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Paolo Veronese is in the news these days, enjoying the spotlight in two recent monographic exhibitions. Last year’s Veronese: Gods, Heroes, and Allegories, the Museo Correr in Venice, treated a wide array of the artist’s mythological works. Now, Veronese’s Allegories: Virtue, Love, and Exploration in Renaissance Venice at the Frick Collection, a more focused exhibit curated by Xavier Salomon, gathers together all five of the large allegorical canvases by the artist that have come to rest on US soil. These shows mark something of a renaissance for Veronese, which complements the current profusion of exhibits on Venetian topics: from Giorgione: Myth and Enigma at the Kunsthistorisches Museum last summer, to Bellini and the East in Boston and London, to two major displays of Venetian paintings and drawings at the National Gallery in Washington this year, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Venice and the Islamic World, slated for next March.
Despite its small size, the Frick exhibition offers a particular contribution to these recent efforts, placing them in the light of a long reception history. Inexhaustible as it may be, the taste for Venetian painting is hardly novel: perhaps no other single school has played as varied a role in the history of art appreciation. Veronese’s Allegories capitalizes on this interest, furnishing an astute introduction to the painter’s allegorical canvases, their appearance and meaning, and their subsequent fortunes as independent works riding the changeful tides of European taste. By zeroing in on just five paintings, Salomon’s thorough catalogue manages to trace their careers in detail, showing how Veronese’s gallantly sensual style fared among buyers, artists, connoisseurs, and scholars over the centuries. Anyone curious about the place of Venetian painting in the larger sweep of history will thus benefit from this select show.
Born in 1528, Veronese arrived in Venice at mid-century to find a crowded scene. Titian was hard at work on his distinguished series of mythologies for Philip II, and Tintoretto had earned early recognition with canvases in major parish churches and at the Ducal Palace. Veronese soon began to hold his own, however; for his ceiling roundel at the city’s public library, he was awarded a golden chain by Titian and Jacopo Sansovino, beating out several of his more established competitors. The subject of the winning painting was Music (1557), among the first of Veronese’s triumphs in the field of painted allegory.
The current exhibit’s five canvases depict similar abstractions, all painted during a ten-year period beginning about 1565. (Salomon’s catalogue helpfully clarifies issues of chronology.) The Frick’s own Choice between Virtue and Vice and Wisdom and Strength anchor the display, surrounded by two Allegories of Navigation from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan Museum’s Venus and Mars United by Love.
Tall, independent, imposing works that easily fill the gallery’s Oval Room, these canvases render their allegorical subjects on an appropriately larger-than-life scale. The figures wear gleaming silks and satins, which part marvelously, giving literal flesh to abstract virtues. The figure of Venus, wearing little more than a string of pearls, and blushing from her cheeks to her knees, is, to paraphrase Philipp Fehl on Titian’s nymphs, “magnificently clothed in her nudity.” And Wisdom, gazing heavenward, clasps one hand to her sternum in an eternally vain effort to keep her magenta dress from falling (clearly, in Veronese’s thinking, true Wisdom demands the exposure of one breast at all times). The males are equally potent, two of them—Strength and Mars—being modeled on ancient statuary that Veronese had seen during a trip to Rome in the early 1560s. The Allegory of Navigation with a Cross-Staff, meanwhile, is a brawny figure in red boots and shimmering costume; where he presses his staff into the green fabric of his tunic, an eddy of iridescent yellow trails behind. In his posture and props, this character strongly recalls Titian’s fresco of St. Christopher (ca. 1523–25) in the Ducal Palace; he is indeed the herculean offspring of a previous generation of painted saints.
The figures’ strength and sensuality contrast, however, with an essential remoteness. Their gazes rarely meet; instead, they peer out of the pictures’ upper and lower corners, as if looking offstage for cues. Their actions belong not to normal human dramas but to conflicts that stretch far beyond the picture space. Most striking is the spectacle in the Frick’s Virtue and Vice: a male figure, dressed in white, lunges away from the figure of Vice, who hides a sphinx and dagger behind her skirts. Laurel-crowned Virtue accepts his entreaty. The figures are clearly enwrapped in a momentous struggle; but without the catalogue’s guidance, we might have trouble discerning it. Ostensibly polar opposites, the two female figures look about the same—in Venice, one supposes, both Virtue and Vice dress to impress—and only Vice’s elegant claws give away the difference. In a later inventory, the painting’s subject was listed as “a Jesuit between Two Women,” suggesting that the work’s allegorical content sometimes escaped appreciation.
For Salomon, however, it is the works’ status as independent allegory that marks their novelty. None of these canvases, he argues, was painted for a particular architectural setting, nor were they conceived together as a series; Veronese appears to have considered them as autonomous, moveable paintings. Salomon believes that the artist was the first to treat allegory in this manner, freeing it from a traditional subordination to larger decorative programs in civic or domestic settings. Be this as it may, his broader claim—“Veronese’s contribution to the history of allegorical painting cannot be overstated” (26)—might be overstated. These works’ allegorical content depends heavily on the earlier mythologies of Mantegna, Bellini, and Titian, who labored to give ideas sensual expression. Mantegna’s Minerva Expelling the Vices (ca. 1497–1502) may have been conceived for a fixed decorative scheme prescribed by Isabella d’Este, but its monumental allegorical elements are difficult to ignore, and the painting was moved and independently displayed soon after its completion. Likewise, Titian repeatedly paints Venus not just as an actor in a myth but also as the epitome of Love; his Dianas are alternately Jealousy and Chastity herself. Viewed in the light of these earlier works, Veronese’s independent single-figure allegories constitute a culmination, not a revolution.
Nonetheless, as Salomon rightly concludes, the paintings on view here have a particular interest as transportable objects, allegories-to-go that could be appreciated in collections and museums. Three of them (Virtue and Vice, Wisdom and Strength, and Venus and Mars, along with a fourth now at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge) enjoyed each other’s company during a voyage through some of the greatest collections in Europe: the galleries of Rudolf II, Queen Christina of Sweden, the Odescalchi family, and the duc d’Orléans. Along the way, they enjoyed the attentions of a veritable who’s who list of cognoscenti, from Jacopo Strada and Pierre Crozat to Roger Fry.
On the whole, however, the paintings’ critical fortunes within these distinguished settings were mixed. When the Odescalchi collection went up for sale, its Veroneses were not listed among the highlights; in 1798, the collection’s subsequent owners kept the Raphaels, Titians, Correggios, and Poussins for themselves, but sold off the Veroneses. Uneasiness about Veronese’s shameless pleasure in color and spectacle, as well as the grandiosity of his gestures, must have accounted for this equivocal esteem. The tide changed during the nineteenth century, when, largely thanks to the efforts of John Ruskin, the painter came to enjoy comparison with his Venetian contemporaries. Before long, Henry James, on seeing Veronese’s works at the Ducal Palace, could exult that the artist “swims before you in a silver cloud” and “thrones in an eternal morning.” In 1911, Roger Fry, inspired no doubt by a formalist’s appreciation for Veronese’s coloring and dance-like figure groupings, recommended the two allegories to Henry Clay Frick as “genuine fine.” Frick bought the paintings in 1912 for the then-high sum of $200,000. It is particularly appropriate that these canvases should have landed in a true collector’s museum, where, thanks to Salomon’s meticulous research, they can be appreciated not only as works of art but also as artifacts in the history of taste.
PhD candidate, Department of Art and Archaeology, Princeton University
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