Venetian Painting – Paolo Veronese

PAOLO VERONESE, though perhaps he is not to be placed on the very highest pinnacle of the Venetian School, must be classed among those few great painters who rose far above the level of most of his contemporaries and who brought in a special note and flavour of his own. His art is an independent art, and he borrows little from predecessors or contemporaries. His free and joyous temperament gave relief at a moment when the Venetian scheme of colour threatened to become too sombre, and when Sebastian del Piombo, Pordenone, Titian himself, and above all Tintoretto, were pushing chiaroscuro to extremes. Veronese discards the deepest bronzes and mulberries and crimsons and oranges, and finds his range among cream and rose and grey-greens. Titian concentrated his colours and intensified his lights, Tintoretto sacrifices colour to vivid play of light and dark, but Veronese avoids the dark ; the generous light plays all through his scenes. He has no wish to secure strong effects but delights in soft, faded tints ; old rose and turquoise morte. In his colour and his subjects he is a personification of the robust, proud, joy-loving Republic, in which, as M. Yriarte says, a man produced his works as a tree produces its fruit. We get very near him in those vast palaces and churches and villas, where his heroic figures expand in the azure air, against the white clouds, and yet he is one of the artists of the Renaissance about whom we know least. Here and there, in contemporary biography, we come across a mention of him and learn that he was sociable and lively, quick at taking offence, fond of his family and anxious to do his best by them. He was, too, very generous with his work—a great contrast in this respect to Titian—and contracts with convents and confraternities show that he often only stipulated for payment for bare time. Yet he was fond of personal luxury, loved rich stuffs, horses and hounds, and, says Ridolfi, ” always wore velvet breeches.”

His first masters, according to Mr. Berenson, were Badile and Brusasorci, masters of Verona, but before he was twenty, he was away working on his own account. His first patron was Cardinal Gonzaga, who brought several painters from Verona to Mantua ; but Mantua was no longer what it had been in the days of Isabela d’Este, and Paolo Caliari soon returned to his own town. Before he was twenty-three he had decorated Villa Porti, near Vicenza, in collaboration with Zelotti, a Veronese, portraying feasting gods and goddesses, framed in light architectural designs in monochrome. The two painters went on to other villas, mixing mortal and mythical figures in a happy, light-hearted medley.

Zelotti having received a commission at Vicenza, Paolo decided to seek his fortune in Venice. The Prior of the Convent of San Sebastiano, on the Zattere, was a Veronese, and Caliari wrote to him before arriving in Venice in 1555. Thanks to the good Prior, who played a considerable part in his destiny, he obtained a commission for a ” Coronation of the Virgin and four other Saints.” He first painted the sacristy, but his success was instantaneous, and many orders followed. The ceiling of the church was devoted to the history of Esther. The whole of these paintings are marvellously well preserved, and, inset in the carved and gilt framework, make a coup d’ail of surprising beauty. They had an immense effect. Every one was able to appreciate these joyous pictures of Venice, the loveliness of her skies, the pomp of her ceremonies, the rich Eastern stuffs and the glorious architecture of her palaces. It was an auspicious moment for a painter of Veronese’s temper ; the so-called Republic, now, more than ever, an oligarchy, was at the height of its for-tunes, redecorating was going forward everywhere, the merchant-nobility was rich and spending magnificently, the Eastern trade was flourishing, Venice was in all her glory. The patrons Caliari came to work for, preferred the ceremonial to the imaginative treatment of sacred themes, and he does not choose the tragedies of the Bible for illustration. He paints the history of Esther, with its royal audiences, banquets, and marriage-feasts. His Christs and Maries and Martyrs are composed, courtly personages, who maintain a dignified calm under misfortune, and have very little violent feeling to show.

At the time of his arrival in Venice, Palma Vecchio was just dead, Tintoretto was absorbed by the Scuola di San Rocco, Paris Bordone was with Francis I. As rivals, Caliari had Salviati, Bonifazio, Schiavone, and Zelotti, all rendering homage to Titian who was eighty years old, but still in full vigour. Titian’s opinions in matters of art were dictates, his judgment was a law. He immediately recognised Veronese’s genius, which was of a kind to appeal to him, and together with Sansovino, who at this time was Director of Buildings to the Signoria, he received the young painter with an approval which ensured him a good start. Five years after Veronese’s arrival he was retained to decorate the Villa Barbaro at Maser, which is a type of those patrician country-houses to which the Venetians were becoming more attached every year. Daniele Barbaro, Patriarch of Aquileia, whose magnificent portrait by Veronese is in the Pitti, was himself an artist and designed the ceiling of the Hall of the Council of Ten. Palladio, Alessandro Vittoria, and Veronese were associated to build him a dwelling worthy of a Prince of the Church. In style the villa is a total contrast to the gorgeous Venetian palaces ; it is sober and simple, and well adapted to leisure and retirement. Its white stucco walls and decorations are devoid of gilding and colour, and the rooms adorned by Veronese’s brush show him in quite a new light. His visit to Rome did not take place till four years later, but he has been influenced here by the feeling for the antique, and he thinks much of line and style. He leaves on one side the gorgeous brocades and gleaming satins, in which he usually delights, and his nymphs are only clothed in their own beauty. And here Veronese shows his admirable taste and discretion ; his patrons, the Barbaro family, are his friends, men and women of the world, who put no restraint on his fancy, and are not prone to censure, and Veronese, with the bridle on his neck, so to speak, uses his opportunities fully, yet never exceeds the limits of good taste. He is not gross and sensual like Rubens, but proud, grave and sweet, seductive, but never suggestive or vulgar. After having placed single figures wherever he can find a nook, he assembles all the gods of Olympia at a supper in the cupola. Immortality is a beautiful young woman seated on a cloud. Mercury gazes at her, caduceus in hand ; Diana caresses her great hound; Saturn, an old man, rests his head on his hand; Mars, Apollo, Venus, and a little cupid are scattered in the Empyrean, and Jupiter presides over the party. Below, a balcony rail runs round the cupola, and looking over it, an old lady, dressed in the latest fashion, points out the company to a beautiful young one and to a young man in a doublet who holds a hound in a leash. They are evidently family portraits, taken from those who looked on at the artist, and on the other side he has introduced members of his own family who were helping him. These decorations have a gaiety, an absence of pedantry, a sound and sane sympathy with the spirit of the Renaissance which tell of a happy moment when art was at its height and in touch with its environment. From about 1563 we may begin to date his great supper pictures. The Marriage of Cana (Louvre), one of his most famous works, was painted for the refectory in Sammichele, the old part of S. Giorgio Maggiore. The treaty for it is still in existence, dated June 1562. The artist asks for a year ; the Prior is to furnish canvas and colours, the painter’s board, and a cask of wine. The further payment of 972 ducats illustrates the prices received by the greatest artists at the height of the Renaissance : £28o for work which occupied quite eight months.

Veronese must have delighted in painting this work. ‘Needless to say, it is not in the least religious. He has united in it all the most varied personages who struck his imagination. So we see a Spanish grandee, Francis I., Suleiman the Sultan, Charles V., Vittoria Colonna, and Eleanor of Austria. In the foreground, grouped round a table, are Veronese himself, playing the viol, Tintoretto accompanying him, Jacopo da Ponte seated by them, and Paolo’s brother, the architect, with his hand on his hip, tossing off a full glass ; and in the governor of the feast, opulent and gorgeously attired, we recognise Aretino. Under the marble columns of a Grimani or a Pesaro, he brings in all the illustrious actors of his own time and leaves us an odd and informing document. We can but accept the scene and admire the originality of its design and the freedom of its execution, its boldness and fancy, the way in which the varied incidents are brought into harmony, and the grace of the colonnade, peopled with spectators, standing out against the depth of distant sky.

The celebrated suppers, of which this is the first example, are dispersed in different galleries and some have disappeared, but from this time Veronese loved to paint these great displays, repeating some of them, but always introducing variety.

In i 564 he accompanied Girolamo Grimani, procurator of St. Mark’s, who was appointed ambassador to the Holy See, and for the first time saw the works of Raphael and Michelangelo and the treasures of antiquity. For a time, the sight of the antique had some effect upon his work ; in his famous ceiling in the Louvre, Jupiter destroying the Vices,” the influence of Michelangelo is apparent and its large gestures are in-spired by sculpture. Ridolfi says that Veronese brought home casts from Rome, and statues of Amazons and the Laocoon seem to have inspired the Jupiter. He did not go on long in this path ; he does not really care for the nude —it is too simple for him. He prefers that his saints and divinities should appear in the gorgeous costumes of the day, and that his Venus and Diana and the nymphs should trail in rich brocades. But few documents are left concerning his work for the Ducal Palace up to 1576 much of it was destroyed in the great fire, but the Signoria then gave him a number of fresh commissions. The most important was the immense oval of the ” Triumph of Venice,” or, as it is sometimes called, the ” Thanksgiving for Lepanto ” ; the Republic crowned by victory and surrounded by allegorical figures, Glory, Peace, Happiness, Ceres, Juno and the rest. The composition shows the utmost freedom : the fair Queen leans back, surrounded by laughing patricians, who look up from their balconies, as if they were attending a regatta on the Grand Canal. The horses of the Free Companions, the soldiers who go afar to carry out the will of the Republic, prance in a crowd of personages, each of whom represents a town or colony of her domain. Like all Veronese’s creations, this will always be pre-eminently a picture of the sixteenth century, dated by a thousand details of costume, architecture, and armour. Venice, the Venice of Lepanto and the Venier, of Titian, Aretino, and Veronese himself, makes a deep impression upon us, and the artist reflects his age with sympathetic spontaneity.

Hardly a hall of the Ducal Palace but can show a canvas of Veronese or the assistants by whom he was now surrounded. From time to time he resumed the decorations of S. Sebastiano, and his incessant production betrays no trace of fatigue or languor. The martyrdom of the saint is a triumph of the beauty cf the silhouette against a radiant sky. He goes back to Verona and paints the ” Martyrdom of St. George.” He pours light into it. The saints open a shining path, down which a flower-crowned Love flutters with the diadem and palm of victory. The whole air and expression of St. George is full of strength and that look of goodness and serenity which is the painter’s nearest approach to religious feeling. Veronese was created a Chevalier of St. Mark ; every one was asking for his services, but he was a stay-at-home by nature and fond of living with his family. Philip II. longed to get him to cover his great walls in the Escurial, but he very civilly declined all his invitations and sent Federigo Zucchero in his stead.

It was on account of the ” Feast in the House of Levi ” that in 1573 he was hauled before the tribunal of the Inquisition, and the document concerning this was only discovered a few years ago. The Signoria had never allowed any tribunal to chastise works of literature ; on the contrary, Venice, though comparatively poor herself in geniuses of the mind, was the refuge of freedom of thought, and, in fact, had made a sort of compact with Niccolas V., which allowed her to set aside or suspend the decisions of the Holy Office, from which she could not quite emancipate herself. Veronese, however, was denounced by some ” aggrieved person,” to whom his way of treating sacred subjects seemed an outrage on religion. The members of the tribunal demanded ” who the boy was with the bleeding nose ? ” and why were halberdiers admitted ? ” Veronese replied that they were the sort of servants a rich and magnificent host would have about him. He was then asked why he had introduced the buffoon with a parrot on his hand. He replied that he really thought only Christ and His Apostles were present, but that when he had a little space over, he adorned it with imaginary figures. This defence of the vast and crowded canvas did not commend itself, and he was asked if he really thought that at the Last Supper of our Saviour it was fitting to bring in dwarfs, buffoons, drunken Germans, and other absurdities. Did he not know that in Germany and other places infested with heresy, they were in the habit of turning the things of Holy Church into ridicule, with intent to teach false doctrine to the ignorant ? Paolo for his defence cited the Last Judgment, where Michelangelo had painted every figure in the nude, but the Inquisitor replied crushingly, that these were disembodied spirits, who could not be expected to wear clothing. Could Veronese uphold his picture as decent ? The painter was probably not very much alarmed. He was a person of great importance in Venice, and the proceedings of the Inquisition were always jealously watched by members of the Senate, who would not have permitted any unfair interference with the liberties of those under the protection of the State. The real offence was the introduction of the German soldiers, who were peculiarly obnoxious to the Venetians ; but Veronese did not care what the subject was as long as it gave him an excuse for a great spectacle. Brought to bay, he gave the true answer : ” My Lords, I have not considered all this. I was far from wishing to picture any-thing disorderly. I painted the picture as it -seemed best to me and as my intellect could conceive of it.” It meant that Veronese painted in the way that he considered most artistic, with-out even remembering questions of religion, and in this he summed up his whole æsthetic creed. He was set at liberty on condition that he took out one or two of the most offending figures.

The ” Feast in the House of Levi ” (as he named it after the trial) is the finest of all his great scenic effects. The air circulates freely through the white architecture, we breathe more deeply as we look out into the wide blue sky, and such is the sensation of expansion, that it is hardly possible to believe we are gazing at a flat wall. Titian’s backgrounds are a blue horizon, a burning twilight. Veronese builds marble palaces, with rosy shadows, or columns blanched in the liquid light. His personages show little violent action. He places them in noble poses in which they can best show off their magnificent clothes, and he endows his patricians, his goddesses, his sacred persons, with a uniform air of majestic indolence.

After his ” trial,” Veronese proceeded more triumphantly than ever. Every prince wished to have something from his brush; the Emperor Rudolph, at Prague, showed with pride the canvases taken later by Gustavus Adolphus. The Duke of Modena, carrying on the traditions of Ferrara, added Veronese’s works to the treasures of the house of Este. The last ten years of his life were given up to visiting churches on the mainland and on the little islands round Venice, all covetous to possess something by the brilliant Veronese, whose name was in every mouth. Tor-cello, Murano, Treviso, Castelfranco, every convent and monastery loaded him with commissions, and it is significant of the spirit of the time, that in spite of the disapproval of the Holy See, his most ardent patrons, those who delighted most in his robust, uncompromising worldliness, were to be found in the religious houses. Then, when he went to rest in the summer heats in some villa on the Brenta, he left delightful souvenirs here and there. It was on such an occasion, for the Pisani, that he painted the ” Family of Darius,” which was sold to England by a member of the house in 1857. The royal captives, who are throwing themselves at the feet of the conqueror, are, with Paolo’s usual frank naïveté and disregard of anachronisms, dressed in full Venetian costume–all the chief personages are portraits of the Pisani family. The freedom and rapidity of execution, the completeness and finish, the charm of colour, the beauty of the figures (especially the princely ones of Alexander and Hephastion), and its extraordinary energy, make this one of the finest of all his works. The critic, Charles Blanc, says of it, ” It is absurd and dazzling.”

In the ” Rape of Europa,” he recurred again to one of those legends of fabled beings who have outlasted dynasties and are still fresh and living. Veronese was surrounded by men like Aretino and Bembo, well versed in mythology, and with his usual zest he makes the tale an excuse for painting lovely, blooming women, rich toilets, and a delightful landscape. The wild flowers spring, and the little Loves fly to and fro against a cloud-flecked sky of the wonderful Veronese turquoise. It is the work of a man who is a true poet of colour and for whom colour represents all the emotions of joy and pleasure.

Veronese died comparatively young, of chill and fever, and all his family survived him. He lies buried in San Sebastiano. From contemporary memoirs we know that he lived and dressed splendidly. He kept immense stores of gorgeous stuffs to paint from in his studio, and drew everything from life,—the negroes covered with jewels, the bright-eyed pages, the models who, robed in velvets, brocades and satins, became queens or courtesans or saints. The pearls which bedecked them were from his own caskets. Though we know little of his private life, his work is so alive that he seems personified in it. He is saved from what might have been a prosaic or a sordid style by the delicious, ever-changing colour in which he revels ; his silks and satins are less modelled by shadows than tinted by broken reflections, his embroidered and striped and arabesqued tissues are so harmoniously combined that the eye rests, wherever it falls, on something exquisite and subtle in tint. This is where his genius lies, ” the decoration does not add to the interest of the drama ; it replaces it” ; in short, it is the drama itself, for his types show little selection, and his ideal of female beauty is not a very sympathetic one. His personages are cold and devoid of expression, their gestures are rather meaningless, but by means of light and air and exquisite colour he gives the poetical touch which all great art demands.

On account of their size few examples of Veronese’s work are to be found in private collections, but the galleries of the different European capitals are rich in them. Numbers of paintings, too, which are by his assistants are dignified by his name, and directly after his death spurious works were freely manufactured and sold as genuine.


Dresden. Madonna with Cuccina Family ; Adoration of Magi ; Marriage of Cana.

Florence. Pitti : Portrait of Daniele Barbaro.

Uffizi : Martyrdom of S. Giustina ; Holy Family (E.). London. Consecration of S. Niccolas ; The Family of Darius before Alexander ; Adoration of the Magi.

Maser. Villa Barbaro : Frescoes.

Padua. S. Giustina : Martyrdom of S. Giustina.

Paris. Christ at Emmaus ; Marriage of Cana.

Venice. Academy : Battle of Lepanto Feast in the House of Levi ; Madonna with Saints.

Ducal Palace : Triumph of Venice ; Rape of Europa ; Venice enthroned.

S. Barnabâ : Holy Family.

S. Francesco della Vigna : Holy Family.

S. Sebastiano : Madonna and Saints ; Crucifixion ; Madonna in Glory with S. Sebastian and other Saints ; others in part ; Frescoes ; Saints and Figure of Faith ; Sibyls.

Verona. Portrait of Pasio Guadienti, 1556.

S. Giorgio : Martyrdom of S. George.

Vicenza. Monte Berico; Feast of St. Gregory, 1572. Vienna. Christ at the House of Jairus.