Veronese: Magnificence at the National Gallery

I used to think art was just pretty pictures – particularly when you see portraits of glamorous women in country houses. My personal favourite when I was younger was a beautiful portrait of a woman in the study of Sudbury Hall who was wearing a pink dress and holding a huge pink feather – mainly because I wanted to be wearing a pink dress and looking so glamorous as I did so. I have no idea who painted it, and I can’t remember who the sitter was, but even now when I visit I still love that picture.

Now, however, I can see there is so much more to art. I’m not going to pretend I am a fully-fledged art historian, because I’m not – I’m fortunate enough to have brilliant art history tutors and have selected their modules within my History degree. At least now I know that you can analyse a painting in the same way that you can analyse a book in English Literature and they can act as primary sources in History.
A few days ago I was really excited because I learned how to tell the different Renaissance Venetian artists apart. This had taken several weeks of revision for my exam and staring at the different images, alongside dates and attributions. I was also enthusiastic about the fact that the work of one of the artists we have studied this semester, Veronese, is currently being exhibited at the National Gallery under the title of ‘Magnificence in Renaissance Venice’. Last weekend, my lovely (and incredibly patient!) mum took me to London so that we could go and view the Veronese exhibition, and it was very magnificent!

About to go in to the exhibition!
About to go in to the exhibition!

I think my mum, having been treated to me rambling on to anyone who will listen about Venetian art for the past three months, thought that I was going to be incredibly knowledgeable about every single painting that was on show in the exhibition and was going to be able to tell her everything about them. Unfortunately, the main Veronese painting I know about is Marriage Feast at Cana, which is actually on show in the Louvre, opposite the Mona Lisa. Me and my mum have been to the Louvre and went to see the Mona Lisa but apparently, like every other tourist who desperately clamours to see perhaps the most famous painting on the planet, I neglected to turn around and see the humungous representation of the miracle at Cana. This is quite surprising, seeing as it is about ten metres wide and painted in typically rich Venetian colour, so in theory would be difficult to miss. Now I am desperate to travel back and actually turn round to see it. Therefore because this is the main one I know about, alongside some of his other feasts, I was as much in awe as my mum was when we went in.

It was absolutely incredible, and even incorporated some portraits. I think one of my favourite paintings was in here, Portrait of a Lady, or Bella Nani, c.1560-5. She was absolutely beautiful, for one thing, but the painting of her dress was incredible, alongside the tiny pearls that adorned it. They looked perfect alongside the deep blue of her dress, and it made me marvel at the skill that the Old Masters had. It reminded me of another painting in the National Gallery, Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, in which his robes are executed with such precision that it is almost like you are observing a photograph of the material. I also had my moment of History student stardom with Bella Nani, as I could explain to my mum that we had been looking at the Renaissance ideals of beauty in Venice, which included golden blonde hair and pale skin; the women supposedly used to try and sit out in the sun to try and bleach their hair and attempt to keep their skin shaded so as to stay pale. I felt very proud of this – and another woman who was looking at it turned round to look at me. I’m hoping that she was thinking, “Here is somebody who really knows their stuff!” – but probably what was really going through her mind was, “This girl clearly knows nothing.” My mum was impressed anyway, which is what counts.

There were some really stunning mythologies on show as well – Mars and Venus United By Love, c.1570-5, and the slightly later Perseus and Andromeda, c.1575-80, amongst others. Again, Veronese paints the textiles absolutely perfectly and I think this just struck me every time I looked at them. Perseus and Andromeda reminded me of a slightly earlier painting of the same subject by Titian – Veronese also uses the swooping figure of Perseus (a characteristic of form more associated by his contemporary, Tintoretto) and creates an admirably frightening sea monster.

Everything about Veronese’s work shown in the gallery was elegant and beautiful. He certainly focussed on the beauty and magnificence of Renaissance Venice, a thriving place full of prosperity and sumptuous things. For anyone who likes Renaissance art, or maybe like me (both now and when I was younger) likes looking at pretty pictures, I would recommend going to the exhibition. It remains on until June 15th, which isn’t long, but the National Gallery have some brilliant works by Veronese in their own collections anyway and the catalogue of this exhibition is absolutely stunning.

This is me loving art and wishing that I knew more about it, and also that I could spend time in the National Gallery every day.

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