Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice

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Until 15 Jun 14

Paolo Caliari, called Veronese, Saint Menna, around 1560

It will perhaps come as a surprise that there has, until now, never been a monographic Veronese show in the UK.

The reasons for this are various: the artist has been much overshadowed by his contemporaries Titian and Tintoretto, many of his works are not easily moved or even moveable, there are ongoing and serious doubts about attribution and dating (and no wholly satisfactory catalogue raisonné exists), and relatively few English-language scholars have taken an interest in his works.

Some scholars, such as S.J. Freedberg and Michael Levey, have remarked on an indefinable elusiveness at the heart of Veronese’s painting—wanting emotional commitment to and passionate handling of his subject matter (Freedberg); never trivial, but not profound; pleasing, but not engaging (Levey)—none of which has helped to commend him to the public.

Nevertheless, Paolo Caliari, known as Veronese (1528-88), remains indisputably the third person of that late 16th-century Venetian trinity, perhaps worshipped more in the breach than in the observance.

(He has fared better in the US with such distinguished champions as W.R. Rearick and David Rosand; Italian scholars, too, have lavished attention on him.) Xavier Salomon, the curator of the National Gallery’s exhibition and the curator of southern Baroque paintings at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, has the talent for spotting gaps in art historical and exhibition history and plugging them with the materials at his disposal.

When curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, he created shows that precisely demonstrated these abilities: “Guido Reni’s St Sebastians” (2008), “Paolo Veronese: the Petrobelli Altarpiece” (2009); “Salvator Rosa” (2010, with Helen Langdon) and “Van Dyck in Sicily” (2012).

Venice’s supreme colourist Now Salomon has done the same thing, but on a much larger scale. Using the National Gallery’s 10 Veroneses, he has gathered 40 more, “to complement our own works with others of similar quality and to supplement them with genres that we don’t possess and with work from the last decade of his life”, according to the gallery’s director, Nicholas Penny.

Salomon explains that neither the exhibition nor its catalogue (National Gallery Publications in association with Yale University Press, £35) “attempts to be an exhaustive or complete discussion of Veronese’s art, but rather a general introduction to the artist for a wide-ranging audience, providing a starting point for beginners and students and insights for experts.” On display are his altarpieces, devotional works, history and mythological paintings, portraits and some drawings and oil sketches.

Salomon has worked closely with the curators of a major international loan exhibition that will take place at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia, Verona (“Paolo Veronese”, 5 July-5 October).

This show will complement the London exhibition by focusing more on the artist’s working methods and drawings in relation to his finished works.

The National Gallery has wisely chosen to site the exhibition of Venice’s supreme colourist in its upstairs galleries, rather than the windowless dungeon of the Sainsbury Wing.

Visitors will thus be given a better chance to see and understand Veronese’s hallmark, the handling of light.

Credit Suisse, which sponsors the exhibition, must be singled out for praise. We have them to thank for several recent National Gallery shows that have prioritised high intellectual standards over crowd-pulling and money-spinning. Donald Lee

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