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January 2013

Veronese’s Foreign Soldiers

Veronese, "Feast in the House of Levi," 1573. Oil on canvas; 18'3" x 42'. Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice

This quarter I am teaching a course on Counter-Reformation art. Before we reach the Baroque period, we are spending some time discussing Late Mannerist painters who were affected by the reformations taking place in the Catholic Church at the end of the 16th century. One such painter was Veronese, who was called before the Inquisition Tribunal in Venice to discuss the subject matter of his painting for the refectory of the Dominican monastery of Saints Giovanni e Paolo. This painting was originally called a depiction of the Last Supper, although there is some confusion as to whether this was supposed to be a depiction of Feast in the House of Simon.1 Nonetheless, the subject matter was considered to be offensive. The offensive subject matter included a buffoon (a dwarf dressed as a jester), foreign German soldiers, turbaned-foreigners, a man with a bloody nose, mangy dogs, and a man picking his teeth. Such subjects were not found to be appropriate in a depiction of Christ’s Last Supper!

You can read a transcript of the Inquisitor’s question and Veronese’s responses on this .PDF file. This record of the interrogation was only discovered in 1867 when Armand Baschet happened upon this information in some archives.2 Before this point, we didn’t know that Veronese was called before the Inquisition Tribunal. We also don’t have a records for the contract for this commission, which also hinders our complete understanding of this piece. And, unfortunately, we’re not quite sure who complained about the painting so that Veronese was brought before the Inquisition tribunal. Personally, I think that it must have been someone at the monastery itself.

Veronese, detail of foreign soldiers from "Feast of the House of Levi," 1573

I can understand why foreign soldiers would be offensive on a basic level, since such secular figures (particularly ones who are drinking) are not mentioned in the biblical account of Christ’s Last Supper (or the House of Simon, for that matter). However, I think that this topic should be considered in a little bit more depth. Up until now, I haven’t seen anyone make specific connections between these German soldiers and the Swiss soldiers which were lodged at the monastery just a few years before Veronese’s painting was completed.

The inclusion of soldiers may have also been especially offensive to the Dominicans, not only because of their secular nature but also the monastery’s recent history with foreign soldiers. Between the end of December 1570 and February 1571, a fire broke out at the monastery which had been set by foreign soldiers. These Swiss soldiers had offered their services to Venetian authorities, but they were not immediately put into service (because the Venetians were worried that they would be accused of fraternizing with heretics). These unpaid, discontent soldiers were lodged at the monastery, and finally expressed their frustration through the fire.3

This fire destroyed Titian’s version of The Last Supper for the refectory, and Veronese was commissioned to replace this piece. Perhaps authorities did not like the inclusion of foreign soldiers in Veronese’s painting for three reasons, then: 1) the secular nature of the soldiers, 2) the soldiers was a reminder of the recent fire and 3) the soldiers were a reminder of the lost Titian painting which necessitated Veronese’s commission!

Veronese was ordered by the Inquisition Tribunal to modify his controversial painting, but it appears that the only modifications were small inscriptions in the foreground, on the posts at the end of each balustrade. These new inscriptions identify the subject matter as “Feast in the House of Levi.” This scene refers to a time in which Christ was criticized of associating with unsavory people while he dined. Christ replied, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance, but sinners” (Luke 5:32). Without needing to repaint anything, all of Veronese’s “sinners” and inappropriate figures were justifiable, given the new title and setting! Perhaps by just changing the title of the piece, Veronese was taking modest revenge on the Inquisitors (or upon whomever complained about the painting). I have to admit, I think Veronese was quite clever and witty by making this minor switch.

1The Feast in the House of Simon refers to the scene in the Bible when Mary Magdalene comes to the house of Simon to bathe Christ’s feet with her tears and hair. The story is mentioned in all for our the Gospel books: Matt. 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-11; Luke 7:36-50; John 11:55-57; 12:1-11. Before creating his painting for the Dominican monastery of SS. Giovanni and Paolo, Veronese depicted Feast of the House of Simon in paintings that now belong in Versailles (dated 1570-72) and the Pinoteca di Brera in Milan (dated 1567-70).

2 Edward Grasman,”On Closer Inspection: The Interrogation of Paolo Veronese,” in Arbitus et Historiae 30, no. 59 (2009): 132

3 Ibid., 131,

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Expensive Pigments, Dyes and Artistic Mediums

Lately I’ve been thinking about some of the artistic mediums and/or colors which were expensive or highly prized at different points in history. Obviously, there are some artistic mediums which were valued in the past that still have value today, like gold or silver. There are a few other mediums have stuck out to me beyond these common examples, and I thought I would jot down a few things about these mediums and colors.

Cult Image of the God Ptah, lapis lazuli, ca. 945-600 BC (Dynasty 22 – early Dynasty 26). Height 2.25″ (5.6 cm), Metropolitan Museum of Art

LAPIS LAZULI: Lapis lazuli is a hard stone which contains the mineral lazurite. This rare blue stone which originally came from Afghanistan and was highly prized in the ancient period. In fact, in early cultures lapis lazuli was considered more expensive than gold. Due to its expensive nature, lapis lazuli was usually used in royal sculptural workshops, either for depictions of royalty or depictions of the gods.1 Such is the case with the cult image of the God Ptah, the Lord of the Sky. The lapis lazuli is creatively used in this instance to underscore Ptah’s role, since the medium suggests a deep blue cosmos studded with stars.

Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs, c. 305 CE. Porphyry, height approx. 4’3″.

PORPHYRY (AND THE COLOR PURPLE): The color purple was highly prized in ancient cultures, particularly Roman, Byzantine, and medieval cultures. This color was largely prized because of the dye Tyrian purple, which is also known as “royal purple” or “imperial purple.” Tyrian purple dye was rare and valued, since it was made from the secretion of mollusks.2 During ancient times only the elite could afford to be clothed in purple. As a result, the color purple is associated with the iconography for royalty and deities.3 Such imagery can be found in representations of Christ (like mosaics found at Sant’Apollinare Nuovo) and emperors (like the Justinian mosaic in San Vitale). Even the Virgin Mary is sometimes associated with purple.

As a result of this expensive dye and its associations with the elite, other purple-colored substances, like the hard stone porphyry (see image above), were also valued. The red-purple variant of porphyry which was valued among royals came from a specific remote site in Egypt: Gebel Dokhan. Even today, this is the only location in the world in which imperial porphyry is found.

Vermeer. “Woman Pouring Milk” (The Kitchen Maid), c. 1660. Oil on canvas, which includes ultramarine blue pigment

ULTRAMARINE BLUE: Ultramarine blue is a pigment which existed in ancient times, but was also used in the Early Modern period. This pigment was highly valued, largely because true ultramarine blue is created with ground lapis lazuli stone. The ground stone is purified with multiple washings and then bonded with oil using a hand mulling process. Since the early nineteenth century, however, ultramarine blue is only created through a synthetic process.

Renaissance and Baroque artists, including Vermeer (see image above) used true ultramarine blue. The vibrant blue of the kitchen maid’s wrap is a great example of the brilliant color found in this type of pigment. True ultramarine was expensive, and sometimes Renaissance artists would resort to using azurite blue instead.

Okay, now it’s your turn. What are some other artistic mediums or pigments which which were valued in history? (Off the top of my head, I can think of other fabrics which have been valued, like silk and velvet.) If you know of specific works of art which are created with certain valued mediums or pigments, please share!

*Several of my thoughts for this post were sparked by the website, “Pigments through the Ages.” This website has a lot of information about the history of different pigments, how to make these pigments, and the technical details for these pigments.

1 Blue was a very important color in Ancient Egypt. In addition to the lapis lazuli stone, the Egyptian blue pigment was also used for painting depictions of royalty and gods.

2 Victoria Finlay explains that 250,000 “murex branders” and “murex trunculus” shellfish were needed to extract the dye needed for one garment (which would be about half an ounce. Additionally, Finlay explains that the clothes dyed in purple had a distinctive odor of fish and the sea, which Pliny disliked and called “offensive.” See Victoria Finlay, The Brilliant History of Color in Art (Los Angeles, The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2014), p. 28. 

3 A mythology surrounding the discovery of purple dye developed in ancient cultures. The Roman writer Cassidorus explained that Tyrian Hercules discovered the purple color when his dog devoured a murex snail while they were at a beach. Later artists were also interested in this mythology; the Baroque artist Rubens painted “Hercules and the Discovery of the Secret of Purple” (La découverte de la pourpre”) around 1636.

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.