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Veronese’s background was an artistic one. Born in Verona in 1528 as Paolo Caliari, he had a great-grandfather, grandfather and father who were all stonecutters (and sculptors.) Veronese, as he became known, and his male siblings, would have been taught the rudiments of the family business but by the age of 13 Veronese is recorded in a registry of 1541 as a painter. He trained locally and emerged as an accomplished painter, his art informed by the rediscovery of antiquity. His first paintings in Venice are documented to c.1550. Veronese lived there from around 1555.
So, what can we see at ‘Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice’, at the National Gallery, London (until 15 June, 2014)? The exhibition, containing 50 paintings, begins in Room 1 with the early Conversion of Mary Magdalene, c.1548, and ends in Room 7 with Veronese’s last altar painting The Conversion of St Pantalon, 1587, (Diocesi Patriarcato di Venezia, Chiesa di San Pantalon). In between we are taken on a journey through Veronese’s professional life, working for the church and the aristocracy. ‘Awesome’ is for once probably the correct word to describe what is displayed.
Room 1 displays 11 early works dated 1545–60, and includes the remarkable Anointing of David, c.1550. Two marriage portraits normally separated in different museums are touchingly re-united here: Livia Porto and her daughter Deidamia, 1552 (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore), and Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida, 1552 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence). For all the significant works in this room it is difficult not to be drawn immediately to the outstanding The Supper at Emmaus, c.1555. The theatrical setting, with Christ at centre, featuring an unknown family to the right, looking on, is sumptuousness in its display of luxury and refined living. The hanging of the work at eye-level allows close study of the opulent fabrics, glistening jewels, and the expressions of the characters that Veronese portrays, including the sweet young girls at lower centre stroking their dog. This alone makes the exhibition noteworthy and worth coming to see. It is a rare opportunity. This is the first time that the painting, owned by the Louvre, has left France for several centuries.
Arguably the best female portrait by Veronese is Portrait of a Lady, known as ‘La Bella Nani’, 1560–5. It is displayed in Room 2, an intimate space. She is flanked by two male portraits, Portrait of a Gentleman, 1555 (Palazzo Pitti, Florence), and Portrait of a Gentleman, 1560–5 (the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). The identity of the female sitter is unknown, possibly the wife of a Venetian aristocrat. ‘Bella Nani’ wears a luxurious gown. Her face is radiant, her hair dressed with jewels. She wears a pearl necklace that shimmers under the soft light that is focused on her face. (The curator, Xavier Salomon, discusses its history in depth in his book/catalogue Veronese.) The painting bears resemblance to an earlier painting, La Bella, 1536, by Titian (c.1490–1576). It is documented that Titian, Tintoretto (1518-94), and Veronese, patronized by the nobility of Venice, were competitive.
‘The most amazing loan in the exhibition’, according to National Gallery director Nicholas Penny and Xavier Salomon, is The Martyrdom of St George, c.1565, from the Chiesa di san Giorgio in Braida, Verona. It is theatrically spectacular, and shows the moment just before the martyrdom of St George. The vast painting is given a prime space in Room 4, to study it closely. Nearby is The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565–7, its contemporary. Both paintings may have been in Veronese’s studio at the same time.
In the Rotunda, amongst others, are four superb paintings, dated 1575, created as a set, ‘Allegories of Love’ (two ‘good’, two ‘bad’ allegories), possibly originally ceiling panels. Three – Scorn, Respect, and Happy Union – were acquired by the National Gallery in 1891, from Lord Darnley. The fourth he donated, the Gallery not being able to pay for Unfaithfulness, because the subject was too pornographic.
Xavier Salomon has worked together with Nicholas Penny to bring together the very best examples of Veronese’s work. Salomon has been working on its construction for five years, liaising with galleries in America and Europe to create a comprehensive study. The 50 works comprise ten paintings owned by the National Gallery, plus roughly a third of the paintings on loan from the USA, a third from Italy and the rest from Europe. For some works it is the first time they have left their museum, gallery or church.
Salomon and Penny’s criteria were that the paintings were entirely autographic, that is, undoubtedly by Veronese, and represented the artist at his best. In addition there were two further conditions: to exhibit the pictures in rooms that were the right size for them, and secondly, to have natural light. Hence the exhibition takes place in large rooms of the upper galleries of the National Gallery (not in the bowels of the Sainsbury Wing). It is displayed in the Main Galleries owing to the vast size of Veronese’s works, which need space. These are paintings that adorned the walls of palaces and churches.
This is the first show devoted to Veronese in the UK. Two smaller exhibitions took place in Venice in 1939 (without loans from Europe), and in Washington DC, in 1998, but this is the most comprehensive display to date. The ‘magnificence’ in the exhibition title relates not only to the artist’s paintings but the spectacular, rich life of aristocratic Venice, which is extensively exposed in Veronese’s secular works. In the exhibition Salomon does not explore the story of Veronese’s private life (he does in the book Veronese), but focuses on his professional 40-year career, beginning to end, decade-by-decade. Through it we can follow Veronese’s development as an artist.
This is a very special exhibition. Nicholas Penny has expressed his gratitude to Credit Suisse, the exhibition sponsors. He points out that their monetary contribution has allowed 40 works by Veronese to be borrowed from galleries in USA and Europe. Without sponsorship, exhibitions of this calibre would not be possible.