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Poets and madmen: the art of Paolo Veronese

The Renaissance painter abhorred an empty canvas. Did his crowded scenes lack spiritual depth – or is it time to take a closer look?

The Anointing of David by Paolo Veronese

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice
National Gallery, London WC2

It is a measure of Paolo Veronese’s fame that he fascinated not only succeeding generations of artists, from Rubens to Delacroix, but also the Monty Python team. One of its sketches featured the pope summoning Michelangelo into his presence and demanding to know why the painter had included a kangaroo, three Christs and 28 disciples in a painting of the Last Supper. After much toing and froing, the painter agreed to change the title of the picture to The Penultimate Supper.

This scenario is more than simply a piece of Pythonesque absurdity. It is based on a real incident in which Veronese (1528-88) was called before the Inquisition (no, no one expected it) to account for the inclusion of a jester with a parrot, a servant with a nosebleed and two German soldiers in his painting of the Last Supper for the re­fectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice.

A transcript of the examination survives, the only verbatim account of any of Vero­nese’s words. Why does the servant have a nosebleed, the inquisitors asked? He has suffered, said Veronese, “some accident”. And the jester? “He is there as an ornament.” As for the German (and therefore Protestant) soldiers: “It seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.”

Veronese went on to explain that when he had a bit of leftover space in a picture, he liked to “adorn it with figures of my own invention”. The painter ingeniously got out of his fix not by painting out the offending figures as the Inquisition ordered but by changing the title of the picture to The Feast in the House of Levi.

Portrait of a Gentleman

The inventiveness, both mental and pictorial, evident in this exchange is everywhere apparent in the National Gallery’s “Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice”, which, amazingly, is the first major exhibition of his work in Britain. There are 50 paintings on display and, as he hinted to the Inquisition, what they demonstrate above all is that where nature abhors a vacuum, Veronese equally abhorred empty canvas. Figures pack every available inch: in The Raising of the Daughter of Jairus (circa 1546), there are 13; in The Conversion of Mary Magdalene (circa 1548), there are 15 and a dog; in The Anointing of David (circa 1550), there are 33, plus a cow, a donkey and a goat. (He loved to put animals in his pictures, as counterpoints to the serious human business going on.)

Though Veronese has long been lauded as the greatest of the Venetian colourists, tying his figures together with chromatic ripples and harmonies, his sheer fecundity has in more recent times been held against him. “It may be doubted whether, as a mere painter, Paolo Veronese has ever been surpassed,” wrote the pre-eminent art historian Bernard Berenson in 1894, but for 20th-century critics the key word was “mere”. Veronese’s facility was not in doubt; what was questioned was his profundity and spiritual insight. Where were they?

His pictures came to be seen as gorgeous visions of biblical or mythical scenes, populated by the silk-clad cream of Venetian society – paintings that are lovely to look at but in essence lightweight, especially when contrasted with those of his older contemporaries such as Titian and Michelangelo.

It is an accusation this exhibition cannot quite dismiss, although there are more flashes of depth to him than his critics acknowledge. Visual enchantment and sheer painterly skill are, however, substantial gifts and if in his pictures the sum doesn’t always measure up to expectations, the parts most certainly do. The lynx fur that lines the coat of the unnamed gentleman in a portrait from 1555 and the blue, gold and ivory dress worn in The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine (1565-70) are just two of innumerable examples of miraculous passages of paint.

Mars, Venus and Cupid

His figures show, too, an extraordinary variety of poses: an angel hanging from a date palm with one hand, legs crossed around the trunk, while tossing down the fruit to the holy family below, or the dreaming St Helena perched on a window seat, one foot insouciantly propped on a sconce, are daring postures for religious pictures. “We painters,” he told the Inquisition, “use the same licence as poets and madmen.” His colours are always sumptuous and never strident; as Delacroix noted, he modelled with colour rather than light and dark and even “maintained the strength of hue in shadow”.

The show in London charts every stage of Veronese’s career, from his early years in Verona to his arrival in Venice around 1555 and his long sojourn there. From the start, Veronese composed his pictures as if he were painting scenes from a play. That offers a clue to how to approach this exhibition: as with the theatre, even when the action does not entirely convince, there are always the grand spectacle and illusion of the stage set to delight the eye.

The exhibition runs until 15 June

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.