In 1573 Veronese completed the painting which is now known as the Feast in the House of Levi for the rear wall of the refectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, the traditional final resting place of the Doges and luminaries of Venice. The painting was originally intended as a depiction of the Last Supper, designed to replace a canvas by Titian lost in a fire.
In keeping with the Venetian tradition of interpreting Biblical and historical scenes with Venice specific themes, Veronese combined the Last Supper with a typical Venetian dinner party. But someone expressed his displeasure at his combination to a new religious authority which had recently been established in the Venetian backyard of Trent, the Holy Inquisition.
Veronese was swiftly dragged before the Inquisitors, who pointed out Michelangelo’s Last Judgment included no such “drunkards nor dogs nor similar buffooneries”. For the Inquisition, the painting’s lack of seriousness and solemnity was expounded by two German guards at the far right, taking bread and wine, as if the Protestants were administering their own Communion. Veronese responded to these concerns noting, “Mine is no art of thought; my art is joyous and praises God in light and colour.” He also pointed out that the elements the Inquisition found distasteful — the splaying dog, the dwarf, the man with the nosebleed who holds the handkerchief at the left of the picture, and of course, the guards — are all in the foreground of the picture, and in no way, share Christ’s space.
Yet, the Inquisitors wanted it repainted. Fortunately for the friars who loved it, and for the Venetians who resented Rome’s inquisition, the artist came up with a compromise; he added a few inscriptions, changing the scene from the Last Supper to the meal at the House of Levi mentioned in Luke 5, a subject that allowed for this sort of diversified, rowdy crowd. The Inquisition relented.
The painting remained in the refectory until Napoleon ordered it be taken away from the suppressed monastic orders. Since 1807, the five meter by twelve meter canvas rests inside Accademia Galleries in Venice.
On December 20th 1577, a fire destroyed part of the Doges’ Palace in Venice. Consumed alongside the Grand Council Hall was an enormous 14th century fresco depicting the Coronation of the Virgin surrounded by the celestial hierarchies. Venice’s ruling families liked to surround themselves with allegories of paradise, the association being La Serenissima was a heaven on earth sustained by a social hierarchy mirroring the celestial one in Paradise.
Therefore, a competition to replace the damaged mural (some salvaged remains of it are still in the Doges’ Palace) was held. The entrants were such luminaries as Tintoretto, Veronese, Francesco Bassano, Palma the Younger and Federico Zuccaro. Despite the constraints of the competition, all artists submitted sketches that were very different from one another. Veronese was originally chosen, but he died before the work began. The Venetian government refused to hand the project to Bassano, who was chosen as an assistant by Veronese. Instead, Tintoretto who was — with Veronese dead — the greatest Venetian painter alive, was chosen to replace him. (Authorities differ confusingly on whether a second contest was held).
To the selecting committee, Tintoretto presented two preliminary sketches, now in the Louvre and the Thyssen; but both were very different from each other, as from the final version, which was what Eric Newton considers in his magisterial biography of Tintoretto as the crowning achievement of the painter’s career. Although Tintoretto definitely considered winning the commission his seminal achievement, the end result was unspectacular, by the standards of his earlier work. Although he started working immediately to avoid the fate of Veronese, the 70-year old artist was already frail, and the painting was completed mostly by his workshop under the direction of his son, Domenico. And apart from its sheer scale, the painting was entirely forgettable, but perhaps not to some five hundred powerful Venetians, some of whom were Tintoretto’s patrons, who crammed the heaven on this giant canvas.
This was Tintoretto’s last major work; in reality he didn’t need to work anymore after being allowed to name his own price for Paradise. But in an action keeping with a lifetime of lack of greed and thetrical flair, he allowed the authorities to give him whatever they wanted.