We Painters Use the Same License as Poets and Madmen: Paolo Veronese Faces the Inquisition

If you liked my graphic novel The Tenebrist, which told the fictionalized tale of batshit Renaissance painter Caravaggio, then you might like this article I wrote on Paolo Veronese and his run-in with the Inquisition in Venice. Give it a read, why don’t you? Oh, and also, don’t forget that I have a Patreon campaign up to raise some filthy lucre for my horrific writing endeavors, so please help out if you can! Thanks, and on with the show!


Born in Verona in 1528, Paolo Caliari, Il Veronese was one of the unquestioned leaders of the Italian Renaissance; along with the work of fellow Venetian School artists Titian and Tintoretto, Veronese’s paintings and drawings would serve as an influence on later artists as diverse as Rubens, Velázquez, Délacroix and Cézanne. He was lauded for his opulent use of color and the realism of his drawing; after settling in Venice in 1553 his work was much in demand by both secular and ecclesiastical patrons. But despite his fame and success, his well-known credo of complete artistic license would eventually land him in a spot of hot water.

Veronese’s Last Supper

In 1573, Veronese set to work on a commission for the convent of San Giovanni e Paolo. It was to be a Last Supper, a massive work on canvas, measuring about thirty-nine feet wide and seventeen feet high. The work is a sumptuous feast of reds and golds, with stately columned arches framing the action, which features not only Christ and the twelve disciples, but also a host of other figures. These include servants, dwarfs, jesters, soldiers, and other “extras” not usually found in artistic depictions of the scene.

Veronese was clearly taking liberties with the well-worn subject, but apparently the authorities did not appreciate the painter’s creativity. No sooner was the work delivered to the convent than Veronese was summoned before the Holy Tribunal of the Inquisition to answer to a charge of heresy.

The Inquisition in Venice

Though at that point in the 16th century the Inquisition still held full, terrible sway over most of central and western Europe, in Venice its power was decidedly limited by the Senate. Nonetheless, the Inquisition certainly had the power to harass and threaten (if not necessarily torture) subjects it deemed guilty of impiety, and in July of 1573 Veronese fell into the crosshairs.

At issue were the many extraneous figures appearing in the painter’s Last Supper. Veronese had painted the same subject several times before and drawn little comment, but in this particular picture he admitted the great size of the canvas had compelled him to embellish the scene with nearly three dozen unnecessary people. At the tribunal, the inquisitors asked Veronese if he felt it was “suitable” that the Last Supper contain “buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such absurdities,” and went on to state that heretical German artists often added such figures into religious paintings in order to ridicule the Catholic church. The inquisitors also seemed highly offended by the figure of a servant with a bloody nose, the notable absence of the Magdalene, and the very obvious presence of a dog sitting directly in the foreground of the picture, looking out at the viewer.

Veronese’s Meager Defense

For his part, it was highly fortunate that the Inquisition didn’t have quite the teeth it had in other parts of Europe, for as Veronese listened to the litany of charges against his work, he could offer only feeble justifications. He claimed he had only added the figures as “ornament” to fill up the space, and that the offending dwarfs, servants and buffoons were supposed to be understood as occupying a separate room from Christ and the disciples. He further argued that the house of Simon, where the Last Supper took place, might realistically have contained such people.

Finally, he pulled out the “everyone else does it” defense, pointing out that the exalted Michelangelo had painted Christ, the Virgin Mary, St. Peter and other religious figures in the nude in the Pope’s Chapel in Rome. “We painters use the same license as poets and madmen,” Veronese explained to the inquisitors, pleading his case for leniency. “I had not thought that I was doing wrong.”

The Aftermath of the Trial

After his grilling before the tribunal, Veronese was ordered to “correct” the painting within three months. Specifically, the Magdalene was to be painted in place of the dog, and the offending “drunken Germans” were to be blotted out entirely. On this condition, Veronese was set free, much to his great relief.

As meek and frightened as the painter had been while facing the inquisitors, once he was released he took a rather cavalier attitude toward their judgment. The news of his trial made his work more popular and sought-after than ever, and Veronese took up his brush with zeal in order to keep up with the new commissions. But he never took his brush to the notorious Last Supper, leaving dog, dwarfs, and drunken Germans just as he had originally painted them. His only sop to the Inquisition was changing the work’s title from The Last Supper to The Feast in the House of Levi. It is under this title that the famed heretical canvas can still be seen today, at the Galleria della Academia in Venice.

Veronese, the passive-aggressive badass.

Veronese, passive-aggressive badass.

Janson, H.W. (2001). History of Art. Abrams Books. ISBN: 0130197327.
MacFall, Haldane (1911). A History of Painting. D. D. Nickerson and Company. ASIN: B000YFTXCW.

Inquisitions of the Middle Ages

For nearly six centuries, the Catholic Church operated a series of inquisitions for the purpose of wiping out heresy and witchcraft. The original article I wrote can be found here.


Though the Inquisition is generally thought of as as a single organization or series of events, there were, in fact, several inquisitions occurring throughout most of Europe during the Middle Ages. In practice, the Catholic Church operated the various inquisitions almost like a franchise, with inquisitors being sent to different areas to establish offices for the purpose of rooting out heresy, sorcery, and various other perceived wrongdoings. And while the public might have an idea of the Inquisition as a crackdown on witchcraft, the earliest manifestations targeted mainly other, supposedly heretical, branches of Christianity.

The Early Inquisitions

Though the Catholic Church had, before the 12th century, considered heresy a crime that could be punished with imprisonment, it wasn’t until roughly 1140 — with the spread of the heretical Christian sect called the Cathars — that the church began taking the threat more seriously. The first of the so-called “Medieval Inquisitions” was established in 1184 by papal bull, and soon thereafter inquisitors were sent to parts of Italy and France to deal with new religious movements, including the Cathars, the Bogomils, and the Waldensians. While these were all Christian sects, their beliefs strayed from Catholic orthodoxy; the Cathars, for example, believed in both a good and evil God, and since the evil God had created the earth, everything material in the world was to be avoided as far as possible. Dominicans and Franciscans, who were generally also considered heretics because of their belief in the corruption of the Church, were not persecuted, and in fact were recruited by Pope Innocent III into the cause of the inquisition. The Knights Templar, on the other hand, who had long been valued allies of the Catholic Church, were ruthlessly targeted, possibly due to political maneuvering by French king Philip the Fair, who wanted to get his hands on their vast wealth.

Methods of the Inquisition

A 1252 papal bull authorized the use of torture by inquisitors. The various methods of torture — including strappado, the rack, and simulated drowning — were meant not as punishment, but to encourage confession of one’s crimes, and more importantly, to implicate others who could then be hauled in by authorities and subjected to the same treatment. Once an accused heretic was brought in for questioning, there was little he or she could do to win freedom. Even a confession was considered unsatisfactory without the naming of names. The accused had no right to an attorney, could be held indefinitely, and was never told what the charges against him or her were, or who had made the accusations. Torture would be applied until the “heretic” had confessed, though the confession had to be repeated later, so that the Church could avoid charges that the confession had been forced under duress. If execution was called for, the heretic was handed over to secular authorities to keep the Church’s hands clean. Once the execution had been carried out — usually by burning alive, though the victim might be strangled before the fire was lit if he or she had repented the crime — the victim’s property and assets would be confiscated and remanded to Church authorities, often leaving the family of the “heretic” destitute. And death itself was often no barrier to the Church’s investigations, as several supposed heretics who had died as much as fifty years before were sometimes dug up, paraded through the streets, and burned at the stake. The relatives of this unfortunate corpse were then stripped of their assets.

The Spanish Inquisition

Perhaps the best known of the inquisitions due to its mentions in popular culture, the Spanish Inquisition was also little concerned with sorcery or witchcraft. This particular inquisition — established in 1478 at the behest of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, with the help of Pope Sixtus IV — almost exclusively targeted Jews and Muslims who had converted to Christianity and were suspected of carrying on the rituals of their previous religions in secret. Known as Marranos or conversos, Jews who were observed changing their underclothes on Saturday or refraining from eating pork were duly reported, as were Moriscos, or “secret Muslims,” who were caught doing something as harmless as eating couscous. Later targets of the Spanish Inquisition included Protestants and members of the Greek Orthodox Church. This particular inquisition operated most everywhere the Spaniards conquered, including Peru, Mexico and Guatemala, and continued operating until about 1821.

Witch Hunts

Witchcraft and the Inquisition are inseparably intertwined in the popular imagination, probably due to the presence of horrifying texts such as the 1486 Malleus Maleficarum, but the fact remains that those accused of witchcraft or sorcery made up only a fraction of victims. Those accused tended to be female, single, aged and ugly; anyone exhibiting personal eccentricities in dress or manner were also suspected, as were midwives. Moreover, people accused of witchcraft were often tried by civil courts, as the local inquisitions perceived more of a threat from heretics than witches.

Additional Source:

Kirsch, Jonathan (2008). The Grand Inquisitor’s Manual: A History of Terror in the Name of God. HarperOne. ISBN 978-0060816995.