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Paolo Veronese - Wedding at Cana and Other Spectacular Feasts
Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives, dedicates to Paolo Caliari (the birth name of Veronese) a few lines inside the life of Battista Franco, Venetian artist who worked in Rome. Carlo Ridolfi, author of the biographies of the Veneto painters, publishes a complete biography in 1646. Annibale Carracci was one of the first explicit admirers of the Veronese’s works. In his annotations to the Vasari’s Lives, he criticizes the scarce attention of the Florentine writer towards the painter of Verona. Veronese, he says, was second to none, and this ignorant (Vasari) gets away with four lines, only because Veronese is not from Florence. The century of major fortune of Paolo is the XVIII. In this period he is considered one of the vertex of the art history and his works are copied and admired by several artists, who inspire to his architectures (Gian Battista Tiepolo, Rubens, Delacroix). Veronese’s defence before the court of the Inquisition has become a maybe naïf but sincere manifesto of the freedom in the art.
The After Titian Generation
Paolo Caliari (Verona, 1528 – Venezia, 1588), better known as Paolo Veronese, belongs, with Tintoretto, to the generation of artists subsequent to Giorgione and Titian. Despite the attractiveness of these great masters and despite he had spent a large part of his life in Venice, he always kept an autonomous style, looking at the Roman tendencies that he might have known during his early training in Mantua, through the work of Giulio Romano, rather than at the Venetian tradition. A great attention to the drawing and a peculiar usage of the colour are the main characteristics of his art. In the scenographic representations of his feasts, Veronese makes use of the complete range of colours that he places side by side, creating clever contrasts. In this way, he diverges from the celebrated “tonalism” of the Venetian school and the scarce importance they granted to the drawing.
The Wedding at Cana
In 1561 Veronese had successfully carried out the frescoes of Villa Barbaro in Maser. The villa was projected by Venice’s most acclaimed architect: Andrea Palladio. The collaboration between the two artists results profitable: Veronese inserts false architectures in his frescoes that harmonize admirably with the real architectures of Palladio. One year later, Veronese has another occasion to collaborate with Palladio in the monastery projected by the architect for the Benedictine monks, in the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, in the Venice lagoon. The monks call him for the decoration of the refectory. The humidity of the lagoon did not allow execute durable frescoes. Veronese conceives a gigantic canvas (666 cm x 990 cm - 262 in x 390 in) with the Wedding at Cana as a subject. His rival, Jacopo Tintoretto, had just concluded a large canvas (435 cm x 535 cm – 171.3 in x 210.6 in) on the same subject, a feast with dozens of characters for the refectory of the monks Crociferi (nowadays the painting is displayed in the church of Santa Maria della Salute in Venice). The scene takes place around a table placed vertically to the visual plane, as it is typical of his dramatic style.
Veronese goes further. His enormous canvas is a true invention on the theme. He chooses a horizontal view and sets the feast in a grandiose Palladian architecture, with columns and statues and a clouded blue sky as background. He adds a variegate crowd of people in contemporary dress to the evangelical figures. Christ and the Mother appear at the centre of the table, dressed with the robes of their times, but they do not interact with the characters who enliven the scene all around. Two parallel worlds are on the stage: one sacred, remote to the events, the other near and profane.
On the balustrade above Christ and Mary the servants slaughter the lamb, symbolizing the Eucharist. On the sides, the rich feast takes place. The tables, covered with embroidered cloths, are adorned of precious vessels and dishes containing leftover food.
The characters richly dressed represent the Venetian worldliness, an international society near to the Orient, as it is suggested by the men wearing the turban on the right side. Among this composite crowd, many contemporary people have been distinguished by the scholars (Pietro Aretino, Vittoria Colonna and several others). The four musicians at the centre are traditionally individuated as the four main painters of the time in Venice: Veronese (the man in white playing the viola), Titian (the man in red, a tribute to the preferred colour of the Master), Tintoretto and Bassano.
The painting was so appreciated by Napoleon, that in 1797 he claimed it as a compensation for the costs of the wars in Italy. The canvas was cut in several pieces and sent to the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The Model of the Feasts
The Wedding at Cana constitutes a model that Veronese repeated several times in his life, with many variations. However, he did not arrive to this “invention” suddenly. As we have seen, he had worked with Palladio at Villa Barbaro. In the frescoes of the villa, he had experienced the representation of the Palladian architecture with a good success. But he had also already experienced the mixed representation of evangelical and contemporary characters in a painting dated 1558-1559. This is, coincidentally, a dinner: The Supper in Emmaus. The episode of the appearance of the Risen Jesus to the disciples in Emmaus is told with the presence of a whole family, portrayed in their contemporary dresses together to the figures of Christ and the disciples. The benediction of Jesus seems to be addressed to the children playing near the table.
The Cycle of the Feasts
- Feast in the House of Simon (1560), Turin, Galleria Sabaudia (cm 310 x 450; in 118.5 x 177.16 )
- Wedding at Cana (1562-1563), Paris, Musée du Louvre (cm 666 x 990 ; in 262 x 390)
- Feast in the House of Simon (1567 - 1570), Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera (cm 275 x 710; in 108.3 x 279.5 )
- Feast in the House of Simon (1570 - 1572), Versailles, Musée du Chateau (cm 454 x 874; in 178.7 x 344.1)
- Wedding at Cana (1571-1572), Dresden, Gemäldegalerie (cm 207 x 457; in 81.5 x 179.9)
- Feast in the House of Levi (1573), Venice, Gallerie dell’Academia (cm 555 x 1280; in 218.5 x 503.9)
The nearest antecedent to the Wedding at Cana is the Feast at the House of Simon, dating around 1560, displayed at the Galleria Sabaudia in Turin. It is a large canvas (310 cm x 450 cm - 118.5 in x 177.16 in) for the refectory of a Benedictine convent in Venice. The painting is still far from the glories of the gigantic Wedding at Cana, but it already contains all the ingredients: the Palladian architecture, the crowd of the contemporary figures around the Mary Magdalene who is washing the feet of Christ in the foreground, also a group of spectators on the balcony, parrots and dog.
After the Wedding at Cana, Veronese will return on the subject of the Feast at the House of Simon at least twice: the version of the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan (1567 – 1570) and the version that is hanging at Versailles (1570 – 1572).
He will also repeat the scheme of the family portrait in another, soberer version of the Wedding at Cana, dating 1571-1572, nowadays housed at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. Here, a family (the Cuccina) is portrayed in full and takes part at the feast, the householder raising a glass of wine at the centre of the scene.
Veronese returns to a composition comparable to the magnificence of the Wedding at Cana in 1573, when he paints an immense canvas for the Order of the Dominicans, in the basilica of the Santi Giovanni e Paolo, in Venice. This time the subject was the Last Supper, however the Inquisition forced him to change the title in a more innocuous Feast at the House of Levi.
The Feasts in the House of Simon
The famous episode of the dinner in the house of Simon the Pharisee is narrated in the Gospel of Luke. Simon invites Jesus to eat at his home. A sinful woman, generally identified as Mary Magdalene, goes there, washes the feet of Jesus with her tears and smells them with an ointment. Paolo Veronese returns on this story at least three times, in large canvases executed for the refectories of the monasteries. A fourth canvas with probably the same subject has been lost.
The sinful woman kneeling at the feet of Jesus gives Veronese way to introduce a fact which characterizes the whole representation. This is particularly true in the first of the three paintings, the version conserved in Turin, precedent to the canvas of the Wedding at Cana. Here the finely sensual figure of Magdalene, with her candid neckline, occupies a central role in the left side group that animates the picture, contrasting the figure of Simon, at the centre of the painting, turned in an opposite direction. All the characters take part in the drama and show a cohesion that vanishes in the subsequent versions, inspired to the fragmented scenes of the Wedding at Cana, however without the same grandiosity. It is worth to notice that in all the versions Mary Magdalene wears contemporary dresses. The organization of the space in the canvas of Versailles, with a repartition marked by the columns, anticipates the scenography of the Feast in the House of Levi.
Feast in the House of Levi
In the 1570s, Veronese manages one of the most acclaimed workshops in Venice. As we have seen, his monumental feasts decorate the walls of the refectories in the monasteries, but they are only a part of the production of his workshop. In 1571, during the war against the Turks, a fire destroyed the painting by Titian that was adorning the refectory in the Dominican Basilica of the Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The monks called Veronese to realize a new painting. The subject was the Last Supper.
Veronese attends to this new work using the consolidated model of his preceding banquets, no matter that this is a Last Supper rather than one of the dinners, described in the gospels, to which Jesus is invited.
As he had already done in the last of the Feasts in the House of Simon, he decides to set the feast in a loggia. Venice offered him at least one splendid example of such an architecture: the loggia at the foot of the San Marco bell tower, that Sansovino had completed around twenty years before. A similar portico becomes the frame where the feast takes place. The space is divided by three arches of equal size, supported by columns of white marble. Under the central arch, Christ with some of the apostles (Peter, Paul, probably Judas), on the two sides the usual cosmopolitan crowd, including, among the others, dwarfs and buffoons, men with turban and men with the halberd, several wine drinkers and a man who is bleeding from the nose, servants and a man in an elegant green dress who seems to be the butler who heads the banquet.
All this people form a multicoloured mob that fuss in the strip comprised between the white marbles of the columns in the foreground and the white buildings and the blue sky of the background, attesting the ability of Veronese with the use of complementary colours.
This time, the levity with which Veronese used to insert the religious episodes into contemporary environments will make him to pass some mess. The prior of the Dominican friars judged this setting a bit too extravagant for a strictly religious event such the Last Supper and reported his concerns to the Inquisition. We are in the years of the Counter-Reformation. Veronese was called to justify his choices before the court of the Inquisition. He defends himself appealing to the freedom of the artists and, so he says, of the madmen. The result was that the Inquisition ordered him to make changes to the painting, but Veronese got away with simply changing the title of the painting in a more innocuous Feast in the House of Levi: the banquet that the former tax collector Matteo had given in his home. Crowded, according to the gospel, by “tax collectors and sinners”.
After this adventure, Veronese does not return on the theme of the feasts any more. One of his last works, in 1585, is an orthodox Last Supper.
Beyond the Feasts
Paolo Veronese is not all in his spectacular Feasts. Forty years of career leading one of the most successful workshops in Venice have originated a rich production that in XVIII century inspired an artist such as Tiepolo. An interesting and original part of this production is represented by the about thirty portraits he carried out with a personal, informal style. His portraits form a gallery of characters from the upper class of Venetians, taken in the simplicity of their familiar life, rather than in official, rigid poses. It is significant that the English poet Sir Philip Sidney, visiting Venice in 1574, without hesitation (i.e. without even thinking about the ten years older Tintoretto) went to him to have a portrait. The two portraits displayed here are two splendid examples of what I am saying
The so called Bella Nani (a. 1555) hanging at the Louvre, shows the predilection of the painter for an innovative three quarters laying. The woman portrayed, that someone has identified with Giustiniana Giustinian in the fresco of Villa Barbaro, seems not be posing. She has been taken in the moment someone is arriving and she brings the hand to her chest, almost as a sign of defence, and looks at the newcomer in a natural, interrogative way.
The other portrait, housed in Baltimore at the Walters Art Gallery, is dated in the early 1550s. The countess Livia da Porto Thiene is portrayed with the daughter. Also in this case, it is striking the vivid gaze of the girl who pops out from the protective dresses of the mother and watches at the observer. The painting is paired with the other one (housed at Pitti, in Florence) of the husband Iseppo with the son Adriano, portrayed in a specular way, but with less vitality.