Let’s be clear: I am not knowledgeable in the fields of art or art history. I’m approaching the art we see in Italy as I would anything about which I know little to nothing: with my own eyes, tastes, prejudices, ideas, and curiosity.
Here in Venice, I’m starting to feel some familiarity with the art we’re seeing. I have opinions about art that I didn’t have a few weeks ago, and I find myself making comparisons.
Here in Venice we’re seeing a lot of paintings that are dark, as in dark colors, hard to see. The lighting in many cases doesn’t help. I don’t like the dark paintings. It feels as though the painter is trying to hide shoddy workmanship or is faking it as an artist. It’s also just gloomy.
Again (and again and again), I find the quantity of Madonna and Child paintings and Pietas mind numbing. In fact, I’m tired of the whole theme of Christianity and am attracted to anything slightly different. I note the hill towns in the background and the dogs playing in the foreground of religious-themed paintings. How many painters and sculptors of the time cringed when a request came in for another Madonna and Child? Surely some did.
Here at the Accademia we saw the Feast in the House of Levi (1573) by Paolo Veronese. I love this painting for several reasons.
- It’s huge—18 x 42 feet! Go big or go home.
- It’s technically well done, in my opinion.
- There was a huge stink about it, and I like what I perceive as the artist’s attitude before and during the stink.
The stink was that the painting was commissioned by the Dominican order of Santi Giovanni e Paolo and was supposed to be The Last Supper. All right, that’s not so bad as a Madonna and Child or Pieta, but, still, yawn. (Obviously, that’s my opinion. For all I know, Veronese might have been thrilled with the subject.)
Veronese did his thing, and, given the size of the piece, it seems he did it with great enthusiasm and commitment. I’d love to know what he was thinking when he did it, why he made the choices he did. I wonder if there’s any record of this.
The final piece, however, did not go over well. The church didn’t like the painting, because it depicted the Last Supper as a raucous affair with drunkards, dwarfs, buffoons, and dogs. The Catholic Inquisition accused Veronese of being irreverent, indecorous, and even mentioned heresy, an offense punishable by being burned to death. The church had its idea of what the Last Supper should look like, and Veronese’s version wasn’t it.
The artist was given three months to change the painting. I love the change Veronese made: He changed the title. Instead of the Last Supper, he called it Feast in the House of Levi, referencing a story in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is invited to a banquet at Levi’s house.
I guess the church accepted the painting under the new title. I don’t know if Veronese received full payment, if the church displayed the painting, or if the church solicited a Last Supper painting from a different artist. I’d love to have answers to these questions and may make some effort to find them, if they are indeed available.
One way in which I’m finding the art familiar is that I recognize a number of characters repeated in different paintings by different artists. Just as the madonna and child are recognizable regardless of who’s painting them, so is, say, John the Baptist. John is usually wearing what I’ve dubbed his “bear suit,” that is, some sort of furry animal hide. We don’t think it’s a hairshirt intended for penance, but we don’t really know. He’s also usually pointing, often at Jesus, sometimes at something that represents Jesus or something Jesus has done, and occasionally for no particular reason that I can see. So if I see a guy in a bear suit who’s pointing, my mind leaps to John the Baptist, which helps me figure out what’s going on in the painting.
Other characters that are familiar to me include the following:
- The father, son, and holy spirit: older man, Jesus, and dove
- Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John: winged human, winged lion, winged ox, eagle (naturally winged)
- St. Peter, crucified upside down
- St. Lawrence, roasted over fire
- St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows—sometimes a lot of arrows
- St. Christopher, with a child (Jesus) on his shoulder (St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, so he should be looking out for us just now)
- St. Lucia, holding her eyeballs on a platter (this can be confusing because she’s painted with her eyes in her head, too, which seems to suggest she had four eyes)
- St. Rocco, with his pants down
As I start to recognize these characters portrayed similarly over and over, I become curious about their stories and seek them out. For instance, why does St. Rocco (or St. Roch) go around with his pants down or robe up? I now know: He’s showing us the plague bubo on his thigh. That’s how he’s identified. Sometimes he’s pointing to his bubo, sometimes not. In most of the paintings I’ve seen, the sore is on his thigh, but I just found one today where it’s on his shin.
Saint Christopher’s story is that he was a man of great size and strength who devoted himself to Jesus by helping travelers across a dangerous river. One day, a child asked to be carried across the river, and Christopher obliged. The child grew heavier and heavier during the crossing. On the opposite side of the river, the child identified himself as Christ and told Christopher he’d just carried the weight of the world. St. Christopher was a very popular patron saint of travelers in the Middle Ages.
I admit it: I’m playing Where’s Waldo with Christian characters and fine art in the Accademia in Venice. Say what you will about this unsophisticated approach to art; I’m having fun and adding images and stories to the collection in my brain.