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Paolo Veronese, Feast in the House of Levi, 1573, oil on canvas, 18 feet 3 inches x 42 feet, Accademia, Venice Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.
Video transcript
(lively music) Male voiceover: We're in the Academy of The Great Fine Arts Museum in Venice. And we're looking at a massive painting by Veronese, one of the most important Venetian artists of the 16th century. This is the Feast in the House of Levi. Female voiceover: Except it's not really, because it originally, was meant to be and I supposed it still is, a Last Supper but its title got changed. But you may not even know it was the Last Supper because it's hard to find the Last Supper in this painting. Male voiceover: True. First of all, there are tremendous number of figures and the architecture is so imposing. It's so grand. The specific event being rendered is almost completely lost. Female voiceover: And it really does seem as though Veronese so enjoyed painting all of these figures around Chris and the Apostles, much more than he was interested in the spiritual moment of the Last Supper. He's got dozens of figures drinking and cavorting, welcoming others, serving people, entertaining and in fact, when Veronese described his profession, he said, "I paint and composed figures." and you can just see the pleasure he had in painting so many different kinds of figures, involved in so many different kinds of actions. Male voiceover: Even the most sacred, even the most important spiritual figures, are engaged in an action. Look at Christ, He's just turning to the figure at his left, as Saint Peter who is to his right seems to be carving a piece of lamb to pass it over These are the actions of real people. Female voiceover: And they're real people having that Last Supper in the space just inside this loggia. So, we're looking at a three-part painting that might remind us of a triptych with three arches and in the space between the front row (chuckles) of arches and the second row of arches, we see the Last Supper. but in front, we have figures from Venice (chuckles) in the 16th century. They're dressed like contemporary Venetians. Male voiceover: We're seeing the cosmopolitan nature that was the Venetian City state. Venice traded across the Mediterranean East and West. They traded North and so, here we have Germans on the right side of the painting, Patricians, we have people wearing turbans on the left side of the painting. Venice is this intersection. This place where the world meets. Female voiceover: Clearly a sense of enourmous wealth and privilege here. In some ways, it does just look like a banquet and not a Last Supper. Male voiceover: That's what concerned the Inquisition. Veronese was painting during the period that we know as the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. There were people, especially in Northern Europe that were beginning to question the church and its authority. Female voiceover: Particularly, the role of images in the church and there was a concern that images have a certain decorum, have a certain propriety and not distract the viewer. Male voiceover: Images played a really important role in what we call the Counter-Reformation. The attempt by the Catholic Church to re-energize itself to deal with some of the corruption that had weakened it but to really forcefully, push forward Catholicism. Female voiceover: And art was key to doing that and if you have art that's got lot of fun things (chuckles) to look at and it's distracting and doesn't help you focus on meditating on the spiritual moment or the devotional image that's depicted then art is not in the service of the church. Male voiceover: So, the Inquisition called the Tribunal where the artist was called to answer to what were considered a very serious lapse of judgment. It's interesting to note that the church that commissioned the painting seems to have been fine with the final product but the Inquisition was not. Female voiceover: They questioned the artist and they asked him what the various apostles are doing and they said, "Did anyone commission you to paint Germans, "buffoons and similar things in that picture? "Who's responsible for this? "Are you responsible for the ridiculous extravagance "of this painting?" Male voiceover: And Veronese's response is interesting. He says, "The artist has the kind of license that a poet has, "that this is from his imagination." He was given a very large painting to paint and he needed to fill it with figures. Female voiceover: Well, that's right. He said, "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." Male voiceover: What the Inquisition had originally demanded, was that some of the figures, specifically, the dog be changed but Veronese said, "No." Instead, what he was going to do, was simply change the title and so, it went from being a Last Supper to Feast in the House of Levi. Female voiceover: And apparently, that satisfied the Tribunal, it satisfied the church, it satisfied the artist at least to some extent in order to preserve his reputation. It occurs to me that when Leonardo painted the Last Supper, it was so much about removing everything that wasn't necessary to portraying in an emotionally, spiritually powerful way this moment when Christ said, "One of you will betray me." and when Christ said, "Take this bread for this is my body. "Take this wine, this is my blood and remember me." This critical moment for the church and the creation of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. And Leonardo distilled that but Veronese exploded it and put it back into our world and to get out of that timeless world that Leonardo had putted in. Male voiceover: That's right. There is all the chaos of people paying attention to all the different kinds of things, the way that a dinner party takes place. There is a kind of truth here that is different from the kind of truth that Leonardo presented. Female voiceover: Did you see the cat under the table? Male voiceover: (laughs) Yes. Male voiceover: (laughs) Oh, that's great. Male voiceover: Maybe hoping for some of that lamb. Female voiceover: And the dog is watching the cat. It's filled with anecdote that really does distract from that message. On the other hand, you're right. Maybe it makes that message all the more palpable by embedding it in the reality of Venice in the 16th century.