Feast in the House of Levi

1573, Galleria della Academia, Venice

Paolo Caliari, Il Veronese

Italian, Venetian, 1528-1588

 

In 1573 Veronese was commissioned to paint a Last Supper for the convent of San Giovanni e Paolo. On July 18, 1573, he was called before the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition because certain details in the work were considered irreverent in its treatment of a religious theme; Veronese included dogs, a cat, midgets, Huns, and drunken revelers in the mammoth canvas. The Inquisitors pointed out that in Michelangelo's Last Judgment there were no such 'drunkards nor dogs nor similar buffooneries' as Veronese had painted. He answered: 'Mine is no art of thought; my art is joyous and praises God in light and colour.'

 

"Back again in Venice, he painted in 1573 for the convent of San Giovanni e Paolo his next great banqueting picture, the stately Cbrist in the House of Levi, now at the Academy in Venice. This great work was destined to put Paolo Veronese foul of the Inquisition, before which he was called to answer for irreverence, being charged with the serious indictment of heresy. He had called the painting the Lord's Last Supper, meaning thereby the last supper that Christ had shared with His host Saint Matthew, and it is significant that, after his trial, he renamed it the Feast in the House of Levi. The root of the trouble with the Inquisition was the group of detested German soldiery, and the difficulty in guessing which of the three recorded Feasts the picture intended. Paolo, in a sad state of dread, appeared before the Inquisition sitting in the Chapel of S. Teodoro on the 8th of the July of 1573, anxious to mollify the deadly Inquisitors, and knowing that his friends and admirers were in a feverish state of fear that his great career was at an end. He took the policy from the start of trying to convince his judges that what he had done had been without heretical, impious, or evil intention. It is clear, however, that the hated and dreaded tribunal of the Inquisition realised its limited powers in Venice-contenting itself with threats. At any rate, in Venice it admitted mitigating circumstances, and did not push towards the brutalities. It was probably content to frighten an artist from further daring. It knew that its every judgement and act were jealously watched by the Senate, who were only too eager to bring a charge against it of usurpation of the liberty of a Venetian subject. It was fortunately so for Paolo Veronese, for he showed nothing but weakness in his suit ; the feebleness of his defence came near to a plea of guilty. Answering his name, and giving his Galling as painter, he was asked if he guessed why he had been summoned, to which he replied that he believed it was because he ought to have painted the Magdalene instead of a dog, and would have done so but that he did not think the figure "fitting or would look well," and pleading that the irrelevant figures had been introduced for decorative effect, as was usually done by artists, as " it seemed fit that the master of such a house as that of the host of our Lord, who he had been told was both rich and great, should have such attendants." " Does it, then, appear fit to you," sternly asked his judge, " that at our Lord's Supper you should paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs, and the like fooleries ? " Germans as fooleries was unconscious humour which Paolo was too frightened to smile upon ; but scenting danger in a flash, he answered, fearfully, that he knew what he had done was bad, but he had the example of great painters before him, and stupidly cited the nudes in Michelangelo's Last Judgement as an excuse. It brought the wrath of his judge in a storm about him-indeed, the Inquisitor seems to have been a good critic, a sane man from his narrow point of view, and certainly a logical one-for, be it remembered, this canvas was called The Last Supper. Hotfoot came the crushing question : "Do you not know that, in such a painting as that in the Pope's chapel at Rome, drapery is not expected, disembodied spirits only being seen ; and do you dare to compare them with your buffoons, dogs ... and other absurdities? ... Do you hold that it is right or even decent to have painted your picture in such manner ?" Paolo bowed to the storm, meekly replied that he could not defend his conduct-that he had not considered all these things that were now so clearly put before him and calmly evaded all promise to change his ways. To his profound surprise, he was told that he was free, but that he must paint out the dog, paint the Magdalene in its place, and blot out the German soldiers, within three months' time. Paolo Veronese, once outside the dread Inquisition, shrugged his shoulders, breathed a sigh of relief, and never touched the picture again. He got him back airily to his painting ; and the only consequence of his dangerous adventure was a vast popularity and the increase of demand for his work. One astute thing, however, he did do-he straightway changed the name of the picture from The Last Supper to Feast in the House of Levi, craftily removing the need for the repentant Magdalene who had had no part in it, and removing any sense of irreverence from the more tragic and dramatic supper-at the same time proving how little he was concerned with the religious motive of his pictures, which were merely a peg upon which to hang a paean to the glory and splendour of Venice. "

Monty Python parodied this sort of situation in their skit "The Penultimate Supper" from Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl.