“What is your profession?”
“I paint and I make figures.”
“Do you know why you have been called here?”
“No, but I can imagine. The Prior of San Zanipolo told me that the Inquisition officials had ordered me to paint a Mary Magdalene in my painting instead of a dog; and I answered that I would gladly have done so for my own honor and that of the monastery but that I just didn’t feel that such a figure would be right in that place; for many reasons, which I will explain whenever the occasion is given me to do so.”
So Veronese was brave enough, and arrogant enough, to refuse to obey an order given him by the very Inquisition.
The painting in question, a Last Supper, was commissioned for the refectory of the Sts. John and Paul Dominican Monastery of Venice. It is now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.
After other questions about the technique and dimensions of the offending painting, the inquisitors—it was a tribunal—asked: “Did you paint servants in this Last Supper of Our Lord?”
“Which? And in what attitudes?
“Besides Simon, the owner of the house, I painted a kitchen hand [with a knife at his side, between the balustrade and the columns, beside the Moor] who I pretended went there out of curiosity, to see how things were going; and a lot of other figures which I can’t now remember because it was so long ago.”
“Have you painted other Last Suppers?
Veronese enumerates a few. “One was for the refectory of the Reverend Fathers of St. George the Greater.”
This gives the inquisitor occasion to severely reprimand the painter: “How is it possible to confuse the Last Supper with the Marriage of Cana?
…To return to the painting in question: what is the meaning of the figure whose nose is bleeding?”
“It is supposed to be a servant who because of any sort of accident has a bloody nose.”
“What is the meaning of those soldiers with their weapons, dressed like Germans, with a halberd in their hands?”
“Here I really must say a few words.”
He is given permission.
“We painters take the same license that poets and madmen take; and I made those two pikemen, one drinking and the other eating beside the false stairway, and put them where they are in order to fulfill a certain purpose; since it seemed appropriate that the owner of the house, which was large and wealthy–so I have been told—would have such servants.”
Veronese knows he is a great painter but his arrogance before the Inquisition examiners is shocking. “A license we poets and madmen take”?
Here is his huge painting of the Cana Marriage Feast, showing more of his license:
The questions continue rapidly, each more and more pressing.
“This one, dressed as a buffoon, with the parrot on his fist, now for what purpose did you paint him?”
“As an adornment, as is usually done.”
“Who are the men sitting at the table beside the Lord?”
“The Twelve Apostles.”
“What is St. Peter, the first of them, doing?”
“He is slicing the lamb into pieces to pass it to the other end of the table.”
“And what is the other man beside him doing’?”
“He is holding a plate for what St.Peter will give him.”
“Please tell me what the man beside him is doing.”
“He’s cleaning his teeth with a fork.”
“Who do you think was really present at the Last Supper?
“I think Jesus and the Apostles; but if there is left-over room in the picture I adorn it with figures, depending on the subject.”
“Did anyone order you to paint buffoons in this picture, and Germans, and things like that?”
“No, sir. But the commission was to adorn the painting as I saw fit.”
The judge insists: “But do you generally make the ornaments for your paintings proportioned or suitable to your main figures or do you make them according to your fantasy, without reason or judgment?”
“I make pictures with the proper consideration, that which my understanding can handle.”
“And do you think it is proper that in the Last Supper it is suitable to paint buffoons, drunks, Germans [tedeschi], midgets, and similar vulgarities?”
“Then why did you paint them?”
“I did it because I supposed those people were outside the place where the Last Supper was held.”
And here the Inquisitor lets show the real reasons the ecclesiastical authorities were disturbed.
“Don’t you know that in Germany and in other places infested with heresy they often, by means of diverse paintings full of vulgarities and similar inventions, vituperate and ridicule the things of Holy Mother Church, with the aim of teaching false doctrine to simple and ignorant people?”
“Such a thing is bad, sir; but I have to follow what those better than I have done.”
“What have those better than you done, pray? Don’t tell me they have done such a thing.”
“Michelangelo, in Rome, in the Pontifical Chapel, painted the Lord Jesus Christ and His Mother and St. John, St. Peter, and the celestial court, all of them naked, from the Virgin on down [sic], and in different attitudes, with little reverence.”
Under pressure, Veronese blows his defence. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment is a bad example and the “with little reverence” was silly.
“Ah, but painting the Last Judgment, in which one doesn’t presume there were any clothes, there’s no reason to paint them; and in that painting there is nothing but spirit, there are no buffoons or dogs or weapons or similar nonsense.”
The inquisitor goes on to attack and challenge Veronese: “Do you really believe, for this or any other example, that you did well to paint your picture as you did and do you want to go on affirming that your painting is good and decent?”
“Sir, it isn’t that I want to defend it but I thought I was acting correctly and I didn’t consider so many things, supposing that since those figures of buffoons were outside Our Lord’s place, I wasn’t doing anything wrong.”
Paolo Veronese, self-portrait (wikimedia public domain photo)
This was enough for the judges and they passed sentence, ordering Veronese to correct his painting. Since the words “Our Lord’s Last Supper” have been erased from the original manuscript, it is believed that some member of the tribunal, seeing the impossibility of correcting the painting as was ordered, suggested that it be interpreted as a banquet attended by Jesus for the consolation of sinners.
The document with the transcription of Veronese’s interrogation was discovered and published in 1867 by A. Baschet.
My source is La obra pictórica completa de Paolo Caliari, el Veronés, Rizzoli Editore, Milan, 1968. Biographical notes, pp. 84—85, by Remigio Marini, included these excerpts from the original interrogation transcript. The translation into English is mine.