Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice (National Gallery)

VeroneseVeronese: 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 Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–1570)

The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565–1570)

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.

The Dream of Saint Helena, c.1570

The Dream of Saint Helena, c.1570

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.

The Visual Arts and Music in Renaissance Europe c 1400-1650 (Second Annual Postgraduate Renaissance Symposium, 18 January 2014)

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

The Amaryllis Consort at the Temple Church

It is not every Courtauld conference that starts off with a concert in an authentic Gothic interior. But the Renaissance Art and Music programme has been an exploratory endeavour throughout. On a moonlit Friday evening, the Amaryllis Consort regaled an audience in the Temple Church with music from the high Baroque, Burgundian Gothic and English Renaissance schools to much applause. However, visual references were confined to our programmes, and it was not until after the next dawn that images would take the commanding focus of the lecture theatre’s projector.

Professor Thomas Schmidt’s keynote took as its main theme a giant choirbook in Jena, considering an illuminated folio of a chant of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin beyond a usual iconographical analysis. The arrangement on the page of the four parts, their page-turning rubrics, and how the donors’ figures would work as ever-present supplicants to the Marian prayer being sung all went together to manifest the sort of four-part polyphonic performance we had witnessed in the Temple into a tangible artefact.

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

Brian Keene and Kelly Lam at the conference

These themes were restated and developed throughout the day. Moritz Kelber’s paper picked up on the meeting of note and page with a “singing shield” at the beginning of some printed musical scores for the diet of Ferdinand I. A coat of arms emblazoned with a solmized representation of the name of German Emperor was presented as “eye music”, where the score itself could make visual play with the musical script. Brian Keene’s paper on a dismembered antiphonary from the Carmelite Friary in Florence placed it within the daily life of the church, but also explored its creation through the agency of the friars, lay confraternity members and of course the artists who laboured on the church’s manuscripts and frescoes.

But the day was not just about objects that were at the centre of musical performance, but also reflections of it.  Alex Robinson’s consideration of paintings of balls and ceremonies in the court of Henri IV showed how bands of musicians were more often convenient cultural signs than accurate records. Kelly Lam’s analysis of The Music Lesson, a National Gallery canvas newly attributed to Titian, also showed paintings as untrustworthy documents: the bass viol (which Titian himself holds in Veronese’s Wedding at Cana) is held in a near unplayable position. Both Simon Jackson, on the metaphysical poet George Herbert’s creative links to the courtly masque and Daniel Walden, on the Garden of the Villa di Pratolino, relied heavily on textual accounts and documentary evidence to recreate even more ephemeral displays and the intellectual and musical culture around them.

Titian - The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

Titian – The Music Lesson (National Gallery, London)

This conference by no means solved the inherent epistemological problems on how much we can ever know about creative links between visual artists and musicians, and how the dual experience of their outputs was received by contemporary audiences. Like the concert the night before, the truth of the experience can only be completely accessible to those who were there.

Fifth Early Modern Symposium: Bringing Art into Being in the Early Modern Period (27th October 2013)

Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros - Between Heuresis and Mimesis - Artistic Science and the Iconopoiesis as Mediators of the Creative Process

Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros – Between Heuresis and Mimesis – Artistic Science and the Iconopoiesis as Mediators
of the Creative Process

Convened annually by two PhD students from the Courtauld, the Early Modern Symposium is an opportunity for scholars of all levels to give papers covering a period of almost three centuries, from around 1550 to 1800, and to discuss theoretical and methodological questions relevant to current research in the field. Anya Matthews and Giulia Martina Weston, who jointly organised this year’s event, proposed to explore the vast array of processes that make possible both the conception and birth of the work of art. Such a proposal was a perfect complement to last year’s theme, “Art and its Afterlives.”

Parmigianino, Nude man supporting himself on a rope (model for Moses?) recto and verso, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

Parmigianino, Nude man supporting himself on a rope (model for Moses?) recto and verso, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

The programme of the day dealt with the problems related to the study of workshops, of failures and successes of the creation process, and of the question of material specificity. It also suggested that we reconsider the role of the artist-creator in the wake of twentieth-century art historical analysis. This was why it was important to have several contributions focusing on the Renaissance, for it was then that the ideas of the artist as heroic creator and their artwork as a unique creation gained prominence. In her paper on Raphael’s workshop, Anne Bloemacher returned on the gap between the conception of the artistic idea and the delegation of execution. Sefy Hendler, by revising the issue of the paragone in fifteenth-century art theory, showed how a studio drawing by Parmigianino attempted to bridge the arts and offered a variety of vedute on one sheet.

Working drawing for motifs for plaster ceilings. English, 17th century.

Working drawing for motifs for plaster ceilings. English, 17th century.

Interior decoration was considered by Claire Gapper’s investigation of the development of English plasterwork as a necessary interaction of a multiplicity of figures – architects, draughtsmen, decorators and their patrons, some of varying degrees of competence (see image). Other interventions extended across periods. The rather intensely theoretical approach of Vasco Nuno Figueiredo de Medeiros dealt with the history of the dichotomy heuresis/mimesis and proposed to integrate praxis into this paradigm, through the mediating use of iconopoiesis. Working on cultural and geographical distances, Carrie Anderson presented the case of  tapestries with rather unlikely Brazilian fauna such as zebras and rhinoceroses donated by the governor-general of Dutch Brazil to Louis XIV as showing the exciting possibility of a transglobal exchange of ideas at an early period.

This is just a small selection from what was a long day, yet one which managed to retain its audience’s interest throughout with a wide variety of approaches and themes. The current interest in art-making processes is spurred by an increasing union of the old divisions of the historical field, encouraged by the universal assimilation of the issues raised by Aby Warburg and post-structuralist traditions. In recent scholarship, investigations across disciplines, bridging works and practices of different kinds and including material from science, popular culture and across time, are more the rule than the exception. However, if this conference was to be taken as a statement on the willingness of academia to deal with the question of process in art making, it would be inevitable to admit that, while the interest is there, it is too early to say which methodologies and themes will prevail in future scholarship.