A sculptor’s eye: Veronese in London
As an exhibition of the artist's works opens at the National Gallery, we talk to Nicholas Penny and Xavier Salomon about the artist who trained as a stonemason
By Ben Luke. Features, Issue 255, March 2014
Published online: 18 March 2014
You might think that an exhibition of works by Veronese at the National Gallery would have at its helm the museum’s director, Nicholas Penny. Over many years, when a curator at the London institution and then at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, Penny catalogued the London museum’s Venetian paintings of the latter half of the 16th century, and admits that “Veronese is a star item in that catalogue”. But he felt he could not curate “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice” while also being the museum’s director. “I thought that I would really like one person to be totally in charge of all curatorial aspects of the exhibition, the selection especially, but also the hang of the pictures,” he says. “With a very great artist at least the choice of the pictures, which are going to make the most impact, is best left to one person. I also thought that, having given Veronese a great deal of thought myself, I didn’t have anything obviously new to say. I’m sure I will when I see it all on the wall.”
Xavier Salomon is the new chief curator at the Frick Collection in New York, after stints at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. He was the ideal choice to lead the project, which has taken six years to plan, with a significant series of shows behind him, and, importantly, a passion for the artist. “I knew he loved Veronese very much,” Penny says. “And luckily we were able to retain him through the vicissitudes of his meteoric career, as he left Dulwich and first went to the Met—the only condition on him accepting that job was that he could carry on with this exhibition.”
Almost everything in the exhibition “is a really major work by Veronese, and chosen to go through the whole of his career”, Penny says, and Veronese is on the whole “a very well preserved artist. There are a few things in Veronese’s career that haven’t survived, the most interesting of those, I would have thought by far, were the frescoes he painted for the Villa Soranzo, because they obviously sort of made his reputation.” Otherwise the show is full of stellar loans, the kind that only rarely move from museums and are even more rarely brought together. “Veronese always gets it absolutely right,” Salomon says. “It’s like a film director who is obsessed with every single detail and every scene you see is perfectly created. He’s a visual genius.”
The Art Newspaper talked to Penny and Salomon as they made the final preparations for the exhibition.
The Art Newspaper: You discuss Veronese’s family background, as stonecutters, in the catalogue: how does this affect his work?
Salomon: Paolo [Veronese] comes from several generations of stonecutters and the term stonecutter is slightly problematic, because when people refer to Veronese’s father, sometimes they refer to him as a stonemason or stonecutter, and sometimes it’s as a sculptor. So we’re not sure to what degree he carved figurative figures as opposed to just architectural capitals and decoration, balustrades and things like that. It seems that he was somewhere in between; he probably did both. And I was very intrigued that Veronese trains as a stonemason to start with and works with his father and then as a teenager, he becomes a painter and moves into a painter’s workshop, while his elder brother continues to be a stonemason.
And if you start looking at Veronese’s work with that in mind, you realise that he does think about things in a sculptural way—I don’t think his figures are particularly sculptural in themselves, it’s just the way he thinks about them being three dimensional and how they relate to one another in a composition. Some of the early biographers mentioned the fact that he made small wax or terracotta models, like a lot of other painters [such as] El Greco did; they would then use those as models for their composition. If you look at drawings by Veronese, you get the sense that he’s thinking about how these figures sit in space, and to me that is the background of a stonemason, of a sculptor.
The other thing that is really fundamental is that all the stonemasons—and presumably Veronese’s family—were working for the architects that were building these grand Classical palaces that were being built in Verona in the 1530s and 40s. So my theory is that Veronese worked as a kid on some of these big buildings—the great architectural structures that you see in his paintings were what he grew up with, what his father and his grandfather and his brothers were working on at that time.
Penny: There’s an importance we should attach to Veronese’s fresco commissions, although, except at the Villa Barbaro in Maser, they’re now mostly lost or only exist in fragments. To be a villa decorator, you have to work very closely with the architect. The fictive architecture has got to correspond with the real architecture; you’ve got to provide the ornaments that would fit in between it. There’s no room for someone who wants to do something startling to make their own name, like Tintoretto [did]. You’re part of a team and it’s a short step from his father cutting the ornaments for the keystones, and him then painting the fictive keystones and fitting fictive statues between things. He clearly is a great villa and refectory decorator, because he understood what the architects wanted and was prepared to work with them.
Xavier, you’re keen to separate Veronese from that triumvirate of Venetian painters, with Titian and Tintoretto.
Salomon: I think it’s a healthy thing to do. The idea of the triumvirate is really something that has developed in the past 100 years. Yes, we all agree that Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese are the three greatest artists in Venice in the 16th century, but in fact there were others: Bassano, Palma, and Sebastiano del Piombo early on.
But also, we need to look at what happens outside [Venice]. Titian and Tintoretto are two painters who are deeply Venetian: Tintoretto is born in Venice and lives there all of his life, Titian is born outside of Venice in the mountains and moves to Venice very early on. People compare the three of them and make this distinction that Veronese is slightly different from Titian and Tintoretto. Well, he has a totally different background: he moves to Venice in his 30s, having been trained by mainland artists and looking at people like Giulio Romano in Mantua and probably Parmigianino in Parma, and it’s just a very different situation.
The other very problematic thing is the idea of rivalry. To some degree they were in a competing market in the same city but they worked for totally different types of patron. Titian worked for the Pope, the Emperor, and the top patrons of the day. He didn’t care what Tintoretto and Veronese were doing; there was just no competition whatsoever. Tintoretto had his Scuole set-up, which Veronese didn’t really deal with, and Veronese was working for aristocrats who would not have been interested in Tintoretto’s work. The patrons did not overlap at all—it’s hard to find someone in Venice who collected Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.
Is there a clear distinction between Veronese’s late and early work, as there is in Titian?
Penny: I think Veronese’s an artist whose development is very gradual and you don’t think “phase one, phase two, phase three”. But in the last decade, there is a tendency towards darker paintings, and how they relate to each other is something we will see in the exhibition.
Salomon: In many ways, Titian is more of an exciting painter in that he’s someone who is obsessed with technique. I always get the feeling that Titian is incredibly excited by that, and keeps experimenting and changing and always revisiting what he does. Veronese, instead, is someone who gets the right recipe very early on and sticks to it. So from his very first paintings he knows exactly what he is doing and keeps doing it that way until he dies. But Titian dies in his late 80s, while Veronese dies when he’s 60. There’s always this question mark of what could have happened if Veronese had lived another 20 or 30 years, and maybe he would have changed quite drastically.
Annibale writes about Veronese, Velázquez buys his work for the Spanish court—he’s a painter’s painter, isn’t he?
Penny: Yes, that’s true, the enthusiasm of some painters for him is very well documented. You’ve mentioned some, but there’s also Delacroix and Renoir. And it’s quite difficult to find anyone who has ever said anything against him.
Salomon: Veronese to me is this perfect painter, he’s someone who is incredible in what he manages to achieve with a very simple technique. He’s an absolute genius at composition: when he thinks about a theme or even single figure portrait, he really stages it—presumably first in his head and then on the canvas—in an extraordinary way. And that, I think, is what other artists were attracted to. Up until the 19th century most painters write about Veronese as one of the key artists that they’re looking at. I’m always amazed that there are certain painters that you would never put with Veronese who write about him as one of their great idols. For example, Salvator Rosa, when it came to altarpieces and portraits, he writes constantly that his aim is to paint like Veronese—you look at the paintings and you would never think that.
Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, 19 March-15 June, National Gallery, London
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