Feast in the House of Levi (1573)

Paolo Veronese (1528–1588)

Feast in the House of Levi

Veronese was second to Tintoretto in stature. He was all theatre, all show, all splendid surface, all silk and satin. His paintings, a rich creamy dessert. Elegance was the motif and oh what elegance! His scenes had a still life feeling of mid operatic aria, when all the costumed players stop for a breath.

His Feast in the House of Levi caused consternation and the painting was prosecuted in the time of the Inquisition. Look at it and see if you can identify the specific images which riled the Tribunal.

Venice, July 18, 1573.  The minutes of the session of the Inquisition Tribunal of Saturday, the 18th of July, 1573.  Today, Saturday, the 18th of the month of July, 1573, having been asked by the Holy Office to appear before the Holy Tribunal, Paolo Caliari of Verona, domiciled in the Parish Saint Samuel, being questioned about his profession:

Answer: I paint and compose figures.

Question: Do you know the reason why you have been summoned?

A:  No, sir.

Q:  Can you imagine it?

A:  I can well imagine.

Q:  Say what you think the reason is.

A: According to what the Reverend Father, the Prior of the Convent of SS Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I do not know, told me, he had been here and Your Lordships had ordered him to have painted [in the picture] a Magdalen in place of a dog.  I answered him by saying I would gladly do everything necessary for my honour and for that of my painting, but that I did not understand how a figure of Magdalen would be suitable there for many reasons which I will give at any time, provided I am given an opportunity.

Q: What picture is this of which you have spoken?

A: This is a picture of the Last Supper that Jesus Christ took with His Apostles in the house of Simon.

Q:  Where is this picture?

A:  In the Refectory of the Convent of SS Giovanni e Paolo.

Q:  Is it on the wall, on a panel, or on canvas?

A:  On canvas.

Q:  What is its height?

A:  It is about seventeen feet.

Q:  How wide?

A:  About thirty-nine feet.

Q:  At this Supper of Our Lord have you painted other figures:

A:  Yes, milords.

Q:  Tell us how many people and describe the gestures of each.

A:  There is the owner of the inn, Simon; besides this figure I have made a steward, who, I imagined, had come there for his own pleasure to see how the things were going at the table.  There are many figures there which I cannot recall, as I painted the picture some time ago.

Q:  Have you painted other Suppers besides this one?

A:  Yes, milords.

Q:  How many of them have you painted and where are they?

A: I painted one in Verona for the reverend monks at San Nazzaro which is in their rectory.  Another I painted in the refectory of the reverend fathers of San Giorgio here in Venice.

Q.  This is not a Supper.  We are asking about a picture representing  the Supper of the Lord.

A:  I have painted one in the refectory of the Servi of Venice, another  in the refectory of San Sebastiano in Venice.  I painted one in  Padua for the fathers of Santa Maddalena and I do not recall  having painted any others.

Q:  In this Supper which you made for SS Giovanni e Paolo, what is  the significance of the man whose nose is bleeding?

A: I intended to represent a servant whose nose was bleeding because of some accident.

Q: What is the significance of those armed men dressed as Germans, each with a halberd in his hand?

A:  This requires that I say twenty words!

Q:  Say them.

A: We painters take the same licence the poets and the jesters take and I have represented these two halberdiers, one drinking and the other eating near by on the stairs.  They are placed here so that they might be of service because it seemed to me fitting, according to what I have been told, that the master of the house, who was great and rich, should have such servants.

Q: And that man dressed as a buffoon with a parrot on his wrist, for what purpose did you paint him on that canvas?

A:  For ornament, as is customary.

Q.  Who are at the table of Our Lord?

A:  The Twelve Apostles,

Q:  What is St. Peter, the first one, doing?

A:  Carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other end of the table.

Q:  What is the Apostle next to him doing?

A: He is holding a dish in order to receive what St. Peter will give him.

Q:  Tell us what the one next to this one is doing.

A:  He has a toothpick and cleans his teeth.

Q:  Who do you really believe was present at that Supper?

A: I believe one would find Christ with His Apostles.  But if in a picture there is some space to spare I enrich it with figures according to the stories.

Q: Did any one commission you to paint Germans, buffoons, and similar things in that picture?

A: No, milords, but I received the commission to decorate the picture as I saw fit.  It is large and, it seemed to me, it could hold many figures.

Q: Are not the decorations which you painters are accustomed to add to paintings or pictures supposed to be suitable and proper to the subject and the principal figures or are they for pleasure — simply what comes to your imagination without any discretion or judiciousness?

A:  I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits.

Q: Does it seem fitting at the Last Supper of the Lord to paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs and similar vulgarities?

A:  No milords.

Q: Do you not know that in Germany and in other places infected with heresy [that is, the Reformation] it is customary with various pictures full of scurrilousness and similar inventions to mock, vituperate, and scorn the things of the Holy Catholic Church in order to teach bad doctrines to foolish and ignorant people?

A: Yes that is wrong; but I return to what I have said, that I am obliged to follow what my superiors have done.

Q: What have your superiors done?  Have they perhaps done similar things?

A: Michelangelo in Rome in the Pontifical Chapel painted Our Lord, Jesus Christ, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter and the Heavenly Host.  These are all represented in the nude — even the Virgin Mary — and in different poses with little reverence.

Q: Do you not know that in painting the Last Judgment in which no garments or similar things are presumed, it was not necessary to paint garments, and that in those figures there is nothing that is not spiritual.  There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, or similar buffoonery.  And does it seem because of this or some other example that you did right to have painted this picture in the way you did and do you want to maintain that it is good and decent?

A: Illustrious Lords, I do not want to defend it, but I thought I was doing right.  I did not consider so many things and I did not intend to confuse anyone, the more so as those figures of buffoons are outside of the place in a picture where Our Lord is represented.

After these things had been said, the judges announced that the above named Paolo would be obliged to improve and change his painting within a period of three months from the day of this admonition and that according to the opinion and decision of the Holy Tribunal all the corrections should be made at the expense of the painter and that if he did not correct the picture he would be liable to the penalties imposed by the Holy Tribunal.  Thus they decreed in the best manner possible.

In the event, Veronese simply changed the title of his painting from The Feast in the House of Simon or, according to some scholars, The Last Supper, to The Feast in the House of Levi.  It can now be seen in the Accademia in Venice [The Artist Interrogated, pp. 124-127]

Because of the liberal religious atmosphere of Venice, Veronese was never required to make the various changes to his painting of the Last Supper asked for by the tribunal of the Inquisition in this interrogation. All parties seem to have been satisfied with a mere change of title, to Supper in the House of Levi.

Veronese did not court the supernatural or revelations of man’s inner soul. He wished to portray a banquet, be it the Last Supper or the Supper in the House of Simon.

As to the objections, he asserted they were no more objectionable than the nudity of Christ in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment. The Tribunal wouldn’t buy that and said, “in the Last Judgment it was not necessary to paint garments, and there is nothing in those figures that it not spiritual”.

The exchange about Michelangelo is misleading. There were allegations that his naked Last Judgment was an outrageous “stew of nudes” and many of the naked portraits were ordered covered. The painter who did this ‘repair’ was called the breech maker.
Veronese stubbornly refused to accept their view and asserted he could decorate the picture as he saw fit, he was indifferent to the subject-matter, he’d paint what he wanted.

This trial transcript illustrates it may not have been a game, that the artist had asserted his license such that poets and jesters did, at some real risk. In fact, Veronese never again painted Germans.

It is a vast stage set. A re-enactment of the court in Rigoletto set midst glorious architecture, with pillars marble streaked and pitted. Except for Christ and his companion, the rest sitting at a long banquet table, on both sides, surrounded by servants and jesters are all in the act of eating, idling, watching and calculating. It is the ultimate moving cartoon, yet all are frozen in mid burp, whisper or stare – a table of mean calculating eyes – clothed in fantastic silks against a backdrop of Palladian architecture.

A triumph! A thumping triumph!

Only Christ is engaged in what appears to be a real dialogue with a speaker and a listener both of whom concentrate.

Some critics felt in his work “shallowness rules” and that his canvases were where one conformed to the great scheme of things. One laughed, one distanced oneself: it was all something of a game. Perhaps but I find Veronese entrancing.

He has another gorgeous canvas in the Louvre of The Marriage at Cana, very similar.