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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 New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times