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Installation view, Paolo Veronese: A Master and His Workshop in Renaissance Venice. Courtesy The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida. Photo: Giovanni Lunardi
Early on a grey and drizzly Sunday morning, I climbed into a truck in Ottawa to begin a non-stop 2,650-kilometre journey south. One of the many interesting things I saw out of the window during this 33-hour journey (including my first possum, hopefully “playing possum”, on the side of the highway in Virginia) was a field in which cows enjoyed the shade provided by palm trees. This was in Florida, of course, where odd things like that can happen, but it struck me as particularly interesting because I had spent the previous two months finishing the restoration of a painting in which there are palm trees, and indeed a cow. The painting is the National Gallery’s Rest on The Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese and his workshop, which was in the truck with me, along with our two other Veronese paintings. Our destination was the Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota, Florida, and I was travelling with the paintings to include them in a major exhibition entitled Paolo Veronese: A Master and His Workshop in Renaissance Venice, which runs from 7 December 2012 until 14 April 2013.
Veronese was indeed a Master, and as the title says, worked in Venice during the sixteenth century. Along with Titian, whom he knew, Veronese was one of the most sought-after artists of the time, working for nobles and notables, the Church and the Venetian State, in all formats, including wall frescoes. One distinctive quality of his art was his ability to capture the dazzle, dash and elegance of contemporary Venetian life, which he worked into portraits, of course, but also subject pieces and even altarpieces when appropriate. The exhibition also includes examples of contemporary fabrics in astonishingly good condition, which makes Veronese’s facility in rendering sumptuous textiles all the more evident.
For me, however, one of Veronese’s greatest achievements is the way he adapted his painting technique and organized his workshop to allow for real collaboration among his family members, as well as others with whom he painted. The methods he developed to achieve this became a model, providing the blueprint for the training of painters thereafter.
The exhibition explores this collaborative dimension of his practice as a significant undercurrent. You can, of course, just enjoy the beautiful scenes and engaging narratives, or you can get stuck into the issue and closely compare similar paintings—there are, for instance, three depictions of the Baptism of Christ, side by side. One is by Veronese working alone; another is collaborative—possibly painted with his son Carlo. The third is enormous, was made after the Master’s death, and is signed as having been created by the “Heirs of Paolo”.
To return to the matter of cows under palm trees, perhaps the highlight of the exhibition for me was the chance to hang our Rest on The Flight into Egypt next to the version owned by the Ringling Museum, which was the touchstone and inspiration for the exhibition, and is jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Ours, being a collaborative work, is somewhat less gorgeous, but with a more gripping narrative, and a much more pudgily satisfying baby painted by Paolo, and shown at a moment where he performs a miracle—immediately after having his diaper changed. The two paintings now hang next to one another, and were, I believe, painted side-by-side; this is likely the first time they have been in the same room since 1572.
For that tingle-moment, and for other good scholarly reasons, the National Gallery has very happily supported this wonderful exhibition with the loan of three important paintings, as well as active participation in the scholarship, and inclusion in the excellent catalogue. If you have not heard of Paolo Veronese, I can’t imagine a better way to introduce yourself to him. And if you think you already know him, you may want to think again. This exhibition is absolutely the best reason to visit Florida this winter.
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