Gallerie dell`Accademia, Venezia
Russell Degnan

Strictly speaking, the Accademia is, for the most part, a regional gallery, since very few of its works come from outside the Venetian lagoon. But when your region is as brilliant and creative as any in Western art then your regional gallery tends to be pretty damn good.

There are so many paintings I could pick as a favourite here: the Tempest by the brilliant Giorgione, who, like Leonardo, realised the best way to get a reputation is to produce very little but look clever doing it; Carpaccio's amazing series on the martydom of St. Ursula; the Venetian religious ceremonies by Gentile Bellini and Lazzaro Bastiani; or any number by Titian, Tintoretto, or Vivarini, who does an excellent St. Jerome. Or I could pick something random from the fine examples of 17th and 18th century painting from when Venetian art went to pot.

But if I was to pick a favourite I would have to choose a work that, by its very size, I'd normally dismiss, but in this case love, by virtue of its fascinating and very funny history:

Feast in the House of Levi
Paolo Veronese, 1571

When I last posted one of these, Jon and I had a lively dicussion on representations in the work in question. Veronese's work, covering an entire wall in impeccable detail, is full of figures representing some or other biblical figure, or some other aspect of symbolism. Except, as will be shortly demonstrated, a good portion of them are there by accident.

For you see, in 1573 Veronese was hauled before the inquisition, to explain his blasphemous painting of the Last Supper. What become very clear is that while the 45 year old Paolo may be an early, if intimidated, advocate of freedom of artistic expression, he was no scholar. He didn't know the difference between the Supper of the Magdalen in the house of Simon the Pharisee, and the Last Supper. He got the apostles right, but accidentally turned a quiet reflective supper into a raging party. But no matter, the inquisitors sorted him out, and here (in full), is the result: [1]

Saturday 18 July 1573
Master Paulo Caliari, painter, dwelling in the parish of San Samuele, was arraigned in the Holy Office before the sacred tribunal.
   Asked his name and surname he answered as above.
   Asked his occupation he answered, 'I paint and make figures.'
   Said to him, 'Do you know why you are brought before us?'
   He answered, 'No, my lords.'
   Said to him, 'Can you imagine why?'
   He answered, 'I can well imagine why.'
   Said to him, 'Say what you imagine'
   He answered, 'On account of what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the Prior of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I do not know, for he told me that he had been here, and you lordships had instructed him to have the figure of the Magdalen inserted in the place where there is now a dog. I answered him that I would willingly have done that and more for my own honour and that of the picture. But I did not think that the Magdalen would be suitable, for many reasons which I will state whenever I am given the opportunity.'
   Said to him, 'To what picture do you refer?'
   He answered, 'To a painting of the Last Supper that Jesus Christ took with his apostles in the house of Simeon.'
   Said to him, 'Where is this painting?'
   He answered, 'In the refectory of the friars of Santi Giovanni e Paolo.'
   Said to him, 'Is it on the wall, or on wood, or on canvas?'
   He answered, 'On canvas.'
   Said to him, 'How high is it?'
   He answered, 'Perhaps 17 feet.'
   Said to him, 'How wide is it?'
   He answered, 'Some 39 feet.'
   Said to him, 'On this Lord's Supper, did you depict and servants?'
   He answered, 'Yes, my lord.'
   Said to him, 'Say how many servants there are, and tell us what each of them is doing.'
   He answered, 'There is the master of the house, Simon [sic], and below this figure I have also put a steward, and have made it look as though he has come for his own entertainment to see how the feast is going.'
   He then added, 'There are many figures which I cannot recall, for it is a long time since I put up the picture.'
   Said to him, 'Have you painted any Suppers other than this one?'
   He answered, 'Yes, my lords.'
   Said to him, 'How many have you painted, and in what places?'
   He answered, 'I did one in Verona, for the reverend monks of San Lazzaro; it is in their refectory.'
   He said, 'I did one in the refectory of the reverend fathers of San Giorgio, here in Venice'
   Said to him, 'That is no Supper, and it is not called, "The Lord's Supper"' [it was a Marriage of Cana]
   He answered, 'I did one in the refectory of the Servites of Venice, and another in the refectory of San Sebastiano, here in Venice. [both were Suppers of the Magdalen]. And I did one in Padua, for the fathers of the Maddalena. I do not recall having painted any others.'
   Said to him, 'In this Supper which you painted in Santi Giovanni e Paolo, what is the meaning of the painting of the man with a bleeding nose?'
   He answered, 'I meant him to be a servant whose nose is bleeding on account of some mishap.'
   Said to him, 'What is the meaning of those armed men, dressed in the German style, each with a halberd in his hand?'
   He answered, 'I must say a few words here.'
   He was told to say them.
   He answered, 'We painters have take the same license as do poets and madmen and so I made those two halberdiers, one of them drinking and the other eating, next to a blind staircase, and they were put there to be ready to perform some task, for I thought it fitting that the owner of the house (who, as I have been told, was a great and rich man) should have such servants.'
   Said to him, 'And that man dressed as a clown, with a parrot on his fist, for what purpose did you paint him on the canvas?'
   He answered, 'for ornament, as one does.'
   Said to him, 'Who are at the Lord's table?'
   He answered, 'The twelve apostles.'
   Said to him, 'Do you know St. Peter who is the first to carve up the lamb? What is St Peter, the first of them, doing?'
   He answered, 'Dividing the lamb, to give it to the other head of the table.'
   Said to him, 'What is the one next to him doing?'
   He answered, 'He has a plate, ready to receive what St. Peter is about to give him.'
   Said to him, 'Explain what the next one is doing.'
   He answered, 'There is a man who has a fork, and is attending to his teeth.'
   Said to him, 'Who do you think was really present at that supper?'
   He answered, 'I believe that Christ and his apostles were present. But if there is space left over in the picture I decorate it with figures as I am instructed of my own invention.'
   Said to him, 'Did anyone commission you to paint Germans and clowns and the like in that picture?'
   He answered, 'No my lords; my commission was to adorn that picture as I saw fit, for it is large and can include many figures, or so I thought.'
   It was said to him, 'When you, the painter, add decorations to your pictures, is it your habit to make them appropriate to the subject and to proportion them to the principal figures, or do you really do as the fancy takes you, without using any discretion or judgement?'
   He answered, 'I make the pictures after proper reflection, within the limits of my understanding.'
   He was asked, 'Did he think it proper to depict at the Lord's last supper clowns, drunkards, Germans, weapons, dwarfs, and other lewd things?'
   He answered, 'No, my lords.'
   He was asked, 'Why, then, did you paint them?'
   He answered, 'I did them on the understanding that they are not within the place where the supper is being held.'
   Said to him, 'Do you not know that in Germany and other places infected with heresy they are accustomed, by means of outlandish paintings full of indecencies and similar devices, to abuse, mock, and pour scorn on the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to foolish and ignorant people?'
   He answered, 'I agree, my lord, that it is bad; but I must say again that I am obliged to follow my predecessors.'
   Said to him, 'What did your predecessors do? Did they do anything like this?'
   He answered, 'In Rome Michelangelo, in the papal chapel, depicted Our Lord Jesus Christ, his mother and St. John, St. Peter and the heavenly court, all of them (after the Virgin Mary) naked, in various attitudes, and with little reverence.'
   Said to him, 'Surely you know that it is not to be supposed that there will be clothes or such things at the Last Judgement, and so there was no call to paint clothing, and in that painting everything is of the spirit -- there are no jesters, no dogs, no weapons, no frivolities of that nature. On the strength of this or any other example, do you think that you did well to paint this picture as it now stands, and do you wish to maintain that it is seemly and in good order?'
   He answered, 'Most noble lord, no, I do not wish to defend it. But I did think I was doing right. And I did not think of such important things. I thought I was doing nothing wrong, especially because those jesters are not in the place where Our Lord is.'
   After which their lordships determined that Master Paolo should be compelled to correct and amend the picture considered at this session so that it becomes suitable for the Lord's last supper, as the Holy Office sees fit, within the space of three months, this correction to be carried out at the discretion of the Holy Office, at his expense, and under threat of penalties to be imposed by the Holy Office. And so they decreed with all propriety.

Which is how it came to be known as the Feast in the House of Levi instead of The Last Supper, that being easier than removing a dozen figures. And it is a great picture, that never fails to make me chuckle when I see its German halberdiers.

[1] Taken from "Venice: A Documentary History 1450-1630" by Chambers and Pullan. Struck out words are in the original transcript

Days Spent Away 9th February, 2006 16:48:58   [#]