Veronese the Magnificent

April 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

Veronese really does put on a show. He’s an illusionist, a joker, a subverter of his own spectacular creations. His angels are fancy aerialists in no need of a trapeze. His animals – dogs, horses, monkeys, camels, ox and ass, and one solitary black cat – perform on their own account, there to entertain and render everything more humanly chaotic (hinting that another species can free us to be more ourselves). His children add mischief, like the adolescent boy staring straight out of the canvas, pointing a finger at the picture’s titular star, David being anointed, and undercutting the ceremonial solemnity. So many of his grand scenes have similar distractions at their edges, if not in their midst. You can see them at the National Gallery’s Veronese, Magnificence in Renaissance Venice.

When I lived in Venice I saw a lot of Veronese in situ: in churches, including the lavishly decorated San Sebastiano, where he is buried, and in the Accademia, which houses the canvas that got him into trouble. It was commissioned as a Last Supper, but the Inquisition judged it lacking in reverence and too worldly by far. On their insistence that he amend it, he merely changed the title to Christ in the House of Levi or The Feast in the House of Levi, as it is also known, making it just a big, busy party with Christ as the guest of honour. It isn’t in the exhibition, but another feast painting, The Supper at Emmaus, is there from the Louvre and it too is a palatial mixing of the religious (the newly resurrected Christ) and the secular: children play with dogs, servants are energetically on the go and other adults loiter in their finery, apparently unimpressed by the radiant figure at the centre of the table. And here’s another young person, a girl, looking out at us, acknowledging the presence of an audience, being both in the scene and not really of it.

There are pictures animated by a kind of comic sublime, very modern, making fast work of the mythic and the marginally biblical. In the air above the sea monster threatening a tastefully nude Andromeda, Perseus executes a horizontal kung-fu twist; well-organised acrobatic angels bustle around the Holy Family of The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, picking dates for them, grooming the donkey, retrieving laundry laid out to dry on a bush: a baby tunic or maybe even a nappy.

In so many of Veronese’s paintings it’s the joy of the quick and unexpected that delights. Of course much of his output is more naturalistic, more sober, according with the demands of devotional art. The sobriety extends, with a pagan seriousness, to his Allegories of Love, imbuing them with mystery, presenting us with the double enigma of antiquity’s themes and their potential for humanist exploration in the 16th century.

Among Renaissance painters, the Venetians are noted for their mastery of colour. In this Veronese is supreme. His name brings to mind shimmering silks, luscious brocades, gleaming pearls and glowing velvets, the vivid array of colours and draperies that clothe the patrician class of Venice, who, along with the city’s churches and religious orders, were the artist’s patrons. And for chromatic extravagance, who can beat his skies. In the church of St Peter Martyr on the island of Murano, there’s a St Jerome in the Desert in which the sky is a burst of dense blue, aquamarine and various shades of yellow (St Jerome always interests me, because he’s the patron saint of translators and there’s fun to be had spotting his lion, which often lurks in the shadows or the depths of the picture). The Borghese Gallery in Rome has Veronese’s St Anthony Preaching to the Fish, whose splendid green-hued sky may seem as unlikely as the title. But such skies are not entirely unlikely over Venice’s lagoon, where light and water work atmospheric wonders.

Dominating Christ and the Centurion at the National Gallery is one where the clouds are green on darker green and the darkest green of all is Christ’s cloak, while everyone else is clad in reds and yellows. We don’t actually see the miracle being referred to, the healing of the centurion’s servant, but the painting’s own marvels forge a compelling mood.

Martyrdoms too take place offstage. Veronese spares us all that gore and cruelty. The Martyrdom of St George depicts none of the tortures he is supposed to have endured, and shows the saint turning down the chance to save himself by paying his respects to a statue of Apollo. Above him a cherub is poised with the crown of martyrdom, while heaven awaits his arrival. It is all done with such theatrical verve that the result is rather festive.

One miracle, The Conversion of St Pantalon, piqued my curiosity. It’s from the church of San Pantalon in Venice and I remember peering at it in the ill-lit recesses of a side chapel, searching for the little devil I’d been told was half hidden in the painting, and failing to see it. I learned later from the art-historical literature that its subject was the saint exorcising a devil from a young boy. Now, at the National Gallery, it’s described as the saint healing a child after a snake bite. Seen up close, the ‘devil’ is recognisably a snake. To confuse matters further, the snake itself is, and has remained, a symbol of healing, associated in antiquity with the god of medicine, Asclepius, who also appears, albeit armless, in the painting. St Pantalon is also reputed to have been a physician. So far, so rational. But the miracle consists in Pantalon’s spurning of the physician’s tools in favour of prayer and divine intervention, represented by a hovering angel. A skirmish, then, between science and religion.

Artworks seen through fresh eyes acquire fresh meanings over time, and this is a striking example. It was Veronese’s last known work. Who is to know what conviction lay behind it. What we do have for sure is the painting’s ambiguity.

This is a terrific show, the first I’ve ever seen of Veronese’s work, presenting an overview that isn’t possible when you see things in their own particular settings, although that experience too has a very privileged value. Here is Veronese the showman in all his brilliance and grandeur, as transgressive as Venice’s liberalism would allow at the height of the Counter-Reformation, his humanism deeply embedded in his art.

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