Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love’

T.J. Clark

I felt as if I had been plunged into a sea of wine of thought, and must drink to drowning. But the first distinct impression which fixed itself on one was that of the entire superiority of Painting to Literature as a test, expression and record of human intellect, and of the enormously greater quantity of Intellect which might be forced into a picture – and read there – compared with what might be expressed in words. I felt this strongly as I stood before the Paul Veronese. I felt assured that more of Man, more of awful and inconceivable intellect, went into the making of that picture than of a thousand poems.

John Ruskin’s diary, 8 September 1849

Over the past half-century or so, when writers have turned their attention to the four canvases by Veronese in the National Gallery called The Allegories of Love, they have spent their time trying to unpack the pictures’ iconography and said almost nothing about their visual character. This seems nearly as odd to me as it would have done to Ruskin, since the four pictures’ iconography is banal and their visual character unique and demanding. Iconographically speaking, the paintings tell a familiar late Petrarchan story of the pains and ecstasies of desire. Matrimony is eventually called on, in the stateliest of the four, to quieten things down, but most of the pictorial action in the three leading up to it has to do with Love’s double-dealing. The mysterious letter that goes from hand to hand in the painting called Infidelity is usually taken to be written by the woman in the middle to the man towards the left – the ‘soft musing poet’, as Edgar Wind imagined him, sweating in a pink silk number, ‘with some of the obesity of a coloratura tenor’. The little winged Eros stands at the clavichord nearby, ready to play continuo to his young master’s next outpourings. The poet looks to the sky for inspiration.

And surely Veronese is signalling to us what we should expect the poet to recite. More of the same as the fragmentary phrase in the letter, just readable upside down – ‘che uno possede’, it looks like, or ‘che me possede’ – in either case, a piece of Petrarchan boilerplate. Elise Goodman-Soellner had no trouble duplicating the phrases and showing the orthodoxy of the argument they are part of – love as a state of irresistible possession, its ‘by whom’ and ‘of whom’ constantly shifting, and therefore unable ever to shake off its fear of the property being stolen or, worse, counterfeit – in sonnets and madrigals from Trissino to Brevio to Molza to Guarini. Sly, I think, the utter predictability of the phrase. (Like the fragment of Greek lyric recycled by Ezra Pound, pretending to be three survivals on a scrap of papyrus: ‘Spring … /Too long … /Gongula … ’) My bet is that the letter in Infidelity is the poet’s work, not the woman’s. Maybe she is giving the letter back to him, rather in the spirit of: ‘Try again; and this time find something new to say about Love.’

Veronese does find something new to say. And he knows it; he signals it. The letter is his arrogant, light-hearted comment on the rote nature of his raw materials and his fabulous, exultant confidence that he – not the poet – will give them unprecedented form. Taking my cue from Ruskin, I see the upside-down letter as Veronese’s comment, in passing, on his art’s effortless distance from language, from cliché, from prefabricated desire.

It would not be fair of me to give the impression that the iconographers of The Allegories of Love are unaware of this. Of course they know that the four paintings are astonishing visual performances, meant to register as such. ‘As would be expected in the work of Veronese’, here is the kind of thing art historians remember to say, ‘the central idea in each episode is expressed with great – at times shocking – forcefulness, brought into focus by the actions of all the secondary figures, and vividly illustrated by the inanimate objects and symbols (the letter, the wine beaker, etc).’ This is a quotation not an invention, and it seems to me equivalent to saying: ‘As would be expected in Shakespeare, the central Revenger’s Tragedy idea in Hamlet is expressed with great – at times shocking – forcefulness, though the play does sometimes get lost in the twists and turns of its hero’s self-study,’ or ‘As would be expected in Kant, the central argument on space and time is pursued with great – at times trying – subtlety, not to say a positive delight in showing that contrary arguments always end in logical impasse.’

I am being unkind. But, remembering Ruskin, I stick to my guns. Veronese has a Shakespearean ability to use the sensuous and structural qualities of his medium – the exact disposition of light, space, colour and figure within the picture rectangle – to make standard materials mutate. And surely the main task of art history is to give an account of how. ‘As would be expected … ’ is no answer.

‘Infidelity’ from ‘The Allegories of Love’ (c.1570-75).
‘Infidelity’ from ‘The Allegories of Love’ (c.1570-75).

One way to launch an account would be by pointing to a basic, yet I think enigmatic, aspect of the Allegories: that is, their orientation to us as viewers. Face to face with the four enormous objects, each more than six feet square, an onlooker instinctively senses that in each of them the way through the picture plane is not straightforward – not an imagined movement across a transparency hung (which is to say, posited or intimated) right there in front of us, at eye level. We seem to be ushered upwards into the illusion from somewhere lower down. So a question of fact arises: is it possible to know or reconstruct how Veronese, as he brought the canvases into being, envisaged their final real-world relation to us – to our bodies standing in the room they were originally made for?

Connoisseurs in the 18th century in France (for a while the paintings belonged to the duc d’Orléans) gave us our first inkling of the paintings’ Italian titles – Infedeltà, Disinganno, Rispetto and Unione felice – and then later suggested they were meant as ceiling decoration. There is no evidence from the archives to support this, but the suggestion has stuck. I see why. There is something about the visual organisation of all four scenes that seems premised on their being seen from below; and this creation of a view from lower down – this construction of an ‘above-ness’ for the figures and the worlds they inhabit – is fundamental, you will see, to my sense of Veronese’s achievement. But the question remains: from how far below? And with the plane of the picture in what kind of relation, exactly, to the viewer looking up? Is it grandly – spectacularly – overhead, at right angles up on the ceiling? Or opposite us, maybe quite high on the wall, maybe with the painting hoisted a little above eye level (over a palace doorway, even), but facing us, with the bodies within the frame understood (meaning felt) as reiterating – amplifying, mobilising, diverging from – our uprightness just underneath?

The longer I look, the more I think ‘just underneath’ most probable. The four canvases, as Veronese made them, were presumably upright: massive unwieldy surfaces, fastened to an easel or a studio scaffold. Their space was premised on the vertical. It was fitting (here is my sense of Veronese’s intention) that in the end they floated high in relation to us, but not too high. They had to be at a level where the powerful (and wonderfully varied) grounding of the four paintings – the stone platform, the scrollwork pedestal, the fallen fragments of architrave, the grassed-over ledge – could register as our grounding. The pictures begin with terrazzi, to use the period phrase: steps and footings built into the earth, some solid, some littered and crumbling, but all of them inviting us upward into the imagined world. From not far below.

Infidelity, to take an example, seems to me immensely more powerful if the final teetering obliquity of the woman is prepared for from the bottom up – if we get to her elusiveness over the grassy ledge, the slope of the ruined brickwork, the man at right bracing one foot on the grass and letting the other heel rest lightly on the bricks’ sharp corners. And the same is true, even more strongly, of Disinganno. We feel the man’s abjection – his lowness – because we get to it from somewhere tangible even lower down.

Disinganno, I should say in passing, is the hardest of the four traditional titles to translate. The English Scorn, which has come to be attached to it, is surely wrong, both visually and in terms of philology. Disinganno is a strong Baroque term. It is the moment of being robbed of one’s illusions and seeing the actual state of things. There is an element of chastisement and self-chastisement to it, and certainly an element of stripping to the bone. ‘Disabuse’ is as close as we can come to the idea in English, but the word is too weak, too awkward. In this case, the Italian should stand.

I realise, of course, that no argument about whether or not these were ceiling paintings is ever going to be decisive. I could bring on pictures by Veronese that are, or were, on ceilings – the work in the Doge’s Palace in Venice, or the crowning scenes at San Sebastiano, or even the fabulous oval in Vienna of Marcus Curtius leaping across the abyss – and try to persuade you that when Veronese was painting with this kind of viewpoint in mind, his whole sense of orientation and picture plane turned, unmistakably, through 180 degrees or very close. You could still contend that in the Allegories he experimented with a strange compromise formation. But the Allegories, for me, are Veronese’s masterpiece; and masterpieces, I’m convinced, are fundamentally single-minded. Space and bodies – seeing from below and spellbinding uprightness – are in sync in the four pictures; they are dimensions of Veronese’s thought that exist in tension, not at odds. And all of this leads back to my sense of Veronese’s distinctive qualities as a painter, which I see the Allegories as summing up.

‘Disinganno’ from ‘The Allegories of Love’ (c.1570-75).
‘Disinganno’ from ‘The Allegories of Love’ (c.1570-75).

*

‘A good, stout, self-commanding, magnificent Animality,’ Ruskin writes, ‘is the make for poets and artists.’ Again he has Veronese in view. I would argue the case slightly differently. What seems to me the central feature of Veronese’s achievement – I could use many examples, but let us focus on the counterpoised bodies in Respect – is a unique completeness of empathy with the figures he paints, so that one feels him almost physically entering into them, male or female, and deploying their weight and balance as if from the inside. Even Titian cannot manage the business in quite the same way. The centre, or anchor, of Veronese’s vision was this: an internal, material, comprehensive inhabiting of bodies, and therefore an ability to depict their glittering outsides as manifestations of their weight, their mechanics: the set of their skeletons, their centres of gravity, their muscle tone. I really do not see any other painter who can do this; that is, who is able to have these facts of deep structure and self-propulsion appear wholly on the outside of things, in the fall of a drape or the lustre of a fold of fat.

Perhaps it is strange that the gift is so rare. But it is rare, maybe because human beings naturally divide experience in two, the inhabiting of the body being something experienced from the inside, and ‘appearances’ being felt as detached from that lived totality. However we try to explain the norm, what Veronese does is extraordinary: he steps over the dualism as if the division of inside and outside didn’t occur to him. But of course he knows that outsides, if they are to manifest the feel of a complex, animate solid in motion, will have to be somehow supercharged, almost hypertrophied. Hence the famous gaudiness of his surfaces – the shot silk, the rippling silver stripes, the impenetrable brocade, the special acidity of his greens and yellows. His treatment of fabrics makes sense, I think, the moment one grasps it as a language – a specific high diction – in which internal mobilities and resistances are staged in two dimensions.

Veronese’s sensuousness (this would be one way of putting it) is grave. Grave meaning subject to the force of gravity. Few painters put feet on the ground with more of an awareness – built into the brushwork, seemingly – of the feet as load-bearing. (One writer on the Allegories points out that several of the protagonists’ feet disappear below the frame, and I dare say this is one factor in the pictures’ creation of ‘above-ness’. But the feet that Veronese does show us in three of the four works – I don’t count Cupid’s preposterous digits in Disinganno – braced or hanging in space, often with their soles visible, seem entirely part of an earthbound world.) No one can make damask meet the floor with such a soft thud as Veronese. And this connects immediately to his textiles’ responsiveness to light. What is truly unique is not just his feeling for lustres and textures, but his ability to grasp and render a patterned fabric – the one in Disinganno, for example, or central to Happy Union – as a distinctive, essentially singular colour (a specific note in a colour scale or spectrum). Not pink cloth with gold brocading, then, or white with silver stripes and a light purple cloak, but an entirely felt-through (seen) gold-rose and silver-grey; the first in inimitable dialogue with the separated gold-yellow and green next to it; the second shimmering exactly strongly enough to answer the folds of orange and gold wrapped around the naked man’s groin.

That Veronese was aware of his gift, and capable of irony about it, is suggested by the great conceit of the fig leaves silhouetted against the white fabric in Infidelity. Clearly it is meant to take us a moment or two to disentangle the leaves from their ground, and to be sure we’re looking at Nature not Culture. There is something scandalous to this, even leaving aside the erotic associations of the fruit. I dare say Veronese disliked too much illusionism in embroidery. The fig-leaf gown is the strict antithesis of the bride’s brocade in Happy Union. There Cupid’s hand can disappear into the folds of drapery without anyone getting the wrong idea.

All of this is moving towards the hard question in Veronese’s case (the Ruskin-type question) of what these inimitable contrasts and tonalities are for – what picture of the human they subtend. Not, anyway, a ‘hedonism’. Animality, yes; but ‘eat, drink and be merry’, no. What chilled and bewildered Ruskin (but also had him cheering) was precisely the recognition that Veronese’s colour was restrained in its very sumptuousness; that it articulated a heroic and pagan view of the human, in which Christianity had little place, but one fully capable of tenderness and compassion, and most often shot through with a sense of human vulnerability. This is true, I think, of both central female figures in Happy Union and Respect. The nude in Respect is protected – not just set off like a jewel – by the great carapace of purple above and white and gold-russet below. The bride’s body in Happy Union is crystallised – epitomised – by the astonishing transparent purple-tinged lace at her breast: an image of her tentativeness, in dialogue with her hand gesture and the shadow crossing her face.

As part of the pageant there is frailty – insecurity. This runs through all four panels. The off-balance pose of the knight in Respect is its great mid-term; the fallen man in Disinganno its in extremis; the man on the right in Infidelity its moment of comedy.

*

I have been setting out my view of Veronese’s distinctive procedures as an artist, using episodes from the Allegories, a bit haphazardly, to show the procedures in action. But is pointing at random enough? Surely there is some kind of overall patterning or structure to the quartet. I say ‘structure’ not iconography, since the kind of patterning and mirroring that I think does real semantic work in the Allegories is formal and general, rather than tied to identifiable texts or even typical Renaissance trains of thought. All the same, the iconographers have sometimes had useful things to say about it. In their efforts to imagine the layout of the four panels on that long-ago ceiling, one or two of them have pointed to the fact that the criss-cross of trees in Infidelity is as it were continued at the left of Disinganno, and that the shattered and denuded architecture top right in Disinganno paves the way for the great enclosure – the safety – of the palace in Respect. The settings of Respect and Happy Union are linked; there is almost a continuity at ground level. It is possible to imagine Fortuna – the goddess on the sphere at the left in Happy Union – as a transform of the sleeping woman in Respect, sobered up (if that really is an empty flask of wine by the sleeper’s bedside) and meeting petitioners on the outside of the building.

I may be scoffing a bit at the wish for narrative here, but the essential division – into two groups of two – is surely reasonable. Infidelity and Disinganno are pictures of love in an outside world, where Nature has already largely overtaken a fallen order. How cunningly done the soft down of grasses on the front ledge of Infidelity! How hard on the feet those sharp-edged stones in Disinganno! And how total the change of key as one passes from Disinganno to Respect! The spatial disposition of the palace in Respect may be perplexing – I shall come to that – but the sense of grandeur and orderliness is overwhelming. The high arch with its mosaic and the grey sky far in the distance; the fall of the drapes; the man’s hand as a cut-out against a black and gold brocaded screen; even the crisp profile of the front step – it is all Architecture epitomised. Architecture meaning permanence, decorum, hard-edged division of spaces. The round stone on its massive base in Happy Union, and the sea-green veining of the column behind the god, essentially continue the story.

Openness versus enclosure, then, or twisting tree trunks versus perfect sphere: this is one way Veronese envisages the contraries of Love. But there are many others, which often cut across the Nature/Architecture division. The fallen man in Disinganno is the mirror image of the woman in Respect, and the two central Cupids in the same pictures are transforms of one another; Disinganno and Happy Union have the same set-up of female/female/male from left to right, though put to utterly different purposes. Three of the four paintings are essentially closed at their right sides, by architecture or drapery or both – even Infidelity is hemmed in by a great red hanging pinned to the tree. Happy Union seems deliberately the negative term here, open to the grey sky. Disinganno, looked at another way, is the mirror image of Happy Union just as much as it is of Respect, with Fortuna’s throne and aedicule, top left, replaced by the ruined Pan temple (or grotto), top right. Pan and Fortuna are an interesting duo. The head of the knight in gold in Respect is rhymed with that of the poet in pink in Infidelity; yet there is just as good a comparison, in terms of uninterrupted silhouetting of head against sky, between the knight in gold and the femme fatale in Infidelity. But surely she calls out to her opposite at the centre in Happy Union – clothed to naked, embedded to isolated, sacred to profane.

‘Happy Union’ from ‘The Allegories of Love’ (c.1570-75).
‘Happy Union’ from ‘The Allegories of Love’ (c.1570-75).

Veronese, like the rest of us, seems to begin thinking by means of binaries: Male/Female, Nature/Architecture, Naked/Clothed, Upright/Fallen. But the opposites lead on almost immediately to crossings, half-rhymes, borrowing of traits. Equivocation – balancing between possibilities – seems to be the key to his ethics. We sense the woman in Infidelity still feeling for a balance she has lost. She is leading the men a dance for certain (and sometimes I fancy the men too are holding hands, so the dance is really interminable), but she needs their support. The man to the right is holding her steady. The woman in silver-grey in Disinganno is not quite ready, by the look of things, to be led away by her friend Chastity from the man’s dazzling abjection. And who can blame her? Her friend is a pallid ghost of a woman, whose profile is doubled, somewhat cruelly, by that of the stoat in her lap. The way of virtue has an anorexic feel. The man on the ruined architrave, by contrast, is the power of illusion personified. In a great working drawing for the Allegories, now in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, you can see Veronese experimenting with the figure – one, two, three, four, five times (remarkably for him) – till he hits exactly the right measure of foreshortening to trigger the viewer’s empathetic participation. And the angle he chooses is perfect. One feels the stone and the orange drapery under one’s shoulder blades. And then finally one notices – typical Veronese – that the man’s head is casting a shadow across the last bay of the architrave he lies on. Immediately his head moves closer to the picture plane. The trap of illusion – of weight, of presence, of proximity – snaps shut.[*]

You see that I cannot stop myself from moving again from discussion of structure – of possible overall patterning in the group – to particular episodes and exchanges. And this is right. Of course it makes a difference that we look at the woman in Disinganno as she assesses what to do in the face of a fallen man’s erotic agony – notice that the bow Eros is using to administer punishment is coloured pink, and the whiplash of bow-string is glittering gold – with an awareness that right next door, in Respect, the roles and genders are reversed. But the foursome as a whole is very much not, in the end, a logical or topological transformation set. For the actual viewer, if my experience is anything to go on, it is not the positionality of each encounter – its place in the grammar of doublings and reversals – that matters most. It is the particular materialisation, the embodiment. The exact angle of the woman’s look downwards and across. The inimitable ambiguity of her expression. The way she is holding but not holding Chastity’s hand. Her other hand disappearing into the light mauve mantle. The heaviness and softness of her breast.

*

Nonetheless, I would be doing Veronese an injustice if all this essay managed was to chronicle local feats. For Veronese does think, like all great thinkers, in a totalising manner: he does see the whole picture. In particular, he sees space. He does not conceive his particular bodies and interactions as separate from the space they move in. And that space has to be given a specific character: it has to be a main actor in the drama. It, if anything, will be what allegorises Eros.

I go back to the question of viewpoint, and divide the question in two. I want to look first at viewpoints and orientations as they occur within each picture’s fictive space, and then return to the way the whole space in the picture – and the action within that space – connects with us viewers on the ground. In practice I shan’t be able to keep the two dimensions of the problem separate, but it is worth trying to.

Focus on Infidelity. Of the four Allegories, this is the one that takes most profound advantage, I feel, of a basic fact of the paintings: that they are all almost perfect, and almost identical, squares. In this case, 75 by 75 inches. A square encourages an equal, contrapuntal weighting of elements within the pictorial field, with maybe each side of the picture dramatised or reiterated by forms close to it, making its presence felt. A square encourages framing: the to and fro of evenly stressed, approximately rhyming shapes, perhaps around a central fulcrum. All of this happens here. The dialogue between the human limbs and the tree limbs has always been admired. It is beautiful, and produces ambiguity. Where any of the actors stands in relation to the forest clearing soon comes to matter, and to be a problem – maybe particularly the nature of the interval between the woman’s hairdo and the leaves so close on the flat. And this uncertainty spreads. Writers on Infidelity have often been aware – Michael Podro most eloquently – that Veronese’s main way of conveying the uncertainty of ‘positions’ in the circuit of Love is by drawing the viewer into a game of unreadable orientations. The woman’s back, shoulders and arms are at the heart of this: the little wingless boy holding her shin seems to be there mainly to reiterate the colour and modelling of her musculature, but his back is turned just a little more towards the picture plane, which makes the elusiveness of her back, higher up, all the more noticeable. In any case, the elusiveness is everywhere. The stump of ruined brickwork concentrates the enigma. At what angle does it recede from the picture plane? How does the woman sit on it? Is she sitting at all, do we think, or maybe in the process of getting to her feet? But then what about the cherub hanging onto her calf? The man at the right is sitting, unmistakably, but how? How are we meant to read the lean of his upper body? Or the angles of his two lower legs? Or the tilt of the sole of his boot? And we know already that the pink poet won’t help us. His swaying back and looking up are part of a world off kilter.

‘Respect’ from ‘The Allegories of Love’ (c.1570-75).
‘Respect’ from ‘The Allegories of Love’ (c.1570-75).

The trees amplify the indecision. At one moment they twist grandly back into space, providing the figures a stately canopy; at the next they flatten into symmetries and repetitions of pattern. So the fig-leaf sapling is really a miniature – an intensification – of the picture’s whole either/or. Even its ground level participates in the dance. It is important that the grassy bank in the foreground, which I have already said is enticing, is offered to us just slightly on a slope – in contrast to the hard and sharp horizontals in Respect and Happy Union. Perhaps the side of the clavichord at left was introduced – it seems to have been a last-minute addition – to give the viewer at least one right angle in a world of shifting obliques. But it doesn’t help much: it is too small to act as a spatial anchor. Cupid looks up from his instrument in something very like alarm. When is anyone in this game of Love going to straighten up and find a rhythm?

Maybe an anti-Ruskinian would say that all of this, in Infidelity, is mainly a matter of its happening out of doors, in the grand mobility of Nature. Veronese is just being casual with his spatiality; lordly, florid, free and easy. But much the same happens when we move inside. Respect is a beautiful, trustworthy structure, but I defy anyone to draw its elevation and ground plan. How far back is the arch with its stucco and mosaics, and how are we to understand the angle of its curvature and the depth of its recession? Does it connect with the cornice below it to the right? How is there room on top of the cornice for a flask – maybe of wine – to rest? Presumably the flask is within reach of an upright human. How does that tally with the general sense we have of the architecture’s scale? Why did Veronese mask the stonework below the cornice with a second, hyper-elusive surface – a screen, by the look of it, since the thing’s edges are too hard and straight to be a hanging – covered in a pattern of gold and black? The knight’s hand, picked out dryly, electrifies this dark field. Down below, on the outmost edge of visibility, the screen is interrupted by one of Cupid’s wings. (Maybe the gold and black are meant to be a bed-screen, which the woman has forgotten to erect – or which Cupid has pulled aside.) And how – finally, quintessentially – is the knight in gold meant to be moving from level to level within the building? Where is he standing, exactly, and how does he steady himself? (Compare his invisible two feet with Cupid’s peek-a-boo toes.) The knight is one of Veronese’s triumphs. I shall return to him. Suffice to say, for the time being, that the figure participates fully in the strangeness of the space it has just come into.

Here is the moment to step back – and above all, to step down. For it matters profoundly, to repeat, that we are looking up into the worlds of Respect and Infidelity, and this viewpoint tempers and complicates our whole response. It doesn’t cancel out the uncertainties of orientation I have been pointing to – part of what produces the elusiveness of the naked woman’s back and shoulders in Infidelity is the angle at which we approach them – but it gives them a different kind of weight. It asks us to accept grandeur and precariousness simultaneously. Not as aspects of a world we can never hope to enter – everything I have been saying about Veronese’s physicality makes that kind of detachment unthinkable – but of one just out of reach. Familiar and tangible, but also superhuman. That is the pagan balance to be struck.

There is obviously something wonderful in general, and appealing to all sorts of painters, about showing a scene from below its ground level. The view up intensifies and makes strange. The great formal idea of the Allegories, it seems to me, is to take that angle of viewing, with all its potential for magnification and estrangement, and put it at the service of an earthbound view of life. It will be a struggle to put this into words.

Always in the Allegories we are looking up, not into an utterly sublimated, superior space of the gods, but into a great construction: a clearing or a portico whose scale and logic are slightly (meaning decisively) beyond us. Sometimes, as in Disinganno, the construction has toppled or crumbled, and kinds of unruliness have taken over; but even they are to be experienced in relation to the rule and balance implicit in the fragments. Rule and balance; but not a rule and balance that we shall understand – that the pictures will ever spell out to us. We are not meant to know what the knight in gold or the woman in silver are about. Our viewpoint is our not knowing.

But again, it does not follow from this that the Allegories put us out of touch with the world just above us. It is just above us, not floating in the void. We have stumbled into the world of Love in a way not unlike the knight in gold halfway up the palace steps. His stance towards the woman whose nakedness he has happened upon: attracted, obviously, but at the same time stepping back, resisting Eros’s instructions, taking a distance, holding a balance, seeing enough – all this is a set of instructions, as it were, a template for the kind of viewing we are meant to take in turn from our place below stairs.

Veronese offers us almost nothing in the Allegories by way of perspective clues. No ground planes, no graspable orthogonals. For a moment Respect can seem to, but its space is a house of cards. Yet the Allegories are profoundly perspectival paintings, in the wider sense of the word. They are projections, from a viewpoint – our viewpoint – that is felt to be discontinuous from (non-identical to) the lived spatial world of the inhabitants of the scenes. The lowness of our vantage point means we shall never be able to claim any imaginary authority over the worlds projected from where we are standing; but nonetheless it means – and isn’t this at the heart of these pictures’ strangeness? – that the world up there (the spatial container) does not simply belong to the actors steadying themselves in relation to its co-ordinates. Space is absolute. Not even heroes are wholly at home in it. Not even gods perched high on stone.

Seeing from below, then, in Veronese’s hands, is seeing as if from outside. It is not the outside of detachment, and certainly not of awed inferiority. Perhaps we should just describe it as the outside of unfamiliarity. We look up at the human comedy, and are aware above all of its physical, spatial dimensions. Standing and falling, balancing and unbalancing, the brick stump and the stone sphere. Familiar and tangible, to repeat, but also transfigured. Only a painter who had made it his life’s work to set up worlds that would register as fully and naturally equivalent to ours – worlds of mass and proximity – could have put things at a distance in just this way.

*

Viewpoint and orientation, to sum up, are two main modes of a great artist’s thinking of space. But they are far from the only ones. Light, so painting in general never tires of telling us, is just as important a conjurer of spatiality. And also shadow, especially cast shadow, which seems to point immediately to light’s trajectory, light’s strength. Painters do not make space primarily with lines, or even containers. They make it with bodies intercepting photons. Veronese in the Allegories, it turns out, is a master above all of cast shadow. I say ‘turns out’ because the shadows themselves, for all their beauty (as part of their beauty) take some seeing. They are very unlike, say, the show-stopping crux at the centre of Rembrandt’s Night Watch. They tend to emerge unexpectedly from the warp and woof of Veronese’s colour. Once we’ve seen them, we understand that many things depend on them. We can hardly believe there was a time when they were invisible.

One example of this I have already noted: the strange inspiration of the fallen man’s shadow on the architrave in Disinganno, and all that the shadow then does to our sense of the man’s proximity. Of course the patch of shade works on the viewer here in the way it does because Veronese has given us such strong, abbreviated clues elsewhere in the picture to the intensity of the sunlight as a whole: on the agonised fingers of both the man’s hands, for example, or on his upturned face and the sharp folds of his orange wrap. There are other analogous instances. Look at the face of the bride in Happy Union, and notice again the smudge of shadow passing across it – perhaps cast by Fortuna’s forearm, or even the bridal wreath she is holding out. And then come to realise that what one first unthinkingly takes as attached shadow on the stone sphere, coming in from the sphere’s outer edge, is actually a discrete shape of cast shadow, with the sphere re-entering the light on the other side of it, top right. It must be – gentle anamorphosis, this – the shadow of the bride’s body. We turn back to Respect, and our eyes go immediately to the knight’s arm and hand against the grey sky and the dark brocade. Not for the first time we ask ourselves how the arm is hinged, actually, at the elbow, and how far forward in space – forward as well as laterally – the hand is reaching. Then we see the anti-Night Watch moment. The arm is there, as cast shadow, moving back across the knight’s gold stomacher; one edge of its soft negative almost touches the navel. It is a ghostly apparition.

These are tours de force of painting; but in contrast to the Rembrandt, they are strong exactly in their lack of emphasis, their refusal to point and dramatise. That this is an entirely typical Veronese achievement – every bit as typical as the pungent gold and green that the knight’s shadow is cast onto – is one reason I grow impatient at the art historian’s ‘As would be expected in the work of Veronese, the central idea … is expressed with … shocking … forcefulness.’ Forcefulness is only one of the artist’s registers. And often, the stronger the force – the more vibrant the colour – the subtler the counter-force, the qualification.

Here is where I truly feel a touch of Ruskin vertigo coming on. I know, with the shadow on the sphere and on the gold stomacher, that I am in the presence of some daunting pictorial thought. I am moved by the thought. I believe a whole view of the human is being proposed by it. But what view, and why is the view so moving? At this point I clutch at straws.

Light in the Allegories – straw number one – gives the impression of being fairly bright and informative (Infidelity is a little flat and faded, though maybe because its surface has suffered over the years), but this does not mean that the source and direction of the light is clear. It appears in all four paintings to issue from the right and above, but whether from in front of the picture plane, or from the side, is a delicate question. Perhaps the light in Infidelity is imagined as coming through the picture plane from high up. In Disinganno, by contrast, it seems to enter from the rear, but fitfully, inconsistently, picking things out at random: fingers, a nipple, Eros’s forearm, the satyr’s smashed thigh. Where the light comes from in Respect is a mystery, which the cast shadow on the stomacher only deepens. The same for Happy Union. Putting together the grey on the sphere and the grey passing over the bride’s face, or for that matter, the light and shade on Fortuna’s cornucopia, or the play of shadows on her torso, or even the fabulous grey sole of her hanging far foot: making these shadows all come from the same sun – well, I cannot do it. And I have the feeling this is my problem, not Veronese’s. I cannot keep in mind all the possible variables – of location, orientation, topology, reflectiveness, and so on. But he could, I am sure. He knew how much complexity would serve his turn.

So, the shadows themselves are elusive, and emerge from the overall colour matrix in a very special way. And when they do, they tend to complicate our sense of how light is behaving, and how (or whether) it falls and crosses and totalises space. Perhaps the best way to get a handle on this is to face directly the comparison with Rembrandt that has been haunting my discussion – specifically with the shadow of the hand in The Night Watch as interpreted by Merleau-Ponty.

A detail from ‘The Night Watch’ by Rembrandt (1642).
A detail from ‘The Night Watch’ by Rembrandt (1642).

I did not mean to be condescending when I called the shadow in The Night Watch dramatic. Light and shade can be dramatic. They are dramatic. Rembrandt’s relish for them is understandable; it is Veronese’s pushing them to the edge of the perceptible that needs explaining. Merleau-Ponty believed that the shadow of the captain’s hand in the Rembrandt is a strong instance of what painters do habitually when they are good enough, which is to show us the actual process, the optical conditions, for a thing becoming a thing-in-vision. In this case, the hand – any hand – becomes a reality for the eye, with a felt location in space, only by means of an immediate, intuitive putting-together by each viewer of foreshortened and profile aspects, or shape and projection. Rembrandt’s is no more than a striking case of the kinds of triangulation that constitute vision all the time. Painting is about showing the elements in the equation, but also about showing the result, having the hand materialise out of its manifold appearances.

Is this what happens in Veronese? I don’t think so. We go back, inevitably, to the shadow on the gold stomacher, which so much anticipates Rembrandt’s – but which perhaps, once we have got used to it, makes Rembrandt’s seem a little overwrought. Even the gilt on the lieutenant’s dress uniform comes to seem a bit bourgeois in comparison. (Of course that was partly Rembrandt’s point.) Does the cast shadow on the stomacher call the knight’s actual hand into being, à la Merleau-Ponty: give it suddenly a spatial life, a specific orientation? I doubt it. It seems rather to multiply the uncertainties we already have – and that are at the heart of our response to the knight and his movement – about the line of his arm, the forward dynamic of his stride, the exact measure of pressure exerted against that forward motion by the knight’s shadowy companion, the backward lean of the knight’s body, his whole negotiation of the step. It matters, of course, that in contrast to Rembrandt the shadow here is cast back onto the knight’s own body, not that of somebody else. You might feel that the shadow is a figure of the knight’s self-restraint: it is the double of his forward-pointing arm, but now pressing gently against the onward motion. It is, as it were, the third arm of his restraining counsellor. The superego of the superman.

What it materialises, then, is not the simple presence of the body – the part of the knight that Eros is urging on – but the play of inhibition and equivocation that lies at the heart of desire. The knight is not merely remembering his duty as a gentleman. He has come on the object of desire too abruptly. He is recoiling from it: denying it, disavowing it. Freud would have loved the glassy fixity of his eyes, and the fact of their staring, like the pink poet’s, off into space. Men regularly stare into space when women take off their clothes. They’d rather not see the nothing that is there.

So the shadow in Veronese is not, as in Rembrandt, a guarantor – a conjurer – of presence, but truly a shadow of that presence, a double, an undercurrent, a ghostly familiar. There is a sense in which the shadow on the stomacher seems to reach inside the knight’s body, dematerialising his hard carapace. It is tragic and touching, the will-o’-the-wisp, as opposed to the comedy of Eros’s hand on the knight’s sword, urging battle, or the frightful little frog’s mouth and goggle eyes down at the knight’s waist level. Shadow is not negation here – there are no negations in Veronese’s universe – but it is interception, distortion, almost disfigurement. None of which threatens the pageant; it serves to give it depth.

Can the same be said of the shadow on the sphere in Happy Union? Yes, partly. Certainly the shadow confirms, and intensifies, the three-dimensional presence of the form that casts it. We read back solidity from the shadow to the bride. (The bride is more firmly embedded in a mass of bodies than any other figure in the series.) But is ‘intensifies’ the right word? Couldn’t the shadow as well be seen as a figure simply of the strangeness of three-dimensional being? It is and is not the shape of the woman. It is an indeterminate projection of her uprightness, her sheer (mere) verticality, onto a surface that immediately conjures that uprightness away – though not dramatically, not wickedly or playfully, not with the force of an anamorphosis.

This is a fine balance. Certainly the shadow on the sphere is not belittling or paradoxical: it is not an episode from a funhouse. But it does ask us, gently, not to equate the human body with the massiveness – the indubitability – of the regular stone volume. The sphere cannot lend the body its own material perfection.

Perhaps the dialectic goes further. The shadow seems, if anything, to confirm the form of the sphere, not of the body that casts it. This remains true even when one notices, as we have already, that the shadow marks out the shape of the sphere deceptively, at least to first sight. It deceives, for a second or two, as to the sphere’s actual curvature. The sphere and the shadow together do have effects, of course, on our apprehension of the bride: to repeat, they solidify her; they speak to her actual stopping of the light. But at the same time they move her away into a world where identities are only projections, intersections, shapes on surfaces we cannot always trust. We have entered a world again – as with the arm on the armour – that is not quite like the world of fleshly positivities summed up, so naively, in the body of the goddess seated up above. Between Fortuna and the shadow – Fortuna and the sphere as disturbed by the shadow – a great Veronese dialogue is taking place. (And of course the instability of spheres – their tendency to wobble and topple – is part of Fortuna’s story.)

This is a Veronese dialogue, and therefore the negativity of the shadow is not dwelled on. One can imagine him reading ‘A Lecture upon the Shadow’ by his near contemporary Donne, and being happy with the poem’s affirmative early lines:

    These three hours that we have spent,
    Walking here, two shadows went
Along with us, which we ourselves produced;
But, now the sun is just above our head,
    We do these shadows tread;
    And to brave clearness all things are reduced.

‘Brave clearness’ is the overall note in Happy Union. None of the alternative intuitions that follows from the recognition of the shadow as the woman’s is at all stressed. Paradox is foreign to Veronese’s frame of mind. This is the quietest – most blurred – of dialectics. But it is dialectics, and in it the sensuous presence of the body is put in play – gently, almost surreptitiously – with the shadowiness of its passing.

*

There is one dimension of the Allegories that I should try finally to face head on, though really I have been talking about it from the beginning. It is the Allegories’ view of gender. When Love is at issue in Veronese, which sex has the upper hand? Who is the actor and who the acted on?

You will not be expecting a simple answer. Even at the level of mere positionality, it is clear that Veronese thinks dominance and submission, or uprightness and prostration (or being on top, to put the matter instrumentally), move constantly from male to female as the game of Love proceeds. Nakedness does not necessarily mean subjection. Fortuna sits higher than any other actor in the plot; the picture rectangle can barely contain her. As for the woman in Infidelity, is there another naked woman in the history of art who so dictates – handles, balances, orchestrates, prestidigitates – the terms of her own exchange between men? This does not mean, as I see it, that Veronese falls back on the courtly love cliché of mistress as impassive ruler. The woman in Infidelity may be dominant, but she depends on the men she manipulates for support. Both her boy cherub companions seem worried about her ability to go on holding the pose. The woman in silver-grey and mauve in Disinganno does not seem to be gloating over the naked man’s downfall. She has seen – or almost seen (the orange drape does a little concealing) – what, behind the flowery phrases, men always want. It is a sobering experience, but whether the conclusions Chastity draws from it are at all the right ones remains in doubt. In due course Disinganno may prove to be part of growing up.

Veronese is a realist. He knows that the balance of power in sex lies ultimately with the male. But exercising that power is a risky business. Sex is comedy. Infidelity speaks to that: the man on the right, so the costume historians tell us, has stripped down to his under-armour, and by the look of it he lacks trousers. Again, golden folds conceal his genitals. This is a scandalous scene in general; but even in Happy Union the man in the set-up seems to be slightly overdoing things. It is not for nothing that his profile is rhymed with that of Fido at bottom right. The tilt of the bridegroom’s head, and his look of devotion, and above all his hand gestures, lack conviction – they are like bad stage-managed versions of those of the knight in Respect. And never has an artist taken more wicked advantage of the opportunity Cupids and putti offer to show the viewer miniature penises as comic substitutes for those kept under wraps. Penises, not phalluses: no male in the Allegories, we could say, is put in possession of the phallus, even metaphorically. The satyr’s limbs are broken, the Pan pipes a ridiculous toy. Cupid’s arrow, in Respect, is exquisite but much too small. He knows it: he is urging the knight to take his sword out of its sheath. And that is just what the knight is deciding not to do.

Insofar as the four paintings allow themselves a moment in which the sheer power and glamour of the sex organs is celebrated, then surely it is in the bottom right corner of Respect. The metaphor, when it comes, is wild, florid, flagrant – even Courbet would seldom be so shameless. The sleeping woman’s fingers pressing the folds of drapery; the fig leaves in the appropriate position in Infidelity; even the cornucopia in Happy Union pouring its bounty from between Fortuna’s legs … I have been saying Veronese was not a hedonist: that doesn’t mean he lacked a vision of pleasure.

But again, to end on this note would be wrong. I still think the figure that crystallises Veronese’s worldview is the knight. I believe, as I have said, that the knight’s extraordinary off-balance posture is the form Veronese gives to his deepest thinking about human choices, human ethics and responsibilities. But of course built into these is a layer of reflex, appetite, recoil. Ethics and instincts are transforms of one another. Part of the knight’s enormity and pathos derives from the fact that he is so palpably converting a somatic, automatic equivocation into something more human and discursive. He is, first of all, merely a male face to face with a woman’s nakedness. And on one level he follows the Freudian script. He hesitates. He sees and does not see. He sways backward but reaches out to touch. He is the hand and the hand’s shadow. The little Eros, with his pre-Freudian view of sexual dynamics, is not finding the right words to rouse the knight from his trance. The grey counsellor on the left seems to be offering consolation as much as good advice. Once or twice I have called the knight’s stance on the steps off balance. But this isn’t quite right. His movement is decentred, certainly – subject to many holds, pulls, impulsions. But of course in the end it steadies itself. The hand set off by the black and gold brocade – that tour de force of spatial suggestion, put at the picture’s plumb centre – is an anchor, a fulcrum. Sex in the Allegories is always stopping itself in its tracks. Loss of nerve and Disinganno are written into its very fabric. But that exactly does not mean, for Veronese, that it lacks grandeur. It has grandeur enough. ‘A good, stout, self-commanding, magnificent Animality’, to quote Ruskin again. We could go on to quarrel about the adequacy of the final noun here. ‘Animality’ and ‘humanity’, in Veronese, seem to me names for much the same (exceeding) thing. Neither word quite touches what Veronese is proposing. But Ruskin’s four adjectives, with their flavour of Homer’s or even Shakespeare’s paganism, are close to the mark.

I look for a further voice to amplify Ruskin’s argument, and come up with Nietzsche, from The Will to Power:

Such an experimental philosophy as I live anticipates experimentally even the possibilities of the most fundamental nihilism; but this does not mean that it must halt at a negation, a No … It wants rather to cross over to the opposite of this – to a Dionysian affirmation of the world as it is, without subtraction, exception, or selection … the same things, the same logic and illogic of entanglements …

So I have guessed to what extent a stronger type of human being would necessarily have to conceive the elevation and enhancement of the human as taking place in another direction: higher beings, beyond good and evil, beyond those values which cannot deny their origin in the sphere of suffering, the herd, the majority – I sought in history the beginnings of this construction of reverse ideals (the concepts ‘pagan’, ‘classical’, ‘noble’, newly discovered and expounded).

That there are dangers to Nietzsche’s ‘enhancement of the human’ we hardly need to be reminded. But Veronese in the Allegories, I have been arguing, provides us with a way to think heroism – think elevation – without the dangers necessarily overwhelming us. Look back – look up – at Disinganno. We are the ecstatic and foolish man on the ruined architrave; but also the woman on the hill, pivoting and rebalancing as she looks, one breast exposed by the movement, her face a study in inquisitiveness and calm. She takes the measure of the human comedy. The woman in Infidelity is her cousin. These are higher beings, we recognise, but ‘higher’ here means the opposite of pitiless or invulnerable. ‘The same things, the same logic and illogic of entanglements.’ ‘More of Man, more of awful and inconceivable intellect.’ I am with Nietzsche and Ruskin, those necessary madmen, in thinking such a reverse ideal more than ever what we need.