The opulent vision of Paolo Veronese

To see so many of Veronese's works in one place not only affords a stronger and more nuanced sense of his greatness: it also suggests the degree to which that achievement may be fundamentally incompatible with the dominant thrust of contemporary taste. What ties together all the works in this show is the fact that they have been drawn entirely from American and Canadian collections. They include drawings, engravings, and even textiles, in addition to the paintings that make up the bulk of the exhibition. Though most of the art is attributed to Veronese himself, works by his contemporaries are also included. Some of these, though originally purchased as examples of the master, have since been reattributed. In all, the show contains more than seventy objects.

As his name suggests, Paolo Caliari, better known as Paolo Veronese, was not born in Venice, but in Verona, in 1528. At the time, the city was a part of the Venetian Republic's territorial conquests on the Italian mainland. Veronese's father was a prosperous stonecutter, while his mother had ties to the local aristocracy.

Artistically speaking, the city of Veronese's birth was, at the time, something of a provincial backwater. Certainly it had such local masters as Antonio Badile, with whom Veronese studied, and Giovanni Francesco Caroto, with whom he may have studied. But even the best of them were followers of the Venetians, rather than innovators in their own right. Indeed, by the time the twenty-year-old Veronese left the city of his birth for Mantua in 1548, he was, despite his youth and inexperience, the best artist that Verona had produced since Pisanello died a century before.

Such were the young man's talents that, five years later in 1553, he was drawn as if by some ineluctable attraction to Venice itself, which at the time was Rome's only rival for the artistic supremacy of Italy. Almost from the beginning, Veronese received important commissions, such as The Baptism of Christ of the late 1550s, which is included in the present show and comes from the North Carolina Museum of Art. This work is clearly influenced by Titian and is set into a landscape already well known from the works of that older master. But in the depictions of Christ as he bends to receive the sacrament and of SaintJohn as he dispenses it, we find a naturalistic clarity and focus that feel different from the slightly literary mood that infuses the canvases of Titian, or the manneristic drama with which Tintoretto floods his works.

The fact that, even before Veronese arrived in Venice, he was taken on by the aristocracy is attested-if the attribution is accepted-in the 1551 full-length portrait of Francesco Franceschini that belongs to the Ringling. In it, a Venetian nobleman stands between a small dog and a classical column, one of those architectural props that would come to define Veronese's art in later years. Though the sitter's face is not well preserved, one can sense the artist's tactile, painterly proficiency in his rendering of the man's fur collar, as well as in the sitter's brilliant red hosiery and in the black and gold of his doublet. An even better example in the show is Veronese's Portrait of a Man, another full-length work from 1576-1578 that is similarly composed (Fig. 8). The stiffly aristocratic subject is now dressed entirely in black, perhaps reflecting the Spanish court's increased influence in Italy in the latter half of the sixteenth century.

As these portraits reveal, Veronese was one of those artists-like Anthony Van Dyck and John Singer Sargent in later centuries-who was able to flatter his sitters even as he registered the specific traits of their identity, which, after all, is half of the art of portraiture. Rarely if ever does the all too human soul of the sitter assert itself against the carapace of glamour in which he stands, certainly not in such a way as to disturb his brocaded doublet or to muss up his hair. Titian, especially in the later works, labors to reveal his subject's soul in all its honesty and vulnerability. With Tintoretto the sitter, usually a Venetian senator, emerges from a darkened ground, with few of his stately attributes in evidence, and looks as haunted and frightened as the subject of one of Francis Bacon's portraits. For Veronese, by contrast, the point of portraiture, if not of painting in general, is to delight the vanity of the subject no less than the eye of the viewer, through a wealth of elegant, admirable, enviable details of textiles and furnishings and the refined attitudes of posture and expression with which he endows his subjects.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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