Veronese - Part 1

Part 1


by Fr. (Francois) Crastre.


It has been said of Veronese that he was the most absurd and the most adorable of the great painters. Paradoxical as it sounds, this judgment is perfectly true. Absurd, Veronese undoubtedly was, in his disdain of logic and common sense, in his complete indifference to historic truth and school traditions, and in his anachronistic habit of garbing antiquity in modern raiment. "I paint my pictures," he said, "without taking these matters into consideration, and I allow myself the same license which is granted to poets and to fools." And it is precisely his riotous fantasy, his nave self-confidence, his own peculiar way of understanding mythology and religion that have made him the adorable artist whose glory has been consecrated by the centuries.

Thanks to the rare power of his genius, the most audacious improbabilities vanish beneath the magic adornments with which he covers them, and it hardly occurs to one to notice his glaring historical errors or the superficialities of his pictorial conceptions in the continual delight inspired by the sense of concentrated life in his characters, the splendour of his colouring, the caressing charm of his draperies, the brilliance of his skies, and the impression of youth and of joy that radiates from his work. Veronese was neither a thinker nor an historian, nor a moralist; he was quite simply a painter, but he was a very great one. If his preference is for the joyous scenes of life, that is because life treated him indulgently from his earliest years; if he delights in giving to his pictures a sumptuous setting, in which silk, brocades and precious vases abound, it is because he acquired a taste for these things in that matchless Venice of the sixteenth century, marvellous treasury of sun-bathed, gaily bedecked palaces, wherein all the opulence of the East had been brought together. What these paintings of Veronese reproduce for us are the thick, rich carpets of Smyrna, newly unladen from Musselman _feluccas_, monkeys imported from tropic islands, greyhounds brought from Asia, and negro pages purchased on the Riva dei Schiavoni, the Quay of the Slaves, to bear the trains of the patrician beauties of Venice. But, above all, one finds in them Venice herself, Venice the Glorious, queen of the sea, Venice sated with gold and lavish of it, sowing her lagunes broadcast with palaces, and the robes of her women with diamonds. More truly than t.i.tian or Tintoretto, Veronese is the chosen painter of the Most Serene Republic. He not only decorated the ceilings of her palaces and the walls of her churches: but he took the city of his adoption as the setting for all his compositions; it is at Venice that the _Feast at the House of Simon the Pharisee_, the _Feast at the House of Levi_ take place; it is in Venetian surroundings that Jesus presides over the _Wedding Feast at Cana_.


(In the Musee du Louvre)

This biblical scene, as treated by Veronese, in no wise resembles the same subject as treated by the Primitives or by Rembrandt. The Venetian Master does not trouble himself about tradition; for him, this Feast is simply an opportunity for a beautiful picture, brilliant in colour, and embellished with rich accessories and architectural drawing.]

One can understand how the painters of the Venetian school, nurtured in the dazzling and joyous light of the sea-born city, transferred to their palette that vibrant colour with which their artist eyes were filled; nor is it surprising that Veronese, pa.s.sionately enamoured of Venice, achieved, through his wish to glorify her, that magnificence of colour and of expression which remains his distinctive mark.


Nevertheless, Veronese was not a native of Venice but of Verona, as is indicated by the surname that was bestowed upon him during his life and that has adhered to him ever since. His rightful name was Paolo Caliari. He was born at Verona in 1528 and not in 1530, as is a.s.serted by several of his biographers, notably by Carlo Ridolfi. The correct date is now verified by the discovery, in San Samuele of Venice, Veronese's parish church, of the register of deaths wherein the decease of the great painter is entered as having occurred the 19th of April, 1588, the very day when he completed his sixtieth year.

Paolo Caliari belonged to a family of artists. His father, Gabriele Caliari, was a sculptor and enjoyed some little reputation in his own city. Veronese's uncle, Antonio Badile, was a painter, and in such pictures as are known to be his we find evidence not only of a good deal of ability, but of a certain facile grace that justifies the high esteem in which his compatriots held him.

Veronese's father, being of a logical turn of mind, wished, since he himself was a sculptor, to make a sculptor of his son. Veronese learned to model statuettes in clay, and, aided by his precocious intelligence, he acquired a real dexterity in this art, quite remarkable in one so young.

But this was not his vocation. Frequent visits to the studio of his uncle Badile had awakened in him an enthusiasm for painting. He applied himself to learn to paint with so much zeal and imagination that his father made no attempt to check his inclination, but entrusted him to Badile. The latter was Veronese's real teacher, though not the only one, for young "Paolino" also attended the studio of another Veronese painter, Giovanni Carotto.

From the outset, Veronese applied himself energetically to perfecting his skill in line drawing. The future genial painter of wondrous fantasy yielded himself without a murmur to the rude but salutary exigencies of technique. Strange caprice on the part of an artist who was destined to show so much dexterity in execution and lavishness in decoration, his tastes turned towards the most severe and least imaginative of masters, Albert Durer and Lucas Van Leyden. It was through copying the engravings of these ill.u.s.trious masters that he learned how to draw. Such lessons always bear their fruit. In this laborious apprenticeship, Veronese acquired that steadiness of hand, that firmness of line that was later to be noted even in his most exuberant paintings, despite the enormous quant.i.ty of canvases that he produced in the course of his life.

Even his earliest attempts reveal his abundant and facile genius; and these first, and one might almost say immature, works already foreshadow the great artist. The affectionate patronage of his uncle Badile greatly facilitated his debut. At an age when young folk have not usually begun to form dreams of the future, young Caliari had already forced himself upon the attention of Verona, and the Chapter of the Church of San Bernardino commissioned him to paint a Madonna.

He acquitted himself well of this task. The work proved satisfactory, other orders followed, and the name of the young artist swiftly spread beyond the confines of his native city. A short time later, the cardinal Ercole di Gonzaga decided to decorate the cathedral at Mantua, recently rebuilt by Giulio Romano. He sent a summons to Caliari, as well as to three other Veronese painters who enjoyed a big reputation: Battista del Moro, Paolo Farinato degli Uberti, and Brusasorci, who was regarded as the t.i.tian of Verona. The cardinal inst.i.tuted a sort of rivalry between these four artists, and gave them orders for four pictures, destined to be compet.i.tive. The subject entrusted to Paolo Caliari was a representation of the _Temptations of St. Anthony_. The young painter applied himself resolutely to the task. Far from intimidating him, the redoubtable compet.i.tion of his three elders served only to excite his ardour and stimulate his imagination. He painted the saintly anchorite defending himself against the blows which the Devil is dealing him with a stick and repulsing the advances of a woman who has been raised up from h.e.l.l itself to tempt him. The cardinal, delighted with this picture, gave preference to Veronese over his three compet.i.tors.

Veronese lost no time in returning to Verona, but, however flattering the esteem with which his compatriots surrounded him might be, he was not long in finding that the limited scope afforded by his native city was too narrow for his activity. He had a boyhood friend, Battista Zelotti, a painter like himself, and also like himself tormented by dreams of glory. Together they quitted Verona and betook themselves to Tiene, in the duchy of Vicenza. Here they had the good luck to meet a man of discrimination, in the person of the paymaster-general Portesco, who entrusted them with the decoration of his palace. The two friends apportioned the work between them; while Zelotti, who had studied at Venice under t.i.tian, undertook the fresco painting, Veronese decorated the intervening panels in _grisaille_, or gray monochrome. The result of this friendly collaboration was a complete series of paintings, of great diversity: hunting scenes, banquets, dances and numerous subjects borrowed from mythology or from history, the _Loves of Venus and Vulcan_, the _Heroism of Mucius Scaevola_, the _Festival of Cleopatra_, and a remarkable _Sophonisba_. This work in common was not without profit to Veronese. Zelotti's manner closely resembled his own; they both show the same qualities of colouring and composition, and the same broad and facile touch.

They collaborated once again on fresco work in the home of a certain Eni, in the village of Fanzolo, in the neighbourhood of Trevise. After this they separated, Zelotti going to Vicenza, whither he had been summoned, while Caliari betook himself to Venice, the Promised Land towards which he was impelled by his ardent desire for glory.

When he arrived in the Most Serene Republic, Caliari was not yet twenty-five years old. We have no reliable doc.u.ment regarding these first years of his residence there, nor even of the impressions produced upon him by the opulent and magnificent city. But these impressions are easy to conceive. To anyone so sensitive as he to externals, Venice must have seemed enchanted ground. How could he have failed to be dazzled, in acquainting himself with that gorgeous city, enthroned upon the Adriatic, like a pearl in a casket of velvet? With what joyous eagerness his colour-enraptured eye must have rested upon those white marble palaces, moulded and filagreed in arabesque, those churches paved with precious mosaics, those quays swarming ceaselessly with a picturesque and motley crowd of Armenians, Greeks and Moors, spreading the sun-bathed pavements with a glittering display of spangled ornaments, turquoise-inlaid cutlery, and multicoloured fabrics.

[Ill.u.s.tration: PLATE III.--THE HOLY FAMILY

(In the Musee du Louvre)

In this work, one of the most beautiful in the Salon Carre, Veronese has grouped his figures in a charming manner. Following his customary formula, he has clothed them in the Venetian style, but the faces of the Virgin and the Child are remarkable for their tenderness. It is a matter of regret that time has faded the colours of this magnificent painting.]

If the models that pa.s.sed in endless procession before his eyes impressed him as magnificent opportunities, the sight of what other painters had already wrought from this material aroused his artist soul to keen enthusiasm. The whole constellation of the great Venetians had converted the city of the Doges into an incomparable museum: Giorgione, with his melancholy compositions, full of vague dreams; Carpaccio, with his nave and picturesque reproductions of Venetian life. Among the living, Sansovino, simultaneously architect and artist, who built marvellous palaces and adorned them with graceful frescoes; Tintoretto, sombre genius whose creative power largely redeemed the somewhat obscure tints of his palette; and above them all, t.i.tian, the great t.i.tian, who at that time was already eighty years of age, yet still manipulated his brush with the firm hand of youth.

All these masters Veronese admired indiscriminately, as was fitting in a young painter who had never known other models than those of his own small city. He ran the danger of acquiring mannerisms and becoming an imitator. By a special grace accorded to genius alone, Veronese succeeded in remaining himself and borrowing nothing either from his predecessors or his contemporaries. From his contemplation of the works of the others he gained only a n.o.bler pa.s.sion for his art; and he altered nothing in the personal vision which he already formed of men and of things.

Vigorous, blessed with good health, jovial by nature, and much enamoured of the bright and sparkling side of life, Veronese fashioned his paintings in the image of his own temperament. His work was always an exaltation of the joy of living, an apology for those agreeable externals that render existence pleasant and easy; fine dwellings, flowers, copious repasts, women luxuriously apparelled, precious fabrics, horses and dogs of fine breed. If he wished to paint a _Last Supper_, it mattered little to him that legend and history agree regarding the simplicity and the humble station of Jesus and his disciples: History and tradition did not count with him. A repast, whatever it would be, he could not conceive of, unless around a sumptuous table, covered with costly vessels, served by attendants in picturesque costumes and enlivened by the antics of buffoons or the harmonies of music. It was thus that he painted Christ, it was after this original conception that he worked out his immortal compositions.

Accordingly no one could justly appraise Veronese, without first setting aside, as he did, all those historic data which he voluntarily ignored.


There are few painters of whose private life so little is known as of that of Veronese. The contemporary doc.u.ments have disappeared and scarcely anything more remains than a few of his letters; and even those are silent as to his day-by-day existence. All that it is possible to know--and to this his paintings abundantly bear witness--is that he was possessed of an agreeable humour, and a pleasing personality;--worthy gentleman, somewhat quick of temper and permitting no slight to be put upon his dignity, still less upon his honour. He was neither a sycophant nor a courtier, accepting commissions but never soliciting them. His "disinterestedness,"

writes Charles Yriarte, "has remained celebrated; during one entire period of his life, the greater part of the contracts which he signed with communities and with convents stipulate barely the value of his time as a remuneration for his work. This was before the time when painters were expected to furnish their colours and their canvases, but demanded only the price of their toil. Later on, having become, if not rich--that he never was,--at least celebrated and independent, he acquired a taste for personal luxury; he delighted in brilliant fabrics and wore them with ostentation; he loved horses, dogs, and hunting; he frequented high society, and brought to it that Italian open-heartedness which makes the company of the ill.u.s.trious a relaxation and a pleasure rather than an embarra.s.sment or an effort.

He won valuable friendships and was able to retain them until his death."

Of these friendships, the most efficacious was that of the Prior of the convent of San Sebastiano, Bernardo Torlioni, a Veronese by birth, to whom he had brought letters of introduction. No sooner had young Caliari arrived in Venice at the beginning of 1555, than he presented himself to his venerable compatriot, who promptly took a fancy to him, and bestirred himself to serve him. Thanks to Torlioni, Paolo obtained an order for five pictures, including one large composition, the _Coronation of the Virgin_ and four dependent panels. These paintings were destined to adorn the sacristy of the church of San Sebastiano, of which Bernardo Torlioni was prior. When the work was done, the Chapter expressed itself as so well pleased that it entrusted him with the decoration of the church itself, including the ceiling. It was here that Veronese painted his admirable series of episodes from the _History of Esther and Ahasuerus_.

The success of this series was so great that the edifice was placed unconditionally in his hands, and he was free to follow his fantasy unhampered. Following a method which was habitual with him, he enhanced the effect of the large panels painted in fresco, by means of smaller intervening scenes in chiaroscuro. Here also one finds him indulging his hobby for architectural painting, such as always occupies a large place in his pictures; all around the church he painted truncated columns, ornamented with arabesques and foliage, "with a richness and a pomp that were already an inseparable feature of his style."

In the works of Veronese, the accessories always play a highly important part; and it is not difficult to understand the reason. His main object being to delight the eye, he attributed considerable s.p.a.ce to vases, furniture, armour, fruits, flowers, graceful draperies, brilliant costumes, mettlesome horses, and more especially dogs, with which it was his special whim to embellish his paintings. The dog was his favourite animal, and even at that epoch its presence was to be noted in every picture.

When the church, completely decorated, was opened to the public, there was general rejoicing; Veronese received the unanimous vote of approval, from the populace as well as from the artists.

From that day forth, the ability of the young painter was openly acknowledged, and his fortune a.s.sured. Furthermore, he had arrived in Venice at a propitious hour. It was the moment when the Most Serene Republic, victorious over the seas and surfeited with wealth, attained the zenith of her glory. In her opulence Venice chose to employ her treasures in self-adornment; palaces arose on all sides, the Ducal Palace itself was redecorated; Sansovino was just completing the new Government offices. The wealthy brotherhoods and equally wealthy parishes were seeking out every painter of repute to decorate their churches and their convents.

Accordingly, Veronese had arrived at the crucial moment to satisfy the demands of art. His rivals were negligible: Salviati, Battista Franco, Lo Schiavone, Zelotti, Orazio Vocelli the son of t.i.tian, could none of them hold their own against him. Bordone was at the court of Francis I. Tintoretto alone, at the height of his powers, could counterbalance Veronese's glory. As to the aged t.i.tian, he was no longer producing pictures with his old-time fertility; furthermore, he had already divined the genius of Veronese and conceived a friendship for him.

And so, throughout thirty-three years, from 1555 to 1588, the masterpieces that were born beneath Veronese's fingers succeeded one another without interruption. The walls of his adopted city became overspread with his luminous canvases, eloquent of the joyousness of Italy, resplendent with the triumphant beauty of Venice.

Shortly after the decoration of San Sebastiano was completed, Daniele Barbaro, Patriarch of Aquileia and wealthy patrician of Venice, had a splendid residence built him at Masiera by Palladio, a celebrated architect of the period. Being a man of artistic taste, he wished to embellish it with paintings and statues worthy of its imposing architecture. For the sculpture he summoned Alessandro Vittoria; the paintings were entrusted to Paolo Veronese.

The patriarch Barbaro was one of his friends, and accordingly allowed him a free hand, and even left the choice of subjects to him.

[Ill.u.s.tration: PLATE IV.--THE WEDDING AT CANA

(In the Musee du Louvre)

This immense composition is the most celebrated work by Veronese. It is considered as one of the masterpieces of all painting. The greater number of the guests at this feast are portraits of ill.u.s.trious characters of the sixteenth century, and the artist has included himself, along with Tintoretto and t.i.tian, in the group of musicians in the foreground.]

Veronese, who was a prodigiously fertile artist, left not a single s.p.a.ce in Barbaro's house unoccupied with colour. Wherever s.p.a.ce would not permit of large compositions, he painted trophies, garlands, flowers, even statues, possessing all the l.u.s.tre and relief of marble. Elsewhere he sketched in architectural fantasies, simulating colonnades and porticoes, opening upon landscapes borrowed from the realm of dreams; he conceived imaginary doors, before which fict.i.tious lacqueys appeared to be standing. The subjects treated by Veronese at Masiera include _n.o.bility_, _Honour_, _Magnificence_, _Vice_, _Virtue_, _Flora_, _Pomona_, _Ceres_ and _Bacchus_; then in the ceiling of the cupola he gathered together all the G.o.ds of Olympus, grouped around Jupiter.

The decorations in the palace at Masiera further augmented Veronese's fame. He was now acknowledged to be the foremost painter of Venice, next to t.i.tian. Barbaro had been so delighted with his talents that he determined to do him a service. Standing well at court, he recommended him to the Signoria. As a result of this, the latter entrusted him with the task of redecorating the halls and chambers of the Doge's Palace, in conjunction with Tintoretto and Orazio t.i.tian. Which of the three artists proved superior it is impossible to decide to-day, because a fire, occurring in 1576, destroyed their paintings along with the palace. But public opinion of that period gave the palm to Veronese.

It seems as though this verdict must have been justified, in view of the esteem in which his name was held.

Shortly afterwards, Sansovino having completed the construction of the library, the procurators instructed the architect to arrange with t.i.tian as to a choice of painters to decorate it in compet.i.tion.