Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese

Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573)
Feast at the House of Levi by Paolo Veronese (1573)

The 16th century the art scene of Venice was dominated by three artists, Titian, Paolo Veronese, and Jacopo Tintoretto and it was these three painters who managed to tender for and win most of the public and religious commissions, which were on offer during that period.  My featured painting today was one of Veronese’s most controversial paintings.   It was intended to be a monumental work depicting the Last Supper but as you will now read that Veronese, three months after its completion, had to hastily change the title of the painting.  The work, which is now entitled Feast at the House of Levi, is a massive work of art measuring 555cms x 1280cms (18’6″ x 42’6″) and was far too big to be included in the recent Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London but I have been fortunate enough to stand in front of this amazing work a few years ago when I visited the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice.  It is a truly magnificent painting.

Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice
Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice

In 1573, Paolo Veronese, who was at the time forty-five years old, was awarded the commission to paint a depiction of the Last Supper for the rear wall of the refectory of the fourteenth century Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, sometimes known as the pantheon of doges, as twenty-five of them have been buried there. It is one of the largest churches in the city of Venice. The building of this great church started around 1333 but was not completed until November 1430 as the construction was halted on many occasions due to the never-ending plagues that the city suffered during the 14th century.  This painting by Veronese would replace Titian’s painting, The Last Supper, which had been lost in a fire in 1571.  According to the writing on the base of the pillars, to the left and right in the foreground of the painting, the work was completed by Veronese on April 20th 1573.  When I looked at some of the Veronese paintings at the National Gallery exhibition in my previous two blogs, I talked about the artist’s penchant for combining secular depictions in some of his religious works, such as his painting, Supper at Emmaus, and in today’s painting we can see that this theme was once again adopted, much to the horror of the Catholic Church.  So let us look in more detail at this immensely impressive work.

Dog looking at cat which appears under Last Supper table
Dog looking at cat which appears under Last Supper table

In the painting we see a monumental triple-arch background through which one can see more magnificent buildings of Venice cityscape.  This was more than likely inspired by buildings designed by the great Italian architects of the time, Andrea Palladio and Jacopo Sansovino, who designed many of the Venetian buildings in the sixteenth century.   In the foreground of the painting and on either side of the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper, we witness a scene of great merriment, with jesters and blackamoors, along with the nobility of Venice enjoying their own sumptuous feast.  Veronese has simply combined the Last Supper with Christ and his Apostles with a typical Venetian dinner party.  The first thing that strikes you about this work is the large number of figures that have been included in the work, one could say, almost crammed into the work and because the work is somewhat cluttered by human beings, the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper seems almost lost in the melee and this is part of the reason why it did not find favour with the Church.  One realises that the artist must have derived great joy from including all these various figures, all doing different things and for him this maybe what the painting was about and that the Last Supper was just a bi-product of the work.  Maybe we can glean an understanding of Veronese’s modus operandi by his description of his work as an artist when he described what he did, saying:

“I paint and compose figures”

Jester with parrot
Jester with parrot

The Church’s displeasure of the completed work was not just that the depiction of the Last Supper, in the central background of the painting, seems almost to play a secondary and minor role in the work; it was that they were horrified by some of the numerous other characters who populated the work.  Veronese’s inclusion of this assortment of characters into such a famous religious scene was looked upon by the Church as being irreverent, bordering on blasphemous. One has to remember that this period marked the beginning of the Counter Reformation which was the Catholic Church’s attempt to strongly and vociferously oppose the Protestant Reformation and to move towards a re-definition of good Catholic values.  The Church was very wary about anything which could be perceived as mocking the Church and its values.  This counter-reformation movement attempted to elevate the moral and educational standards of the clergy and by so doing enable it to win back areas endangered by Protestantism.  So when Veronese added a plethora of people, some of whom seemed to be drunk, as well as dogs, a cat, midgets, and Huns to the depiction of Christ at the Last Supper at the house of Simon, the elders of the Church were horrified.  Veronese was summoned to appear before the Inquisition on July 18th 1573 which was sitting in the Chapel of S. Teodoro.

One of the first questions posed by his inquisitors was whether he knew why he had been summoned before them.  Veronese replied:

“…I fancy that it concerns what was said to me by the reverend fathers, or rather by the prior of the monastery of San Giovanni e Paolo, whose name I did not know, but who informed me that he had been here, and that your Most Illustrious Lordships had ordered him to cause to be placed in the picture a Magdalene instead of the dog; and I answered him that very readily I would do all that was needful for my reputation and for the honour of the picture; but that I did not understand what this figure of the Magdalene could be doing here…”

 The inquisitors were not pacified by his answer and began to question him in more detail.  They asked him why he had included two German soldiers seen on the stairway, standing guard bearing halberds, in the right foreground.  One has to remember it was the German Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestan Reformation fifty-five years earlier and it was he who had been a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church, constantly criticising the ways of the Catholic clergy and the Catholic doctrine.   The Inquisition wanted to know why such frivolous things as a dwarf with a parrot on his arm, a dog which sits before Christ’s table staring at the cat which has appeared under the tablecloth had been included in a deeply religious scene.  Veronese had all the answers ready.  As far as the German soldiers he answered:

German guards with halberds
German guards with halberds

“…We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants…”

The inclusion of the two Germans in the painting was considered by the inquisitors an even greater sin than the other inclusions the inquisitors questioned Veronese again as to their inclusion.

“…Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?…”

Veronese realised he was now on dangerous ground but skilfully replied:

“… I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters…”

Veronese was probably now becoming a little fearful at the way the questioning was going and so decided to go down the line of – if you think I have blasphemed with my painting, what about the much beloved Michelangelo’s work in the Vatican.  Veronese expanded:

“…In Rome, in the Pope’s Chapel, Michelangelo has represented Our Lord, His Mother, St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court; and he has represented all these personages nude, including the Virgin Mary, and in various attitudes not inspired by the most profound religious feeling…”

Other diners

The Inquisitors however would not criticise Michelangelo’s work, merely saying that in the depiction of the Last Judgement, which Veronese was referring to, it was only natural that the people were without clothes and that the work had been inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They then turned on Veronese stating that there was no indication that his work had been so inspired by the Holy Spirit and that he needed to make some changes to it.  They then compared Michelangelo’s work with his and commented:

“…There are neither buffoons, dogs, weapons, nor other absurdities. Do you think, therefore, according to this or that view, that you did well in so painting your picture, and will you try to prove that it is a good and decent thing?..”

A little trickier was the question as to why he would include a jester with a parrot on his wrist in such a “sacred” work.  However, he was not to be browbeaten and simply answered:

“…He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures…”

 Veronese did however agree with his inquisitors that there was only Christ and his twelve apostle present at the table during the Last Supper but forwarded the reason for the inclusion of so many characters.  He said that the painting was to be so large that he had to fill the space with something, saying:

“…when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention…” 

The inquisitors countered Veronese’s argument by asking him whether he thought he had the right to mock the Last Supper by including irreligious figures, such as buffoons, dwarves, a dog, a cat and worst of all Germans.  Veronese replied:

“…No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures…”

The way in which Veronese had depicted the Last Supper seen in the central background was also criticised by the Inquisition.  This was not similar to the portrayal of Last Supper à la Leonardo.  Veronese’s table scene was more of an everyday festive scene and this was not lost on the inquisitors who wanted to know what was going on at the supper table.  They started by questioning Veronese as to who was sitting down with Christ.  He answered:

“…The twelve apostles…”

They then questioned what the person, Saint Peter, on the right hand of Christ was doing.  The artist responded:

“… He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table and Christ holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him…”

On questioning what a third person at the table was doing he merely commented:

“…. He is picking his teeth with a fork…”

In a desperate final attempt to justify the inclusion of all the extra people, both normal and strange, he pointed out that such elements that displeased the Inquisition, such as the dog, the dwarf, the blackamoors, the man with the nosebleed, who is seen holding a handkerchief at the left of the picture, were all in the foreground or the sides of the painting, and did not, in any way, form an incursion into the religious depiction of Christ at supper at the centre of the work.

Venetian guest arriving for supper
Venetian guest arriving for supper

With a terrible sense of foreboding the questions came to an end and Veronese awaited his fate. So, it was much to his surprise that at the end of the interrogation Veronese was told that he was a free man.  However as the Inquisition could not accept his argument for adding what they termed “anti-conformist elements” he was given three months to correct the painting at his own expense.  They required him to paint out the dog, and replace it with the Magdalene.  He was also to expunge the German soldiers and it was all to be done within three months. Paolo Veronese, who had feared torture and even death because of his heretical depiction of the Last Supper, couldn’t believe his luck.  So how had he managed to escape the full force of the Inquisition?  Maybe the answer lay in the fact that the Inquisition had much reduced powers in Venice and the inquisitors knew that they could only threaten and not use the brutal methods of torture that was taking place in other countries such as Spain and Italy.  They simply wanted to frighten Veronese in the hope that he would think twice before he again combined secularity with religious scenes.  The Inquisition in Venice was also fully aware that every judgement they made was scrutinised by the Venetian Senate, who were ready to drastically curtail their powers, if they dared to take away the liberty of a Venetian subject and, of course,  Paolo Veronese was one such subject.

Date on column and reference to Luke's Gospel
Date on column and reference to Luke’s Gospel

Veronese never made any of the major changes to his painting that the Inquisition had demanded, but in deference to Ecclesiastical sensibilities and not wishing to push his luck, he added the inscription across the top of the pillars at the head of the staircases, the ones which also showed the date of completion.  The inscription read:

Fecit D.Covi Magnum Levi                       Luca Cap. V

This was in reference to a passage in Luke’s gospel of the New Testament (Luke 5: 27-29):

“…After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. “Follow me,” Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.  Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them…”

He then merely changed the title of the work from The Last Supper to Feast at the House of Levi and by doing so was able to retain the dog and removed the need for it to be replaced by a repentant Magdalene prostrating herself on the floor before Christ.  Veronese’s decision not to make the changes pleased both the friars who loved the painting, and for the majority of Venetians who resented Rome’s inquisition.   The painting remained in the refectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo until Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops marched into Venice in 1797 and he ordered it be taken back to Paris.   It was returned to Venice a decade later and remained in the church until 1815, at which time it was acquired by the Accademia Galleries in Venice, its current home.

One final thought as to why Veronese would add so many people into a religious scene.   A decade earlier, in 1563, he had completed a similar monumental religious commission for the monks, entitled the Wedding at Cana, which now hangs in the Louvre.  It is interesting to note that it was the monks who had asked him to squeeze as many figures into their painting, as possible.  This was however at a time when the Inquisition and the upholding of Counter-Reformation ideals had yet to reach Venice.

The Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London. Part 2

In art, the hackneyed phrase “size matters” is not relevant as some of the most beautiful works of art are quite small. In my first look at the Veronese exhibition at London’s National Gallery I focused on some of the artist’s monumental works which were on show. In today’s blog I want to look at some of the smaller paintings which were on display at the exhibition.

Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness by Veronese (c. 1585)
Mary Magdalen in the Wilderness by Veronese (c. 1585)

The first painting I want to feature is Veronese’s oil on canvas work entitled Mary Magdalene in the Wilderness which he completed around 1585 and is on loan to the exhibition from a private collection in Genoa. The scene is a cave, bathed in moonlight, which is home to Mary Magdalene. Legend had it that after the death of Christ, his resurrection and finally his ascension into heaven, she, along with her brothers Lazarus and Maximin, fled the Holy Land in a rudder-less boat and one without a sail and landed at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in the Camargue near the city of Arles. From there she went to Marseille before living for thirty years in a cave in the Saint Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume Mountains. According to legend, during her self-imposed exile, she went on a strict period of fasting and that but for occasional visits by the angels, and the comfort bestowed by celestial visions, she might have died. The only food she received was the Holy Eucharist which was given to her by angels.

In the painting, we see Mary Magdalene leaning back against a shelf as she converses with the angel who has descended to offer her a modicum of comfort. Veronese has retained her youth and beauty despite what would have been her real age. She is depicted as being semi-naked although she attempts to cover up her nakedness with her hair and diaphanous clothing. Her legs are bare and her breast is exposed and this portrayal of her is probably meant to remind us of her previous immoral life. Look at the shelf behind her. On it we can just make out a number of items. There is an alabaster jar which is the traditional attribute of Mary Magdalene, reminding us of the jar of very expensive aromatic oil, pure nard, with which she anointed the feet of Christ. Also on the ledge there is a skull and an hour glass, both Vanitas symbols alluding to the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Propped up against the skull is a crucifix reminding us of the death of Christ which Mary Magdalene witnessed first-hand.

It is thought that the painting, which was purchased around 1736 by the Doria family, was enlarged during the eighteenth century so that it fitted snugly within decorated plasterwork of one of the rooms of their Strada Nuovo palace in Genoa.

The Finding of Moses by Veronese (c.1580)
The Finding of Moses by Veronese (c.1580)

My next featured work is one entitled The Finding of Moses which Veronese completed around 1580 and is part of the Prado collection in Madrid. This small cabinet-sized painting (57cms x 43cms) is another of his religious works and is based on the Old Testament story (Exodus 2:5-6):

“…Then the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river. And her maidens walked along the riverside; and when she saw the ark among the reeds, she sent her maid to get it. And when she opened it, she saw the child, and behold, the baby wept. So she had compassion on him, and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children’…”

The painting depicts the moment when the Pharaoh’s daughter, Bithiah, and her ladies-in-waiting have plucked the basket, made of bulrushes and pitch, from the reeds on the edge of the Nile River. The basket was the one in which the baby, Moses had been placed by his Hebrew mother, Jochebed, in order to save him from the slaughter of all male Hebrew children ordered by the Egyptian Pharaoh.

Although this obviously a religious work it has secular connotations and this secularising of the work made it one of Veronese’s most popular subjects. He completed many versions of this depiction, some small like this one, others much larger. This painting has combined the pomp and ceremony often seen in secular works with a story from the bible. The Pharoah’s daughter and her royal attendants are lavishly dressed in sumptuous gowns. Bithiah, as the Pharoah’s daughter, is the most lavishly dressed in stunning orange and white damask gown. To her left is one of her attendants, dressed in blue, holding a blanket ready to wrap up the baby who is being cradled by another attendant who can be seen crouching down with Moses in her arms. The background at the left of painting depicts a river flowing through a large town and is crossed by a bridge. This could well be based on city of Verona, which has many bridges straddling the fast-flowing Adige River.

In the left foreground we see one of her black servants holding the basket which had once carried the baby down river. To the right of the painting Veronese has included a dwarf in the company of the women. Dwarves were often present at 16th century European courts and depicted in paintings of the time. It is thought that this version of the painting was commissioned by Marquis and Marchioness della Torre of Veneto. Its emergence in Spain dates to the 1666 inventory of the Alcázar of Madrid.

Portrait of a Lady 'La Bella Nani' by Veronese (c. 1560)
Portrait of a Lady ‘La Bella Nani’ by Veronese (c. 1560)

My third offering is a portrait which Veronese completed around 1560. It is entitled Portrait of a Lady, ‘La Bella Nani’ and this work is considered to be Veronese’s greatest stand-alone female portrait. Venetian portraiture of Venetian courtesans was very popular at this time with works by the Italian painter of the Venetian school, Palma Vechio, the Italian painter of the Venetian Renaissance, Paris Bordone and Titian. This portrait by Veronese was often likened to Titian’s 1536 work entitled La Bella. In both these paintings the female sitter exudes a sense of opulence by the sumptuous and expensive clothes they wear. Veronese’s woman is standing with her left hand spreading her gossamer veil whilst her right hand is at her breast. Her hair is set tightly, and bejewelled with pearls. She wears a velvet dress which is deep ultramarine in colour and has gold epaulets; The colour of the dress was originally blue although over time sunlight has caused the painting to darken and the beautiful ultramarine dress seems black with just a hint of blue woven in. Veronese’s clever and complex layer of glazes makes the expensive material of the dress shimmer in the light. Her make-up is perfect with rouge on her cheeks she wears an assortment of jewellery, including a large gold piece hanging at her waist. Her wrists are adorned with gold bracelets, on her fingers there are gold rings and around her neck we see a string of pearls. The combination of the jewellery and clothes transforms her into what we would now term a fashion idol. As was the case with Titian’s female, we do not know who the sitter for Veronese’s portrait was but it will almost certainly be a female member of the Venetian aristocracy.

La Bella by Titian (1536)
La Bella by Titian (1536)

Whereas Titian’s woman looks out at us in a somewhat provocative manner, the female in the Veronese’s portrait has a somewhat restrained look as she averts her eyes from the observer. There is a look of sadness in her expression as she stares into the distance. She seems lost in thought and somewhat troubled. She does not seem to be at ease and maybe was a reluctant model, who has had to acquiesce to her husband’s demand that she should have her portrait painted. Her status as a married woman is confirmed by the ring she wears on her left hand. She looks tired and there are lines around her eyes. There is a vulnerability about this woman which makes us question whether wealth has given her all that she desired.

This painting by Paolo Veronese hangs at the Louvre and is in the same room as Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting, Mona Lisa and one of Veronese’s monumental works, Wedding at Cana. The question as to whether she is a wife of an aristocrat is questioned by the curators of the Louvre who believe it could just be an idealised portrait of a woman by Veronese bringing together all the attributes that make for a beautiful woman. Their view is quite simple:

“…The figure is in fact a depiction of all the criteria of beauty sought after in Venice at the time: blond hair, a pearly complexion and radiance, as well as sweetness of character, reserve, or the quasi-shyness appropriate to any married woman…”

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c.1570)  National Gallery, London
The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c.1570) National Gallery, London

My final offerings are a pair of paintings by Veronese based on the dream of Saint Helena. One is housed at the National Gallery, London whist the other can be found in the Pinacoteca Vaticana, in Rome. The Dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery was completed around 1570 and the Vatican painting of the same name was thought to have been completed by the artist five or six years later. The story behind the depiction tells of the Flavia Julia Helena, the Empress mother of Constantine the Great, receiving a visitation from an angel in her dream. The angel tells Helena that she should leave home, travel to the Holy Land in search of the relic of the true cross on which Christ was crucified. She set off for Palestine in 326AD on a part spiritual part diplomatic visit on behalf of her son Constantine and, after a two year search, found the cross. Since then, the imagery of the saint has always been associated with the relics of the cross.

In Carlo Ridolphi’s seventeenth century book, La Maraviglie dell’Arte, he talks about a painting of Saint Helena in the house of the Contarini family of Padua. Of the painting, he states:

“… a scene of Saint Helena, who while sleeping dreams of a vision of the Cross held by two angels, that saintly queen nursing such a saintly thought in her mind, even though she was resting…”

We can see by looking at the two works, only the one which is housed in London’s National Gallery has a depiction of two angels and so this could well be the work which Ridolphi was talking about.

Veronese, with great skill, depicts the dream of Saint Helena in the National Gallery painting by separating the work into two distinct areas. The foreground represents the “here and now” and in it we see Saint Helena, eyes closed, asleep on a window seat with her head supported by her right hand and her right elbow resting on the window sill. The view through the square window is the space which depicts the dream scene and in her dreams she sees two angels struggling to hold a very heavy and substantial wooden cross. It is a somewhat bare composition but the inclusion of Saint Helena lends an elegance to the depiction. The colours Veronese has used for Helena’s gown are fairly subdued, albeit the cool greens on one hand and the warm golds, rich pinks and oranges, on the other, harmonise perfectly. Look how Veronese has cleverly highlighted the garment with flecks and whirls of white and examine carefully the way he has skilfully depicted the folds of Helena’s gown.

The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c. 1580)  Pinacoteca Vaticana
The Dream of Saint Helena by Veronese (c. 1580) Pinacoteca Vaticana

In the Vatican’s Dream of Saint Helena we see Helena seated in a luxurious palace location. This work is completely different to the starkness and sparseness of the London version. In this painting the background consists of a decorated wall covering. To the left there is a fluted column and behind the chair is a bronze statue. Veronese’s depiction of her in this painting is one of an opulently dressed empress. She wears a glorious brocade dress with a red mantle. A jewelled crown sits atop her head. She is seated asleep in a chair, and once again, as in the London painting, her head is supported by her hand. In the right foreground we see the rear view of an angel who appears to be walking into the picture dragging along a large wooden cross. This is the vision Saint Helena is dreaming about and through Veronese’s two depictions we are privy to that dream.

In my next blog I am staying with Veronese and looking at a painting which was 42 ft (1280 cms) wide was far too large to be transported to London.  It was a painting which combined a secular scene with a religious story and by so doing fell afoul of the Inquisition. His inquisitors were not amused!

The Veronese Exhibition at the National Gallery, London – Part 1.

Today’s blog came in to being thanks to Lady Luck.  Last week I went to London for two days.  The first day was spent with my daughter and her new baby leaving the second day free for me to roam around some art galleries.   It was March 19th and that was the day of the opening of the Veronese exhibition at the National Gallery.  I hadn’t planned my visit to coincide with that day and anyway, I had already checked on the internet to find, not unexpectedly, that I could not book tickets to the exhibition on its opening day.  However I decided to visit the gallery when it opened to see what literature they had regarding the exhibition and I was very surprised, but delighted, to be told that I could buy a ticket to visit the exhibition there and then.  I jumped at the offer.  It was a superb exhibition spread over seven rooms filled with the most magnificent paintings.  In my next two blogs, I want to feature some of my favourite works which were on display and look at the background to the depictions, in the hope that I can tempt you to visit this exceptional exhibition.

The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (1565-7)
The Family of Darius before Alexander by Veronese (1565-7)

The first painting I want you to look at was one Palo Veronese completed around 1567.  It is entitled The Family of Darius before Alexander.  Veronese received the commission for this work from Francesco Pisani, the bishop of Ostia and a patron of the arts, for his residence Palazzo Pisani in Montagnana.  It is thought that this monumental work, which measures 236cms x 475cms (approximately 7.5ft x 16.5ft), was hung high up on the wall of the main room (probably the only room which could accommodate such a large work) on the piano nobile, the main floor of the house.  Its positioning meant that observers had to look up at the painting and from that viewpoint the depiction of the characters must have been amazing.

The event that is depicted in this work features Alexandra the Great and his first encounter with the abandoned womenfolk of the defeated Persian king, Darius III.  The meeting was written about by many Roman and Greek scholars and this work by Veronese was probably based on the writings of Valerius Maximus, a 1st century Roman historian.  It is an account of what happened following the Hellenic leader, Alexander the Great’s victory over the Persian army, led by Darius III at the Battle of Issus in 333BC.  Although far outnumbered by the Persians, Alexander’s troops won the battle and Darius, rather than be killed fled the battlefield abandoning his family and his troops.  Although it may seem strange that the female members of the royal family were at the battle but it was the custom for royal Persian women to accompany their father/husband while they went to war.   When Darius made a hasty retreat from the battlefield, without a care for his family, his mother, wife and children were then captured by Alexander.   Darius later wrote a number of letters to his conqueror asking for the return of his family but Alexander would not agree unless Darius acknowledged him as the new Emperor of Persia.

In the meantime the female captives, Darius’mother Sisigambis, his wife Stateira and their two daughters, Stateira II and Drypteis were abandoned.  In the painting we see the four women meeting Alexander and his friend Hephaestion for the first time.  The four women at the centre of the painting are Darius’s family and they have approached Alexander asking for mercy.  Behind them stand their servants and a dwarf.   On the right we see Alexander, who is dressed in red, standing next to Hephaestion.  In between the two parties is an elderly man, dressed in blue, who is introducing the women to Alexander.   It is thought that this figure is a portrait of Veronese’s patron, Francesco Pisani.  The story of the event tells of the Darius’ mother initially mistaking Hephasteion for Alexander and in the painting we can see Alexander pointing to his friend who has stepped back in surprise at Sisigambis’ mis-identification.

For most of the characters in this tale, all ended well.  Alexander married Darius’s daughter Stateira II, whilst his other daughter Drypteis became the wife of Hephasteion.  Sadly all didn’t end well for Darius III who, after the defeat, was assassinated by one of his satraps (governors), Bessus, who then pronounced himself King of Kings of the Persian Empire.  He was later captured and executed on the orders of Alexander for his crime, regicide.

Veronese’s depiction of the scene arranges the figures gracefully across the surface of the painting, and with the exception of Alexander who wears classical armour, the protagonists are sumptuously dressed in modern fashion.  Veronese chose an outdoor setting for the meeting with its classical architecture similar to what he saw in his home town Verona.

The Martyrdom of Saint George by Veronese (c. 1565)
The Martyrdom of Saint George by Veronese (c. 1565)

The second work I am featuring is one Veronese completed around 1565 and is entitled The Martyrdom of St George.   It is a colossal work measuring 431cms x 300 cms (approximately14ft high x 10ft wide).  Veronese was probably commissioned to paint this for the high altar of San Giorgio in Braida, a Roman Catholic church in Verona, by the Venetian architect Michele Sanmicheli.

To set the scene I rely on a passage from Carlo Ridolfi, the Italian art biographer, 1648 book entitled Le Maraviglie dell’Arte, (The Marvels of Art) in which he describes the work:

“…in the church of San Giorgio Paolo painted for the high altar the saintly knight on his knees, stripped by henchman, persuaded by priests to offer incense to the idol Apollo, his face reveals an unvanquished soul, unafraid of the tyrant’s threats, strengthened by seeing the Virgin flanked by the Theological Virtues in the sky…”

In the painting we are not seeing the actual gruesome death of Saint George, who was a Roman soldier, but the lead up to his martyrdom.  The scene has an architectural background and the it is framed by two armoured horseman who enter the painting at the extreme left and right of the work.  Amongst the people we see a couple of men with turbans and a black page boy which gives a Middle Eastern feel to the setting and Veronese may have decided on this as legend had it that the martyrdom of St George took place on April 23rd 303AD in the town of Nicomedia, which is now the north-west Turkish town of Izmit.  High up on the extreme left of the painting we see the statue of Apollo which St George has been asked to worship.  Behind the statue is the unfurled Roman standard with its acronym in golden letters, S.P.Q.R., derived from the Latin phrase:

Senatus Populusque Romanus, (The Senate and People of Rome)

St George, who is kneeling on the ground, is stripped of his armour, which lies before him on the ground.  He is now bare-chested.  Look at Veronese’s portrayal of the saint.  Look how he has lovingly depicted the saint’s face with a look of kindness which is in direct contrast to the way he has depicted the harsh and ugly faces of the priest and executioner.  Behind St George is the priest dressed in a maroon cloak and cowl.  He leans towards his prisoner and points to the statue of Apollo and asks St George for the final time to worship the God, Apollo, and by so doing, saving his own life.   To the right of, and behind St George, we see the executioner. He is eagerly awaiting the priest decision.  The executioner has drawn his sword from its scabbard which he hands back to one of his henchmen.  Another man ties the hands of St George.  St George is unmoved by the threat and can be seen looking up to the heavens where he sees a vision of St Peter and Saint Paul, who sit either side of the Virgin and Child.  Below them are the three virtues, Faith Hope and Charity.  Hope, like the Virgin, look down on the soon to be executed St George.  Below them we see a small angel heading downwards to St George holding a wreath and palm branch, which are symbols of martyrdom.

It is a very moving scene and one can just imagine the painting in place at the high altar.  The observer would have had to look upwards over the altar towards the painting.  The observer’s eyes would then catch a glimpse of St George and follow the upward direction he is focusing on, towards Heaven and the Virgin Mary.  The painting which is housed in the Roman Catholic church of San Giorgio in Braida in Verona was trucked over to London for the exhibition.

Supper at Emmaus by Veronese (c. 1555)
Supper at Emmaus by Veronese (c. 1555)

The third painting I am showcasing is another monumental work, measuring 242cms x 416cms (approximately 8ft x 14ft).  It is Supper at Emmaus and this often painted scene was completed by Veronese around 1555.  The depiction based on the biblical story portrays the moment when the risen Christ, having comes across two of his disciples, thought to be Luke and Cleopas, on the road to Emmaus, joins them for supper.  We see Christ at the head of the table being served by the servant whilst at the opposite end of the table sit Cleopas and Luke who have just realised the identity of their fellow diner.  This supper scene has been depicted in paintings by all the great Italian painters, such as Caravaggio, Titian, and Tintoretto as well as other European artists such as Durer, Rembrandt, Velazquez and Jordaens.  However this painting of the Emmaus Supper by Veronese incorporates into the scene a group family portrait.  There are three men, who maybe brothers, a woman, ten children and an infant in the arms of the woman.  They are all dressed in contemporary 16th costumes.  It could be that is a family who has commissioned the work.  Where the work was to be hung is unknown but thought to be in the main hall of one of the new Venetian palaces.

The combination of the biblical scene with a secular scene works well and there is a lavishness about the secular depiction giving it a grand and stately appearance.  There is an element of humour about the depiction as we look down below the supper table at the two young girls who play with the large dog.  To the left, in the background, we witness a prelude to the supper as we see the two disciples with Christ as they make their way through the countryside to the village of Emmaus and the inn.

It is interesting to note that Veronese liked adding ordinary people into religious scenes and liked to incorporate his love of richness and ornamental embellishment in his religious works as in this painting.  However,  it was to get him into trouble with the Inquisition, who viewed the combining of secular and religious depictions into another of his painting in which, according to them, he had crowded “irrelevant and irreverent” figures into the work.  They took a dim view of it and they looked upon it as a sign of disrespect towards the Catholic Church.  I will tell you more about that painting in another blog.

The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese (c. 1572)
The Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Paolo Veronese (c. 1572)

My final offering today is another religious painting by Veronese, which again has been the subject for many of the great painters, such as Caravaggio and Gerard David.  It is based on a passage from the New Testament (Matthew 2:13-15) which is a follow-on from the story of the three magi who had brought gifts to the newborn child, and had now departed:

“…When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.

So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt,  where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son….”

During their flight the Holy Family stopped for a rest and it is at their resting place that the various artists have depicted the scene.  Veronese completed his painting entitled The Rest on the Flight into Egypt around 1572.  We see Joseph sitting next to Mary who cradles the Christ Child.  They are all in need of sustenance but had nothing to eat or drink.  They sit in a palm grove, in the shade of a palm tree, which is emblematic of martyrdom.  It is laden with dates but they are too high up for them to reach.  Joseph’s water canteen is empty and they have nothing to drink.  Then a miracle occurs.  The tree bends downwards and we see one young angel dropping down dates whilst another gathers them up to give to the Holy Family to eat, whilst the Virgin Mary nurses the Christ Child.  A spring of water appears below them allowing Joseph to re-fill his canteen. Behind the couple is an ass and to the right of the picture there is an ox, a reference to the animals at the manger when the Child was born in Bethlehem.  Another young angel can be seen in the left of the painting, spreading out the baby’s clothes on a branch so they would dry.

Light filters through the leaves of the palm trees and in the background to the right the sky is the most beautiful blue.  This colour used by Veronese for the skies and clothes in some of his paintings is truly breathtaking and it is what struck me most about his work.  In this work, this beautiful rich blue colour is used again for the cloak of the Virgin Mary. Below the sky line in the right of the painting we see ancient buildings and obelisks which are meant to signify the far off land of Egypt, the country to which the couple are heading. It is a truly beautiful work of art.

In my next blog I will look at some more of Veronese’s paintings which were on show at the exhibitions, including some of his smaller works.

View of the Kreuzkirche in Ruins by Bernardo Bellotto

View of the Kreuzkirche in Ruins by Bernardo Bellotto (1765)

My choice of painting for My Daily Art Display blog today is based on a modicum on nostalgia and the return of a small amount of wanderlust.   Next year, at the end of May, I am contemplating a week away on my own to coincide with my wife’s week long vacation with “les girls” and so I am trying to decide where to take myself off to.  I need to decide whether to spend a week looking out at the blue seas of the Mediterranean or have a cultural week looking around the art galleries and museums of a city.  At the moment, and because the sea may not be that warm at the end of May, I am leaning towards the artistic route as my get away.  Presently I am toying with the idea of either Palermo in Sicily, a place I have never visited or maybe I will return to Germany after many years away from this beautiful country and spend some time in either Munich and/or Dresden.   The nostalgia aspect of this blog is to do with Dresden, a city I visited with my children about five years ago.  I fell in love with this beautiful city with its magnificent buildings and I have always wanted to return.   The nostalgia was brought on when I came across a painting the other day which jogged my memory of the happy times we had in this former East German city and some of its beautiful architecture.  The featured painting today is entitled View of the Kreuzekirche in Ruins by the eighteenth century Italian artist Bernardo Bellotto.

Bernardo Bellotto was born in Venice in 1721.  He was the son of Lorenzo Antonio Bellotto and Fiorenza Domenica Canal, the sister of Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known to us as Canaletto.  Bellotto’s initial artistic training was in his uncle’s workshop where he worked from the age of fourteen.  At the age of eighteen Bellotto became a member of the Fraglia dei Pittori (Venetian painters’ guild).  In the early 1740’s he and his uncle, Canaletto, took a trip along the Brenta canal to Padua during which time the two amassed a number of sketches which were later translated into completed oil paintings.

In 1742 Bellotto left Venice and travelled extensively around the Northern Italian cities, stopping off at Florence and Lucca and at each stop he would complete a verduta of the place.   A verduta is a highly detailed, usually large-scale painting of a cityscape or some other vista.   These painting were very popular with the foreigners who travelled around Italy on their Grand Tour and wanted to bring home something to remind them of the places they had visited.  He eventually arrived in Rome where he studied study architectural and topographical painting.   He remained in Rome until 1743 at which time he journeyed back to Venice.

Bellotto left Italy for good in 1747.  The rest of his life was spent travelling around the capital cities of Europe and picking up commissions from the various royal courts.  He was invited to Dresden in 1747 by the then ruler Frederick-Augustus II, Elector of Saxony who was also King Augustus III of Poland.  Some historians believe that Augustus actually wanted Canaletto but as he was bound for England at the time, he had to settle for his nephew !  Bellotto, who was by now a married man and had a son, Lorenzo, was suffering financially from a declining art market in Venice and jumped at the chance to work for Augustus.   The money Augustus offered Bellotto was the most paid to an artist working at the court of Saxony.   Bellotto worked in Dresden for eleven years as court painter.  His commission from Augustus was to paint twenty-nine large-sized canvases, some measuring almost three metres wide, depicting scenes of the cities of Dresden and Pirna and of the fortresses of Sonnenstein and Königstein.  These canvases, most of them almost two and a half metres wide, were to be hung in the royal painting gallery in the Stallhof, which forms part of the Royal Palace in Dresden.  Bellotto’s depictions of the city of Dresden were remarkable for their topographical meticulousness, mathematical perspective and the way in which he portrayed the way the light played on the various architectural structures.  The way he handled the light was truly remarkable.

In 1756, the fierce conflict of the Seven Year War, which had affected many European countries, arrived in Dresden and within months the city of Dresden was overrun by Prussian troops.    Augustus fled to Warsaw and Bellotto moved away from Dresden and took up residence in Pirna.  In 1758 Bellotto left his wife and daughters behind in Pirna and with his son travelled to Vienna as he had been fortunate to have received an invitation from Empress Maria Theresa to come to city and paint a number of cityscapes depicting many of the city’s buildings, royal residences and monuments.   In 1763, just as the Seven Year War was coming to an end Bellotto decided to leave Vienna and return to his wife and daughters in Dresden to see if his erstwhile patron August III could give him some work.   Bellotto, on the way to Dresden, stopped off at Munich, where with a letter of recommendation from Maria Theresa to the Electress of Bavaria, Maria Antonia, who also happened to be Augustus’ daughter was given commissioned to paint some panoramic views of the city and the palace of Nymphenburg.   He then headed back to Dresden full of hope for future commissions from his erstwhile royal patron.   However Bellotto’s best made plans failed as the war had played havoc with the city of Dresden which lay in ruins and his former patron, August III had died.  Dresden had run out of money and there was no longer a post for him as court painter.   The commissioning and purchasing of art for the city was no longer in the hands of the ruler but was now controlled by the city’s newly formed Dresden Academy of Fine Arts which had been established in 1764.

With little work in prospect Bellotto left Dresden in 1767 and travelled to Warsaw.  Here he was employed by King Stanislaus Poniatowski, who commissioned Bellotto to complete a number of large-scale paintings depicting the city of Warsaw.  In all Bellotto completed twenty views of Warsaw itself and four of Wilanow Palace. Almost all of these paintings can be found in the Canaletto Hall in the Royal Palace of Warsaw.

Bellotto remained in Warsaw for sixteen years and died in the city in 1780 at the age of 59.

The Kreuzekirche in Dresden by Bellotto (1747-56)

My Daily Art Display features Bellotto’s depiction of the ruins of the Kreuzkirche in Dresden, which had been partially destroyed during the Seven Year War, at a time when Bellotto had been forced to flee the city.  The painting is entitled View of the Kreuzkirche in Ruins and was completed by Bellotto in 1765.  The Kreuzkirche is the oldest church in Dresden and, during the conflict, was shelled by Prussian artillery.   The building was set ablaze and finally collapsed. The church tower, though damaged, remained standing.  Work commenced on the reconstruction the church and it was decided to preserve the original tower. Unfortunately in June 1765, with the construction of the new church already under way, the greater part of the tower collapsed.

This painting is one of Bellotto’s later works, painted during his second stay in Saxony. It demonstrates his quite extraordinary, perhaps unique, capacity to capture the spirit of an event.  This ruin, painted by Bellotto is an unusual one for it is not an ancient ruin as far as the artist was concerned.  It was a relatively new one as the destruction had only occurred five years earlier.   Bellotto had completed a work depicting the great church some years earlier (see above).   However in today’s featured work all we see are the jagged remnants of the church rear up skywards.   The cleanliness of the once beautiful church has gone.  There is nothing clean about the church now.   The scene before us is just a mass of noise and dirt.  It is a chaotic scene which we find hard to believe that it could ever be put back to its former glory.   The Church, as the body of Christ, has been violated all over again and the civic wounds of the German city have been violently opened for all to see.  This is the price to be paid when once we set forth to war.

As we look at the painting, our first thoughts are that Bellotto had actually painted an ancient ruin but of course he hadn’t.  The great medieval church which was situated in central Dresden was the subject of earlier paintings by Bellotto showing it in all its glory and so the artist was probably grief-stricken as he looked upon what was once his beloved church and which had now been partially destroyed by the advancing Prussian artillery

In the painting we see many of Dresden citizens.  Close to the ruins we can just make out craftsmen as they start their preparations to rebuild the once –beautiful edifice.  On the periphery we see men and women dressed in their best clothes staring at the ruin.  For them it was just a day out to visit the site where the destruction had taken place.  For them it was just blatant voyeurism.

For those of you interested in the history of this great church, here is a potted history of the building:

The Kreuzkirche or Holy Cross Church is the main reformed church of Dresden.
Its history started in 1206, when at his spot a small chapel was located for travelling tradesmen.
In 1215 a Basilica was built named “Nikolaikirche”, after the protecting saint for the tradesmen.
In 1388 the Meißen Bishop renamed the church into Holy Cross Church (as in 1234 a splinter of the original cross was given to and stored inside the church).
In 1491 the church is destroyed by fire. A new church is built in Gothic style.
In 1539 the first Lutheran service is held in the church, now being the main reformed church of town.
In 1584 the tower is added to the church, but in 1689 is destroyed by fire and rebuilt.
In 1760 the church gets damaged during the seven year war.

In 1792 a new church is built in Baroque style; much of the outer design is still visible in the present building.
In 1897 another fire damaged the center section; the reconstruction is done in Jugenstil.
In 1945 the church is burned to the ground during the bombardments.
In 1955 the church is reopened again, but the building is restored and improved in the years after.

The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi

My Daily Art Display painting of the day is one which when once seen will never be forgotten.  Not necessarily for the breathtaking art but for the unusual subject of the painting.  My featured painting to today is The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi.

The Rhinoceros by Pietro Longhi (1751)

Longhi was born in Venice in the latter part of 1701. His parents were Antonia and his father Alessandro Falca, who was a silversmith.  Pietro changed his surname to Longhi once he started to paint.  He studied art initially under the guidance of the painter from Verona, Antonio Balestra, and finally was accepted as an apprentice to Giuseppe Crespi the Baroque painter from Bologna.  Longhi returned to Venice when he was thirty-one years of age and married Caterina Maria Rizzi and the couple went on to have eleven children.  Sadly, and it is a common story of that era, only three of their children reached the age of maturity, one of whom, Alessandro, became a successful portraitist.

His early work featured a number of altarpieces and religious paintings and he was commissioned to carry out a number of frescos in the walls and ceilings of the Ca’Sacredo in Venice, which is now an exclusive hotel.  Later his art turned to genre scenes of contemporary life in Venice of the aristocracy and the working class.  He produced numerous works and in many instances painted many different versions of the same scene.  His type of art,  his satirical look at everyday Venetian life with its coffee-drinking, receptions and social soireeswas extremely popular..  Some of his paintings remind one of the type of paintings done by William Hogarth.  The difference between the two was that Hogarth was often brutally satirical with his paintings in which he mocked the life of English folk whereas Longhi just wanted to chronicle the everyday life of his compatriots without standing in judgment and acting as a satirical moralist.  In a number of cases his patrons, who had commissioned his work where featured in the works and maybe for that reason Longhi was careful not to offend them.   Bernard Berenson, the American Art historian, talked about Longhi’s artistic style and the comparison with Hogarth when he wrote:

“…Longhi painted for the Venetians passionate about painting, their daily lives, in all dailiness, domesticity, and quotidian mundane-ness. In the scenes regarding the hairdo and the apparel of the lady, we find the subject of gossip of the inopportune barber, chattering of the maid; in the school of dance, the amiable sound of violins. It is not tragic… but upholds a deep respect of customs, of great refinement, with an omnipresent good humor distinguishes the paintings of the Longhi from those of Hogarth, at times pitiless and loaded with omens of change..”.

Longhi became Director of the Academy of Drawing and Carving in 1763 and it was around this time that he concentrated almost all his artistic efforts in to portraiture, ably assisted by his son, Alessandro.  He died aged 83 in 1785.

The featured painting today is based on historical facts and revolves around the Carnevale di Venezia, the annual festival, held in Venice. The Carnival starts around two weeks before Ash Wednesday and ends on Shrove Tuesday.  This grand event was described by John Evelyn, the 17th century English traveller and diarist:

“…At Shrovetide all the world repair to Venice, to see the folly and madness of the Carnival; the women, men, and persons of all conditions disguising themselves in antique dresses, with extravagant music and a thousand gambols, traversing the streets from house to house, all places being then accessible and free to enter. Abroad, they fling eggs filled with sweet water, but sometimes not over-sweet. They also have a barbarous custom of hunting bulls about the streets and piazzas, which is very dangerous, the passages being generally narrow. The youth… contend in other masteries and pastimes, so that it is impossible to recount the universal madness of this place during this time of license….”

The painting which hangs in the National Gallery in London centres on the unusual spectacle of Clara the young rhinoceros, which was brought to Europe in 1741 by a Dutch sea captain, Douwe Mout van der Meer, who had bought the lumbering creature.  It is believed that she was only the fifth rhinoceros to be imported from India to Europe since the days of the Roman Empire.  Clara, after extensive travels in Europe, arrived in Venice ten years later.   The female rhinoceros in Longhi’s painting, seen munching away at some hay seems somewhat docile, even depressed, as caged animals often are who suffer such a fate.

The Audience

Behind her we see the keeper of the animal and a number of spectators.  The keeper holds aloft a whip and the horn of the rhinoceros which according to historical notes, was not cut off but knocked off by Clara herself due to her continuous rubbing it against the sides of her cage.  The small audience of seven, some of whom wear their Carnival masks stand on wooden benches in an almost triangular formation.  They show no interest in the poor creature as they gaze vacuously in all different directions.  The elegant lady in the front row wearing a dark lace shawl, edged in gold is Catherine Grimani.  She stares directly out at us.  Her white-masked suitor, on her left, is her husband John Grimani and the couple were the commissioners of the painting.  Their servant stands to her right and looks straight ahead.  The man to the right of the group wearing a red cloak and has a long clay pipe in his mouth has his eyes cast downwards and seems lost in his own thoughts.  Above him, Longhi has painted a scroll-like notice which tells us all about the painting, which when translated reads:

“True Portrait of a Rinocerous  conducted in Venice  year 1751:

made for hand by  Pietro Longhi

Commissions  S of Giovanni  Grimani Servi Patrick Veneto “.

The small girl in the back row seems totally disinterested in Clara.  With the exception of the animal’s keeper brandishing the severed horn there seems no relationship with the audience and the animal on display.  It is if Longhi has merely added them to please his patrons and highlight the fact that the exhibition was at Carnival time in Venice.

One thing that I found fascinating is the lady in the upper middle of the audience dressed in the blue and white gown.  Instead of a white carnival mask she is wearing the soft black leather Moretta mask.  Moretta, means darkness, and the masks were only worn by women and were not tied around the wearer’s head but held in place by a leather button on the inside of the mask which is held in the clenched teeth of the wearer.  It has only two nearly circular openings for the eyes, restricting the lady’s breath a little, as the only airway is through the eye openings down to the nose.  Sweat also has to evaporate through the openings as well, quickly making the face hot.  Not only was that uncomfortable but it prevented the wearer from speaking.  This enforced silence especially pleased their male counterparts !

I was going to add a male-chauvinist comment, but thought better of it  !!!!!!