PRINT January 2014


Paolo Veronese

Paolo Veronese, The Family of Darius before Alexander, 1565–67, oil on canvas, 7' 7 3/4“ x 15' 7”.

IN 1855, the Swiss cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt published one of art history’s foundational texts, Der Cicerone: Eine Anleitung zum Genuss der Kunstwerke Italiens (Cicerone: Introduction to the Enjoyment of the Art Works of Italy). The book turned the emerging field away from an understanding of art as a passive reflection of religious and political conditions, toward a view of a liberated pursuit of aesthetic goals. Burckhardt, focusing on the Italian Renaissance, chose as one of his exemplars an artist largely overlooked today: the Venetian painter Paolo Veronese. Burckhardt hailed Veronese’s paintings as the highest expression of what he called Existenzmalerei—representations of pure existence, free from abstract theological concerns. Indeed, even Veronese’s religious scenes were only a pretext to “celebrate a beautiful and free human race in full enjoyment of its existence.”

The scholar derived this appraisal primarily from the large and colorful banquet scenes that remain the artist’s most popular works. In these, Veronese teleports Christ and the apostles into sixteenth-century Venice, where they lead a gallant and boisterous lifestyle. Such bewildering depictions were highly controversial during the moralizing and didactic Counter-Reformation. Indeed, for the potentially heretical content of the work that now hangs in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, Veronese was summoned to the Inquisition. But, remarkably, at the 1573 trial—the only one of a major Italian Renaissance artist—no one, including the artist himself, could decide what the painting actually represented. Hypotheses ranged from a Last Supper to a Meal in the House of Simon. The final compromise, Feast in the House of Levi, flatly contradicted the painting’s iconography. In the end, it seemed that Veronese had not even bothered to depict a specific biblical scene. The artist matched this nonchalant attitude, ultimately accepted by the Inquisition, with a pioneering pledge for the freedom of the visual arts: “We painters take the same license the poets and the jesters take.”

While exciting Burckhardt, Veronese’s seemingly lighthearted Existenzmalerei left twentieth-century audiences cold, the latter preferring the passionate dramas of the artist’s Venetian contemporaries Titian and Tintoretto. Yet neither Burckhardt’s embrace nor this more recent dismissal accurately reflects the full range and depth of Veronese’s work, and two upcoming exhibitions this spring and summer suggest that the time is ripe for a reassessment of his oeuvre. The title of “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice,” at the National Gallery in London, indicates that the museum will take Burckhardt’s view of Veronese as a brilliant decorator. “Paolo Veronese,”at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Veronese’s hometown of Verona, however, will be structured around the themes that have been the focus of recent Veronese scholarship, including the painter’s development in that city, his depiction of architecture, his religious works, and the organization of his workshop, promising to present a truly up-to-date view of his work.

Such framing facilitates a more complex understanding of the artist’s work. When the twenty-five-year-old Veronese arrived in Venice in 1553 (where he would stay until his death, in 1588), he was already a fully developed artist. The local patrons, especially those seeking alternatives to Titian and Tintoretto, welcomed him with open arms. Veronese soon frequented the highest social and intellectual circles, collaborating with the architect and theoretician Andrea Palladio and befriending the patrician and Vitruvius scholar Daniele Barbaro. Their discussions must have sensitized Veronese to the far-reaching implications of his depiction of classicized buildings: In Venice, architecture was heavily politicized, reflecting the city’s conflicted identity. Those favoring a pro-papal governmental policy argued for an architecture based on classical antiquity; advocates of independence from Rome preferred a more traditional Venetian style. The Verona exhibition in particular offers the potential to reconsider Veronese’s contribution to this crucial political debate, challenging Burckhardt’s ahistorical, aestheticizing view of his work.

Indeed, Veronese’s late works turn dark, with subdued colors and focused compositions that include truly gruesome depictions of the crucifixion. Veronese might have been responding to a change of mood in 1570s Venice, which suffered from a devastating combination of wars, famines, natural disasters, and plague. But even in this stage of his career, the artist freely switched back to his old festive style, seeming to choose his mode in correspondence to the subject matter and the preferences of his patrons. This coexistence of disparate manners questions traditional notions of linear artistic development, suggesting that in Veronese’s work, style is a vehicle of meaning.

Veronese’s varied approach also provides an opportunity to reconsider the structure of the Renaissance workshop, another of the Palazzo della Gran Guardia’s organizing themes. The artist is known to have produced one thousand and eleven pictures in roughly forty years, a breathtaking pace even compared to the famously prolific Tintoretto. Yet while the latter’s output seems to have occasionally suffered due to this breakneck speed, Veronese’s works are consistently refined and meticulously executed. He appears to have been a brilliant manager, developing a stable of figures and motifs that he and his assistants reused in various compositions. We might even compare Veronese’s premodern studio to the postmodern, postindustrial production of contemporary artists such as Jeff Koons—practices that run contrary to the astonishingly persistent obsession of both art history and the market with individual authorship. These new exhibitions will be significant indeed if they demonstrate that Veronese’s contemporaneity lies precisely in the fact that modern concepts of originality and authenticity do not apply to his work.

Based in New York and Berlin, Benjamin Paul is a critic and an Associate Professor of Renaissance art history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.