Smitten by Veronese's color and brushwork

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Even to a casual visitor, the magnificent works of Paolo Veronese are inescapable in Venice. Like the Grand Canal, they are one of the city's sights: Veronese's paintings appear in the Doge's Palace - the ones on the ceiling that so skillfully exploit perspective as seen ``from below upwards'' (``sotto in su''). They are seen in churches like San Sebastiano. And then there's the gigantic ``Feast in the House of Levi'' in the Accademia Galleries. This year sees special celebrations of Veronese's work to mark the 400 years that have passed since his death. (He was born in Verona in 1528, though his career developed, until 1588, in Venice).

The Accademia has on display Veroneses from its own collection and from Venetian churches, some recently restored. This show continues through the end of September.

And until July 10 the Fondazione Giorgio Cini - the institute of art history on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore - presents a rewarding look at some 20 paintings and 50 drawings by this highly productive master.

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Veronese's drawings are a lot less interesting than his paintings: Executed mainly for his own or his assistants' information, the drawings tend often to be a kind of swift and scribbly plan. There is interest, of course, in seeing initial ideas and stages for final, and often quite changed, works. Photographs of these works make comparison possible. But the predominance of drawings in the Cini show does rather unbalance it.

It seems a pity for this anniversary year that a much more major exhibition has not been staged in Venice. Obviously many of Veronese's over 300 paintings are simply unmovable. Others, such as the ``Conversione della Maddalena'' that belongs to London's National Gallery, were not lent because of ``conservation reasons.'' It's also possible that the organization of another Veronese show - of 50 paintings and 60 drawings to be seen in Washington Nov. 13 to Feb. 20 - has stolen the thunder of the Venice show. (After all, London's National Gallery is lending two of its Vero-neses to Washington.)

This said, however, the pleasure of seeing the small selection of paintings at the Cini - where the galleries are intimate and the paintings are close to you - is strong. When Veronese's paintings are fixed in the ceilings or walls of palazzos or churches, it can be exceedingly awkward: One often must strain to see them. So to be able to inspect some of his easel paintings at close quarters at the Cini provides an opportunity to feel the excitement of his brushwork and be smitten by the vibrancy of his color. The ``Portrait of a Young Lady with Lapdog'' from Lugano is a brilliant display of textural suggestion: The sheen and shadow of her dress is pure relish in paint. It's the kind of thing John Ruskin was, rather surprisingly, so enthusiastic about in one of his lectures when he describes how he once stopped in Turin to try to copy ``a piece of white brocade, with designs upon it in gold'' in a Veronese painting there.

Venetian 16th-century painters have often been called the ``colorists'' of Italian Renaissance art, as opposed to the more linear painters of Florence and Rome. Veronese surpasses even fellow Venetians in his delight in rich colors, peach and yellow, sumptuous reds, greens and blues. His predecessor Titian looks gloomy in comparison.

It's fascinating to be able to compare the artist's different treatment of the same or similar subject. It gives an extended view of his inventiveness. Take the portrait of a young woman from Douai: Here the rich material of her brown dress does not upstage the woman herself. There is considerable character eyeing us in that face. Who she is nobody knows - a rich patrician Venetian presumably. But she's no mere manikin.

One earlier and one later painting of the ``Baptism of Christ'' show a similar variation of approaches. Two depictions of the ``Finding of Moses'' both - in psychologically different ways - are enough in themselves to dismiss the contention of Peter and Linda Murray in their ``Dictionary of Art and Artists,'' that Veronese's paintings ``were devoid of religious or dramatic content.''

This show proves that he was a painter of noble tone and intent. He had an overriding sense of dignity and decorum, but at the same time a kind of humor that enjoyed minor or incidental details. He used the drama of gesture - of figures twisting and turning expressively - and he exploited the grandeur and space of landscape and architecture to heighten events. In such things he foretold the theatrical ecstasies of the Baroque. But in his warm sense of human beings involved in momentous happenings, he seems far closer to Titian than to Rubens.

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