Wandering through the halls of the Academia in Venice I have to admit, I was thrown by the differences between the Venetian painting of the 15th and 16th centuries and the Florentine Renaissance that I had imbibed over the past ten days. Everything in the Academia felt very foreign until I walked into a room in which one whole wall was taken over by Veronese’s Christ in the House of Levi, 1573. I immediately felt as though I had come home. I knew the painting, at least, it was familiar to me in a way that the Venetian paintings are not. Because it is the sibling of The Wedding Feast at Cana, painted 10 years earlier that now sits opposite the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.
Veronese does dinner time like no other Renaissance-Mannerist painter. And dinner always looks like so much fun in Veronese’s paintings. Veronese painted Christ in the House of Levi for the Dominican order of Santi Giovani e Paolo’s refectory wall in their Venice convent. This painting is a massive 18’ x 42’ indicating that dinner was an important moment in the day, and a great opportunity to be reminded of the grandeur of Venetian life. Veronese rises to the occasion and paints a majestic scene that doesn't care much for the religious subject matter. The painting is, afterall, supposed to be a representation of the Last Supper.
There is so much going on in the painting that I found myself wandering around, searching to find a place to begin looking, deciding which scene I would focus on. I recognize the two figures on the terrace of the building behind where dinner is being served, looking over the terrace, fascinated by the events going on below. On the left hand side of the painting the figures are from the orient, and I am reminded that men in sumptuous silks and decorated turbans must have been a familiar sight in sixteenth century Venice. Unlike the frescoes I had spent time with in more southern regions of Italy, there are also black men involved in Veronese's feast, but even though they richly dressed, still, their backs are turned. Similarly there are midgets, drunks, merchants and dogs invited for dinner, guests who apparently created quite a stir at the time. In fact, because of them Veronese was put before an Inquisition. Even in Venice it is not okay for such low life to be eating at Christ’s dinner table.
Of course, the most glorious aspect of the painting is the brilliantly coloured clothes of the dinner guests. In greens and reds and yellows, Christ’s pink robe and blue cloak, all of them must have been resplendent on the refectory wall. And to reinforce that no one pays much attention to Christ (surely another point of order for the Inquisition) the looks of the dinner guests meet only as their lines of sight cross in front of the painting, somewhere above the tables at which the Dominicans sat to eat their meals. Only the man on Christ’s left actually looks at him while everyone else’s attention is drawn away by a deal, a promise, or a protestation from a fellow guest.
This is a raucous and energy filled occasion, but while we hear a lot of noise, we sense a lot of tension. No one is smiling or laughing, but rather, they are all busy, filled with the passions of doing business. This turbulence is somehow reflected in the brilliant and multi colours of the figures’ magnificent robes. To be sure, there’s very little cohesion to Christ in the House of Levi – not even Christ himself at his last supper seems able to or even interested in bringing unity to this banquet.