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La Cena in casa Levi di Paolo Veronese all'Accademia

A last supper? It could look like...
This is generally what people think when they first see this enormous painting on canvas (5,60 m high per 13,09 m long) at the Accademia Gallery. Nevertheless, if you approch, you will soon see that many things are particularly strange to be a last Supper. Christ is sitting at the center of the table, Peter on his right, young John on his left, but the others? Where are the 12 apostles? The huge art work was painted by Veronese for the refectory of the convent of St. John and Paul (Venice), in 1573. As soon as it was placed on the wall, the work raised the attention of the Holy Office and Veronese was trialed for heresy. As a matter of fact, for Counter-reformation Venice that painting presented lots of inappropriate, insolent details. A dog on the foregroud, a cat playing behind Christ, a baffoon with a parrot, black servants, a nose-bleeding waiter, and… protestant soldiers drinking wine! Veronese, as can be read in the proceedings of his trial, justified this composition as the result of his imagination: painters are just like poets and foolish: they can use their imagination. (you can find a transcription here: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/renaissance-reformation/renaissance-venice/late-renaissance-venice/a/transcript-of-the-trial-of-veronese). The Inquisition asked Veronese to make a few changes in the painting. He did not make a single one, he changed the title. He wrote on the baustrade that the scene was derived from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5. It is the Feast at the house of Levi, a wealthy phareisee, that could have been like a luxurious Venetian party.
Is it all? Oh no!

Elena Maria Massimi, a brilliant scholar pupil of professor Augusto Gentili at the Ca Foscari University (Venice), has understood that the theme of the painting is not at all Venetian party (for a convent, morover) nor a Lust supper converted into a Feast at Levi. The analysis of the context is particularly meaningful.

The Dominican convent of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, a particularly important one in Venice and in Italy, had been accused of inadequate behaviour in the years that preceeded the painting. The General Chapter in Rome was about to impose an external vicar to the convent, so as to contain their excesses. The painting by Veronese was a clear contribution to the debate of this very moment between the central convent in Rome and Santi Giovanni e Paolo. Every person sitting at the table has a symbolic meaning, meant to stress that the Venetian dominican friars perfectly knew how to be good prelates.

On the side of the central arch are two men standing: the butler on the left hand side is pointing bread, water and wine, fudamental elements for the Chrstian celebrations, stressing the imporance of Eucharist and Baptism. Opposite to him, a fat meat-carver is presenting the jar for the ablutions, which is not a Christian custom, but an old Jewish tradition. The nose-bleeding person to the left is leaving the banquet: his handkerchif is ful of bllod spots, as his soul is full of sins, and he does not deserve to sit with Christ. The protestant soldiers, who are drinking wine (protestants reclaimed the importance of the double-specied communion with bread and wine, unlike Christians who just receive bread for Eucharist), are leaving as well.

To be a good priest, you need to be like Peter, who is taking the right part of the lamb (quotation from the Leviticus), you need to eat if Christ is eating. You are not a good prelate if you do ask some more wine as the bearded man under the right-hand arch. You are not a good priest either if you are avid and you do not give alms to the needy, as the yellow-dressed man on the far right of the table!

A superb theological lesson set up by the Dominican brothers, which Veronese perfectly interpreted.

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