Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Chris the Guide on Whatevr Fanzine #6: I paint my pictures with all the considerations


Chris the Guide on Whatevr Fanzine whatevr fanzine #6: I paint my pictures with all the considerations
“We painters have the same licence as poets and madmen.” 
  Paolo Veronese, 1573

Venice. July, 1573. It’s a hot morning on the Venetian Lagoon as the sun casts its light upon the city, lending it an unsurpassed beauty. The Republic is experiencing a new and glorious age. Less than two years have passed since the Venetians, along with the other “crowns” of Europe, defeated the Ottomans in one of the greatest naval battles in history: the Battle of Lepanto. For a brief time, and also the last time, the Mediterranean Sea was once more known as the “Sea of Venice”. Meanwhile, Europe was back at war, with the Catholics and Protestants fighting in Flanders and at sea. War for Venice had always meant big business but also great danger. The Republic had usually been adept at maintaining enough political weight to tip the scales in its favour, but this time, things were getting out of control. The Catholic party had grown strong – too strong.

The champion of the Catholics was Philip II, King of Spain – the richest man on earth. Even in France, which had always been the traditional rival of Spain, the Catholic party was triumphing. King Charles IX and his Italian mother Catherine de’ Medici had slaughtered most of the Calvinist Protestants, the so-called Huguenots, in one night – the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Night of 24th August 1572. On that day, every bell tower in Rome rang, with Gregory XIII sitting on the Throne of Saint Peter. Now famous for the Gregorian Calendar, Pope Gregory was a great defender of papal supremacy and the Counter-Reformation. The Catholics had never been so strong, and even independent and “libertine” Venice was seeing the rapid growth of that powerful armed wing of the Church, the Inquisition. 

Catherine de' Medici the morning after Bartholomew’s Night .Édouard Debat-Ponsan,1880, Mairie de Clermont-Ferrand .
Such was the political situation in July of 1573, when Paolo Veronese, the leading painter of the Venetian School, was called before the Court of the Inquisition. Paolo Caliari – better known as Veronese, after his place of birth – was an important man of the town. Respected and wealthy, his life was a great success – until now. To be called before the Inquisition was fraught with danger, and Veronese knew it. Venice’s Inquisition was less strict than those of other cities, but it was still the Inquisition; and an accusation of heresy, especially if proved, could destroy the artist’s career and potentially end his life. Yet on that day before the Court, Paolo Veronese – who was neither a hero nor a deliberate defender of human rights – transformed that dangerous inquiry into one of the brightest episodes in the cause of creative freedom.

The painting now hangs in a large room at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, under the title: The Feast in the House of Levi. It is perfect just as it is, uncorrected and uncensored; and the colourful collection of odd guests, of dogs, dwarfs and soldiers still remains – exactly as the artist painted them in 1573.
The casus belli was the content of one of Veronese’s paintings: the great and beautiful Last Supper, which he painted for the Dominican Monastery of Saints John and Paul. The painting remains in Venice and can still be viewed at the Gallerie dell’Accademia. It measures almost six metres long and portrays a feast, a joyful gathering of Jesus and the Apostles surrounded by jesters, dwarfs, dogs, weapons and – worst of all – drunken, heretic Germans.

This cannot be The Last Supper, argued the tribunal. Who are all these ridiculous characters? The accusation was correct and threatening: the painter had clearly not followed the guidelines. A religious painting was supposed to represent the content of the Gospels, while this rendition, even by our modern standards, looked more like a bachelor party than a religious sacrament. The situation could have taken a turn for the worse, had Veronese not managed to refute the charges with a sharp and courageous rebuttal. 

The Feast in the House of Levi (detail)

Q. “Did some person order you to paint Germans, buffoons, and other similar figures in this picture?”
A. “No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; [the canvas] is very large and can contain many figures.”

Veronese admitted that the monastery’s abbot suggested he insert the Magdalene in place of a dog to make the painting more in accordance with Holy Writ. But the painter considered it against his artistic sensibility, arguing that it would irreparably destroy the harmonious balance of the composition.

Q. “And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?”

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

Veronese was most likely afraid, yet though he respectfully acknowledged his mistakes with regard to the guidelines, he stubbornly defended his creative rights as an artist:

“I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.”

Veronese did nothing less than follow the leadings of his artistic eye. Is that a crime or a flaw? He painted halberdiers, drinking men and Venetian nobility because it seemed to him an accurate and appropriate portrayal of life in La Serenissima, as the Republic of Venice was known. And he was paid for it. Yet Veronese was simply doing his job, and in his view, he was doing it well. An artist creates art according to his imagination and personal taste, and for this he requires complete freedom, without the risk of censorship. This is his duty and role in society, for the job of the artist is not to preach but to entertain and inspire. 

P.Veronese, self-portrait, Hermitage, St.Petersburg
It was then that Veronese spoke the words that made this trial a legend: “Noi pittori ci pigliamo la licenza che si prendono i poeti e i matti.” Here he is citing the Latin poet Horace while adding an unmistakably modern touch: “We painters have the same licence as poets and madmen.” A wonderful, flawless defence – no further explanation required. It bears repeating: “We painters have the same licence as poets and madmen.” For in this single sentence, the sanctity of creation is set. 

The Court of the Inquisition gave Veronese a lenient sentence. He had to change the title of the work to The Feast in the House of Levi, described in the Gospel of Luke as a banquet held by the tax collector Levi, who invited Jesus and the Apostles as special guests amongst a larger crowd of “publicans and sinners”. The story does not describe the guests in detail, nor does it possess the religious intensity of the Last Supper, thus giving the artist more space for creative ideas. For Veronese, the incident was a great victory. He would not be forced to make changes and could continue to paint in line with his taste and imagination.

The painting now hangs in a large room at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, under the title mentioned above. It is perfect just as it is, uncorrected and uncensored; and the colourful collection of odd guests, of dogs, dwarfs and soldiers still remains – exactly as the artist painted them in 1573.






 [GM1]Inserted to explain the slightly strange, old-fashioned language and also to give credit to the source.

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Christiaan Santini, Rome, Italy / - Tour Designer, Tour Guide, Tour Manager / Official Tour Guide license issued by the Regional Administration of Rome (nr. 4545) / p.iva: 12307641006 / c.f.: sntcrs79e19h501o / Nationality: Italian-Dutch

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