When you hear the word inquisition, you think of Spain, heretics in strange tall pointed hats, the stake, forced confessions, horrifying images that make the words Holy Inquisition a cruel oxymoron. It is less well known that there were also inquisitors in Venice who could make life rather difficult for people. In the Accademia, there is an enormous painting by Paolo Veronese that was once the subject of an interrogation of the painter by three Venetian inquisitors. And because the Inquisition, like the Gestapo and the Stasi, put everything in writing, we know what was asked and answered that day, July 18, 1573. Veronese was then forty-five years old and at the height of his fame. What was the case against him? The painter had been commissioned by the Dominicans to make a particularly large painting for the refectory of their monastery, which was to depict the Last Supper. He must have enjoyed himself, as it is a gigantic canvas with his familiar majestic and colourful figures at a table upon and around which all kinds of things are happening.
One of the privileges of painters is that they can dream up a sky. We do not know what kind of weather it was on the day he devised that sky, but the heaven we see through the three large openings of the magnificent building in which he had the banquet take place was a glorious, vibrant expanse of radiant blue, with greyish, gold-rimmed clouds moving across, lending its own relief to the architectural linearity of the classical buildings in the background, which were modern at the time. I have tried to count the people who were present at the feast, dwarves, halberdiers, servants, the high and mighty, hangers-on, men in turbans, black men, but it is impossible. There were at least fifty of them, not including the sculpted angels perched on the round arches of those openings, and the people through the windows and on the landings and the balconies of the adjacent buildings. The table is standing in an open room, which is supported by two lots of six Corinthian columns, everything indicates luxury and wealth. Canary yellow, scarlet, that is how the guests – apparently all men – have dressed themselves, vivid colours that fit well with their rhetorical postures. Surrounded by what must have been a huge noise, Jesus sits with his faithful disciples almost off to one side, as if he is not actually a part of it, and yet his charisma makes him the secret and intimate centre of what seems to be a big and chaotic party. It is peaceful where he is sitting. He is young, is talking to a young man beside him, there is no way of knowing what he is saying at that moment, this is not revealed until later. Peter cuts the meat and passes it to the other side of the table, there is a man with a bloody nose, and a dog is also in attendance, Judas of course, the wealthy host, who was called Simon, a few halberdiers, German guests (in those days they were considered as Protestants and therefore heretics) and, naturally, the domestic staff.
Hardly anyone at the table is looking at Jesus, in the left corner of the painting men in turbans appear to be climbing up the wall, left and right there is a staircase descending, a black boy in salmon-pink silk is pouring something from a jug, some of the men appear not to be joining in with the party, but the people in that palatial room are eating and drinking as if there is no tomorrow, you could almost forget this is a sacred moment that, two thousand years later, will still be repeated every day all over the world in every Holy Mass, and that was exactly what bothered the Inquisition, and so Veronese had to appear before the Holy Tribunal to explain himself. The painter does not seem too impressed, his answers are brief, laconic. They ask if he knows why he was summoned, and he says that he thinks so. He addresses them politely as “Most Illustrious Lordships”, but seems to be pulling their legs a little. That dog, what is the dog doing there, a dog in the vicinity of Jesus, this is surely blasphemy? He should have painted Mary Magdalene there, should he not? Yes, but he did not think she would look right in that spot. And that bloody nose? That’s not fitting, is it? Yes, but it was intended as a servant who had had an accident. And what about that man there, the one who looks so German, armed with a halberd? That would take some time to explain. Please answer!
You see, we painters are accustomed to taking the same liberties as poets and madmen, and so I painted those two halberdiers, one eating and the other drinking at the foot of the stairs, yes, but so that they can immediately be of service, because I believe that a man as wealthy as the host would have had such servants. And that fellow who looks like a court jester, with a parrot on his fist, what is he doing there?
He is there for decoration, as is customary.
And who is sitting at the Lord’s table?
The twelve Apostles.
What is Saint Peter doing, the first one sitting there?
He is carving the lamb into portions for the whole table.
And the man beside him?
He is holding up his plate.
And the next one?
He is picking his teeth with a fork.
Who do you think was actually present?
I believe there was only Christ and his apostles, but if there is any space remaining in a painting then I fill it with figures of my own invention.
So did someone commission you to include Germans and jesters and people of that sort?
No, Sirs, but I saw that I had lots of space, so I could add a great deal.
The conversation continues like this for a while, and of course he has to confess that this is not a worthy company for such a holy event, as he already knows what the verdict will be: within three months the canvas must be painted over, the dog and the bloody nose and the tooth-picker, along with the Germans, must be removed – but the painter has already come up with a plan, with the permission of the Dominicans, who want to keep the painting as it is. He barely changes the painting at all, he just gives it a different name, and that is what it is still called today in the Accademia: Feast in the House of Levi, and if paintings were allowed to have a subtitle, in this case it might be: or, Hoodwinking the Inquisition.
From Venice by Cees Nooteboom; translated by Laura Watkinson. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Cees Nooteboom, born in 1933, is a Dutch novelist, poet, and travel writer who has been the recipient of the Pegasus Prize and the Aristeion Prize. His previous books of travel writing include Roads to Santiago and Roads to Berlin. Laura Watkinson is an award-winning translator of Dutch, Italian, and German.