalogue but more of a monograph: as a guide to the exhibition, it’s not all that useful, but as a book on Veronese per se it looks very good and I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Buy the catalogue

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