The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson (revised edition 2009) (1)

Because it comes with the bright orange and white spine of the new-style Penguin histories, and because it said ‘New Edition’ on the front cover, I hadn’t quite grasped that the main body of this hefty 700-page history of Latin America was completed by 1990. The new edition is ‘new’ because it adds a 40-page chapter at the end, summarising events in Latin America between 1990 and 2008.

The text is divided into three big parts:

  • The Age of Empire pp. 3-192 (189 pages)
  • The Challenge of the Modern World pp. 195-310 (115 pages)
  • The Twentieth Century pp. 313-566 (253 pages)

Note how the section on the 20th century, plus the forty pages of the ‘new’ chapter, is as long as the first two parts put together. Here, as everywhere, the more recent the history, the more of it there is, the more people there have been (the higher the population) and the more records have been kept, until we reach the present age where every phone call, every text and every photograph anyone in the world takes is recorded and stored.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incas

Williamson dives right in with the early, legendary history of the Aztecs, when they were a group of nomads traipsing round central Mexico, before they established the largest empire in pre-Colombian America around 1400. Their only rival was the Inca Empire, down in modern-day Peru.

There is, of course, a lot to say about both, but the thing that struck me was the way both of them were empires carved out by one particular tribe or ethnic group which subjugated all their neighbours, and demanded tribute in food, precious metals and slaves (some devoted to grisly human sacrifices).

Both generated complex religious ideologies accompanied by fascinating and complex theories of time – that it moved in cycles and was marked by moments of great significance – but the bottom line was that both the Aztec ruler and the Inca emperor believed they derived their authority from the gods, and were backed up in this conviction by the class of priests and the warrior castes which surrounded and defended them.

Of course the vast majority of the population was peasants, mostly living in abject serfhood, who slaved away for their entire short, unhealthy lives, producing the surpluses which paid for the elaborate costumes and rituals and treasures passed up to their rulers. And the entire populations of conquered tribes, for both the Aztecs and Incas lived by war, and by conquering, subjugating and exploiting neighbouring peoples.

The other striking thing was their backwardness. Both Aztecs and Incas, and all the hundreds of other tribes scattered across central and south America, were illiterate. The Aztecs and Incas had no written language, just a primitive system of markers, and so the important knowledge about the stars and the gods was handed down by word of mouth, and hence the semi-divine regard for the caste of priests who, alone, knew this vital celestial information.

They didn’t have the wheel, nor beasts of burden – no horses or donkeys or camels or bullocks. Therefore they had to carry everything by hand. It is staggering to realise that the awesome Inca city of Machu Picchu was built by massive stones, carried 2,430 metres above sea level, by human power alone.

All this was doomed to come crashing to an end when the Europeans arrived. Williamson describes in detail the four successive voyages of Christopher Columbus, his first landfall in 1492, the chaotic mismanagement of the first islands he and his men settled – Hispaniola – the slow, establishment of colonies and extension of Spanish rule onto neighbouring island, and then, 27 years later, Cortez’s expedition to the mainland against the Aztecs (1519-21).

The eeriest thing about Cortes’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, and then Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of Peru in 1532, is the theory that the rulers of both empires were too puzzled and confused by the invaders to respond adequately. They couldn’t believe these little gangs of a few hundred men were serious about planning to overthrow their empires of tens of thousands of warriors – but they couldn’t figure out what it was they really wanted. Williamson attributes the conquistadors’ success partly to guns and horses but shows that in both cases, the conquerors really had very few – when Pizarro finally met with the Inca emperor Atahualpa, in nothern Peru, he had a force of just 110-foot soldiers, 67 cavalry, three arquebuses and two falconets.

More decisive was the Europeans’ superior grasp of strategy, in particular realising that the empires they were encountering were themselves highly stressed, riven by faction fights or stretched by the continual need to control their subject peoples. The Spanish made alliances with enemies and groups wishing to be liberated. They were good at building coalitions.

He doesn’t say it in so many words, but the idea emerges that the Europeans triumphed because they were just more intelligent about strategy and warcraft.

The role of European diseases

Then there’s our old friend disease. As explained at length in Jared Diamond’s classic 1997 study Guns, Germs and Steel, wherever European explorers went they took with them the infectious diseases which, over thousands of years, we had built up immunity to – but which ravaged native populations which had no immunity to them.

This view is reinforced by the revisionist history of America told by Alan Taylor in American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2001). In this Taylor explains how the entire native civilisation of the Mississippi valley was wiped out by diseases, most probably smallpox, brought by a few shipwrecked Spanish sailors to the mouth of the Mississippi delta but which then spread catastrophically so that when, a century later, the first Anglo-Saxon explorers entered the region, they discovered entire cities with complex layouts, large palaces and temples and canals… all abandoned and overgrown by forest.

Indeed, Pizzaro’s job of conquering the Incas was made easier because the Incas were themselves in the middle of a bloody civil war, which was complicated by the fact that not one but two rival claimants to the throne had died from smallpox. Over the decades after the Spanish arrived, there was a catastrophic collapse in native populations caused by the invaders’ diseases. Some experts estimate as much as 90% of the native population of Mexico was killed by European disease within fifty years.

Still, Williamson is always at hand to say that in this, as in everything else, the reality on the ground, and across such vast areas as all of Mexico, Central America and Peru, were far more complex and uneven that contemporaries and many historians realise. Many many other areas of the continent remained relatively untouched and life went on in the same old way, only now you had to pay a tribute of your produce to a new boss, who wore armour and rode a horse.

The geographic limits of Spanish settlement

The book is packed with thought-provoking ideas and insights. I was fascinated to understand more about the geographic limits to the spread of Spanish rule.

When the Anglo settlers arrived in North America in the 1600s they found it relatively easy to spread out into New England and all along the Atlantic coast. But the Spanish, having established their key centres of administration in Mexico City and Lima a century earlier, with waystations and ports in the Caribbean, found it difficult to expand beyond them. Why?

North of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital which the invaders had renamed Mexico City, lies a vast area of arid desert – the territory which centuries later would become Arizona and New Mexico – where the Spanish explorers discovered nothing but impoverished villages of Indians surviving on subsistence agriculture.

Over to the east there were repeated attempts to explore the peninsula they named ‘Florida’, but the Spanish found it consisted of endless everglades with few settlements and nothing to plunder.

Heading south, the Spanish took over the coastal strip west of the Andes, conquering the Inca empire, but found the Andes mountains themselves too high to settle. Only a handful of expeditions went over the Andes to explore east. Williamson describes these expeditions, which got lost in the vast Amazon rainforests, and encountered only the most primitive tribespeople, if, indeed, they lived to tell the tale.

So, in a nutshell, central and south America were more difficult for the Spanish to settle than North America would turn out to be for the Anglos. And this explains the quite startling fact that some parts of South America – Williamson singles much of the interior of what is now called Argentina – weren’t really settled at all until the 20th century.

The other factor which limited the area of settlement was the Spaniards’ motivation. The conquistadors were adventurers, often from the very lowest parts of society. No nobles or aristocrats ventured their lives in the New World. Poor youngest sons of noble families led gangs of criminals and proles. None of them were the type of people who wanted to stake a claim and build a farmhouse and work the land – as the Anglo settlers were to do up north a hundred years later.

Instead, the Spanish wanted to exploit and loot as much wealth as they could from the New World before returning home and buying land, a house and a title. They came to loot. And here’s the important thing – you can only loot people who are already rich. The Spanish took over the two big empires, the Aztec in Mexico and the Inca in Peru, because an infrastructure was already in place whereby the native emperors and the upper class exploited large numbers of peasants in a well-organised system. The Spaniards simply took over the system, co-opting the best of the agricultural produce and all the treasure and artefacts for themselves.

It is this factor – the Spanish approach to colonisation – which explains the limited and very patchy nature of Spanish settlement. In the deserts of north Mexico, and in the south of the area they named California, were only desert dwellers, scraping a subsistence living from the soil by dint of elaborate water works. Nothing to steal. In Florida, endless swamps inhabited by scattered villagers. Nothing to steal, and no ‘society’ worth taking over. Ditto the Amazon rainforests. Nothing like an organised society whose power structures and tributes they could simply appropriate.

The Spanish only settled where there were established and relatively advanced societies which they could parasite onto.

How the Reconquista mindset was applied to the New World

Williamson lays out with beautiful logic and clarity just how that imperialist approach to colonisation had arisen in Spain.

It is an enormous historical coincidence that the year that Columbus made landfall in the Bahamas, 1492, just happened to be the very same year that – after nearly 800 years of war and crusade – the Spanish finally kicked the very last Muslim Moorish presence out of the south of Spain. (Muslim forces had crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to seize Spanish territory way back in 711 – the fightback is traditionally dated to their first defeat by Christian forces, in 718 – and it took nearly another 800 years, of slow painstaking battles and piecemeal conquest, for native Christians, sometimes fighting alongside Christian warriors from the rest of Europe attracted by the periodic ‘crusades’ against the Muslim –  to finally expel all the Muslim chiefs, emirs and so on from the final southern enclaves.

The point of this historical background is that expelling the Muslims from Spain wasn’t achieved by a modern-style mass army, and in a few years of continuous campaigning – but by ad hoc campaigns led by local Spanish warriors and adventuring knights, which liberated bits and pieces of territory, over a very long period of time.

As and when they seized territory from the Muslims, they applied to the king to rule it. (Spain itself was a very fractured entity, with a number of different kingdoms. It was only as the Reconquista reached its conclusion that the marriage of King Ferdinand of Aragon with Queen Isabella of Castile united most of Spain’s territory to form the basis of one unified Spanish monarchy.)

Sometimes large areas of land would be conquered and the new lords were granted what were known as latifundia, originally a Roman word describing a vast agricultural estate. The new owners co-opted the existing inhabitants as serfs to work the land, but often much of the original or Muslim population had fled and so the lords had difficulty filling them with workers and had to advertise for new workers to come in.

The point is that the Reconquista established a model for settling new lands, freshly conquered from the infidel, which was then applied wholesale to the new territory discovered by Columbus and his Viceroys across the ocean, and by the conquistadors and adventurers who followed them.

The Reconquista established the pattern of the monarch granting complete control over large swathes of territory, and all the people on it to, the conqueror or adelantado who had seized it. This resulted in a handful of rich swaggering lords riding among the large population of impoverished peasants working vast areas of land. In the New World it became known as the encomienda system and the grant holders encomenderos.

In fact it was a bit more complicated than that: the native Indians remained, nominally, free subjects of the Crown, which awarded encomenderos the right to enforce labour from the natives, but not complete power of life and death over them. That was the theory, anyway.

Williamson – once he has reported the main military and political events of the conquest – moves briskly on to discuss in considerable detail, this and all the other legal and administrative measures which the Spanish implemented in their new lands.

In fact, the ‘excitement’ of the narrative of Columbus’s voyages and the initial conquests of the Aztecs and the Incas which open the text, might give the reader quite a misleading impression of the book. Williamson is much more a historian of constitutional and administrative systems than he is a chronicler of exciting battles and against-the-odds expeditions. A lot of this book is quite dry. But he develops the constitutional and legal aspects of the conquest in such detail that, to my surprise, the conflicts between the settlers, and in particular between the Viceroys appointed to govern the new provinces and the monarchy back in Spain – and between both of them and Catholic church – at moments become quite gripping.

The Crown protects the Indians One counter-intuitive learning is that the Spanish crown, right from the start, was concerned about protecting the rights of the native Indians, indeed became their chief protector.

As Spanish adventurers opened up new territory and conquered more and more native peoples, the monarchs became concerned to make sure they were not simply enslaved. Queen Isabella personally forbade the enslavement of the natives, and a series of ‘Laws of the Indies’ tried to stem abuses wherever they were found. Encomenderos may have enjoyed almost complete power over the populations of their vast estates, but Spanish laws commanded them to also set up schools and hospitals, to educate the Indians, protect them from wars and raids, and to enact justice. This effort continued for the rest of the 16th century, for example with the ‘New Laws of the Indies for the Good Treatment and Preservation of the Indians’ of 1547, which explicitly forbade all forms of enslaving the native population. The New Laws prompted violent opposition among the oligarchies of Spanish settlers.

The Church takes the Indians’ side It’s also surprising to read about the broadly sympathetic line taken by the Catholic Church. The Pope and the Catholic organisations which sent cohorts of missionaries out to the New World took the line that these were people made in God’s image, like us, with souls that needed saving. Certainly, some of the first cohort of priests accompanying the conquistadors helped in the wholesale destruction of priceless documents and artefacts which they considered pagan and devilish. But within a generation, a new wave of clerics began for all kinds of reasons to take the native Indians’ side, deploring their brutal exploitation by amoral Spanish lords.

On a pragmatic note, they also realised they couldn’t convert the natives by preaching at them in Latin or Spanish, and undertaking ‘mass baptisms’ where the Indians didn’t have a clue what was going on. So a whole project was undertaken to learn more about the natives’ languages, which quickly extended into documenting their histories and beliefs. Most of what we know about native Indian religion and history derives from these records taken down by Christian missionaries.

The classic figure of this type was Bartolomé de las Casas, initially a coloniser himself, who became a Dominican friar and spent the last 50 years of his life fighting slavery and the colonial abuse of indigenous peoples. He was appointed by the Spanish crown the first ‘Protector of the Indians’, an administrative office responsible for attending to the wellbeing of the native populations, a function he enthusiastically carried out and which included speaking on their behalf in law courts and even reporting back to the King of Spain in person.

In 1550, Bartolomé participated in the Valladolid debate, in which Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda (the noted Spanish Renaissance “humanist”, philosopher, theologian, and… er… proponent of colonial slavery) argued that the Indians were less than human and required Spanish masters in order to become civilized. Las Casas maintained that the Indians were fully human and that forcefully subjugating them was morally, legally, and theologically, unjustifiable. Las Casas is a hero (not a perfect hero, but by the standards of his own time a d brave and determined protector of the people.)

Williamson gives a long and detailed account of the numerous legal initiatives launched by the Crown to try and protect the Indians from exploitation, but in the end they all failed. No amount of legal or theological argumentation could avoid the fact that the Spanish remained the ruling caste with one law for them, while the Indians remained a separate caste, subject to completely different laws. Williamson calls them the Republic of the Spaniards and the Republic of the Indians.

And nothing could alter the simple fact that, on the ground, most of the laws designed to protect the Indians were ignored by the settlers, who looked after each other’s interests.

Theories of conquest and bureaucratic structures

I could have done with more about where the silver was discovered in the New World, and the technology of how it is mined and purified. We are told that mercury was vital to the purification process, but not really how or why. I had to google it to find out. He does eventually have three pages on the silver mines (two on gold-mining), but in general Williamson is light on that kind of thing, on technology, and on the diverse resources of the region.

Instead, as the book settles into its stride, you realise that Williamson is going to devote most of his energy to the legal and theological justifications of Spanish rule along with detailed descriptions of the bureaucratic structures the Spanish set up.

Thus there is a long passage explaining how the theory of monarchy evolved in Spain from its late-medieval form to the theory which underpinned the role of Philip II as head of an empire which stretched from California to Sicily. He explains the role of the Catholic Church as a vital prop to royal authority, and gives long explanations of the laws and the administrative structures set up to run the colonies.

He explains the main theories by which the Spanish justified their conquests, both to themselves and to the rest of the world (especially to their critical opponents in the Protestant world). There were two main ones:

  1. The well-established Law of Conquest, by which one ruler conquers another and is allowed to seize his land and titles, which had been worked out over long centuries of theological and legal debate during the Middle Ages.
  2. The more modern notion that the Crown of Spain had a ‘right’ to rule the Indians because the Europeans would convert the natives to Christianity and so save their souls. This was accompanied by a kind of sub-argument, which many missionaries put forward: that the New World represented an opportunity for Christianity – which had, by the early 1500s become widely associated with corruption and worldly ambition – to start again. Here, in the Garden of Eden, were a new kind of Adam and Eve, a First People uncorrupted by the Old World, and one thread of early colonisation is the devout wishes of the early missionaries to create a Christian Paradise on earth. Of course it was not to turn out that way; the secular settlers – and the terrible European diseases – made sure of that.

How the silver was squandered

Williamson does, however, clarify something which has always puzzled me, which is – if the Spanish monarchy began receiving ever-increasing amounts of silver from the New World (as the result of great silver strikes in North Mexico and Peru in the 1540s), how come Spain steadily declined in power and influence in the century and a half after the conquest?

Indeed, Williamson points out that by the death of Philip II in 1598, Spain was technically bankrupt and had experienced state bankruptcies (i.e been unable to repay its debts) in 1557, 1560, 1569, 1575, and 1596!

Where did the Spanish silver go? The answer turns out to be simple: Paying for Spain’s wars.

Even though it never accounted for more than 20 per cent of imperial revenues, silver was the fuel that drove the Spanish war machine. (p.106)

Philip II’s father had been Holy Roman Emperor and when Philip came to the throne in 1556, he inherited responsibility for territory in every continent known to Europeans – from the extensive empire in Central and South America to the newly conquered territory of the Phillippines, from the kingdom of Naples and Sicily in Italy, to the Seventeen Provinces of the Netherlands which began a protracted war of independence against Spanish rule in 1568. Not only this, but Philip saw himself as the defender of all Christendom in its wars against the Ottoman Turks in the East. He it was who organised ‘the Holy League’, bringing together ships from Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1567.

Philip also saw himself as the defender of Catholic orthodoxy against the shocking new Protestant heresy. Thus Philip gave large financial support to the Catholic League fighting the Protestants in France, and then went directly to war with the French King Henry IV, an intervention which secured the future of France as a Catholic country.

Last but not least, as we Brits know, Philip II built, armed, provisioned and manned an enormous armada which was designed, with the blessing of the pope, to conquer England, overthrow the Tudor dynasty and the Church of England, and impose Philip as the Catholic ruler of a Catholic Britain.

So that’s where the silver, hacked out of dangerous and unhealthy mines in the New World by Indian slaves and serfs, ended up being spent. Funding the impossible ambitions of the over-extended Spanish monarchy.

Spain went into decline because of proliferating military commitments for which it could not pay. (p.116)

Related links

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Veronese at the National Gallery

Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice is a vast exhibition of 50 of the greatest paintings by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) at the National Gallery in London, many of them very big indeed. It is a thorough and well-staged exhibition with an excellent supporting pamphlet and audio commentary with contributions from curators, a dress historian and opera designer.

A personal view

Let me say straight away I powerfully disliked this exhibition. I think Veronese is a terrible depicter of the human figure, a terrible painter of the faces of women and babies, the creator of grotesquely stagey and over-elaborate settings of highly artificial action and, in his religious paintings, the painter of nauseatingly religiose images full of lachrymose Marys and saints with shiny eyes upturned like corpses towards cramped heavens cluttered with absurd angels and putti, all given a sinister aspect when you realise he worked in Counter-Reformation Italy under the watchful eye of a dictatorial Inquisition. Not one of the fifty paintings excited or even appealed to me. I’d pay good money to never see most of them again.


The commentary usefully points out that Veronese came from a family of stonemasons: his grandfather, father and brother made a living carving stone. His home town Verona was (and is) famous for its Roman ruins. Once this is pointed out, you begin to notice that buildings, especially the arrangement of columns and arches, are vital ingredients in the compositions; that every painting is elaborately staged on a carefully contrived set, and it’s never a ‘natural’ setting of trees and flowers: neither are they set in the contemporary city with streets and the bustle of urban life. All his paintings are set against a confected backdrop made from idealised Roman architecture – either complete – if the setting is ancient, or ruined – if the setting is contemporary. However fresh this use of highly accurate architecture seemed in the early Renaissance, in Veronese’s hands it feels stiflingly conventional.

This early painting is a good example of the importance of architecture; the cluttered composition which is stagey and contrived; the stylised hand gestures (the hands are out of propostion to the bodies); the nauseating religiosity; and the badness of individual faces – look at the face of Christ.

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene by Veronese, 1548 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Conversion of Mary Magdalene by Veronese, 1548 (Wikimedia Commons)

The human figure

Veronese is a painter of the human figure. There are no landscapes or still lives or animal pictures. All the compositions are centred on human figures and therefore the issue becomes quite quickly (for him and for us viewers) how do you pose your people? If you’re telling a story, depicting a famous incident – which precise moment do you select to illustrate: at which crucial second do you capture the event? And who is in the picture? And how are they arranged and framed?

He is poor at the human face: the melodrama of the tableau is no replacement for human warmth.


Which brings us to the staging of the people in these sets. Again, from very early on, from the age of 17 or 18 Veronese was using the elaborate hand gestures developed by earlier Renaissance masters (Leonardo’s pointing fingers, Raphael’s graceful gestures, Michelangelo’s strong outstretched arms). In a way that’s difficult to define, whereas these gestures looked fresh and newly-discovered in the High Renaissance, in Veronese they look operatic and stagey. It is as if the accumulated knowledge of how to set the human figure against architectural backdrops in hieratic attitudes reaches a kind of apogee in Veronese which also contains its own decadence.

  • In The Supper at Emmaus (1555) observe a) the triumph of architcture over people b) the horrible clutteredness of the composition with different bits of people in different fields of perspective c) the terribleness of all the children’s faces d) the Renaissance trope of including the painting’s sponsors in the painting: could anything be more corrupt and vulgar?
  • The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine  (1570) strikes me as being the triumph of melodrama over humanity, a welter of horrible putti, a swag of richest cloth around columns, and the horrible dead-fish faces of Mary and Catherine. Was commissioned for a convent where the daughters of the rich were indoctrinated with sentimental religiosity.
  • The Martyrdom of St George (1565) Some people think this is a triumph of composition, employing late Renaissance  understanding of perspective to ‘involve’ the viewer in the action. I find the clutter of the composition claustrophobic and the skyful of bouncing cherubs nauseating. Christ didn’t ask us to admire sumptuously clad heroes in elaborate stage sets: he told us to look in our hearts, love God, live a simple life, give all our belongings to the poor, love each other.
  • The Adoration of the Kings (1573) The triumph of architecture and stage setting. What are the bodiless baby angels for? The face of Mary and Jesus bad, as usual.
  • Perseus and Andromeda (1580) Ludicrous. Perseus looks like a drunk country and western singer falling off the stage. What’s worse about Andromeda, her ludicrous pose (try standing like that) or the elaborate orange cloak falling open to revela her chunky Mannerist body.

And DARK. The commentary claims Veronese is an unparalleled master of light – rubbish – all his paintings seemed to me dark and gloomy with fake blue skies not shedding real light.


A feature of the Renaissance was the way it unabashedly dressed up figures from ancient stories in contemporary dress. This Veronese does to an inordinate degree. It’s telling that there are so many contributions on the commentary from a dress historian explaining the meaning, the origin and the cost of so many of the elaborate dresses and cloaks etc which feature in the paintings, as if a detailed analysis of his use of fabrics made up for the overall clumsiness of the tableau. According to the commentary his brother was a textile merchant and so maybe Veronese had samples of the cloth he was depicting readily to hand. Big deal.

  • In Livia da Porto Thiene and her daughter Deidamia (1552): consider the ugliness of the people and the triumph of expensive clothes: field day for the clothes historian on the commentary; but thin time for anyone hoping to enjoy this painting as a depiction of sympathetic humans.
  • Portrait of a Lady known as ‘Bella Nana’ (1560) How bad her face, how dead her expression, how contrived her silly hand gesture, how flat and hieratic the clothes – expensive, though. Feel the schmatter.


I find his religiosity genuinely creepy.

Politically, he is depicting the claustrophobic and vengeful Catholicism of the Counter-Reformation, the institution which rejuvenated the torturing Inquisition, and created schools for spies to infiltrate and undermine the British government, which declared Queen Elizabeth a heretic, thus encouraging zealots to murder her and go straight to heaven and which blessed the Holy Crusade to conquer England which we call the Spanish Armada which, luckily for us, failed in the year of Veronese’s death, 1588. Veronese was called in front of the Inquisition when one of his works appeared to have too much contemporary detail, so he changed its title.

  • In the Allegory of Navigation with a Cross-Staff (1560) we can see the freshness and excitement of Renaissance learning hardening into big heavy blocky art, an art for rich men and powerful institutions. Look how bad the face is, and the disproportion of the body which is too long.
  • The Conversion of St Pantaleon (1587) was Veronese’s last painting. There’s an El Greco lividness to the colour of the rich fabrics; there is a disgustingly distorted little cherub; there is an architectural ruin giving the composition ‘vertical unity’; and the central figure is rolling his eyes to the heavens so the light reflects off the whites of his eyes in a way which is probably meant to be moving but reminds me of an epileptic having a seizure, or just a corpse.

Theologically, my Protestant soul rebels against the equation by Veronese (and most of his Renaissance compadres) of wealth with piety: The money-grabbing corruption of the Catholic church, an institution which had developed numerous Mafia-style ways of demanding money with menaces, was of course the trigger for Martin Luther’s revolt in 1517. Here in the heartland of Roman Catholic orthodoxy wealthy patrons are still having themselves painted in rich ornate contemporary dress in paintings showing incidents from the life of Jesus or various saints as usual believing that the rich can buy their way into heaven.

  • The Resurrection of Christ (1575) is a horrible and ludicrous painting: note the ruins (it’s a historical anecdote = ruins); the melodramatic gestures of the guards (nice-looking cloth, too); neither of which compensate for the ludicrous, Catholic religiosity of the haloed Christ flying into the air.
  • The Agony in the Garden (1583) isn’t about the suffering of jesus at all, it’s about the simpering sentimental religiosity of the tearful angel with whom we are invited to identify. Instead of leading better lives we are invited to burst into tears as in the final act of a tragic opera.

Aesthetically, these sickly saints and lachrymose Marys, all sentimental religiosity, with their upturned eyes reflecting light just under their pupils, look like corpses or people having epileptic fits.

  • Saints Geminianus and Severus (1560) the triumph of ornate architecture, glorious clothing and facile sentiment.
  • The Virgin and Child with Saints Anthony Abbot and Paul the Hermit (1562) demonstrates the cluttered claustrophobic composition which some people find a triumph of design and perspective, exacerbated by the absurdiy of baby angels playing peek-a-boo in the clouds and the traditional very bad face of Mary and ghastly face of the baby Jesus.
  • In The Consecration of St Nicholas (1562) the dominant figure is the ridiculous angel flying upside down, and then the pillar on the right. The melodramatic poses can’t make up for the badness of the faces, nor the way the figure in white’s head is too small for his body.


Venice where Veronese plied his trade, was famous in the 1560s, 70s and 80s, for the arts of love, for its erotic poetry, for its courtesans (ie high-class prostitutes). More than once the commentary commented on the design of low-cut dresses designed to show off the wearer’s décolletage (breasts). Like everything else, this would-be sensuality is heavy: compare and contrast with the winsome lightness of a Watteau or any depiction of women by the impressionists.

  • In The Finding of Moses (1580) the commentary points out the daringly low-cut dress of Pharoah’s daughter and, of course, its immense luxuriousness and cost. On both counts this strikes me as almost blasphemous corruption of the ancient text.
  • The Dream of Saint Helena (1570) is a rare Veronese that I almost like – if we could cut out the silly putti we would have an image of simple sensuousness such as one finds in the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ painters of antique life. The sumptuous dress is appropriate for the mother of the Roman Emperor. And for once the face is good draughtsmanship.
  • In fact I find Veronese’s paintings strikingly unsensual, heavy and cloddish and he has no way at all with the female nude and is disastrously bad at women’s faces, as in Mars and Venus United by Love (1575): what could be less sensuous, lifeless and contrived? Look at the horse’s head: he even makes a horse’s head look sentimental.

Allegories and mythologies

The only paintings I came close to liking were the five in the room devoted to Allegories and Mythology. The four big paintings in this room were obviously created as a cycle and probably commissioned by the same patron. They are traditionally interpreted as portraying four aspects of love. I think they have flaws of composition and execution (it seems basic not to paint the background around heads in such a way as to highlight how it’s been painted in later), but I warm to the Renaissance themes of love.

In his article in the London Review of Books T.J. Clark discusses these paintings in depth, bringing a sympathetic view of Veronese, hymning as the poet of the weight and drop of fabric and bringing out felicities like the fig leaves unobtrusively pressing against the white gown which has fallen off the woman. But to me the putti are as disgusting as usual. They sky isn’t really light, it has the closed feel of a fresco; it feels indoors.  Like all Veronese’s paintings it feels claustrophobic, heavy and trapped.

Infidelity by Veronese, 1575 (Wikimedia Commons)

Unfaithfulness by Veronese, 1575 (Wikimedia Commons)

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