Veronese, with Titian and Tintoretto, is one of the great triumvirate of painters who brought oil painting to its zenith in Renaissance Venice. In the leading port of the eastern Mediterranean, they had access to great sheets of canvas which they could use as support for very large pictures, supplanting the reliance on wood panels that had hitherto dictated the format of all types of images. Large altarpieces had been made up of several individual works, but could consist of single immense canvases, often highly coloured with the new oil-based pigments recently developed in the Low Countries. And subject matter was no longer confined to religious themes or portraits: the princely courts of Venice, Florence or Mantua wanted to show off their knowledge of the Classical authors, while luxuriating in the sensuous delights of technically brilliant representational painting.
There was a wealth of suitable subject matter to be found in the writings of the Latin poet Ovid (43 BC-17AD): his Metamorphoses constituted a famous history of the world told in a series of myths and fables chronicling the loves of gods and men and the fated interweaving of their lives with the accidents of nature. The whole work is suffused with a sense of tragic irony. The story of Venus and Adonis was especially popular. Adonis was a beautiful youth loved by Venus, who was impatient to leave her for the joys of hunting, and escaped her arms only to be killed by the boar he had chosen for his sport. Like other Ovidian tales the story was popular among artists of the late sixteenth century: Shakespeare was to write a long erotic poem on the theme only a few years after this picture was painted: it appeared in 1592, probably the dramatist’s first published work.
Veronese presents the mythological love affair as a domestic scene, albeit a wonderfully idealised one, as the goddess, wearing a very up-to-date Venetian coiffure, soothes the hero with an equally fashionable flag-fan (‘ventuola’), and cupid holds his dogs. As in England, fans were used as signals in amorous exchanges and Venus’s erotic intentions are clear enough as she fondles the recumbent body. One of the greatest achievements of the school of Titian was its mastery of a new realism in the depiction of human flesh, and the female nude became for the first time a subject for painters who could offer their patrons erotic thrills with miraculous authority and verisimilitude. That accomplishment is very evident here.
In its scale and general composition this picture has much in common with a series of paintings usually on display in the National Gallery in London: a suite of images that tell in allegorical style different aspects of the relationships between lovers: like this work they are also nearly square, and were obviously intended to be seen from below, presumably on a ceiling – much of Veronese’s work was for the decoration of grand domestic spaces. Two of them feature figures lying almost horizontally across the composition, like Adonis here, and they share the high-toned colour of Venus and Adonis. Veronese differs from Titian and Tintoretto in making strikingly less use of chiaroscuro, expressive shadow, than they do and is often remarkably happy simply to lay his ideas out in almost unmodulated bright colour, as he does here.
The figures appear on a large scale, so that the lovers’ intimacy invades our own space. Together with the perfect summer weather and soft greens of the surrounding landscape, the picture is imbued with a timeless lyricism that ironically belies the tragedy that is to ensue for the characters. It’s clear from Venus’s expression as she looks at the dogs that she has a vivid premonition of her lover’s imminent fate.
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