Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 13, 2019
Diana Gisolfi Paolo Veronese and the Practice of Painting in Late Renaissance Venice New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017. 352 pp.; 293 color ills.; 54 b/w ills. Cloth $75.00 (9780300225822)

In recent years, scholarship has shown a growing interest in the art and person of Paolo Caliari, called Veronese (1528–1588), who for too long was considered essentially a mere decorator, a lesser figure compared to the more intellectual Titian and the volcanic Jacopo Tintoretto. Between 2013 and 2014, a few international exhibitions (Sarasota, London, Verona) honored this artist from Verona. Recent publications have likewise begun to change our perception of the master, especially the previously neglected aspects of his production and working practice. It is within this new context of interest in the artist that the present book should be considered.

Diana Gisolfi’s volume summarizes over four decades of research by the author on Paolo Veronese and his workshop, starting with her PhD dissertation and continuing throughout her career. The book is built on a multidisciplinary approach, which combines formal analysis with the interpretation of primary and secondary sources and a fresh overview of the historical and cultural context. Special attention is given to the contribution of noninvasive technical research and the body of data provided by a number of restorations of Venetian paintings and frescoes during recent decades. Veronese’s workshop practice, materials, and technique are the starting points for the author to compare Veronese’s art with that of other artists working in the Serenissima during the sixteenth century, mainly in Verona and Venice. Gisolfi’s aim is ambitious and her effort commendable. The results, however, do not always live up to the high expectations that have been set.

An introductory chapter sketches out the structure of the volume. Five chapters and a conclusion follow. The book closes with a thorough scholarly apparatus that includes a table listing the most common pigments used in the Cinquecento, a glossary of technical terms, a list of conservation records and the author’s site visits, and five appendices reproducing documents Gisolfi considered relevant to the text. The table of colors and glossary are very useful and instructive. The conservation records and other appendices are less useful and seem to weigh the book down, especially considering that author’s visits to sites are also mentioned in the footnotes, and the documents here have already been published multiple times by other scholars. Nevertheless, the book is suitable for both art historians and practitioners/artists, and for this reason alone Gisolfi’s volume would be worth a positive mention.

Chapter 2 investigates Veronese’s visual and cultural origins by exploring the historical, artistic, and (mainly) material context of his hometown, especially Verona’s invaluable Roman and Gothic heritage. This chapter provides the reader with a useful background, enriched by interesting insights: for example, there is a curious similarity between Pisanello’s and Veronese’s working methods (14). Unfortunately, this and other intriguing observations are not investigated in depth by the author, who focuses on examining the material and technical aspects of painting in Verona before Veronese’s birth. Here Gisolfi is preparing the ground for the more traditional third chapter in which the author investigates Veronese’s early life, training, and collaborations. Taking advantage of her extensive knowledge of the local artistic context and a deep understanding of technical data, Gisolfi offers a fresh interpretation of Veronese’s early career and apprenticeship. His experiences with Antonio Badile and Giovanni Caroto are seen as having shaped Paolo’s practice significantly and endowed the artist with a strong and enduring interest in drawing—this revelatory analysis is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of this section of the book. Yet the self-referential footnotes ignore some of the finest recent research, including Evelyn Karet’s studies on Badile’s album of drawing (2006, 2014) and the critical editions of Giorgio Vasari’s life of the painters from Verona edited by Paolo Plebani (2012) and Monica Molteni with Paola Artoni (2013).

In chapter 4, Gisolfi explores Veronese’s arrival in Venice in 1551, his early patrons and commissions, and the rise of his fame during the 1550s along with Tintoretto’s. The comparison of Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese’s methods in the mid-Cinquecento, when the three artists were at various stages in their careers and working on different types of commissions, is the most intriguing part of this chapter. The author includes a discussion of the endless polemic concerning the debate disegno-colore, reinterpreted through a fresh look at the contemporary writings on painting theory and practice by Paolo Pino, Pietro Aretino, Lodovico Dolce, Vasari, and Daniele Barbaro. As often in the book, however, interesting insights alternate with commonplace statements and, most surprisingly, a lack of secondary sources. Indeed, the bibliography should have been amplified with some modern studies: the absence of Lionello Puppi’s book on Titian’s correspondence, for example, is inexplicable. The author seems to ignore the recent abundant literature on the Da Porto and Thiene family portraits, so Giuseppe Thiene’s son is still listed as Adriano instead of Leonida. References to Veronese’s very unlikely trip to Rome in 1560 occur several times in this chapter (114, 119), and the anachronistic idea of artistic rivalry is reiterated. This concept has recently been reframed and should have been investigated through a more nuanced understanding of the contemporary Venetian art market and economic situation.

The fifth chapter investigates how Veronese and Tintoretto began to take control of the Venetian art market from Titian, representing the volume’s principal case study. To illustrate the two artists’ success in their endeavor, Gisolfi considers the long-term commissions of Veronese and Tintoretto at San Sebastiano and San Rocco and the Ducal Palace after the 1574 and 1577 fires. Gisolfi ably compares the two painters’ different working practices and dissimilar personalities. This chapter includes a comparison of Tintoretto and Veronese’s technical methods and their different strategies and organization when executing similar commissions. The author offers a few hints toward a careful comparison, but her basic conclusion, that the techniques, compositional strategies, and methods of the two artists could not have been more different, is not surprising in itself or entirely satisfying. In fact, this closing argument is very traditional, as the two artists had different styles and clearly adopted diverse means, which would have worth in a more in-depth analysis. A closer comparison between their different creative processes, how they distributed tasks among key assistants, and the role of their family members (for instance Benedetto Caliari and Domenico Tintoretto), still far from being solved, would have been appropriate here.

Chapter 6 examines how other Venetian family workshops organized their workloads, shared tasks among the assistants, created paintings, and produced replicas and variants of popular compositions. Here Gisolfi takes into consideration the shops of the Bassani, of Jacopo Palma il Giovane, and, of course, of Tintoretto and Veronese’s heirs. The author had already examined the making of replicas in Veronese’s workshop in an article, and this section represents a welcome expansion of her previous research. Gisolfi points out that some practices were common to the system of the Venetian workshops, and she offers some interesting observations concerning serial production. Again, her arguments would have benefited from incorporating recent literature, such as the scholarly debates concerning the replicas of Titian’s mythological series of Danae and Venus and Adonis as well as the studies by Miguel Falomir and Paul Joannides (2014) and Jane Turner and Paul Joannides (2016).

The volume’s overall layout, two large columns of text with wide margins, is elegant. Some aspects of the publication, however, do not contribute to a full appreciation of the book. There are a number of typographical errors, both in the text and the footnotes, and there is a variable quality to the numerous colored illustrations. Many of the photographs, especially those taken in raking light, are reproduced clearly and are crucial to the author’s arguments. Others, such as some of the ceilings of the Doge’s Palace, the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, and the church of San Sebastiano are less helpful, with some photographs oddly out of focus or from an unhelpful point of view.

Paolo Veronese and the Practice of Painting in Late Renaissance Venice deserves credit for the effort made by its author in bringing into the art historical debate the discussion concerning the importance of technical data in reaching a better understanding of artistic practice and its connection with the everyday life of the artist. However, the book would have also benefited from a more accurate investigation of other aspects of Veronese’s working method. For instance, as mentioned above, little direct attention is given to the pivotal role of drawing in Veronese’s workshop. Even though the subject is constantly mentioned throughout the main chapters of the book, it is never explored as a fundamental problem. A deeper consideration of the role of the practice of drawing and the way it interacts with Veronese’s creative process would have been fruitful.

In any case, Gisolfi’s volume, with its innovative approach, remains the first book concerning the long Venetian sixteenth century to focus on technical analysis, and it represents a starting point for future research on this subject. 

Thomas Dalla Costa
Harry M. Weinrebe Curatorial Fellow, National Gallery, London

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