V. VERONESE: 1528–88

Let us honor, in passing, some stars of the second magnitude; they too were part of the luminosity of Venice. Andrea Méldola was a Slavonian, and received the name Schiavone. He studied with Titian, and made a pretty Galatea on a chest in the Castello of Milan. In a Jupiter and Antiope (Leningrad) and a Presentation of the Virgin (Venice) he essayed a larger form, and produced canvases of brilliant coloring. Artists praised him, patrons ignored him, and Andrea had to carry his bearded dignity in rags. —Paris Bordone was the son of a saddler and the grandson of a shoemaker; but in the admirable democracy of genius—which appears in every rank-he made his way almost to the top in a Venice teeming with talent. Coming from Treviso to study under Titian, he matured so rapidly that at the age of thirty-eight he was invited to Paris by Francis I. He turned out some excellent religious pictures, like The Baptism of Christ (Washington) and The Holy Family (Milan), and reached his high point in The Fisherman Presenting St. Mark’s Ring to the Doge (Venice); but the painting that has ferried him over the years is his Venus and Eros (Uffizi) —a stout blonde who uses a fine robe to reveal her breasts, while Cupid clamors for her attention.*—Iacopo da Ponte, called il Bassano from his birthplace, reached a modest fame and fortune when Titian bought his Animals Going into the Ark; he painted some good portraits—e.g., The Bearded Man (Chicago)—and managed to live to the age of eighty-two without leaving behind him any pictured humans not clothed from head to foot.

About 1553 there came from Verona to Venice a youth of twenty-five, Paolo Caliari, of a type contrasting sharply with Tintoretto: tranquil, friendly, sociable, self-critical, and only occasionally passionate. Like Tintoretto and nearly all educated Italians, he loved and practised music. He was generous and honorable, never offended a rival, never disappointed a patron. Venice called him il Veronese, and so the world knows him, though he adopted Venice as his home and one of his loves. He had many teachers in Verona, including his uncle Antonio Badile, who later gave him a daughter to wife; he was influenced by Giovanni Caroto and Brusasorci; but these factors in the development of his style soon faded in the warm brilliance of Venetian art and life. He never ceased to wonder at the changing skies playing their colors upon the Grand Canal; he marveled at the palaces and their tremulous reflections in the sea; he envied the aristocratic world of secure incomes, and artistic friendships, and gracious manners, and garments of silk and velvet almost more tempting to the touch than the beautiful women they enclosed. He wished himself an aristocrat; he dressed like one in lace and furs, and imitated the high code of honor that he ascribed to the Venetian upper class. He hardly ever painted poor people, or poverty, or tragedy; his aim was to put this bright and fortunate world of the Venetian rich upon immortal canvas, and make it fairer and finer than wealth without art could ever be. The lords and ladies, the bishops and abbots, the doges and senators, took to him fondly; and soon he was working on a dozen commissions.

As early as 1553, when he was only twenty-five, he was asked to paint a ceiling for the Council of Ten in the Ducal Palace. There, likening the Council to Jove, he pictured Jupiter Overthrowing the Vices, now in the Louvre. It was not especially successful; the heavy figures cavorted precariously in the air; Paolo had not quite caught the spirit of Venice. But two years later he found himself, and touched mastery, in painting The Triumph of Mordecai on the ceiling of San Sebastiano; the face and figure of the Jewish hero were forcefully rendered, and the horses breathe reality. Titian himself may have been impressed, for when the Procurators of St. Mark’s charged him to organize the decoration of the Libreria Vecchia with pictured medallions, he allotted three to Veronese, one each to other artists and himself. The Procurators offered a golden chain for the best medallion; Paolo won it with a representation of Music in the form of three young women—one playing a lute, another singing, a third intent upon her viola da gamba—and a Cupid at a harpsichord, and Pan puffing at his pipes. In some later pictures Veronese portrays himself wearing his golden chain.

Having acquired high repute for decorative painting, Paolo now received a lucrative assignment. The rich and lordly Barbaro family built in 1560 a luxurious villa at Macer, near that same Asolo where Caterina Cornaro played queen and Bembo played with Platonic love. The Barbari chose none but leading artists to make this “the finest pleasure house of the Renaissance”:35 Andrea Palladio to design it, Alessandro Vittoria to ornament it with sculptured stucco, Veronese to fresco the ceilings and walls, spandrels and lunettes with scenes from pagan and Christian mythology. On the vault of the central dome he pictured Olympus—the gods who knew all the joys of life but never grew old and never died. Amid ethereal scenes the impish artist introduced a hunter, a monkey, and a dog so perfect in its form and alert vitality as to be fit to be a hound of heaven. On one wall a painted page looked across a distance at a painted maid, and she at him, and for an immortal moment they too fed on ambrosia. It was such a pleasure palace as only the more refined taste of Kublai Khan’s Chinese could have surpassed.

Inevitably, in this archipelago of Eros, Paolo received commissions to paint nudes. They were not his forte; he preferred rich, soft raiment covering semi-Rubensian forms topped with comely characterless faces crowned with upswept coiffures of golden hair. TheMars and Venus now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art shows a fat and ungainly goddess with an unshapely dropsical leg. But she is lovely in the Venus and Adonis of the Prado, outshone only by the dog at her feet; without a dog Paolo could not paint. The finest of Veronese’s mythologies is The Rape of Europa in the Palace of the Doges: a landscape of dark trees, winged putti dropping garlands, Europa (the Phoenician princess) seating herself gaily upon the amorous bull, who licks one of her pretty feet, and turns out to be none other than Jupiter in a novel masquerade. The lucky Casanova of the skies here showed divine taste, for Europa, half robed in queenly array, is Veronese’s most successful synthesis of feminine perfection, worth leaving heaven for. The distant background continues the story by showing the bull carrying Europa across the Sea to Crete, where, says a pretty legend, she gave her name to a continent.

Paolo himself took his time before surrendering to woman. He gathered samples till he was thirty-eight; then he married Elena Badile. She bore him two sons, Carlo and Gabriele; he trained both to be painters, and predicted, with more fondness than foresight,Carletto mi vincera—” Charlie will surpass me.”36 Like Correggio he bought a farm—at Sant’ Angelo di Treviso—and spent most of his married years there, managing his finances thriftily, and seldom straying from the Veneto. He was at forty (1568) the most sought-for painter in Italy, with invitations coming even from foreign lands. When Philip II asked him to decorate the Escorial he appreciated the compliment, but resisted the lure.

Like his predecessors he was called upon to paint the sacred story for churches and worshipers.* After a thousand Madonnas we find everything fresh and attractive in the Madonna of the Cuccino Family (Dresden): the handsome black-bearded donors, the disconcertingly natural children, and the white-shawled figure of fate—a woman of such majestic beauty as even Venetian art seldom equaled. The Marriage at Cana (Louvre) was just the scene that Veronese liked to paint: Roman architecture for a background, a dog or two in the foreground, and a hundred persons in a hundred attitudes. He drew them all as if everyone were to be a major portrait, and placed among them Titian, Tintoretto, Bassano, and himself, each playing a stringed instrument. Paolo, unlike Tintoretto, cared nothing for realism; instead of making his feasters such men and women as a small Judean town might furnish, he made the host a Venetian millionaire, gave him a palace worthy of Augustus, and guests and dogs of pedigree, and provided the tables with delicate food and miraculous wine. If one should judge from Veronese, Christ had many a feast amid His tribulations: in the Louvre we see Him dining in the house of Simon the Pharisee, with Magdalen washing His feet, and splendid female figures moving about among Corinthian columns; in Turin He sups in the house of Simon the leper, and in the Venice Academy He dines in the house of Levi. But then, again, in Veronese’s gallery, we see Christ fainting under the weight of the cross (Dresden), and crucified against a lowering sky, with the towers of Jerusalem dim in the distance below (Louvre). The end of the great drama is subdued: simple pilgrims supping with Christ at Emmaus, with charming children fondling the inevitable dog.

Greater than these illustrations of the New Testament are Veronese’s pictures from the lives and legends of the saints: St. Helena robed in beauty, believing that she sees angels transporting the cross (London); St. Anthony tortured by a muscular youth and an angelic female (Caen); St. Jerome in the wilderness, comforted by his books (Chicago); St. George ecstatically welcoming martyrdom (San Giorgio, Venice); St. Anthony of Padua preaching to the fishes (Borghese)—a magnificent vista of sea and sky; St. Francis receiving the stigmata (Venice); St. Mennas brilliant in armor (Modena) and martyred (Prado); St. Catherine of Alexandria mystically married to the infant Christ (Santa Caterina, Venice); St. Sebastian flying the standard of faith and hope as he is led to martyrdom (San Sebastiano, Venice); St. Justina facing martyrdom with double jeopardy—in the Uffizi and in her church at Padua: all these are pictures not to be compared with the best of Titian or Tintoretto, but still meriting the name of masterpieces. Perhaps finer than any of these is The Family of Darius Before Alexander (London), with a somber queen and a lovely princess kneeling at the feet of the handsome and generous conqueror.

As Paolo had begun his Venetian career with painting in the Ducal Palace, so he ended it with grand murals there, fit to thrill every patriotic Venetian soul. After the fires of 1574 and 1577, the decoration of the rebuilt interiors was assigned chiefly to Tintoretto and Veronese, and the theme was to be Venice herself, undaunted by fire or war, Turks or Portuguese. In the Sala del Collegio (Audience Chamber) Paolo and his assistants painted on the carved and gilded ceiling eleven allegorical pictures of extraordinary elegance—Meekness with her lamb… Dialectics looking through a web of her own making… and Venice, a queen in ermine, with the Lion of St. Mark lying quietly at her feet, and receiving honors from Justice and Peace. In a great oval in the ceiling of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio he painted The Triumph of Venice, picturing the incomparable city as a goddess enthroned among pagan deities, receiving a crown of glory from the sky; at her feet the leading lords and ladies of the city, and some tributary Moors; and below these, prancing warriors ready for her defense, and pages holding hounds in leash. This was the zenith of Veronese.

In 1586 he was chosen to replace Guariento’s faded fresco, The Coronation of the Virgin, in that same Hall of the Great Council. His sketch was made and approved, and he was preparing to paint the canvas when he was stricken with fever. Venice was shocked to learn, in April 1588, that the still young painter of her glories was dead. The fathers at San Sebastiano begged for his remains, and Paolo was buried there, beneath the pictures by which he had made that church a home of his religious art.

Time has reversed the judgment of his contemporaries, and ranks him below his robust contemporary. Technically he surpassed Tintoretto; in draftsmanship, composition, and color he was the culmination of Venetian painting. His crowded pictures are not confused; his scenes and episodes are clear, his backgrounds bright; Tintoretto seems a prince of darkness beside this idolater of light. Veronese was also the greatest decorative painter of the Italian Renaissance, ever ready to conceive some delightful turn or surprise of color and form, like the man suddenly stepping out from behind a curtain half drawn across a classic portal in a fresco at the Villa Macer. But he was too joyously intent upon surface melodies to hear the subtle overtones, tragic discords, and deeper harmonies that make the greatest paintings great. His eye was too quick, his art too eager to picture all that it saw, and more that it merely imagined—Turks at the baptism of Christ, Teutons in the house of Levi, Venetians at Emmaus, dogs everywhere. He must have loved dogs, he made so many of them. He wanted to portray the brightest aspects of the world, and did so with unmatched radiance; he pictured Venice in a sunset glow of the joy of life. In his world there are only handsome nobles, stately matrons, bewitching princesses, voluptuous blondes; and every second picture is a feast.

All the art world knows the story how the officers of the Inquisition-pursuant to a decree of the Council of Trent that all erroneous teaching must be avoided in art—summoned Veronese before them (1573), and demanded to know why he had introduced so many irreverent irrelevancies into The Feast in the House of Levi (Venice)—parrots, dwarfs, Germans, buffoons, halberdiers…. Paolo replied boldly that his “commission was to ornament the picture as seemed good to me. It was big, and with room for many figures…. Whenever an empty space in a picture needs filling up, I put in figures as the fancy takes me”—partly to balance the composition, and also, doubtless, to feast the observant eye. The Inquisition ordered him to amend the painting at his own cost, which he did.37 That inquest marked the passage, in Venetian art, from the Renaissance to the Counter Reformation.

Veronese had no distinguished disciples, but his influence overleaped generations to share in molding the art of Italy, Flanders, and France. Tiepolo recaptured his decorative flair after a long intermission; Rubens studied him carefully, learned the secrets of Paolo’s coloring, and inflated Veronese’s plump females to Flemish amplitude. Nicolas Poussin and Claude Lorrain found in him a guide to the use of architectural ornament in their landscapes, and Charles Lebrun followed Veronese in designing vast murals. To Veronese and Correggio the painters of eighteenth-century France looked for inspiration in their idyls of fêtes champêtres and aristocratic lovers playing at Arcadia; here stemmed Watteau and Fragonard; here rose the rosy nudes of Boucher, the gracious children and women conceived by Greuze. Here, perhaps, Turner found something of the sunshine with which he illuminated London.

So, in Veronese’s blaze of color, ended the Golden Age of the Adriatic Queen. Art could hardly go further in the direction that it had followed from Giorgione to Veronese. Technical perfection had been reached; the heights had been scaled; now there would be a slow descent until, in the eighteenth century, Tiepolo would rival Veronese in decorative painting, and Goldoni would be the Aristophanes of Venice in a last burst of splendor before the republic’s death.

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