Mars and Venus United by Love
1570-5 by Paulo Veronese
Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice, National Gallery
The National Gallery’s Veronese exhibition enveloped one sumptuously. The walls were thick with work – with portraits of Venetian gentry, angels and allegories, and figures of both myth and religion. The driving forces of Renaissance imagination are all explored here, the stories and symbolism that artists desperately reinvented for their possibilities of beauty. And the paintings are beautiful, over-powering in both size and detail, illuminated with the wealth of colour – cascading and luxurious in folds of material, sensually soft in the blushes of skin. While some of Veronese’s work lacks the depth and richness of Titian, for example, the exhibition plunged us so deep into the mind of the Venetian sixteenth-century we hardly noticed. We are surrounded, pulled through each room picture by picture; any exhibition text was happily infrequent and subtle, the work giving us enough narrative on which to contemplate. Mars and Venus United by Love is one of three paintings that depict the iconic couple, and it is a treat to compare all three. Here, Mars pulls a navy night-like shroud across Venus’s dignity, yet her abundant body, fleshy and milky pink, triumphantly glows out from the burnt yellow light that ignites the rest of the painting. Mars’ armour is warm with gold, echoed in the trees that bend over, bowing in respect it seems, to the happy union. The foliage itself appears magical; when nature creeps into Veronese’s work it is celebrated, something we also see in The Rest of the Flight into Egypt, where the tree that reaches above the resting party is wildly lush and exotically green. The faces of Veronese’s Gods are far from omnipotent; they are human-like, empathetic, gazing kindly down to the putto that holds Venus’ leg. Veronese allows us to identify so with many of his protagonists in this way, their faces betraying emotion that reminds us of our own. That is magnificence indeed.