Very Veronese

The National Gallery’s latest Renaissance instalment, Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, turns the gallery’s walls into a colourful theatre of Venetian style and drama. 

Veronese loved clothes.  So much is evident from the canvases hanging in the upper rooms of the National Gallery, where Venetian noblewomen rustle against saints, gods and Roman soldiers in a parade of damask and taffeta.  Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, which took five years to organise and brings together fifty of the painter’s works from across Europe and the United States, has transformed the walls of the gallery into a sixteenth century catwalk, with the artist’s models cropping up again and again, clad in one lavish item of fine couture after another.

Paolo_Veronese_-_The_Family_of_Darius_before_Alexander_-_Google_Art_Project

The Family of Darius before Alexander (1565-7), Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

This is the first show in the UK devoted entirely to Veronese, which seems surprising given the artist’s stature as one of the foremost painters of the Venetian Renaissance, alongside Bellini, Giorgione, Titian and Tintoretto.  But if Veronese’s reputation was big during the sixteenth century and in the centuries that followed, so were many of his canvases, making the staging of any exhibition a major logistical undertaking.   A rumour that someone else in London was planning a show, a bout of jealousy on the part of Nicholas Penny – then newly appointed as Director of the National Gallery – and some hefty postage and packaging, however, have resulted in today’s display.

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Nail to Nail

The National Gallery’s Veronese spectacle, opening this month, will include a host of borrowed works from abroad.   But what did it take to get them to London?

It is hard enough arranging shipment to the UK of the marble statuette which, while you were on holiday, looked so wonderful in its Italian showroom.  But as the storerooms in the National Gallery’s basement fill with crates containing Paolo Veronese’s 450 year old canvases, arriving from Spain, France, Italy, Austria and the USA, you could be forgiven for wondering how on earth they got to Trafalgar Square.  Except that one rarely does spend much time thinking about the logistics behind a major exhibition.  And rightly so, for curators have not gone to all that trouble (and it is a lot of trouble) for us to spend our time inside the show focusing on negotiations, shipping, security and insurance.  The eve of the National Gallery’s Veronese extravaganza, however, when one hopes that the scene inside the gallery is one of cool efficiency and careful stage-management, seems like a good time to consider what goes on backstage.

Martyrdom of Saint George (c. 1565), San Giorgio in Braida, Verona

Martyrdom of Saint George (c. 1565), San Giorgio in Braida, Verona
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

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Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance – The National Gallery

A review of the National Gallery’s new exhibition, the critics’ mixed reactions and what the Victorians made of it all…

“Beauty, like supreme dominion

Is but supported by opinion”.

Benjamin Franklin (Poor Richard’s Almanack, 1741)

“What exactly makes a work of art beautiful?” asks the press blurb to the National Gallery’s latest show, Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance, which opened in the Sainsbury Wing on 19 February and runs until 11 May.  The gallery, I am afraid, does not at the end of the exhibition’s final room reveal the answer to this particular question.  Nor is this really the theme of the current show, which considers how and when the National Gallery built up its collection of German Renaissance pictures, as well as changing attitudes to these paintings over time.  The gallery would have been better off looking to David Hume, who in 1742 in his Essays, Moral and Political, wrote, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”, for this is the exhibition’s real point.

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Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507), Raphael, The National Gallery
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

The title of the show is closer to the mark and in the first room, where the raw emotions and juddering forms of Hans Baldung Grien’s The

The Trinity and Mystic Pietà (1512), Hans Baldung Grien, The National Gallery

The Trinity and Mystic Pietà (1512), Hans Baldung Grien, The National Gallery
Picture: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

Trinity and Mystic Pieta (1512) hang next to the smooth sumptuousness of Raphael’s Saint Catherine of Alexandria (1507), it  becomes easier to understand the attitudes of many Victorians, who at least until the last quarter of the nineteenth century, found little to admire in German Renaissance art.  It is not that Baldung’s work is ugly by comparison to the Raphael.  Rather the beauty of the Trinity is less conspicuous: to find it, the viewer must work harder.

Today’s visitors may delight in seeing works by the big shots of the German Renaissance (your Holbeins, Dürers and Cranachs), as well as by the period’s other important artists (Hans Baldung Grien, Matthias Grünewald and Albrecht Altdorfer, for example).  But when the National Gallery was founded in 1824, its initial collection included no German paintings, and thirty years later, at the beginning of 1854, the gallery had acquired just three German works, two of which were, in all honesty, a bit Dutch.[1]

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