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,

  • Ben says:

    M: This is fascinating, and it’s always nice to find out more about one of the paintings I include in my art history survey.

    A somewhat digressive comment/question: was the inquisition’s q&a transcript the inspiration for the Monty Python skit about Michelangelo and the pope? I’ve always assumed so. See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1IJiAXjj7k

    Ben

  • Bogdan says:

    This famous episode in art history can be read (and is read) in two ways, depending on your opinion regarding the historical events and your view regarding the relationship between religion and society in general: 1) as symbolizing the attempt of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church to rein in artistic liberty, that is as symbolizing Counter-Reformation religious rigorism flowwing the relaxation of the Renaissance; 2) as acknowling the victory or the emancipation of artistic liberty over religious inconographic canons, as a complete victory in fact of the Rennaissance spirit of liberty in matters of creativity and inquiry, or at least as the Church’s incapacity to restrain it.

    The allegorical elements in the painting are more complicated. The presence of the Turkish characters alludes to the fall of Cyprus, a Venetian possession, to the Otoman Empire, in 1571, and to the great naval battle of Lepanto, in which papal coaliation of Spanish, Italian, Maltese and Austrian forces, the Holy League, defeated to Ottoman navy. This Christian naval victory came too late to save Cyprus and, afterwards, the Venice refused to lead a crusade to reconquer Cyprus, wich was by this time the last crusader state established by the initial Frankish crusaders, as called by the pope.

    Consequently, Veronese’s painting can also be interpreted as making a disguised political statement regarding the hypocracy of all, or some of these political actors, which profess God and noble goals such as the reconquest of the Holy lands but who are in fact more interested in material gains and power, just like the drunken mercenary soldiers he depicted. Allegory because a very important form of expression in this period and throughout the baroque period later for making such hidden political statements.

  • Bogdan says:

    I meant, obviously, “Allegory becomes a very important form of expression in this period and throughout the baroque period later for making such hidden political statements”.

    In this sense, as a political allegory, Veronese’s last Supper is a hidden critique of the greed, depravity and thirst for power and material wealt which he seems to think characterised both the Catholic Church leadership and the the leadership of the various republics or principalities in Italy. One can even say that the hidden message of the allegory is that the real cause for the demise of Christianity, in other words, of the Catholic Church, is its the failure to respect its professed values, because it is destroyed as much by the mercenary Swiss soliders, that is as much from within, as from without, as by the Turks.

  • Francis DeStefano says:

    M:

    I know that attention has usually focused on the soldiers and onlookers and the problem with the Inquisition. But is it possible to find and identify the twelve Apostles in this famous painting? Jesus is obviously flanked by balding Peter and beardless John. But what about the others?

    Frank

  • Hello Bogdan! Thank you for your comment! I think that you have brought up a very good point about the Turks and the politics surrounding Venice at this time. I think there is no doubt the political associations and accusations would have been troublesome to many who saw Veronese’s painting, especially in light of the Inquisition and the hypocrisy which the Inquisition claimed to uproot.

  • Ben, I never thought about the Monty Python skit in conjunction with this particular painting. Of course! I think that you’re right. I’ve enjoyed that skit many times, but always thought about it more in relation to the tension between Michelangelo and Julius II (with the Sistine Chapel ceiling). I like the Veronese connection!

  • Frank, that’s a great point. There isn’t much “clarity” in regards to the apostles in this painting, which also would have been seen as problematic (given the Council of Trent’s relatively recent stipulations on what religious art should constitute). One assumes that the apostles are seated at the table, but there isn’t much iconography to help the viewer.

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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.