The opulent vision of Paolo Veronese
An exhibition of the sixteenth-century master reveals an artist uniquely committed to art, wealth, and aristocracy.
A visit to the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Florida, feels nothing like a visit to Venice, Italy. Both cities, it is true, are on, in, or beside a large body of water, but beyond that fact there is little comparison. Because of the complex form of the Lagoon of Venice, one experiences an intimate interaction between its waters and the palaces and campos of the Rialtine archipelago. By contrast, the campus of the Ringling Museum opens out onto the majestic spectacle of Sarasota Bay, which is separated by the thinnest sliver of keys from the massive Gulf of Mexico.
And yet, somehow, the spirit of Venice reigns at the Ringling. It inspired the architecture of the Ca d'Zan, the Byzantine folly designed by Dwight James Baum and completed in 1925 that was the winter home of John and Mable Ringling: its ogival architecture was partially based on the Ca d'Oro on the Grand Canal. At the same time, the cloister-like structure of the museum itself (Figs. 1, 3), with its stunning collection of Old Master paintings and much besides, recalls to this writer the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, planted on an island opposite the Piazza San Marco.
Given such Venetian precedents, and the fact that John and Mable Ringling loved Venice above all other cities, there seems to be something appropriate in the museum's decision to devote an exhibition to Paolo Veronese, the great sixteenth-century Venetian painter. This choice is doubly appropriate because a quarter of a century has now passed since the last American exhibition of this illustrious master, at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in 1988.
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.
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.