VeroneseI'm not sure where the term "artistic license" came from, or how to get one, or if I already have one, how often to get it renewed, but it has come to stand for the freedom artists feel to create just about anything and call it art. We take it for granted and even go so far as to complain when it seems those among us go so far as to abuse it. During the late 1500s, one such artist seemed to do just that and got pulled over for it by no less authority than the Inquisition. His offence, it would seem, was painting what appeared to be a Last Supper set amidst such grandiose splendour as to offend the tastes of nearly everyone who beheld it.
The artist was Paolo Caliari. He was born in 1528 in Verona, Italy, from whence came his name, Veronese. Living and working during the Mannerist Era, his name has come to symbolise the splendorous pomp and wealth of his adopted city, Venice. The controversial effort that got him in trouble would, at first glance, appear to be designed to do just that. This was no modest little easel painting. It was 42 feet long and some 18 feet tall, painted in oil on stretched canvas. There seems to be a rather boisterous dinner party going on. The painting is a fool-the-eye tour-de-force featuring three gigantic arches framing a hazy city in the background. Seated under the centre arch is undeniably a portrait of Jesus. But amongst his dinner companions are foreign soldiers, merchants, tax collectors, a man picking his teeth, mongrel dogs, a parrot, and quite a number of equally unsavoury characters. The inquisition apparently felt Jesus should not be depicted amongst such riffraff.
In their grilling of Veronese, the Inquisition's questions centred upon whether it was, in fact, a Last Supper. Veronese insisted it was not. Perhaps it had started out that way, but at some point he'd had the good sense to change the title to Feast in the House of Simon, which was a small dinner just before Jesus entered Jerusalem. Veronese defended his work; "We painters take the same license poets and jesters take...I paint pictures as I see fit and as well as my talent permits." Though not quite heresy perhaps, the statement was nonetheless quite shocking at the time and definitely offended those who took issue with his work. They demanded he change it. In the end, Veronese chose instead to merely change the title to Feast in the House of Levi. In doing so, the artist had a modest degree of revenge since the Bible notes that after this banquet, Jesus himself was criticised for hobnobbing with such characters. His defence was more direct; "I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners." (Luke 5:32)
Contributed by Lane, Jim
14 July 1998