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  • Articles by Sonali

    Paolo Veronese at the National Gallery


    Paolo Veronese : Magnificence in Renaissance Venice at the National Gallery

     

    The Paolo Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery in London promises a profusion of vibrant colour to rival Matisse: The Cut Outs running simultaneously across the river at Tate Modern. Veronese is able to capture the spirit of Renaissance Venice, and his paintings abound with energy, movement and vitality.

    The National Gallery has selected 50 of Veronese’s masterpieces that best reflect his output for the exhibition, which opened on 19 March 2014. Many of the artworks are on loan from international collections, which have never been seen in the UK, are alongside 10 paintings belonging to the Gallery’s permanent collection.

    Before this exhibition, and although he is mentioned in Vasari’s The Lives of the Artists, Paolo Veronese had slipped off the radar, quite unlike his fellow Renaissance painters Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Titian, who need no introduction. Perhaps this is because Veronese lead an uneventful life by comparison, without much controversy, but he was no less prolific.

    It made good sense to utilize the exhibition guide where we hear that Paolo de Calieri was born in Verona in 1528. Paolo was trained in the family trade of stonemasonry. But instead he moved to Venice in the 1550’s where he joined the workshop of painter Anthony Badile. Here he was nicknamed Paolo Veronese. Veronese soon established his reputation as an artist in Venice and his work was much sought after by the aristocracy, along with that of his contemporary Tintoretto. The exhibition charts the course of his career.

    Veronese was an adaptable painter and the exhibition contains a mix of portraits and large scale works based on religious and mythological subject matter. The large format paintings were commissioned to decorate altar pieces in Venetian churches and palaces. His figures, arranged in various dynamic yet graceful poses, are life like and naturalistic in terms of their proportions and appearance. This reflects Veronese’s veneration for the sculptures from classical antiquity.

    The exhibition delivers on its promise of a palette of vivid colours from the outset. The paintings are brimming with bright pastel shades: cherry blossom pink, azure blue, yellow, green and lilac that are captured and skilfully contrasted in the garments draped across his elegant protagonists. To this end we can cite the brilliant colourist Titian, elder to Veronese by 40 years and also from the school of Venice, as a major influence.

    According to the whim of his patrons, Veronese often painted people wearing contemporary attire, even in a religious or historical context. Today these works offer a window into Renaissance Venice, where the streets were abuzz with fashionably dressed aristocrats, merchants and courtesans.

    Veronese’s brother in law was employed in the flourishing textiles trade in Venice, and Veronese was accustomed to handling beautifully crafted fabrics. This explains their sumptuous rendition in paintings such as the Portrait of a Lady known as Belle Nani (1560).

    The subject Belle Nani, the wife of a Venetian aristocrat, is opulently dressed in velvet, a lace veil (Venice was a centre for lace production at the time) and jewellery, pointing at the wealth widely enjoyed by the population of Italy’s then mercantile capital. Later that century, Venice was to provide the setting and inspiration for Shakespeare, and his play The Merchant of Venice.

    Veronese’s paintings go beyond an examination of the merely superficial and decorative. Human drama was at the heart of his work.  His depiction of emotion varies in intensity from the warm interplay between the characters in Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida (1552) to the exaggerated and operatic tone of works such as The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565). Veronese used the theatrical nature of his work to engage and captivate his audience. The effect is arresting, so much so that his protagonists often appear to wear a startled expression.

    In Veronese’s later works the level of emotion was more subdued, and, especially in his religious paintings, the atmosphere is more heartfelt and profound. Equally, his colour palette was adjusted to reflect the sombre mood. The bright and jewel-like colours of his earlier works have been toned down and replaced with deeper, richer browns and reds.

    Art historians have frequently positioned Veronese in the Mannerist period but his naturalistic treatment of the human form suggests that he is a descendant of Titian. There is a painting in the exhibition which stands out and reveals Veronese to be ahead of his time. The Dream of Saint Helena (1570) depicts the dreamscape of its female central character, which exists outside the limitations of her life in Renaissance Italy.  Based on this premise and its theatrical staging and innovative colour scheme featuring shades of pink and mauve, the painting is surprisingly progressive.

    Paolo Veronese will run at the National Gallery until 15 June. The exhibition offers a unique opportunity to experience the sights, pageantry and excitement of Renaissance Venice.


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