Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lady and the Tramp

I'm turning my thoughts about Veronese into an abstract responding to a call for papers on dogs in early modern culture at the MLA.  I'll turn in the edited version tomorrow, but here's the rough cut:

Lady and the tramp:
Canine metonymy in Paolo Veronese's Family of Darius before Alexander


     The paintings of Paolo Veronese abound with animals. Monkeys, parrots, horses, and especially dogs appear in nearly all of his major works, and Veronese himself appears to have been particularly conscious of their artistic place. Once, in 1573, he even refused a direct request by the Inquisition to replace a dog in a painting with an image of Mary Magdalen.  Veronese's animals have remained untheorized, however, in part because art historians have treated them as purely decorative and in part because  Veronese's reputation itself has suffered among critics in recent generations. To a modern eye, his bright colors and huge ceremonial paintings can appear trivial. Compared to Titian and Tintoretto, for example, Veronese has been accused of being “unconcerned with the intellectual challenges of meaning.”[1]  Yet Veronese has always been popular, and his work, if not self-consciously intellectual, nevertheless speaks to some of the most deeply held beliefs of early modern European culture.  One painting in particular, the celebrated Family of Darius before Alexander (c. 1569-71), is an allegory of the confrontation between the worlds of Europe and Asia. It depicts an event following the battle of Issus when Alexander the Great and Hephaistion are supposed to have visited the mother, wife and two daughters of the defeated Persian king, Darius. The ostensible subject is magnanimity or nobility, but the painting also develops a series of symmetrical contrasts. On the viewer’s right are European men, on the left, Persian women.  The men are towering, the women supplicating. The Europeans form a coherent dark mass, a Macedonian phalanx, while the Persians are disordered, a jumbled group of women, eunuchs, children, dwarves, and clothing.  This symmetrical opposition finds its extreme in the animals that inhabit the painting. On the viewer’s far right is Alexander’s dog, large and dignified.  On the extreme left are a pair of small lap-dogs, tumbling awkwardly out of the hands of a dwarf. Drawing on zoological and philosophical works, early modern historians, literary passages, and contemporary portraiture, I argue that the dogs of Veronese’s painting, posed at opposite ends of the canvas, serve as metonymic vehicles for a growing sense of regional differentiation, a sense in which hopes and anxieties about race and gender coincide.

[1] Rosand, David. Painting in cinquecento Venice : Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto. (New Haven: Yale UP, 1988) 145.

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