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Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice

Nigel Halliday

The National Gallery, until June 15

On 18 July 1573 Veronese appeared before the Inquisition to answer for his recent painting of the Last Supper. Besides showing Jesus and his disciples at the familiar meal, he had populated the vast canvas with dozens of other figures, including court jesters, German soldiers, animals. One figure was suffering from a nose-bleed; another was picking his teeth with a fork.

The transcript of the investigation suggests that the Inquisition, deeply embroiled in the Counter- Reformation, was concerned that Veronese might be taking the mick. It was bad enough having German Protestants circulating images that ridiculed the papacy: the Church was certainly not going to tolerate frivolity on its own turf. Veronese assured the Inquisitors that he had no intention of mocking. It was just that he had a lot of space to fill, so he had invented a host of lively figures who might conceivably have been present or nearby.

Sadly, neither this magnificent painting nor the several similar ones are in the current exhibition. Nevertheless, the artist's apparently naive defence to this questioning is quite enlightening about the rest of his work.

He was a teenage prodigy who soon outstripped his teachers in his ability to render flesh, drapery, architecture. But above all, he was one of the great colourists. His colours are rich and deep, rather than bright. He repeats some throughout a painting to help with cohesion, but he has an extraordinary ability to bring a wide variety of colours into harmony, held together with a uniform light.

He is also highly theatrical, often working on a large scale, with a large cast. He skilfully uses architectural motifs and grand compositional lines to connect the parts of the image. He animates the whole space with invention, and he brings each individual character to life. There are no space fillers or bystanders. He usually contrives a viewpoint that requires the viewer to look up at his heroes.

However, he minimises the sense of depth. Presumably he reasoned that too realistic a rendering of three-dimensionality on such a scale would create a vertiginous space. Such a disconcerting effect was exploited by his contemporary Tintoretto, but it was not what Veronese wanted to achieve. Although he toyed with the quirkiness of Mannerism in his early years, he moved quickly into a form of classicism which aimed to charm and to please, as well as to impress.

But Veronese lacks depth not just in three-dimensionality but in what he brings to his theme. He offers little or no insight into the stories that he illustrates. His main characters appear to reflect the aspirations of his clients, aristocrats of perfect breeding, acting their parts with patient good manners. In this exhibition The Family of Darius before Alexander is tellingly paired with Christ and the centurion: the compositions are almost identical, and so are the mannerisms of the figures. In the one, Alexander performs the role of perfect gentleman, elegantly deflecting the embarrassment of Darius' mother. In the other Jesus makes a restrained gesture of his hand to dismiss the centurion, like Lord Grantham acknowledging the gratitude of Mrs Patmore.

Meanwhile, Veronese's desire to fill all the space with animated characters leads to distractions which seem to undermine the seriousness of the subject. While Darius exemplifies the charm of a public-school education, two little boys appear to play peep-bo round his midriff. Children are playing with the family dogs in the foreground as Jesus breaks the bread at Emmaus. While St George prepares himself for the executioner's axe, two men to the left seem to be involved in a completely separate conversation, closely observed by a horse. This extensive collection of Veronese's work - the first ever in Britain - thrills and entertains the viewer with magnificent spectacle, glorious deep rich colour, and wonderful variety of invention in the range of humanity who are winkled into the scenes. But it does seem slightly shallow.

At the end of their interview, the Inquisition listed a number of substantial changes they required Veronese to make to the painting. He, however, found a simpler way to address their concerns. He merely changed the title to The Feast in the House of Levi, a subject where the putative presence of jesters and German soldiers posed less risk to orthodox doctrine.

In fact, for all the worries of the Inquisition, Veronese is quite the Counter-Reformation painter: seeking to use his art to overwhelm the senses and captivate his audience, without unsettling their minds.