Given the egalitarian ideology of our country and much of the world at the present time, it seems to be a form of decorum for museums to present older painters to the public as though they were somehow harbingers of our better values. With other great Venetian artists this is possible, perhaps advisable. The dear old men and youthful swains of Titian's later years exhibit a deep and universal humanity that consoles us. In the mannered chiaroscuro of Tintoretto it is possible to read the sort of proletarian robustness that we associate with Rubens and Rodin. But with Veronese there is no point in trying to mount such an interpretation: he painted for the wealthy and the well born and, in subsequent generations, his works were collected and admired by the sundry reincarnations of the class that originally commissioned them.
Proof of this is the fact that no artist in history ever achieved more dazzling success in the frescoing of the palaces of the landed gentry, as is so memorably displayed at the Villa Barbaro at Maser. Naturally, an exhibition set in Florida cannot do justice to the architecturally determined portion of Veronese's art, but his Allegory of Painting (Fig. 6), dating to the 1560s and depicting an elegant female figure standing in a niche, gives some inkling of the painter's masterful frescoes.
Such conspicuous consumption is evident, I believe, even in Veronese's religious works, which are noteworthy less for their piety than for the delight they take in worldly splendor. A brilliant example is the Ringling's Rest on the Flight into Egypt, one of the finest works in the present show (Fig. 2). True this exemplary painting includes a cow poking its head into the picture from the right and a donkey in the center, not to mention a somewhat unappetizing mattress at the base of the composition. Other than that, however, Mary, arrayed in brilliant blue robes as she suckles her son, and Joseph in his golden tunic, are surely traveling in style. They are ministered to by brilliantly clad and airborne angels who pluck dates for them from a tree that spans the center of the composition and looks more native to Sarasota than to the Veneto or the Sinai.
Because of such preoccupations, until comparatively recently Veronese was praised or condemned as a decorative painter, a master of shimmering silks and costly brocades, a flatterer of the courtly aspirations of the Venetian aristocracy. Some recent scholars have delved more deeply into these paintings and believe they have come up with layers of iconographic complexity that were formerly overlooked. I am not certain of that. Surely there is abundant iconography in Veronese, as one might expect from any artist who conformed to the general pictorial language and conventions of the time. With some of his more ambitious undertakings, the iconographic program was established by humanist scholars like Daniele Barbaro, whose suggestions Veronese dutifully executed.
But consider one of the most famous incidents in Italian art of the sixteenth century, when, in 1573, Veronese was summoned by the Inquisition on a charge of impiety for his depiction of the Last Supper. Why, the scandalized inquisitor demanded, was this holy scene filled with "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such absurdities,"* all of which were without biblical precedent and possibly even heretical. Told that he must change the painting, Veronese simply changed the title to The Feast in the House of Levi, and everyone was happy.
One must resist the temptation, in accordance with more recent fashions, either to reject Veronese for this cynical indifference to the "message" of his art, or to rectify that apparent shortcoming by importing into his canvases a spurious contextual discipline. His manifest strengths are quite sufficient to reward the viewer's attention. There is nothing insincere in the flattery of which he is surely guilty, nor anything superficial in his principled commitment to the world of surfaces. What sustains and redeems Veronese, rather than manifest piety or iconographic rigor, is his commitment to art itself, to beauty for its own sake, and to the conjuring into existence of a visual field as close to perfection as human artifice can plausibly achieve.
Paolo Veronese: A Master and His Workshop in Renaissance Venice is on view at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art from December 6 to April 14, 2013.
* "Report of the sitting of the Tribunal of the Inquisition on Saturday, July eighteenth 1573," quoted in Francis Marion Crawford, Salve Venetia: Gleanings from Venetian History, trans. Charles Yriarte (New York, 1905), vol. 2, p. 33.