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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

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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