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Paolo Veronese

Master of radiant colour and sumptuous pageantry

Apotheosis of Venice, Doge's Palace

We painters use the same license as poets and madmen. Paolo Veronese, at his hearing before the Inquisition in 1573

Along with the much older Titian and somewhat older Tintoretto, Veronese (Paolo Caliari, 1528–88) was one of the three great masters of the Venetian School in the High Renaissance. He was best known for his large narrative historical, religious or mythological scenes and his sumptuous banquets, full of incident, noble figures and pageantry in ravishing, shimmering colours; he was notably fond of striking illusionism and foreshortening, and curious perspectives set in grand Renaissance stage sets of majestic Palladian architectural fantasies.

Born in Verona into a family of stone cutters, Veronese served apprenticeships with two leading painters in Verona: in 1540 with Mannerist painter Antonio Badile (later his father-in-law), and in 1544 with Giovanni Francesco Caroto. As a young artist, however, he was drawn to the rich bright colours art of Titian and after completing a number of works in Verona, he was given a chance to paint an altarpiece for the Giustiniani family in San Francesco della Vigna.

As his reputation grew, he decorated the Villa Soranzo by Treviso, and in 1552, he went to Mantua, commissioned by the Gonzaga to paint an altarpiece for the cathedral; while there he became acquainted with the ceilings of Giulio Romano in the Palazzo Te.

In 1552, Veronese moved to Venice, where his first commission was the Sacra Conversazione in San Francesco della Vigna. He quickly gained a reputation as a painter of majestic ceilings, notably in the Sala dei Consiglio dei Dieci and the Sala dei Tre Capi del Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale, rebuilt after the fire of 1547. He followed this with the History of Esther on the ceiling of San Sebastiano (1556–57) and two panels in the ceiling of the Biblioteca Marciana (for which Titian and the architect Sansovino awarded him a prize).

In the late 1550s, Veronese decorated Palladio's Villa Barbaro in Maser, one of greatest works; afterwards he worked in the architect's San Giorgio Maggiore, producing his first massive refectory painting, the 10m long Wedding at Cana, painted in 1562–1563, and one of the great prizes Napoleon nicked for the Louvre. Feast in the House of Levi by Veronese, Accademia

Another great banquet scene, The Feast at the House of Levi, painted for the refectory of SS. Giovanni e Paolo (now in the Accademia), was originally intended as a Last Supper, until the Inquisition stepped in, hard on the heels of the Counterreformation, and looked askance at 'buffoons, drunken Germans, and dwarfs' and ordered Veronese to correct the painting. Assured of the protection of the upper echelons of Venetian power, he merely changed the name.

He worked with his brother Benedetto, two sons and nephew, who continued to use his sketches after his death, signing their work as 'Heirs of Paolo.'

Veronese's remarkable colours and light were great loved by the French artists in the 19th century, as Sir Lawrence Gowing wrote in Paintings in the Louvre:

Veronese's bright outdoor harmonies enlightened and inspired the whole nineteenth century. He was the foundation of modern painting. But whether his style is in fact naturalistic, as the Impressionists thought, or a more subtle and beautiful imaginative invention must remain a question for each age to answer for itself.

Other paintings by Veronese in Venice are the Assumption of the Virgin in SS. Giovanni e Paolo; and works in San Pietro Martire, San Zulian, San Giuseppe di Castello, San Pietro di Castello, San Lazzaro dei Mendicanti, San Polo and one of very last works that seems to forbode his own death, in San Pantalon.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: PD Art