THE VENETIAN PAINTING SCHOOL IV. Veronese 

Titian (whom we will deal with in another essay) did not leave a direct heir of his artistic genius, nor did he seem to have been surrounded by a group of disciples, as happened to Raphael. Various anecdotes showed him somewhat envious of two great painters contemporaries of his old age: Veronese and Tintoretto. This fact in a way was an advantage, because these other artists were able to develop their pictorial temperament with complete independence, without becoming obsessed with the works of the great Titian, as had happened in the Roman school with Raphael’s pupils. Titian died in 1576, Veronese in 1588 and Tintoretto in 1594. There was then, a period of a quarter of a century in which these three great artists were in full production.

Veronese was born in 1528 in Verona, the son of a Veronese stonecutter, and although his birth name was Paolo Caliari he was always known by Veronese, alluding to his birthplace. By that time, Verona was the largest annexed territory of Venice on the mainland. During the 1540’s, Veronese was apprenticed of two of the leading painters in Verona, Antonio Badile and Giovanni Francesco Caroto, mainly in the style of the Mannerism that was popular in Parma at the time, but soon he developed his own artistry based on a more radiant palette. His first paintings, during his late teen years, included work commissioned by important churches in Verona.

In The Conversion of Mary Magdalene (ca. 1545-1548), an early work commissioned by a noble patron from Verona, Veronese depicted a legendary scene (not described in the Bible or the Golden Legend) in which Mary Magdalene and Martha went to a temple where the teachings of Jesus inspired the first to convert to a pious life. She is then depicted wearing a dress inappropriate for a religious building and a broken necklace hanging from her neck, both were a way for Veronese to symbolize her prior sinful life and her turn away from a worldly life towards one of spiritual devotion. Magdalene is on her knees and blushes as she listens to Jesus. Meanwhile Martha extends her hands towards Christ and Mary Magdalene, embracing her. 

The interpretation of the subject had been debated, mostly because the Magdalene’s usual attribute of a jar of ointment is absent in the painting, and therefore the scene may represent other Biblical-related subject. The general scholarly opinion is that the scene is based in the legend of the conversion of Mary Magdalene, as it appeared described in Pietro Aretino’s 1535 book L’umanità di Cristo (“The Humanity of Christ”), which was widely distributed and read in Northern Italy at the time.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene, oil on canvas, by Veronese, ca. 1545-1548, 118 x 164 cm (National Gallery, London).

After painting several works in his homeland and in other cities of the Veneto, in 1551 he received a commission to paint an altarpiece in Venice. Vasari, in his much-cited book, still called him Paolino and said of him: “This young man is now at the best of his production; he is not yet thirty-two years old, for this reason we will not speak more about him for now”.

In 1553 he moved permanently to Venice after been chosen to paint, together with Titian, the ceiling fresco of the Sala dei Consiglio dei Dieci (“Hall of the Council of Ten”) and the adjoining Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Doges’ palace, whose reconstruction after the fire of 1547, directed by Sansovino, had just been completed at the time. The much-feared Consiglio dei Dieci (“Council of Ten”) was responsible for the security of the city. Its meeting-place was the Sala dei Consiglio dei Dieci which was in turn part of a series of large spaces used for the administration of justice. Paolo Veronese and Giambattista Zelotti made their Venetian debut here as the assistants of the painter Giovan Battista Ponchino. The sumptuous pictorial decoration of the ceiling celebrates the glories and triumphs of Venice. For this ample space, Veronese painted canvases for the gilded wood ceiling which had been recently constructed in the previous years. Veronese’s main contributions to this decoration were the Jupiter Hurling Thunderbolts at the Vices (oval, see picture below), Aged Oriental with a Young Woman (oval), Juno Showering Gifts on Venetia (rectangular, see picture below), and The Triumph of Virtue over Vice (rectangular).

View of the ceiling paintings in the Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci, partially by Paolo Veronese, 1554-1556 (Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

In the oval with Jupiter Hurling Thunderbolts at the Vices which Veronese painted as part of the ceiling decoration of the Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci, we can see a key feature of Veronese’s ceiling paintings: the bold use of foreshortened perspectives, of which he is considered a supreme master. Usually, his sculpturally rounded figures stand out dramatically against a deep blue sky. This painting was originally the central picture in the ceiling of the room (see picture above). In 1797 it was confiscated by the art commissars of Napoleon and taken to Paris. The painting that is now in the Doge’s Palace is a copy by Jacopo di Andrea commissioned in 1863.

Jupiter Hurling Thunderbolts at the Vices, oil on canvas, by Paolo Veronese, 1554-1556, 560 x 330 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

In Juno Showering Gifts on Venetia, a rectangular canvas also part of the same ceiling decoration, Veronese depicts the goddess Juno, wife of Jupiter, together with the personification of Venice, in sharp bottom view. June throws gold crowns, jewels, gold coins, the doge’s hat and a plain olive wreath to Venice who receives them with open arms. The subject-matter allegorically represents the vocation to power and the vocation to peace that were given to the city.

Juno Showering Gifts on Venetia, oil on canvas, by Paolo Veronese, 1554-1556, 365 x 147 cm (Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci, Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

The Sala del Maggior Consiglio (“Hall of the Great Council”) is the heart of the Palazzo Ducale. This huge chamber was used for assemblies of the Great Council, the largest organ of government in the Venetian state, attended by all patricians over the age of 25. The 35 canvases decorating the ceiling, some of them executed by Veronese, celebrate the glory of Venice and illustrate the Republic’s military history through allegorical representations.

View of the ceiling paintings in the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, partially by Paolo Veronese, after 1577 (Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

For one of the three main paintings for the ceiling decoration of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, Veronese chose as a theme an Apotheosis of Venice, an elaborate theatrical composition. Rising above a bank of clouds, the royally dressed personification of Venice sits enthroned within the backdrop of a splendid triumphal arch-type of architecture, between the twin towers of the city’s Arsenal, about to be crowned with laurel by flying victories. Arrayed at her feet and offering her wise counsel are godly personifications of peace, abundance, fame, happiness, honor, security, and freedom representing her economic and political power, all forming an opulent court of beautiful naked women and elegantly dressed lords. This triumphal arch raises on top of an enormous balcony which seems to burst through the ceiling in order to accommodate the multitudes of celebrating people stipulated in the commission. At the base, some Venice’s smiling subjects seem undisturbed by the enormous size and energy of careening horsemen reminder of Venice’s military might. In these ceiling compositions, Veronese through the use of illusionistic foreshortenings and dramatic light effects gave to the genre of political allegory a previously unimagined dynamism and visual excitement. Of the 35 paintings in the ceiling of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio, the Apotheosis of Venice by Veronese is the one that best fits into the complicated set of gilded frames designed in the Mannerist style: in fact the grandiose painted architecture he designed, with cornices and terraces supported by imposing Solomonic spiral columns, seems to be a continuation of the structures outside the picture itself.

Apotheosis of Venice, oil on canvas, by Paolo Veronese, 1585, 904 x 579 cm (Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

Later, in three periods between 1555 and 1570, Veronese decorated the interior of the Church of San Sebastiano in Venice. This series included paintings, ceiling canvases and frescoes on the nave and altar walls, part of the sacristy and choir, decoration for the organ and a large altarpiece. The Coronation of the Virgin, one of the ceiling canvases for this series located in the sacristy, presents an unusual iconography of the “coronation” theme: while Mary is, as traditionally had been depicted, being crowned by Christ, God the Father touches His Son’s shoulder with his left hand instead of being portrayed as an omnipotent being on top of the composition. This painting is framed by images of the four evangelists sitting, kneeling or reclining, accompanied by their traditional symbols (eagle, ox, lion and angel), like St. Mark (see picture below). They are all accompanied by an open book as a reference to their role as writers of the gospels. As they are over life-size dimensions, they seem to burst out of the pictorial fields of the sacristy’s ceiling.

Coronation of the Virgin, oil on canvas, by Paolo Veronese, 1555, 200 x 170 cm (Chiesa di San Sebastiano, Venice).
St. Mark, oil on canvas, by Paolo Veronese, 1555, 85 x 200 cm (Chiesa di San Sebastiano, Venice).

For the Marcian Library, Veronese also contributed with some canvases in the ceiling and walls. The allegory of Music is one of the tondos, out of 21, that decorate the ceiling of the great room of the Marcian Library. The decorative program of the ceiling in this room reflected the function of the building, thus the paintings illustrate allegories of education, the arts and the sciences. Sansovino and Titian gave Veronese a golden chain as an award for this painting as both considered it the best of the series.

Music. oil on canvas, by Paolo Veronese, 1556-1557, 230 cm diam. (Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, Venice).

These ceiling paintings finished cementing Veronese’s reputation as a master painter among his Venetian contemporaries, and reflected his talents at depicting foreshortening and heroic figures.

In the late 1550’s, while working for the commission at San Sebastiano, Veronese was hired to decorate the Villa Barbaro in Maser. The program for these frescoes was to unite humanistic culture with Christian spirituality. In these fresco paintings, Veronese included portraits of members of the Barbaro family, ceilings opening to the sky and populated with mythological figures and complex trompe-l’oeil that were greatly admired. For the ceiling fresco of the Sala dell’Olimpo, in Villa Barbaro, Veronese depicted the seven gods of the sky (Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, Apollo, Venus, Mercury and Diana) gathered around the figure of a woman riding a headless snake, who has been interpreted as an allegory of divine wisdom. This composition, together with the eight muses he painted in the transept illustrate the real theme of the dome fresco, the harmony of the spheres. The adjacent pictorial fields in the corners of the octagon illustrate the elements of fire, earth, water and air, represented by figures of the gods Vulcan, Cybele, Neptune and Juno. Between them there are four allegories painted in grisaille and inscribed in cartouches.

Ceiling decoration of the Sala dell’Olimpo, fresco, by Paolo Veronese, 1560-1561 (Villa Barbaro, Maser, Veneto, Italy).

On the ceiling of the Stanza dell’Amore Coniugale (“Room of Conjugal Love”) Veronese painted a scene with Hymen (in a green robe to the left) between Juno and Venus with a betrothed couple (he dressed in orange and she kneeling besides him). Flanking this central scene are trompe-l’oeils with dome pergolas covered with grape vines that open to the skies.

Ceiling decoration of the Stanza dell’Amore Coniugale, fresco, by Paolo Veronese, 1560-1561 (Villa Barbaro, Maser, Veneto, Italy).

In the Sala a Crociera (the “cruciform” room) the trompe-l’oeil effect is more accentuated. Painted Corinthian columns and “arcades”, probably executed by Veronese’s brother and assistant Benedetto Caliari, form a light architectural framework for the extraordinarily illusory landscapes populated with small figures and classical buildings that appear to be seen beyond the, also illusory, painted balustrades. The continuous plaster cornice provides an upper edge for the composition and a three-dimensional wall articulation. To the right, a pair of muses flank the illusory doors in the “transept” vestibules through which imaginary visitors appear to enter the room. The final elements of the decoration are the grisaille equestrian scenes painted on roundels below the muses, which are in the style of cameos.

Wall decorations of the Sala a Crociera, fresco and plaster, by Paolo Veronese, 1560-1561 (Villa Barbaro, Maser, Veneto, Italy).

As in other rooms in Villa Barbaro, Veronese painted the end wall of the Stanze del Cane (“Room of the Dog”) with beautifully composed illusionistic landscapes. In this particular wall above the landscape, in the lunette, there’s a depiction of the Holy Family with St. Catherine and the Infant St. John. The view of the landscape showing a view of a harbor, opens through a painted marble window flanked by Ionic style columns in turn flanked by marble statues representing two allegorical figures. The room received its name thanks to the presence of a very realistic small dog sitting just in front of the painted marbles of the lower frame of this illusory window.

Decoration of the end wall of the Stanza del Cane, fresco, by Paolo Veronese, 1560-1561 (Villa Barbaro, Maser, Veneto, Italy).

At either end of the wings of Villa Barbaro, through the vanishing illusionistic perspective of the rooms that open off the sides of the Sala dell’Olimpo, Veronese depicted a gentlewoman with a fan looking out from a painted door, and opposite her a gentleman who has just returned from hunting, accompanied by his dog. Like the painted figures picking out the illusory doors in the transepts of the Sala a Crociera (see picture above), this figure of the nobleman returning from the hunt represents contemporary people. According to some, this can be a self-portrait of Veronese.

Nobleman in Hunting Attire, fresco, by Paolo Veronese, 1560-1561 (Villa Barbaro, Maser, Veneto, Italy).

Veronese focused on the decoration of more or less sacred or official rooms (such as chapter houses, refectories, government buildings and large ceilings) painting scenes with biblical subjects that gave him the opportunity to introduce his types of Venetian women. Most of these works remain in situ, or at least in Venice. Good examples of these are The Finding of Moses, from the Prado Museum, and Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus from the Church of San Sebastiano in Venice. The first is a painting with bright, greenish shades, like those of the morning sky; in the second, on the other hand, reds and yellows predominate, warm as a summer afternoon. In the Prado painting, the scene is set in a river bank in a highly atmospheric landscape. Child Moses is presented to the Pharaoh’s daughter, who was depicted as a young Venetian girl from whose blond hair little gold threads fall. Her iridescent clothes seem to smell of oriental scents. The bridge and city in the background are reminiscent of Verona. The delicately nuanced interplay of light and shade, achieved by Veronese with a fine brush, produce the glowing effect of brilliant jewels. This small canvas is one of at least eight versions of the subject painted by Veronese and his studio.

The Finding of Moses, oil on canvas, by Veronese, ca. 1560-1575, 50 x 30 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid).

In the ceiling canvas for the nave of the Church of San Sebastiano, Esther bows before Ahasuerus surrounded by the ladies of her entourage; a group with beautiful blonde Venetian women, luxury dressed and jeweled. The representation of Venetian women in the works of Veronese represent a true ethnographic report. With his paintings he defined the Venetian woman of the mid-sixteenth century: a human type produced by the infusion of oriental blood in the patrician lines of the city’s inhabitants. In Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus, the strict diagonal composition depicts a wealth of narrative detail, and like the other ceiling paintings in the church, develops a di sotto in su angle of vision, with foreshortened perspectives that pervade the space.

Esther Crowned by Ahasuerus, oil on canvas, by Veronese, 1556, 450 x 370 cm (Chiesa di San Sebastiano, Venice).

The magnificent decorations by Veronese are often full of balustrades and colonnades painted in regular perspectives, balconies and galleries, through which a whole town of spectators appears to witness the main scene represented in the center, all full of glittering pageantry.

Veronese was the artist of the great apotheosis and a supreme colorist. For him everything became the subject of a great theatrical performance, where the main figures are almost drowned by the crowd of secondary and accompanied characters. In the large paintings he executed for refectories, a key feature of Veronese’s style was to arrange the background architectures running almost parallel to the picture plane, thus accentuating the processional character of the figures in the composition. This is, for example, the case in his famous painting of The Wedding at Cana, a huge canvas commissioned by the Benedictine monks of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore and designed by the architect Andrea Palladio, which he painted in 1563 for its refectory, where it was kept until Napoleon looted it and took it to Paris. When in 1815, because of the treaty with Austria, the painting had to be returned to Venice, the curator of the then Musée Napoléon, Vivant Denon, falsely claimed that Veronese’s canvas was too fragile to travel from Paris to Venice and, to protect the integrity of the work, it was agreed that Feast at the House of Simon (1653) by Charles Le Brun was sent to Venice in exchange. Today, this sublime work by Veronese constitutes one of the main treasures of the Louvre Museum.

The contract between the Benedictine monks and the painter (dated June 6, 1562) specified both the exact size and the appropriate number of figures for the painting. Veronese was also instructed to use only the best raw materials for his paints and not to omit the use of the finest (and very expensive) ultramarine. To allow him full time to work on the painting and avoid distractions, Veronese was provided with free board, was fed on the refectory and was promised a barrel of wine on completion of the commission. The monumental painting was finished 17 months later (September 1563) in time for the celebrations of the Festa della Madonna della Salute, in November. Veronese was probably assisted by his brother Benedetto Caliari. As a Mannerist painting, The Wedding at Cana masterfully combines stylistic and pictorial elements typical from the Venetian school (priority of color) and to the compositional drawing of the High Renaissance mastered in the works of LeonardoRaphael and Michelangelo.

In The Wedding at Cana, Veronese interprets the biblical scene of the wedding at Cana (St. John 2, 1-11) when the wine ran out during the meal and Christ changed water into wine at the request of his mother Mary. The precise moment portrayed is when the guests are awaiting the dessert-course wine service which includes fruit and nuts, wine and sweet quince cheese (symbolical of marriage). Veronese set the feast in a contemporary sumptuous imaginary palace located in a brightly lit terrace in front of imaginary palatial facades. He included near 130 guests that include portraits of celebrities of the period (European monarchs, ottoman sultans and statemen, poetesses, diplomats, architects, noblewomen, Cardinals, archbishops, master jesters) all dressed in the sumptuous Occidental and Oriental fashions alla Turca popular in the Renaissance. Veronese even included a self-portrait and of his friends dressed in richly colored costumes. On the far left of the long table, the groom and bride open the gently undulating procession of beautifully portrait-like heads. Veronese’s used these numerous portraits as an excuse to portray various emotions and psychological states. The inclusion of subtle motifs, such as the servant raising a knife while carving a lamb on the raised terrace and the hourglass on the musician’s table were a way for Veronese to give symbolic meaning to the painting and relate to the words of Christ to his mother: “My hour is not yet come” (St. John 2,4). The banquet is framed with Classical Greek and Roman architecture as well as from the Renaissance. The painted architectural background features Doric and Corinthian columns surrounding a courtyard that is enclosed by a low balustrade; in the distance beyond, there is an arcaded multi-level tower, probably designed by Andrea Palladio. In the foreground, sitting around a small table, a group of musicians play contemporary Late–Renaissance stringed instruments, such as the lute, the violone, and the viola da gamba. Seated behind and above the musicians are the central figures of the painting: Virgin Mary and Jesus of Nazareth, in turn accompanied by some of the Apostles.

The painting was meant to be viewed from below-upwards as its bottom-edge was 2.50 meters from the refectory floor, behind and above the head-table seat of the abbot of the monastery, and in fact, the painting was intended to be a spatial extension of the space in which it was hanging (the refectory).

The Wedding at Cana remained influential well into the 18th century, and even into the 19th when it was studied, copied and taken as a model by generations of French, German and English artists visiting the Louvre. Vignettes from the painting inspired later artists, like the blond woman to the left, sitting at one corner of the table, who’s using an ornate fork as a toothpick. This figure alone was esteemed by painters like Rubens and Watteau.

The Wedding at Cana, oil on canvas, by Veronese, 1563, 207 x 457 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

The central group musicians in The Wedding at Cana is thought to include portraits of the four most famous contemporary Venetian painters of the time: Veronese (dressed in white tunic) appears playing the viola da braccio followed by Jacopo Bassano playing the cornetto, Tintoretto also playing the viola da braccio, and Titian (dressed in red) playing the violone. This assumption is still debatable, as surviving portraits of these painters contradict this theory. Wearing sumptuous white brocade garments and standing beside Titian is the poet Pietro Aretino who’s considering a glass of the new red wine. A more recent study links the identity of the performer seated behind Veronese (dressed in green) playing viola da gamba with Diego Ortiz, a musical theorist and then chapel master at the court of Naples.

The Wedding at Cana (detail), oil on canvas, by Veronese, 1563, 207 x 457 cm (Musée du Louvre, Paris).

The painting of The Wedding at Cana was followed by that of The Feast in the House of Levi (1573), originally titled The Last Supper, commissioned ten years later by the Dominican order of S.S. Giovanni e Paolo for the rear wall of the refectory of its convent at the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, today transferred to the Gallerie dell’Academia in Venice. This is also an enormous composition in which the evangelical story was so freely interpreted by the artist that, on July 18th 1573, Veronese had to appear before the Tribunal of the Inquisition in order to defend himself against charges of heresy. By the 1570s, the theology of the Counter-Reformation gave legal authority to Roman Catholic doctrine in Venice, and this also included art. As part of the Counter-Reformation policies and their enforcement, the Council of Trent was created between 1545 and 1563, which included very strict rules regarding to what religious artworks must adhere to, and so it mandated that all artworks with a religious theme must refrain from any type of purely decorative or aesthetic additions. In the Venetian republic of the Late–Renaissance, painting crowd scenes in public spaces acquired political significance, particularly for religious-themed paintings in which who and what appeared depicted had important connotations.

The revised title of the painting refers to an episode in the Gospel according to St. Luke, chapter 5, in which Jesus is invited to a banquet by Levi. The actual subject though refers to the event when Christ announces that one of his disciples will betray him, which is suggested by the surrounding chaos during this Last Supper. Like in The Wedding at Cana, the sumptuous banquet scene is framed by monumental architectures (here the arches of a portico almost resembling triumphal arches). Against the open view of the sky and receding buildings, the figures on either side of Christ (at the center) move in a turbulence of rich colors, interactions, poses and gestures. Christ, as the dominant figure, sits under the central arch of the loggia at the center of the composition. The center of the painting is also reinforced by the two sets of stairs placed on either side of the painting: they move the viewer’s eye to travel from the opposite ends of the canvas towards the figure of Christ. Surrounding the figures of Christ and his Apostles, Veronese added multitude of characters including buffoons, drunken Germans and dwarfs.

The Feast in the House of Levi, oil on canvas, by Veronese, 1573, 555 x 1280 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

The characters that the Inquisitorial Tribunal were more concerned about where those located mostly at the extremes of the composition and on the stairs. One of them was the colorful dwarf jester with a parrot sitting at the landing of the left set of stairs. It was in the pillar to the left of the jester that Veronese decided to add an inscription to clearly link the painting to Levi and not to the Last Supper subject. 

The Feast in the House of Levi (detail), oil on canvas, by Veronese, 1573, 555 x 1280 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

The records of this inquisitorial process against Veronese, which have been kept, constitute one of the funniest documents describing artistic boldness. If the questions of the inquisitors represented the rigor of the Counter-reformation policy, the answers by Veronese showed his unfailing faith in creative imagination and artistic freedom. Veronese recognized that he replaced the figure of the Magdalene, who was to be placed in front of the table, with a dog because in that way the composition was more harmonious. To justify so many secondary characters in his painting, Veronese used as an excuse the fact that Michelangelo -who was then the most accredited artistic authority- also had included countless figures in his Final Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. But one of the judges noted with a certain disdain that between the two paintings there was no parallel, because the characters of the Last Judgment were all very necessary, while so many buffoons, musicians, moors, drunks and courtesans had nothing to do with the matters taken from the evangelical texts describing the scene as Veronese had piled up together in his painting.

Here is a significant fragment of that interrogation carried out on July 18, 1573, as recorded in the minutes of the Tribunal of the Inquisition: “The inquisitor asks: What do those German soldiers with halberds have to do with the Supper? Paolo responds: We painters take the same liberties as poets and madmen, and I have put those halberdiers to imply that the patron of the house was a rich and great man and could afford to have such servants”. This courageous answer would naturally be approved by the Venetian artists. A painter can indeed use metaphors like poets and madmen do. It is said that Titian and Sansovino, when saw Veronese in the street, hugged him affectionately. Paolo Veronese had spoken for all of them and even for the artists of the future.

The Holy Tribunal made clear to Veronese that the way his work was painted could potentially open Catholicism up to be censored by Protestants and hence the artist had to fix this mistake. At the end, Veronese was treated with indulgence by the Inquisitorial tribunal which only ordered him to re-title the painting something other than The Last Supper, and to suppress some irreverent characters within three months. That an artist, such as Veronese, had successfully been acquitted from an accusation of heresy by the fearsome and powerful institution of the Inquisition implies that he had the discreet political support of an important patrician patron of the arts.

From now on, Veronese continued painting without hesitation his extraordinary compositions, arranged in beautiful perspectives, sometimes with white architectures in the background, balustrades and hemicycles standing out against a greenish or bluish sky, as in the magnificent painting of Christ Among the Doctors in the Temple, from the Prado Museum (Madrid). This canvas illustrates the final passage of Christ´s childhood as told in Luke 2: 41-50, when, at the age of 12, he was taken to Jerusalem by his parents to celebrate Passover. Mary and Joseph realized they’ve lost their son, to later find him inside the Temple, arguing with the doctors of the church. Veronese emphasized the theological superiority of Christ (even though he is still a child) by placing him towards the top of the composition, elevated over everybody else. The church doctors, richly dressed as only Veronese could have painted them, look on attentively as the boy stresses his arguments with the gestures of his hands. Among the audience, the figure of the bearded old man is outstanding, and has been identified with the person who made the commission. He wears the habit of a Knight of the Holy Sepulcher and holds a pilgrim´s staff, which has led art scholars to imply that he probably commissioned this painting to commemorate a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In the foreground , the character seated with his back on us carries a book with the number MCXLVIII (1548), which has generated some argument concerning the painting´s date. The architectural background depicted by Veronese seems to be derived from engravings published by Vitruvius in 1556.

Christ among the Doctors in the Temple, oil on canvas, by Veronese, ca. 1560, 236 x 430 cm (Museo del Prado, Madrid).

Posterity has excused Veronese for his irreverence; it is maybe because this artist, full of optimism, wasn’t a selfish epicurean, but the representative of the human feeling and spirit that was characteristic of 16th century Venice. For Veronese, the question lied on light and forms composed for the greatest enjoyment of the senses; but this aesthetic enjoyment is not individual and reasoned, like it was for Titian, but rather that of a whole multitude that gathers under wide porticoes to admire the brocades and silks wore by women or to breathe a crisp air, softened by musical harmonies. The few mythological paintings that Veronese executed seem pretexts to depict the full and healthy naked bodies of the Venetian women of the 16th century.

In his interpretation of the subject of The Family of Darius Before Alexander (1565-1570), which Veronese painted for a palace owned by the Pisani family, the characters are depicted wearing a mixture of contemporary dresses and fancy costumes. The painting’s theme illustrates the magnanimity of Alexander the Great. Having defeated the Persian King Darius III at Issus, Alexander spared his foe’s mother, wife and children. The following morning Alexander went to visit them with Hephaestion, his dearest friend and general. When they entered the royal pavilion the Queen Mother, Sisygambis, prostrated in front of Hephaestion mistaking him for Alexander. According to the ancient account, Alexander magnanimously put the queen at ease by saying: “He too is an Alexander”. This large painting must have been designed to be hanged above head height, as Veronese composed the figures in three groups at the very edge of the picture, on a terrace in front of a thinly painted open colonnade. It is believed by art historians that Alexander is the young man in red, who gestures as if trying to speak, while Hephaestion stands at his left, although other scholars believe the opposite. Veronese set the scene in a palatial hall instead of a tent. Some of the characters in the painting are probably portraits of Veronese’s contemporaries as it was customary to include in this type of paintings. In this regard, some believe that the kneeling girls are Veronese’s daughters, and the courtier who presents them is Veronese’s self-portrait. Another interpretation alludes that the man standing behind Alexander is a self-portrait, while some other opinions have him as a portrait of the patron, Francesco Pisani. Behind the main figures are diverse characters as pages, halberdiers, dwarfs, dogs and monkeys, while in the background stands an imposing architectural screen: an arched promenade that runs parallel to the picture plane and supports more spectators. These are pictorial features typical of Veronese that we’ve seen in other of his works. 

The Family of Darius before Alexander, oil on canvas, by Veronese, 1565-1570, 236 x 475 cm (National Gallery, London).
Perseus freeing Andromeda, oil on canvas, by Veronese, 1576-1578, 260 x 211 cm (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rennes, France).

Veronese died in Venice on April 19, 1588 after contracting a pulmonary infection while attending a religious procession near his country house at Sant’Angelo. He was buried in the church he decorated during the 1550’s, San Sebastiano

A spirit like that of Veronese can only be conceived in Venice, and only in Venice can one predict the existence of two artists such as Titian and Veronese so much that today it’s impossible to imagine Venice without their paintings. They help to perpetuate for posterity the Venetian soul, much more than the brilliant light of its iridescent atmosphere or the architectures of the Grand Canal or even the color wonder of Saint Mark’s Basilica. Today’s Venice, loved by everyone who visits it, is the Venice of its painters, and Veronese contributed enormously to it.

One thought on “THE VENETIAN PAINTING SCHOOL IV. Veronese 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s