Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is the first monographic exhibition of the artist’s work to be held in the UK. The expansive selection of works clearly aims to reposition the master alongside his better known Venetian counterparts Titian and Giorgione; not only to introduce him spectacularly to the British public, but also to emphasise his importance in an art historical context.
The artist’s deft navigation of the colore/disegno (colour/line) debate is immediately striking. The poetic, colour-loving Venetian Renaissance tradition is apparent, but Veronese doesn’t trump line with colour. Instead the exhibition highlights his characteristic depiction of bright, jewel-coloured figural groups against soft-hued background scenes and pale stone architecture. Perhaps Veronese’s early beginnings as a stone cutter can account for his intense interest in these detailed settings. The bold juxtaposition of colours cordons-off the registers of foreground action and background location to imbue the figures with a heightened presence, saturated with life, particularly evident in works such as The Supper at Emmaus (c. 1555) and The Family of Darius before Alexander (c. 1565-7).
The exhibition describes these chromatic juxtapositions in terms of the “theatricality” of stage sets, as if Veronese’s figures have congregated in tableaux against pastel-hued backdrops. There is certainly a sense of contrivance to Veronese’s colour choices, however beyond the “pomp” and “magnificence” which the National Gallery describes the artist’s continual contrasts produce bodies that are suffused with life and fabrics that are illusionistically tangible.
Veronese’s depiction of light is also shown to be crucial to his work. Throughout the exhibition, contrasting light depictions emphasize the different exquisitely rendered textures of luminous silks, plush velvets and the soft, powder-finish of skin. In the final room, Veronese’s late works of the 1580s emphasize the joyous use of light in his earlier works, as somewhat dulled, enigmatic figures, such as Lucretia (c. 1580-5), now emerge from dense and darkened backgrounds. These works seemingly signal a general move towards a fashion for darkened scenes, most famously taken up by Caravaggio in the 1590s.
Overwhelmingly, the exhibited works seem to present Veronese as an important transitional figure, whose life and work spanned the artistic developments of the High Renaissance. The influence of Titian and Raphael are clear; as is Veronese’s impact on the work of Rubens. A wander through the National Gallery’s display of Rubens after visiting the exhibition is certainly recommended; a pity that this isn’t suggested in the exhibition itself.
Besides his Venetian colore influences and the move towards chiaroscuro, a number of “split paintings” are on show, in which extra narrative scenes or symbolic registers are included in the background of paintings; the earlier Dream of Saint Helena (c. 1570) is an intriguing example. Predominantly these signal the close links between Northern Italian art and that of the Low Countries during the early modern period, as this was a popular narrative device in the Netherlands, intended to stimulate contemplation.
Veronese is rewarding viewing, both for its insights into the artistic developments of the 16th century and the artist’s enthralling visual rhetoric of colour and line.
Susannah Smith is an MA student at the Courtauld.
Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is at the National Gallery until 15th June 2014.