Paolo Veronese: The Treasurer Of Art And Colors

Blending myths and reality, Paolo Veronese revolutionized religious painting, faced the Inquisition, and turned the world of art upside down.

Mar 25, 2021By Ana-Teodora Kurkina, MA & PhD in History
family of darius
Detail from Family of Darius before Alexander by Paolo Veronese, 1565–70


Among the High Renaissance painters of his time, Paolo Veronese is remembered for his unique talent as a storyteller combined with an artist’s skillset. Fascinated by stories and their interpretation rather than accepted dogmas, he revolutionized religious painting. What Veronese did was far more subtle than a simple change of his characters’ attire. He dared to choose religious topics and paint people rather than unattainable objects of worship. Predictably, the Holy Inquisition found the painter’s endeavors dangerously frivolous. However, Veronese’s story is not about the repression of art, but about how art conquered the Inquisition. 


Paolo Veronese: Humble Beginnings And Big Dreams

family of darius before alexander
Self-portrait of Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari), 1528-88, via The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg


Paolo Veronese’s destiny bears similarities to those of other Renaissance painters: he was born into an insignificant family, taken as an apprentice at a young age by a distinguished master, then promoted by prominent and wealthy patrons. However, even this familiar narrative hides unexpected details. 


Paolo Veronese was born in 1528 in Verona that was part of the Republic of Venice at the time. While we know the names of Veronese’s parents, his surname remains a mystery. Later, as an independent master, Veronese would call himself Caliari. This surname was most certainly a courtesy granted to the young painter by his well-standing benefactor. He signed his early paintings as Caliari, using the name Veronese as a moniker that marked him as an artist born in Verona and influenced by distinguished local masters. During Paolo Veronese’s childhood, the whole city fell under the spell of the architect Michele Sanmichelli, and the rising mannerist style. Inspired by Sanmichelli’s work, young Veronese would later borrow his mannerist ideals. But it would be his naturalist style of painting, influenced by Titian, that would make Paolo Veronese famous.


The artist’s father, a stonecutter with a penchant for sculpture, never immortalized his name but acquired enough money to send his sons to study. In the 1450s, Paolo Veronese trained under Antonio Badile, who instilled a love for painting in the mind of his pupil. That passion coincided with a profound attraction to his master’s daughter, whom Veronese later married. 


Rise To Prominence

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Holy Family with Sts Anthony Abbot, Catherine and the Infant John the Baptist by Paolo Veronese, 1551, in San Francesco della Vigna, Venice, via the Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

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Already in his youth, Veronese acquired a taste for the grandeur and symmetry that the architects of his time strove to achieve. Dramatic plots, monumental paintings, and vivid, realistic colors defined most of his creations. The artist quickly realized and admitted his fascination with elaborate narrative cycles, investing most of his time and effort into telling grandiose stories on walls and canvases, often depicting his favorite Roman architecture.


Veronese’s realistic style and his diligence earned him a good name among the prominent families of Venice. As it often happened among Renaissance painters, connections defined their art and often their lives. Patrons not only fed their geniuses, but protected them, advertised their work, and increased their good reputation. Paolo Veronese, now a citizen of one of the most prosperous cities in the West, found his patrons through his family’s connections. The powerful Giustiniani family commissioned the young artist to paint the altarpiece for their chapel in the church of San Francesco della Vigna. While the Soranzo family employed Veronese, and his two colleagues to work on the murals for their villa in Treviso. Only fragments of those murals remain, but they had an important role in establishing Veronese’s reputation. 


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Jupiter Hurling Thunderbolts at the Vices by Paolo Veronese, 1554-56, via The Louvre, Paris (Originally Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci, Venice)


Already in his twenties, the young prodigy attracted the attention of both the Church and the leaders of the Republic – the grandest of all patrons. In 1552 Veronese received a commission from the Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga. His task was to create an altar for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Mantua. But Paolo Veronese had another motive to visit Mantua. Embarking on a journey, Veronese, sought an opportunity to see the works of Giulio Romano. A Renaissance architect and painter, Romano was known for his deviations from the harmonious principles of the High Renaissance, cherishing elegance above precision. Following Veronese’s acquaintance with Romano’s work his passion for drama, bright colors, and elevated emotions reached new heights. 


Upon his return to the Venetian Republic, Veronese not only brought the inspiration of Romano with him but also acquired another important commission. This time, the Doge himself chose Veronese as one of the artists to paint the ceiling in the Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci in the Ducal Palace. Afterward, he painted a History of Esther on the ceiling of the Church of San Sebastiano. Then, the first honors followed. 


In 1557, Paolo Veronese painted the frescos in the Marciana Library, gaining the attention of the stars such as Titian and Sansovino. Unlike the many hard and uneven destinies of the Renaissance painters, Veronese’s rise seems almost unique: without bumps and turns, he rose steadily through the ranks, gaining the title of a master in his twenties, deserving the praise and admiration of the brightest stars of his time. Apart from his professional honors, Veronese also enjoyed successful family life. But it was the combination of painting and architecture that defined his destiny and artistic vision.


Veronese And Palladio

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Hall of Olympus by Paolo Veronese, 1560-61, in Villa Barbaro, Maser, via the Web Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Seeking an architectural genius on the scale of Giulio Romano, who could complement his paintings, Veronese found Andrea Palladio, the greatest architect of his time. During a break in his work for San Sebastiano, the young artist, exhausted and yet craving impressions accepted the invitation of the powerful Barbaro family. His task was to decorate their villa in Masere (Villa Barbaro), designed by Palladio. Drawing inspiration from mythology, Paolo Veronese, much like Palladio himself, strove to achieve the impossible – the syncretism of antiquity and Christian spirituality. His mythological compositions, thus, acquired a life of their own, reflecting both the past and the present in an idealistic harmony. 


One day, when Veronese was done with the murals, he finally met the architect himself. While little is known about their interactions, the story, like it often is with Renaissance painters, remains in their works. In the case of Palladio and Veronese, the intertwined tales of their cooperation resulted in another interesting episode in Veronese’s life. 


Art That Tells Stories

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The Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veronese, 1563, via The Louvre, Paris


One of Veronese’s most famous paintings, The Wedding Feast at Cana, was also connected to Palladio. When Benedictine Monks commissioned the painting for San Giorgio Maggiore situated on a tiny island in the center of Venice, Paolo Veronese once again had an opportunity to insert his work into Palladio’s building, harmoniously combining painting and architecture. But he wanted to do more. If Palladio’s architecture fused the old Roman and the new mannerist aesthetics, the Christian and the pagan, Veronese wanted to add the dichotomy of past and present to it. 


Before he could start, the Benedictines monks presented their set of conditions, to which Paolo Veronese had to adhere. His future painting had to stretch across 66 square meters, he had to use expensive and rare pigments, and the blue dyes had to contain the pricey lapis-lazuli. Above all else, the painter agreed to include as many figures and architectural details as possible, leaving no place for vast landscapes or empty spaces. Veronese fulfilled the conditions in his own style. His decision was rather unexpected: the artist decided to tell two stories instead of one. 


paolo veronese family darius before alexander
Family of Darius before Alexander by Paolo Veronese, 1565–70, via the National Gallery, London


The first story revolves around the episode from the New Testament, in which Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding feast. Encased in Palladio’s austere design, the architectural details in the paintings are almost as alive and contemporary as the scene from the New Testament itself.  Above all else, the figures reveal not only the miracles of Christ to the spectators but the rich cultural life of Venice. Among the wedding guests, the spectator may encounter not only historical figures, friends, and patrons of Veronese, but other Renaissance painters like Titian and Tintoretto, as well as Veronese himself. The painting is a puzzle box that artfully blends the past and the present in a unique mannerist way.


Similarly, in his Family of Darius before Alexander (one of his rare secular paintings), Veronese once again turned to an episode of the past, featuring Alexander the Great and the family of the defeated ruler. The figures were, most likely, modeled after the members of the Pisani family, who commissioned the painting. As always, the influence of Palladio’s architecture stands in stark contrast against the historical encounter that should have taken place in a tent. Above all else, the luxurious robes are neither typical for Greece, nor the Middle East, faithfully recreating the fashion of Veronese’s contemporaries and the wealth of “La Serenissima.” 


Veronese Encounters The Inquisition 

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The Feast in the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese, 1573, via Gallerie dell’Academia, Venice


In his desire to tell stories, Paolo Veronese always chose the most colorful of narratives. His Battle of Lepanto tells an equally bright story as his Saint Jerome in a Desert. Yet, some of his daring projects turned out to be more troublesome than others. In 1573, Veronese created a painting for the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice. A last-supper depiction was soon to become the most controversial and the most famous of all his works. Veronese disregarded the unorthodox way he addressed one of the most famous biblical plots. 


Crowding the scene, people and animals seem to be enjoying the meal, ignoring the pious doctrines of the church. The painting inspires curiosity rather than religious awe, leaving most spectators fascinated by the architecture and the figures rather than the might of the Catholic ideas. To add insult to injury, two German (and therefore Protestant) halberdiers are present in the scene. Such frivolities could not be ignored by the Inquisition that came to question the painter. Veronese’s defense was that of an artist: he had to embellish to tell a compelling story like writers, painters and actors do. Stubborn in his resolve, Paolo Veronese defended his choice and refused to repaint his masterpiece. Instead, the painter changed the name of his work, calling it The Feast in the House of Levi. The Inquisition dropped all charges of heresy, accepting Paolo Veronese’s artistic freedom. 


The Legacy Of Paolo Veronese And His Stories

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The Agony in the Garden by Paolo Veronese, 1582-3, via Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan


As it is usual with Veronese, more is known about his later works than his later life. He continued to paint for the Venetian nobility and created poignant paintings, The Agony in the Garden and Conversion of Saint Pantaleon being the two most famous. Fascinated by the human and the divine, Paolo Veronese died in his beloved Venice on the 19th of April 1588. Unlike many other artists, he was given a singular honor. The Renaissance painter was buried in the San Sebastiano Church that he had decorated himself.


A 17th-century writer Marco Boschini once wrote about Paolo Veronese: “He is the treasurer of the art and of the colors. This is not painting — it is magic that casts a spell on people who see it produced.” Veronese’s paintings were, perhaps, so fascinating because he was indeed the master of the grand and the spectacular. Combining elegance with symmetry, Veronese relied on his talent to achieve one goal – tell a story of his time and his contemporaries. He spoke about the Inquisition and Palladio, about Tintoretto and Titian, about the noble families of Venice. No matter whether he painted mythical scenes or the recent victories of the Western World, he told stories about the world he knew. We may not know the intimate details of his life, but we get to know his tastes and strivings. Above all else, the stories his paintings tell are still heard.

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By Ana-Teodora KurkinaMA & PhD in HistoryAna is a social historian who holds a PhD in history from LMU Munich and UR Regensburg. She earned her second MA from Central European University, Budapest and her first MA from MSU, Moscow. When she is not writing about art and propaganda, she plays strategic boardgames. Her professional interests revolve around Eastern Europe.