Paolo Caliari: Artist of Venice’s Golden Age
“The Art of Paolo Veronese: 1528-1588”
By Jason Edward Kaufman
An exhibition devoted to one of the great masters of sixteenth-century Venetian painting, Paolo Caliari (better known as “Il Veronese,” after the city of his birth) is on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Along with Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto, Veronese was one of the four primary artists of Venice in its golden age. Commemorating the 400th anniversary of the artist’s death, “The Art of Paolo Veronese: 1528-1588” represents the first major treatment of his work since 1939, and the first ever in the United States. The National Gallery, which organized the show, will be its only venue.
Veronese’s precocity gained him lucrative commissions and professional recognition at an early age. At seventeen, he painted the ceiling frescoes in Michele Sanmichele’s Palazzo Canossa, Verona; before he was thirty he had executed work for the Ducal Palace and the Marciana Library in Venice. Titian, forty years his senior and the leading painter of the day, had awarded him a golden chain in an apparent rite of succession.
During his illustrious career, Veronese completed official commissions for the Venetian state, as well as for the Gonzaga of Mantua, the Holy Roman Emperor, Philip II of Spain, and scores of wealthy private patrons. His large workshop included his brother, two sons, a nephew, and others.
The retrospective includes fifty large-scale paintings and fifty-five drawings assembled from nearly sixty museums and private collections in Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States. Religious, mythological, allegorical, and historical subjects, as well as a number of portraits are included, demonstrating the range of this master’s creative powers.
If two elements distinguish Veronese’s work they are space and color. The programs he painted for architectural sites — the mural decoration for the Villa Barbero, Maser (1559-60, built for the Barbaro brothers by the greatest architect of the Veneto, Andrea Palladio); and the ceiling paintings for the Sala dei Dieci in the Ducal Palace, Venice (1558), to name but two — required a complete command of spatial illusion and perspective in order to make the pictures appear as natural extensions of their architectural environments. In Palladio’s Villa he opened up fictive landscapes between the pilasters, and in the Ducal Palace he created allegories that soar into the depicted skies. Many of the great pictures are still in situ in Venice cannot be included.
Veronese developed a spectacular and often dizzying pictorial point of view, as for example in his Allegories of Peace and Constancy (ca. 1551), which are seen ”di sotto in su,” that is, from a viewpoint below, and breathtakingly seem to extend the spectator’s space directly into the paintings’. (It would have been marvelous had these been mounted on the ceiling, as they were designed to be seen, rather than on the wall.)
In many works, the figures are placed very near the picture plane, their foreshortened limbs projecting from the picture space into the spectator’s, a favorite trope of Caravaggio’s. As a colorist, Veronese is considered peerless. Official furnishings and paintings in Venice characteristically exhibited material richness to a degree unmatched elsewhere at the time. Allegories glorifying and mythifying the city were ordered and carried out with a decorative exuberance befitting the wealthiest, most beautiful city in Europe. Crimsons, malachite greens, azure, and gold combined to depict brocaded cloths, patterned textiles, sumptuous crushed blue velvet dresses, and glistening satins of the most luxurious splendor. For each, Veronese possessed an evocative painterly technique.
Some of his most famed works are the banquet themes produced in the 1560s and 1570s. One of these, in the refectory of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, was a Last Supper painted on canvas measuring some 17 x 39 feet. Veronese set the scene in a grand, classical, marble portico, with stairs, balustrades, and colonnaded backdrops. He filled the expanse with a profusion of figures — Apostles and supernumeraries — dressed in contemporary garb, evoking a Venetian festival. Veronese was called before the Inquisition to justify his inclusion of “buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities.” (The records of the inquiry survive.) The Inquisitors noted the similarity of Paolo’s depiction with those of Protestant artists from Germany who had distributed satirical prints of Christ entertaining a band of hooligans and misfits at his last supper. Veronese invoked poetic license: “We painters are all a little mad,” he said. The board of examiners demanded that he clean up the picture at his own expense. Instead, he changed the title to Feast in the House of Levi, a less sanctimonious theme.
Despite their proto-Baroque spatial effects and coloristic extravagance, in many ways Veronese carried on the High Renaissance. His Holy family with Saints Catherine and Anthony Abbot (1551) imitates Titian’s Pesaro Madonna in the Basilica dei Frari, Venice. A Titianesque female recurs — the stout blonde with her hair in a bun — the fashion of the day, as in the Portrait of a Lady as Saint Agnes (1577).
In his allegories he employed idealized, muscular, Michelangelesque figures he learned from studying Giulio Romano, the court painter to the Gonzaga in Mantua. Although he calculated complex angles of depiction and devised remarkable poses for his figures, they never show the distortion into which the Mannerists delved.
In his later years, Veronese invented his own iconography, as evidenced by the remarkable drawings from the 1580s. Among them is The Madonna as a Seamstress (1583-84), a completely original scene in which the Virgin is depicted cutting a dress for the Infant Christ, while a group of musical angels surrounds them. Not only in conception, but in the handling of the gray wash, this drawing is absolutely remarkable.
“The Art of Paolo Veronese: 1528-1588” continues at the National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Independence Avenue N.W., Washington, D.C., through February 20. For further information call (202) 737-4215.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in New York City Tribune, Jan. 23, 1989, pp. 16, 14.