The Italian painter Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) was one of the greatest Venetian artists. His work is rich in invention and decorative splendor and excels in the depiction of festive and heroic scenes.
Paolo Veronese, whose real name was Paolo Caliari, was born in Verona (hence the appellation Veronese) and received his early training there from Antonio Badile. In 1552 Veronese was in Mantua, where he encountered the art of Giulio Romano. The following year Veronese was working at the Ducal Palace in Venice. He spent the rest of his life in that city, directing a large workshop which, after his death on April 19, 1588, was taken over by his brother Benedetto and his sons Carlo and Gabriele and continued to produce works in his manner for some time.
Characteristics of His Art
Veronese responded with singular felicity to the calm and peacefulness of Titian's works and elaborated on these qualities in wonderful fresco compositions. His color is never merely applied paint but brings to life the pale whiteness of the Palladian marble halls which are the stage for his works: the rich color of splendid and elegantly appointed animals, the muted gleam of fine fabrics, and, above all, the blueness of the wide Venetian skies which frame his compositions and bestow on them a smiling beauty and infinite depth. He applied the paint thinly over broad areas with a delicate brushstroke. His drawings, often done in wash on tinted paper, have a rich tonality of silvery grays and, though carefully executed, look almost spontaneous.
Veronese was a master of decorative painting, but the decorative aspect of his work is only a background against which he develops the often very quiet drama of his history paintings. His portraits and history paintings usually show richly dressed and beautiful persons in a gently distanced or pensive mood which tinges the wealth of the work with a certain melancholy. He also concerned himself with the study of allegory and intermittently worked on a book of drawings with explanatory notes on the subject, but only a few fragments survive.
The great majority of Veronese's history paintings represent Christian themes. His Temptation of St. Anthony (1552) shows that he was impressed with the art of Titian even before he moved to Venice, but his concern was more with demonstrating his ability to represent a complex and violent action than with the dignity of Titian's art. Once in Venice, Veronese soon attained the sublime facility that was the hallmark of his style. This is already demonstrated by his work in the Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci (1553-1554) of the Ducal Palace, even though the ceiling painting, Jupiter Fulminating the Vices (moved to Paris in 1797), is also a melodramatic tour de force.
In 1555 Veronese began the decoration of the church of S. Sebastiano in Venice and returned repeatedly to it in the course of the next 15 years. The church (in which he was buried) may be called the Pantheon of Veronese, it so well represents the maturity of his art. Most extraordinary are the ceiling paintings (1555-1556) which depict the story of Esther in daring foreshortening; yet each scene culminates in a nobly quiet pose or gesture. The effect of the whole is at once decorative and moving.
Equally impressive but more gentle are his paintings for the organ shutters (1558-1560) of S. Sebastiano, which show, when closed, the Presentation of Christ in the Temple and, when opened, Christ at the Pool of Bethesda in a setting of classical columns which connect the world of the painting with the view of the organ pipes. Two extremely rich scenes from the life of St. Sebastian (1565) decorate the choir of the church. One shows the saint in military dress exhorting his fellow Christians with a grand gesture; the other depicts him naked and meekly awaiting his execution.
Among Veronese's other great works celebrating Christian themes are Christ among the Doctors (ca. 1555-1556), St. John Preaching (ca. 1561), and the Holy Family with Saints Barbara and John (ca. 1562). More complex is the Supper at Emmaus (1559-1560). The figures from sacred history are surrounded by members of the family who commissioned the picture; they serve Christ, and their children sit at his feet.
One of the richest of Veronese's works is the Marriage at Cana, painted for a refectory (1562). In the center of this grandly decorative work sits Christ, whose loneliness has rarely been so affectingly and lovingly rendered. At his feet a group of musicians, in whom the likenesses of Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, and Jacopo Bassano may be recognized, performs a concert.
Veronese received a number of other commissions to decorate refectories. Among these are the Feast of St. Gregory the Great (1572), the Feast in the House of Simon (ca. 1572), and the Feast in the House of Levi (1573). The last painting is actually a Last Supper, but the Inquisition took exception to it because they thought that Veronese had elaborated frivolously on the biblical account. He defended himself ably, but in the end he was obliged to change the title of the work to the rather meaningless and misleading Feast in the House of Levi.
In addition to his richly splendid works Veronese also painted pictures which in their composition and coloring are as quietly understated as the actions and gestures of his heroes almost always are. Most notable among these are the Crucifixion (ca. 1570-1580), in which all is silence and grief, and the very late Pietà (ca. 1586), which presents the dead body of Christ with a gentleness that is heartbreaking.
Veronese's secular and allegorical history painting falls into two groups: his public commissions for the Ducal Palace and the Library of St. Mark's and his decoration of villas and palaces belonging to the Venetian nobility. His greatest accomplishment of the first type is the Triumph of Venice (1583) in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio of the Ducal Palace, which shows in its center Venice a female allegorical figure, resplendent in opulent beauty and ease, crowned by Victory and raised by clouds, slowly ascending to the heavens. In the second group are the Rape of Europa (ca. 1580), which follows the account of Ovid in his at once playful and yet awed praise of the power of Cupid, and Darius and the Family of Alexander (ca. 1565-1567).
Veronese's happiest achievement of his private commissions is the fresco decoration of Andrea Palladio's Villa Barbaro at Maser (ca. 1561). The harmony there effected between the taste of an enlightened patron and the art of Palladio and Veronese makes the villa one of the most delightful places on earth. Landscapes, noble buildings, beautifully shining skies, and playfully painted gods, heroes, allegorical figures, and animals on the walls and ceilings all mingle and smile in a world of art, full of mirth, sense, and dignity, and offer refreshment from the cares of the world.
Further Reading on Paolo Veronese
Veronese has not been well served by the art-historical literature in English. An introduction to his art is available in Antoine Orliac, Veronese (trans. 1940). On his drawings see Hans Tietze and Erika Tietze-Conrat, The Drawings of the Venetian Painters (1944). Excellent appreciations of his art can be found in John Ruskin, Modern Painters (1843-1860) and The Stones of Venice (1851-1853), and in Henry James, Italian Hours (1909).