Veronese painted on a vast scale – altarpieces, decorative schemes, portraits – and so the instinctive first impression of this show is one of awe at the grandeur of these compositions and the monumental figures that look down from them, so very far from the humble spectator. Yet one of Veronese’s talents – to a greater degree than many of his contemporaries – was to insert his patrons into religious scenes within the same pictorial space as the biblical characters. So, for instance, in ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (c.1555, above) a noble Venetian family crowd around the table where Christ holds court, their children happily playing with a large dog in the foreground.
This may be linked to Veronese’s obvious delight in portraying contemporary costume – the rich layers of patterned fabrics that made up women’s dresses, and the magnificent gold chains and luscious strings of pearls, all testament to the success and wealth of Venice as a capital of trade. Moreover, Veronese doesn’t take his subjects too seriously; though he composes scenes full of the necessary drama and pathos, he also frequently includes some light relief by way of additional monkeys, camels or dwarves. In ‘The Family of Darius before Alexander’ (c.1565-7, detail above) one’s attention wanders off from the heart of the action towards the monkey dangling a chain from a balustrade, or the diminutive figure clutching spaniel puppies, or the ghostly horses prancing behind them.
Another swarthy dwarf appears in ‘The Finding of Moses’ (c.1575-80, right) striking a macho pose before the proffered baby, though also appearing to be shepherded forward but the motherly figure behind him. This is another virtuoso display of sumptuous Venetian fashion, modelled by the Pharoah’s daughter, who has become inexplicably blonde and alabaster-skinned. The smaller scale and secular interpretation of the subject are in contrast to most of the work on display, and incongruously suggest Watteau’s bosky fetes galantes, rather than the swaggering Tiepolo version of the same subject (also with dwarf).
There are two versions of ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ facing each other across room 5. Neither disappoint in terms of peripheral entertainment (in the National Gallery’s version note the grinning camel’s head protruding from behind a wooden beam, in the very centre, left). But that from from the Chiesa di Santa Corona in Vicenza – though perhaps compositionally less successful – must win out for its extraordinarily melodramatic storm clouds, its veritable cascade of disembodied putti directing the theatrical Ray of Light, and most of all for the expression of impatient disgust on the face of baby Jesus, as the kneeling Magi proffer their gifts.
Veronese’s skill – and humour – are displayed equally well in his mythological and allegorical paintings. A cycle depicting four aspects of human love sees a chubby Cupid vigorously attempt to hold down a large and muscular man with a small pink foot in ‘Scorn’ (right), while Chastity looks on in an inappropriately revealing dress.
Cupid also makes regular appearances in paintings of Mars and Venus; in almost every case his presence is a rather farcical intrusion. In one canvas (c.1575-80, left), he appears leading a horse down the stairs, interrupting the gods in flagrante. It is comic timing par excellence in Renaissance terms (does the horse even seem to smirk just a little?) And again, in another version for a Spanish patron, the erotic rendezvous is interrupted as Cupid is knocked over by an excitable spaniel (c.1580, below).
So, despite the magnificence and the vibrant colour – the hues likely exaggerated to be viewed through the smoke and penumbra of a church, and therefore often striking one as almost kitsch in the excellent lighting of the gallery – Veronese succeeds in suffusing his narratives with a tender and light-hearted humanity. This is perhaps most obvious in a simple portrait, ‘Iseppo da Porto and his son Leonida’ (1552, below); ostentation is relinquished in favour of depicting the touching subtlety of their familial relations – and in so doing appears surprisingly modern.