What’s in a name? Call him Paolo Spezapreda, Paolo Bazaro or Paolo Caliari, Paolo Veronese will always be among the greats, and has finally been put into the spotlight at the National Gallery.
Paolo Veronese has his name because he was, quite simply, the best artist ever to come out of his hometown, Verona. Although he moved to Venice more-or-less full time at the age of 27 in 1555, and instantly entered the top ranks of the Venetian art élite, his work was grounded in his youth and formation in the mainland city.
Born in 1528 into family of stonecutters, Paolo may have initially trained in the family business with his father, but by the age of 13 he was already apprenticed to Antonio Badile, a competent but uninspiring artist. He also seems to have worked alongside Giovanni Battista Caroto, but not for long: he was established as an independent master in his own right by the age of 18. In 1553 he signed himself ‘Paolo Spezapreda’ – Paul the Stonecutter – but within two years he was calling himself ‘Paolo Caliari from Verona’. Caliari wasn’t even his father’s name. His father, Gabriele Bazaro, married a girl called Caterina, some six years his senior. And when you’re only 14 that’s a big difference. Maybe they married because she was already pregnant. But then her parents never married: her father was an aristocrat by the name of Caliari, and by choosing the name of his illegitimate mother’s father Paolo implied he was going up in the world, no longer a humble stonecutter, but an artist with a high-class background. Nevertheless, in Venice he must have stood out from the Venetian artists and became known, quite simply, as Paolo Veronese.
The earliest known paintings by him are both in the National Gallery’s splendid exhibition. Both are painted in oil on paper, later mounted on canvas, and both show his origins clearly. They are studies for two works which are lost – one completely, and one only practically, as the full-scale version of the Bevilacqua-Lazise altarpiece survives, but is highly damaged and badly over-painted. The little modello – probably painted so the clients could see what they were getting – is a better representation of what was intended. The architectural setting, with the Virgin and Child enthroned to the side of a marble altar, shows the influence of Titian – via Antonio Badile – but also the architectural style of Michele Sanmicheli, the leading architect of Vicenza at the time. Paolo’s father probably worked for him. As a boy, Paolo may have done so too.
By the age of 20 he was apparently fully formed. What first strikes you about The Conversion of Mary Magdalene is the brilliance of its colours – chopping from sky blue to rose, emerald to primrose and a daring combination of white and vermillion, like a Bridget Riley inhabited by people. The story, probably derived from a life of Christ written by Pietro Aretino, shows Mary Magdalene falling to her knees with shame as she first beholds Jesus, and immediately removing her jewelry, the outward sign of her inner vice. Her sister Martha holds her hand and points the way, from the shadow into which she has subsided to the brilliant light of Christ. This is where we first see a compositional tendency which recurs throughout Veronese’s oeuvre: the protagonist is at the bottom, in the shade, and partly hidden by the other characters – and yet we always know who is important, as Veronese can always lead our eye in the right direction.
He excels at the depiction of religious subject matter, notably in the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and The Martyrdom of St George in the third and fourth rooms of the exhibition respectively. Both are triumphs for the National Gallery. The former has never left Venice (painted for the Church of Santa Caterina, it now resides in the Accademia, the main art gallery there), while the latter has only left the church in Verona for which it was painted once before – when Napoleon stole it at the end of the 18th Century. Both are sublimely coloured and beautifully composed. St Catherine is arrayed in the finest of Venetians fabrics, a white, blue and gold brocade, and is about to be enveloped in a voluminous white cloth-of-gold cape by one of the attendant angels. A woman behind raised her arms high and gazes to heaven, her hands framing the faces of the Virgin and the Saint and bringing them together in a form of ecstatic union. In the next room of the exhibition, St George, brought low, accepts his immanent death while looking up at the figure of Hope, who looks to the Virgin and Child, pleading, with her companions Faith and Charity, on his behalf. The interlocking gazes and gestures of the celestial gathering lead our eye around the upper half of the painting, while the red flag of the Romans – inscribed with the letters SPQR (‘the Senate and People of Rome’) cuts like a knife from the top left corner and tears our eyes down to the brilliant vermillion of George’s hose.
If he excels with the religious, he excites with myth. The National Gallery’s own Allegories of Love look superb in what was their long-time setting, where they are reunited with a Mars and Venus that they haven’t seen for three hundred years when they were all part of the collection of the Hapsburgs in Prague. A cheeky and delicate version of The Rape of Europa shows the heroine tentatively mounting a snow-white bull, not knowing it to be Jupiter in disguise. He tenderly nuzzles her sandalled feet, before carrying her off, in a background scene, across the lapping waves and far across the sea. A regretful heifer peers longingly into the distance, apparently regretting that she didn’t get in on the action.
If the mature paintings look as if they are bathed in sunlight, the last works have something of the night about them, they seem to be moonlit, and you get the feeling that without Veronese’s exploration of chiaroscuro Caravaggio’s career might not have been possible. The story of Lucretia is dark in every way. Raped, she kills herself rather than suffer the shame, and plunges a dagger into her breast through the cloth with which she is so desperately trying to maintain her dignity. Elsewhere in this final room a heroic Perseus plummets through the air, a secular angel rescuing a gymnastic Andromeda from the most energetic of sea monsters, while two late portraits, in tranquil mode, show that Veronese perfected his skills depicting character and surface like no other. The last painting in the exhibition is the last he ever painted, The Conversion of St Pantalon, commissioned for the high altar of eponymous Venetian church by the Parish Priest, Bartolomeo Borghi. No ideal palaces here, no soaring classical columns, but a seedy Venetian backstreet in which the Saint cures a boy bitten by a snake with the power of prayer alone. Borghi himself plays a minor role, supporting the body of the dead child before he is resuscitated. As so often in Veronese’s work the patron takes part in the religious drama: throughout the exhibition any slightly suspect characters photo-bombing the holy scene are probably portraits of the patrons.
This may be the last painting, but as you go, stop and contemplate The Agony in the Garden. Christ’s traditional vigil has worn him down, and while Peter, James and John sleep securely in the background, Jesus has collapsed in the arms of a consoling angel, who is left with the task of looking up to Heaven and pleading for forbearance. The light streaming from on high trickles like liquid gold down the angel’s violet robe, and Christ’s limbs hang heavy, forming a counterpoint with the angel’s legs and framed by the blue and red of his own robes, as if blood and water flow mingled down. It is an exquisite image: quiet, considered, contemplative, sublime.
The exhibition has 50 paintings by this great master, from the earliest known works, to the last one he painted. It’s the first exhibition devoted to him in Britain, and the size and scale of the paintings mean that the National Gallery has moved some of its permanent collection out of the way so that Veronese’s works can enjoy the space and natural daylight of the main floor. The colours shine gloriously, the dramatic compositions have space to breathe, and some of the paintings can be examined up close for the first time ever. It really is the exhibition you should be going to see – and if you can conspire to see it when the sun is shining, so much the better.