VERONESE, Paolo
(b. 1528, Verona, d. 1588, Venezia)

The Allegory of Love II: Scorn

c. 1575
Oil on canvas, 187 x 188 cm
National Gallery, London

This canvas is one of a series of four evidently representing various attributes of love, or perhaps different stages of love culminating in happy union. They were clearly designed as compartments of a decorated ceiling and might conceivably relate to a nuptial bedchamber. Veronese used this type of 'oblique perspective' for ceiling decorations in Venice: the angle of foreshortening corresponds to a viewpoint obliquely beneath the painting, avoiding the extreme distortion of figures imagined as directly above the viewer's head. By 1637 the four allegories, now all in the National Gallery, were recorded in the collection at Prague of the Emperor Rudolph II, the great art patron of his age, who probably commissioned them.

The appearance of all four paintings has been badly affected by the irreversible discoloration of the smalt - a comparatively cheap blue pigment made from pulverised glass coloured with cobalt oxide - used to paint the sky, which now gives it a pale grey tinge instead of its original warm blue. With age, some of the green copper resinates of the foliage have oxidised to brown. In most respects this is the best preserved of the four pictures, and the one where Veronese's own hand, as opposed to his workshop assistants', is most visible.

As befits an allegory, the meaning of the picture must be teased out. A nearly naked man is lying writhing on a ruinous ledge - perhaps an altar - in front of a statue in a niche holding a set of Pan pipes against its hairy thigh. The marble torso to the left of the statue has the goatish features of a satyr. This is a crumbling temple to the pagan divinities of unbridled sexuality. Cupid uses his bow mercilessly to beat the man, watched by two women: a shimmering bare-breasted beauty in a silver-striped dress with rose and yellow kirtle, accompanied by a duenna. Enfolded within her green mantle the chaperon holds a small white beast - an ermine, symbol of chastity, thought to prefer death to impurity. The general significance, then, is clear. The man has been felled by lust for a sensuous yet chaste woman, and is being punished. But the trite verbal translation does not begin to do justice to Veronese's robustly and wittily imagined scene: the ferocious plump Cupid astride his hapless victim, the scornful femme fatale drawing aside her skirts.