Paolo Bazaro was born in Verona, not Venice (as is often supposed). We know him as Veronese.
Veronese came from a family of stonecutters, and his earliest days were to help shape his aptitude for the arts. The young artist was taught how to model in terracotta, and by the age of 13, Veronese was described as a painter and as a pupil of a local now barely known artist called Antonio Badile IV. Vasari tells us that Veronese was an apprentice to Giovanni Battista Caroto at age 16, before he finally appears in Venice at the age of 25, in 1553.
Whilst in Venice, Paolo Bazari became Paolo Caliari (a name which indicated status) and also, Paolo Veronese. He already had a number of commissions from Venetian patrons, and soon began to gather a reputation for startling brilliance. Summoning his brother to assist in his workshop, and training his two elder sons, Veronese was soon competing with the elder and greater Titian and Tintoretto. However, his skill was remarkable, and his temperament clearly one which did not shy away from greatness.
Even at the age of 20, Veronese’s The Conversion of Mary Magdalene (c1548, National Gallery) confirms his breadth of vision, and technical ability. The exhibition at the National Gallery, London opens with this work. Displaying ten of their own pictures, and others from elsewhere, the exhibition is a glorious exciting show of colour and figurative skill. Many of the works in this gallery are full of utter daylight, pure, bright, fresh colours. A grandiose quality of theatrical size, theme, and scale.
The exhibition aims seem in keeping with many these days: fewer words to read, quicker and larger footfall. The booklet that comes with the exhibition provides detail of not only the paintings you stand before, but ones which may help elucidate your knowledge or reference point when walking through. However, I really dislike this view. It is all rather pretentious. I want to learn, and not just by looking. How many of us, without years of attendance at the Courtauld or elsewhere, will know which figures are which? How many of us will easily navigate through the stories, or grasp the context of production? How many of us will remember the paintings viewed six months down the line? How many read the booklet whilst walking around?
The curatorial fascination with visitors and their reception of art is an ever evolving conversation. Is it more or less of an experience to have iPad’s in the room? Should there be any tombstone information? Should visitors be given huge swathes of text, or perhaps a film? I am sure dear Mr Sewell would shudder at the thought of iPad’s being installed but why not? I don’t use them, I have no intention of using them. If I forget something or think of something to follow up, I do sometimes use my phone have a quick google to find out or email myself as a reminder. And why not? I never tend to write the booklets, but I always read the boards at the start of each room (assuming they are present!) I’m an adult, allegedly one en route to being an Art Historian, so I feel I speak from a position of some authority. However, my eight year old son wouldn’t bemoan the introduction of an iPad. He would probably learn much more about the art from engaging in a way that appealed to him (perhaps Veronese done in the style of Minecraft……………)
This, as a relatively sensible parent, winds me up no end. LOOK I tell him. LOOK. But I’m wasting my time. However, he is learning about art by merely being in its presence, and next week when his class is talking about Picasso, I know he will be more than able to tell them all about Guernica not least because he’s seen it, because he’s also looked it up on Google, and because we have it as a kind of Rubik’s cube puzzle. So this new sort of blank experience of an art exhibition is not one which greatly appeals to me. It doesn’t focus my mind on the art, not in a way that is memorable, and it doesn’t help appeal across different age ranges, nor crossed the many varied levels of expertise found within the average London art gallery tourist.
If my son is in attendance at such exhibitions, I negotiate these shortfalls by making him spot certain characteristic motifs. In Veronese’s case, we count the many dogs (which Ruskin greatly admired), or the children who appear throughout his works.
To quote Sewell there is ‘Much more is to be said of Veronese than is prompted by this exhibition, but there is another, following in Verona, that explores other aspects of his work — particularly drawings and the role of assistants — and the director of the National Gallery hopes “that everyone who enjoys Veronese here will also travel to the show in Italy” (how charmingly out of touch with reality some men can be).’ Obviously, as a single mum, my bag is packed and ready to go. I despair of the pomposity of the art world, sometimes to the point of utter rejection of it.
What keeps me as a loyal interested party is the Art. The intimate setting of this rather small exhibition allows Veronese’s colour to triumph, and works such as The Rape of Europa (which was thought to be ‘After’ Veronese until recently) show Veronese capable of both humour and great subtlety when negotiating the distasteful Ovidian tale. We see Europa half undressed, almost coerced by her handmaids she sits on top of the bulls back. Cupid stands mischievously as ever, whilst the bull licks Europa’s foot.
One significant piece, The Martyrdom of St George (1564, San Giorgio, Braida, Verona), makes up for the absence of works such as The Marriage at Cana (1562-63) which resides in the Louvre; and because of numerous pieces being too large to transport, the exhibition should not be considered as indicative of the best of Veronese. The Martyrdom of St George is a textual, colourful, curvaceous, horizontal and vertical achievement. Our eyes manoeuvre all over the work, and our pleasure is heightened as each character communicates a drama.
Some of my favourite Veronese’s appear, such as the one generally on display in the National Gallery, The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565 – 1567). Veronese shows a humour in his depiction here, toying with us the viewer, as we try and establish which is Alexander, and which is Hephasteion. Other exemplar pieces can be seen in the several altar pieces included, e.g. The Virgin and Child with Angels Appearing to Saints Anthony Abbot and Paul, the Hermit (1562) which is on loan from the Chrysler Collection in the States. The National Gallery is keen to remind us that some of these pieces have not been next to each other since their creation nearly five hundred years ago. It is worth remembering how old these pieces are, particularly when one is considering the quality of their vivacious sunlit colour.
Another positive to the exhibition can be found in ignoring the curator’s desire for a fast paced footfall. Deliberately ignoring this allows one to spend in front of the works. Whilst others drift on and through (and out before they seem to realise it); if you are smart, you can hang back a little and take in the view. Popular in his day, Veronese continues to be so today, and I promise you will find enough here to give you a mind full of colour and delight when you step back into Trafalgar Square.