You can say a lot about painter Paolo Veronese, and the first thing I will say is: sky.
Driving from Sarasota after previewing "Paolo Veronese: A Master and His Workshop in Renaissance Venice" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum, the sky above me was a flawless blue with cotton-ball puffs of clouds floating around. It was the same sky I had seen in the museum's galleries, painted centuries earlier and thousands of miles away. We may take that sort of thing for granted when we look at art, assuming that something so universal as a sky is easily translated across great time and distance. It isn't.
Veracity is one of Veronese's most enduring and endearing talents, an ability to make us believe that the illusion he sets before us is truth. We can assume that he prettied up the real people in his portraits, and we know he did so in mythological and religious narratives. But some things you can't fake: the shimmer of silk and the nap of velvet; the small, timeless human gestures. He never fails us in those details.
Veronese (1528-88) was born Paolo Caliari but became known as Veronese after his birthplace of Verona. He apprenticed there as a young teen but moved in his 20s to Venice, where prospects for the gifted young painter were better. He, along with Titian and Tintoretto, defined Venetian Renaissance art, and Titian was traditionally held up as the greatest among those greats. But many critics and fellow artists have made a strong case through the years that Veronese's subtle tonal variations trumped most other masters of color.
A good yardstick is to look at how an artist handles black, which has the ability to suck the life from a canvas. In Portrait of a Man, Veronese demonstrates how varied black can be using different textures and a very few highlights from the glint of a sword and the white ruffles of a collar and cuffs. The subject's name has been lost to history, though his casual but assured stance and elegant, understated garments indicate he's a Venetian aristocrat.
Just as Francesco Franceschini, whose portrait hangs nearby, is clearly an arriviste. The son of a wealthy textile merchant, he dresses as a nouveau riche in obviously expensive velvets and silk threaded with gold and swathes himself in fur. His stance is more assertive, too, wanting to command respect rather assuming, as the other does in his pose, that he has it.
Veronese was 23 when he painted Francesco Franceschini and on the verge of becoming famous from commissions for great villas and religious institutions. Even in his youth, he had an eye for the telling detail that was never lost in the sumptuous trappings: Note how the man's hand clutches the fur, suggesting both ownership and visceral pleasure.
The arrangement of the exhibition is thematic rather than chronological, with portraits grouped together, for example, making such comparisons easier. Mythological and allegorical paintings Veronese created for private residences occupy a second gallery. In his day, Venice was nearing its twilight as a great city-state but there was still great wealth to lavish on palaces, and Veronese created remarkable series of narratives for their walls and ceilings. Classicism was a popular aesthetic, reflected in Andrea Palladio's references to Greek and Roman architecture in his magnificent villas and to classical dress in Venetian fashion. The myths of the Greeks and Romans were all well-known and interpreted by many artists of the period. Veronese, like his contemporaries, placed the gods and mortals in familiar surroundings. Venus With a Mirror, for example, has the goddess seated in a lavishly appointed Venetian boudoir. In a nearby case is an example of Venetian lace from that period that is almost identical to the lace seen in the painting.
Veronese loved portraying those subjects because he could give free rein to his love of decorative elements. Religious themes required more restraint though they proved to be very lucrative. Still, he never skimped on eye appeal, as we see in Martyrdom and Last Communion of Saint Lucy. Hers is one of the more gruesome examples of sacrifice for one's faith; she endured torture, blinding and a final knife to the heart as she received the sacraments. Veronese includes references to her treatment but omits others such as her supposed drenching with urine, which would have ruined her splendid pink silk gown. But the horror of the moment isn't muted by the elaborate period touches. It becomes an intimate moment of death in a bustling piazza. The executioner plunges in the dagger almost tenderly. Her only reaction seems to be a spasmodic outreach of her right hand as she turns toward a priest and receives the Host.
A drawing is the most immediate connection we have with an artist and there are a number of them in this show. A group of prints made by admirers for mass marketing are testimonials to his reputation. A witty flourish is the inclusion of one of Thomas Struth's large-format photographs from his series in which he shot famous artworks in museums and visitors who were looking at them. This one, of course, documents a Veronese painting, the famous Feast in the House of Levi.
A final gallery is devoted to religious paintings with the same themes using different formats and treatments, suggesting that Veronese didn't approach work formulaically even if the commissions were similar. The Ringling's own Rest on the Flight Into Egypt is juxtaposed with one on loan from the National Gallery of Ottawa. Other juxtapositions are different depictions of Christ's baptism and death.
This gallery especially underscores a point about the show emphasized in its title: "A Master and His Workshop . . ." You'll see on some of the labels that qualification. The acceptance of an artist as more than a craftsman, someone with a unique and individual talent to be celebrated, began in the Renaissance. But the medieval workshop tradition of collective creativity continued, with the rock-star rainmakers often delegating work to their trained assistants. That happens today, too, but nobody talks about it because the practice is considered dishonest. It was accepted in Veronese's day and, in fact, his heirs openly completed commissions after he died. A Baptism of Christ in this show, for example, is proudly signed, "The Heirs of Paolo Veronese" in homage to their departed patriarch.
I began this review with the sky and a sky is one of the last things you will see at the end of the exhibition, a cerulean gorgeousness behind the head of Saint Michael in a small fragment from an altarpiece. In another fragment from the altarpiece, angels support the dead Christ. It's a far more meaningful image than that of Saint Michael but Michael is the one who commands the eye. He is so purely Veronese, beginning with that sky, continuing to the simple but perfect conveyance of light sparking off a silk sash and golden curls. And the face, cast downward, conveying love, compassion and — maybe I'm getting too 21st century in my reading — a suggestion of fatalism. He's an archangel we could meet today.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.