The New York Times
WHAT is going on in this gorgeously executed 16th-century painting? A young man garbed in sumptuous white satin is about to embrace a frumpish young woman of serious mien, wearing a green gown and military-style boots. Her plain hairdo is topped by a laurel wreath. She pulls him toward her, away from a far sexier wench, elaborately coiffed, whose sultrier costume reveals half of her back, turned to the viewer. He looks away from both women, his face Ñ in half-profile Ñ wearing a just-rescued expression.
The work is "The Choice Between Virtue and Vice," by the Venetian painter Paolo Veronese (1528-88). And guess which woman is Virtue? The frump, of course. Despite his foppish appearance, the man in white is man enough to choose her over Vice, even though she's much less attractive and certainly more demanding.
If you frequent the Frick Collection the painting will not be unfamiliar. It has been hanging in the West Gallery, along with another large-scale Veronese, "Wisdom and Strength," since their purchase by Henry Clay Frick in 1912. Now the two Frick Veroneses and three more, borrowed from the Metropolitan and the Los Angeles County museums, are displayed together in "Veronese's Allegories: Virtue, Love and Exploration in Renaissance Venice," a five-painting show in the Frick's Oval Room. They form the first Veronese exhibition in the United States since 1988 and the first ever to include all of the artist's large-scale allegories from American collections.
Bringing these paintings together not only provides an occasion to show how Veronese, a superb colorist and one of the most suavely sensuous of Renaissance Venetian painters, used the age-old device of allegory to make abstract concepts visual, often by means of human or mythological figures. The show's catalog also provides updates on recent Veronese scholarship and its challenges in sorting out the paintings' dates, commissions and meanings.
Four of the works are thought to date from the mid-1560's; the Metropolitan's, "Venus and Mars United by Love," is placed in the early 1570's. It was done after Veronese had ventured into darker tonalities and more serious subject matter, under the influence of his contemporary, Jacopo Tintoretto.
Italian artists used allegory in decorative cycles for palaces, churches, institutional and even private buildings, and Veronese did his share of those. But he went a step further, suggests Xavier F. Salomon, an Andrew W. Mellon curatorial fellow at the Frick who put together this show and its catalog. He brought allegory into single large-scale paintings, until then rarely if ever seen in such contexts.
The other Frick-owned work in the show, "Wisdom and Strength," depicts these two desirable attributes in the form of Hercules, looking meek but noirish, next to a nameless but saintly woman, with a divine light above her head and one breast exposed. Seemingly based on a celestial figure, she stands on a small globe that symbolizes the world as she casts her eyes (somewhat coyly) up to the heavens.
The painting is packed with worldly stuff: crowns, jewels, ornate hangings, even a little Cupid who seems to have his hand on a scepter. A biblical inscription on an ancient column next to Wisdom says, "All Is Vanity." The idea seems to be that earthly goods are nothing compared with things celestial, as personified by the divine gift of Wisdom.
In "Venus and Mars United by Love," the most erotic canvas on view, Venus in her nakedness is unmistakably Venus, goddess of love, and Mars in his armor is Mars, the god of war. Seated, he leans his head against her breast; she, standing, puts one hand on the nape of his neck.
With the other, she squeezes milk from her right breast as he draws her robe concealingly across her loins. Cupid ties a pink ribbon around their two left legs. At the right of the picture stands Mars's plump, sexy and nosy horse, restrained from the goings-on by another putto, who holds a sword against the animal's legs.
The picture represents the triumph of love over war, although its allegorical message carries an erotic charge that would certainly appeal to those less interested in high ideals than in the suggestive scenarios Veronese was adept at devising. This Venus is an excellent example of the sensual-spiritual nudes he painted that appealed to secular as well as religious tastes.
The other two paintings, allegories of navigation, from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, are quite different in spirit and appearance. They seem far more likely than the others to have been part of a set, whose number is not yet known. Each is painted on a long vertical canvas, each depicts a single monumental figure in ancient or Oriental garb holding a nautical instrument, against a background of classical ruins.
In "Allegory of Navigation With a Cross-Staff," a youngish, bearded man in a rather awkward standing position displays what is thought to be a cross-staff, an instrument, now obsolete, for taking the altitude of the sun and other stars (but it could also be a Byzantine cross). In "Allegory of Navigation With an Astrolabe," a much older, more Michelangelo-style personage, wearing a turban, clutches an astrolabe, also once used to find stars' altitude but later replaced by the sextant.
It had long been held that both figures represent aspects of navigation, a subject particularly germane to Venice's seafaring tradition. But, although their attributes suggest a nautical interpretation, scholarly speculation has also given the figure with the cross-staff religious significance, making a juxtaposition of Christian faith with science.
Much remains to be nailed down about these pictures. The provenance of some is still unclear. And what or who, for example, does the white-clad young man in "The Choice Between Virtue and Vice" represent? Who is the female figure in "Wisdom and Strength"? Does "Venus and Mars United by Love" have a deeper allegorical meaning than its rather straightforward imagery suggests? And so on and on. But never mind. Scholarly concerns shouldn't keep you from enjoying these marvelous pictures, still alive and fresh nearly half a millennium after they were painted.