Paolo Veronese, National Gallery exhibition: the gentle man of Verona

The 16th-century Italian Renaissance artist Paolo Veronese displayed tenderness and humanity in his powerful  portraits of rape and death, discovers Zoe Pilger at a wonderful new exhibition

It was in the aftermath of the plague of the 1570s, which killed nearly a third of the population of Venice, including the city’s greatest artist, Titian, that Paolo Veronese painted his last works. These hang in the final room of the wonderful Magnificence in Renaissance  Venice exhibition of 50 paintings by Veronese at the National Gallery. The Renaissance artist is renowned for his vivid use of colour, but the last works are remarkable for their darkness. Indeed, as the curator Xavier F Salomon says, “It’s as if night falls in every single canvas.” They are some of the most powerful and profound paintings on display. Veronese was a theatrical, often jubilant artist, but here the dark overwhelms the light and we become privy to a series of private tragedies.

One of the most startling is Lucretia (1580-5). This scene of suicide is quiet. It refers to the classical story of the rape of Lucretia by the son of the Etruscan king of Rome, described in Livy’s History of Rome. After revealing her violation to her father and husband, she stabbed herself through the heart rather than live with her shame. The story inspired a poem by Shakespeare and Britten’s opera.

Veronese is famous for painting sumptuous costumes of vibrant brocades, but here Lucretia’s gown is dark green, offsetting the luminous quality of her skin. Like many of his heroines, she appears to glow from within but her face is sickly. Her eyes are downcast rather than confronting the viewer, which suggests this is a private moment of deep anguish. It is a glimpse of her interior state. She wears luxurious emerald and gold jewels and there are pearls around her neck. She has dressed for the occasion. Most shockingly, she points a dagger at her heart. On closer inspection, the viewer can make out the slightest trickle of red. She has in fact already stabbed herself. The blood is draining out of her body. This is a slow and sensuous death.

‘Temptation of Saint Anthony’ (1552) ‘Temptation of Saint Anthony’ (1552) The painting is one my favourites. Titian had painted a version of the story, Tarquin and Lucretia (1570-1), about a decade before. His is notable for its focus on the brutal moment of the rape itself. The naked and once again luminous Lucretia is shown backed on to a bed, her hands raised in protest while the rapist Sextus  Tarquinius bears down on her, his knee between her legs, a dagger raised. The scene is more melodramatic. While Veronese affords Lucretia her own moment of tragedy, positioning her at the centre of her own story, both victim and now agent of her own death, Sextus is dominant in Titian’s scene. The violation is eroticised. Instead, Veronese humanises her.

Veronese is one of three painters associated with the magnificence of the Venetian Renaissance, as the title of this exhibition suggests. The others were Tintoretto and the older Titian, from whom Veronese possibly drew some of his subject matter. Titian had established the dominant mode of depicting mythological stories, but these paintings reveal the nuances of Veronese’s own approach. Salomon’s erudition is evident: works have been borrowed from around the world to supplement the gallery’s own impressive collection. This is the artist’s first monographic exhibition in the UK.

Veronese was born in Verona in 1528 and was named after the city. Salomon says that “his life was pretty boring, actually”. His family were stonecutters. He arrived in Venice in his twenties. He got married, had children, and travelled little. But his paintings testify to a spectacular imagination and skill. He painted canvases with fast fluency, almost in a fresco technique, and received many prestigious commissions throughout his lifetime. Most often he painted opulence – reflecting back to his aristocratic and religious patrons how life should be lived. These are works of aspiration. In this way, they are very modern. After surviving the plague, Veronese caught a chill during a religious procession in 1588 and died from pneumonia at the relatively young age of 60.

Paolo Veronese’s ‘Lucretia’ (1580-5) Paolo Veronese’s ‘Lucretia’ (1580-5) There is great understanding of the mechanics of story-telling in these paintings. Often Veronese paints the moment before the main event, imbuing these familiar myths and  religious scenes with a degree of suspense. His sensitivity to theatrical composition is shown through a willingness to hold back. This allows the viewer to imagine for herself what comes next. Veronese was highly acclaimed during his lifetime and he operated a busy workshop. Salomon points out that as his fame grew, the quality of some of his works began to decline. Like contemporary artists who employ vast teams of assistants and rarely make their own work, Veronese often just added the finishing touches to paintings as they left his workshop. This was the case for another popular scene of female violation, The Rape of Europa, which Veronese’s workshop produced in many  different formats. The version from 1575-80 that appears here was painted by Veronese himself. It is fascinating.

The story comes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Zeus fell in love with Europa and transformed himself into a white bull and appeared in a meadow where Europa was amusing herself. She was afraid at first and then realised that he was tame. Zeus the bull then carried her off into the middle of the sea, where Europa finally understood that she had been abducted and it was too late. This is a story of sweetness turned into horror. Once again, Veronese paints the moment before the rape. Europa is shown in the meadow in the foreground of the painting with one creamy breast exposed, swathed in plush pink fabric. She sits on top of the bull, who is licking her foot in a foreshadowing of the violation to come. Putti, or winged children, rain down roses on the pair.

In the distance, two further scenes are revealed. There is Europa riding the bull towards the sea. Further on, the bull has carried Europa into the sea. Her body is twisted back towards the shore and she is waving to the earlier images of herself, indeed, to the earlier stages of the story. It is not clear whether she is happily waving goodbye or signalling for help.Veronese brilliantly shows time unfolding in one pictorial space. He demurs from painting the scene of the rape itself, and instead creates dramatic tension by showing the events leading up to it. By contrast, Titian’s painting of the same story about 15 or 20 years before focuses on the moment of violation. In his version, Europa is already out to sea. She clings to the bull’s horn, terrified. Her legs are flailing and open, which once again eroticises her submission. Veronese’s painting is less sensationalist and more respectful to the figure of Europa. He does not glorify or even aestheticise her humiliation. The fact that it is not depicted on the canvas makes it all the more horrifying. There is a gap in the story; perhaps such horror cannot be conveyed through painting.

‘Perseus and Andromeda’ (1575-80) ‘Perseus and Andromeda’ (1575-80) Other paintings by Veronese which dignify their female subjects, rather than show them as mere masochistic martyrs or damsels in  distress, are the two versions of The Dream of St Helena. Both refer to the story of St Helena, wife of the Emperor Constantine, who had a vision of angels in a dream. It’s possible that Veronese was drawn to the story because his wife was called Elena. I prefer the earlier version, painted around 1570. St Helena is shown asleep by a  window. She wears a rich pink and peach gown, but she is at ease, even, as the director of the  gallery Nicholas Penny suggests, “improper”.  Her hand is rested casually between her thighs. The angels hover above her. This is her private dream world turned outwards so the viewer can see it. Again, Veronese gives his heroine an inner life of her own. In the later version, painted 1575-80, the scene is less natural and less affecting. St Helena’s pose is constricted by her elaborate costume; she is stiffer.

Despite the disintegration of pigment over the centuries, turning some of these brilliant blue skies grey, Veronese’s colours continue to dazzle. They are a wonder. This exhibition is important because it shows the tenderness and restraint of a painter often associated with spectacle. Indeed, critics in the 19th century dismissed Veronese on the grounds that he was a decorative artist. More recently, attempts have been made to cite the great intellectual profundity of his works. What emerges here is an artist not in thrall to Titian, but responding to the oldest myths with his own finely tuned sense of humanity.

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance  Venice, National Gallery, London WC2  (020 7747 2885) to 15 June

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own