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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 age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood