Europe is in schism, even the brush strokes are accused of taking sides, and at the Abbey of San Benedetto al Po, a great center of cosmopolitan learning south of Mantua, Andrea Asola is in trouble. He inherited from a humanist predecessor a sumptuous unfinished decor of 15 new and restored chapels, but a pontifical edict has just banned reforming books written by his own Benedictine colleagues.
Asola turned it into a bonfire in the monastery garden and faced Counter-Reformation demands for its chapels. He needs something astonishing, unambiguous, to proclaim the triumphant Catholic Church and chase the suspicious Roman authorities from San Benedetto’s back. The priest has a budget—123 gold crowns. Paolo Veronese is her man.
The National Gallery’s magnificent altarpiece “The Consecration of Saint Nicholas” was one of three paintings delivered by Veronese to San Benedetto in 1562. If, like me, you expect to be irritated by Virtual Veronese – which features a “volumetric video actor” as Abbot Asola pacing the painting in his chapel – may I suggest you suspend disbelief and give this new “digital experience” a chance. A play about miracles within miracles – spiritual, aesthetic, technological – it is empowering, touching, fun and free.
“The Consecration of Saint Nicholas” recounts a miracle at the cathedral in Myra, present-day Turkey. The bishopric was vacant; the day before the election by a group of bishops, the dean had a vision — God told him to name the first man who would enter the cathedral the next morning. It was Nicholas, a youth in emerald green who falls to his knees in humility and drops the book he was holding – divine authority trumps independent (Protestant-leaning) learning. At that moment, one of art’s most prodigious angels, dizzily foreshortened in a pink robe, plunges headlong into the scene to offer, as divinely ordained, a bishop’s staff and miter. .
The 10 figures in the painting, two of them dark-skinned and wearing turbans to emphasize its location to the east, are life-size, with dynamic gestures, intensely human in their surprise and excitement. Veronese belonged to the time when mimetic realism still amazed – that people who seemed to live and breathe could be fashioned from oil paint.
Today, digitized 3D computer models create imaginary characters and backgrounds. A trope of Virtual Veronese is that just as the supreme illusionism of the old masters made the supernatural believable in the Renaissance, immersive virtual reality gives us the illusion of escaping time and space – and here reinstalls “Saint Nicholas” in its frame of origin after two centuries.
After the palaver of fitting helmets and earphones (and reading a health and safety form), you choose a virtual Asola or curator Rebecca Gill as your guide and enter an empty gallery next to the Espresso bar. Hey presto, the room disappears and you are in the chapel of Saint-Nicolas with its golden frescoes on the quay of the Pô. Candles flicker, shadows fall on the rose-grained marble floor, cadenzas of Gregorian chant — from a 1560s choral book produced at this same monastery — hover in the vaulted space. A novice monk rushes forward, surplice billowing in the breeze; he raises his eyes, hypnotized, towards the altarpiece.
Then enters the bearded and worried Asola, a strange double of his representation in the painting. In a reserved tone, he warns against the Inquisition – he was later questioned for allowing heresy in his abbey – and downplays the wealth of the monastery. The monks are played by Grahame Fox and Simon Victor, filmed with multiple cameras so you can get around them as they move and talk. They disappear when the bell rings for mass – the “pumpkin” moment taking you back to a bare gallery of the 21st century.
The encounter, produced by Focal Point VR, is 10 minutes long, feels extraordinarily realistic, and I didn’t want it to end. It’s touching – even if you accept the gimmick – and illuminating despite the stagnation (there is always something grand opera about Veronese) inflecting the didacticism. I chose Asola’s company and, slots being precious, I only saw stills and a transcript of the Gill version, where the scholarly explanations are simpler, but the thrill/falseness of the engagement with historical figures is absent.
Either way, the experience sends you straight to a much longer encounter with Veronese in Room 9. In the contrast between the San Benedetto Chapel and the interior of the museum, you can’t help but feel this that religious works lose by being torn from their ecclesiastical context – “St Nicholas” was plundered during the Napoleonic wars and reached Britain soon after.
But the virtual exhibition also provides a better understanding of how Veronese, the son of a stonemason and the most architectural of painters, built the space and the buildings to the rhythm of the locations provided for his works. The highlights of Veronese in Room 9 alongside “Saint Nicholas” are the imposing and tender “Adoration of the Kings” (1573), choreographed around a rustic hut rising on ancient ruins, and the thrilling “Family of Darius in front of Alexander” five meters long. (1565-67). All are monumental compositions whose human drama and pathos are deepened through interaction with architecture.
The sumptuous backdrop of the loggias and portals of the “Family of Darius” underlines the conquering power of Alexander and echoes the Palladian constructions of Verona. “Saint Nicholas”, composed for the classic interiors of San Benedetto, repeats the columns of its setting. You enter the painting, as Nicholas entered the cathedral, by these steps – but for the figurative arrangement the upward thrust of the architecture is reversed to suggest the gentleness and piety of the saint: framed by the portal , Nicolas kneels at the bottom of a pyramid of sumptuously dressed clergy. His rapturous expression signifies the revelation – and the spiritual revitalization that was a goal of the Counter-Reformation.
Light streams through, as it does in front of the arches of “Darius” and “The Adoration”, and there is a glimpse of the shining blue sky: these are Venetian paintings, where “glorious garments rustle in the sea air and . . . faces lit by the sun are the very complexion of Venice,” wrote Henry James. The themes are generosity (St. gifts) and magnanimity (Alexander’s grace to the defeated family of Darius).The compositions are full and abundant.
This had its own problems: in 1573, the Inquisition commissioned Veronese to flood a “Last Supper” with trivia: dogs, jesters and “men dressed in German fashion”. Veronese changed the title – to “The Feast in the House of Levi” – and not the painting, explaining that he added elements “for ornamentation, as one does. . . If there is a place left, I fill it with numbers”. It is a human and rich vision, striving for harmony in times divided – and, real or virtual, comforting and joyful now.
As of April 3, nationalgallery.org.uk
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