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!

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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.

Sources:
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.

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A Trailer for My Fabulous Graphic Novel “The Tenebrist”

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I’ve used some of my admittedly lackluster video-fu to make this short trailer for my illustrated/graphic designed/collage-type book The Tenebrist. It’s a somewhat fictionalized account of the tragic (and murderous) career of the mad genius painter Caravaggio, and it’s illustrated with a bunch of his gorgeously luminous paintings. Watch the trailer, if you please, and then buy your brand-spanking new copy right here. Thanks ever so much.

Caravaggio’s Criminal History

Caravaggio is considered one of the greatest and most influential artists in history, but his genius had an extremely dark side. The original article I wrote can be found here, and be sure to check out my graphic novel, The Tenebrist, a fictionalized account of Caravaggio’s tragic life and death.

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Michelangelo Merisi was likely born in Milan in 1571, and later took the name Caravaggio after the small town where he grew up. During his short life he produced little more than forty paintings that survived, but what he lacked in quantity he more than made up for in spectacular skill, which brought him great fame and the admiration of many wealthy patrons. After his rather ignominious death, the groundbreaking techniques he applied in his work would inspire and influence artists for years to come. But Caravaggio’s great intelligence and limitless talent was undercut by a fiery temperament that often landed him on the wrong side of the law.

Caravaggio’s Early Life (and Crimes?)

The artist grew up in a middle-class family, and was apprenticed to Milanese painter Simone Peterzano in 1584, where he learned the craft of painting in oils, along with drawing and anatomy. At this point Caravaggio was a young teenager, but there is some hint that a taste for the low life was already starting to develop; though nothing appears in police records of the time, one of Caravaggio’s early biographers claims that some unknown crime was responsible for the artist fleeing Milan.

Caravaggio in Rome

Caravaggio finished his apprenticeship when he was seventeen, and spent some time back in his hometown over the next three years. When his mother died in 1592, he inherited a tidy sum, and used some of it to move to Rome later that year. He lived in poverty at first, but slowly his reputation grew, and by 1594 he was beginning to attract wealthy patrons. By the end of the 1590s, Caravaggio had become quite rich and famous, and was one of the most sought-after artists in Rome.

The ensuing years also saw the buildup of Caravaggio’s extensive rap sheet. Between 1600 and 1606, he appeared in police records fourteen times, and was jailed on at least six occasions. Most of these were minor offenses—insulting police, carrying a sword without permission, tossing a plate of artichokes at a waiter—but a few involved serious violence. While the Rome of the early 17th century was not the most law-abiding of cities, Caravaggio’s penchant for troublemaking was notable, especially in one so feted. His fame and powerful friends often came in handy, vouching for him and springing him from jail, but in 1606 he would drastically raise the stakes.

Caravaggio Commits Murder

It was May, and a friendly tennis game was about to turn ugly. Caravaggio lost money to his opponent, Ranuccio Tomassoni, and started an argument that soon escalated into a brawl, as both men began hitting each other with their tennis rackets. A challenge was issued, and later that evening Caravaggio and Tomassoni turned up armed for a duel. Caravaggio wounded Tomassoni on the thigh, and when Tomassoni fell to the ground, Caravaggio ran him through with the sword. Wounded himself, Caravaggio immediately went on the lam, spending several months in surrounding fiefdoms that fell outside the jurisdiction of Roman papal authority. He later turned up in Naples and continued painting commissions.

Caravaggio in Malta

In 1607, Caravaggio received news that the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, based on the island of Malta, had offered him a knighthood and some lucrative commissions. Caravaggio seized the opportunity, and was soon enjoying the patronage of the powerful Knights, and producing several major works over the next year. But even here, trouble found him; after causing some unspecified “insult” to one of the Knights, he was thrown into prison. With no wealthy patrons to bail him out, Caravaggio took matters into his own hands and escaped, fleeing to Sicily. The Knights subsequently stripped him of his knighthood, and there is evidence they set out in pursuit of their absconded jailbird.

Caravaggio’s Last Years

Weary and paranoid, Caravaggio still managed to complete three large altarpieces in Sicily before moving on to Messina in early 1609, where his temper caused more minor problems. Back in Naples later that year, he was nearly killed in a bar fight, but still managed to finish at least one painting in his nine months there.

Proving that he still had connections in high places, in 1610 Cardinal Gonzaga absolved Caravaggio of Tomassoni’s murder, thus allowing the artist to return to Rome without fear of prosecution. Taking a circuitous sea route back to Rome for reasons known only to him, Caravaggio landed in southern Tuscany and was immediately jailed, this time simply because he was mistaken for someone else.

Upon his release two days later, all his possessions had disappeared, and he seemed to have contracted an unknown illness, possibly malaria. He set off walking along the beach, and made it as far as Porto Ercole before collapsing, feverish and delusional. He was found and taken to a hospital, but only lived another two days, dying on July 18, 1610 at the age of 38. Fortunately for him, subsequent centuries have seen his artistic genius overshadow his troubled life.

Sources:

Moir, Alfred (1989). Caravaggio. Harry N. Abrams Inc. ISBN: 0810931508.

Robb, Peter (2001). M: The Man Who Became Caravaggio. Picador. ISBN: 0312274742.

Excerpt from “The Tenebrist”

 

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The remainder of the afternoon was spent trying to convince Michel of his folly, but deep down I’m sure we all knew it was futile. Only Onorio seemed unconcerned. “Did you see the look on the boy’s face?” he said with a snide grin. “He isn’t even going to come. Don’t worry.”

But I was worrying, and I knew the Cesari brothers were too. They had just nursed Michel back from the brink of death, and I don’t imagine they were keen to see their recovered patient cut to ribbons over a ten scudi bet. Thinking I might be able to talk some sense into him, I took Michel aside and pleaded with him, using every appeal I could think of, but Michel was locked, single-minded; he looked at me as though I was nothing but a particularly annoying insect.

The light in the sky began to wane, and my anxiety grew to a towering edifice. Michel began making his way back to the courts, and though he did not make any indication that he wished us to accompany him, we all followed closely; if anything should go wrong, it would be better for all of us to be there to prevent or correct it. The thought of Michel slowly bleeding to death, alone in the middle of the ball courts, was too much for me to bear.

When we first arrived, I was relieved to see the courts empty of people; perhaps Onorio had been right, and Ranuccio was a coward after all. My relief, however, was short-lived, for after a few minutes Ranuccio and his friends—more of them than earlier—strode onto the court, full of false bluster, though I could see that Ranuccio was pale and had already begun to sweat.

It started with little fanfare as both men raised their swords. I backed away, wanting more than anything to cover my eyes, but unwilling to do so. If my love were to die before me, I would be dishonoring him by looking away.

The first clash of the metal blades was deafening, and there was a general murmur among the assembled bystanders. I suppose they were all wondering, as I was, how an innocent game had come to this, to the point where death hovered in the air.

Ranuccio was obviously frightened, but he fought well. Michel was strangely calm, wielding his sword in the cavalier way he handled his brush, confident to the point of callousness. He fought now as if he had no fear of dying at all.

Ranuccio made a lunge and Michel grunted; I gasped as I saw blood bloom on the sleeve of his white shirt. But it appeared a superficial wound, and only served to make Michel fight back more aggressively, pressing forward into Ranuccio’s range with his chin thrust out.

The sun had nearly sunk behind the horizon and the two men’s faces were nothing but shadowed blurs. Other than the clanging of their swords and the ragged huffs of their breathing, the courts were engulfed in a pocket of silence.

Ranuccio had almost got another blow in, at the chest this time, which likely would have been fatal, but Michel blocked it, only just. Both of them were getting tired, but only Michel seemed to retain that cold but somehow hellish glint in his eye.

A moment later, in the space of an eyeblink, Michel had fairly leaped forward and struck at Ranuccio.

The blow was low, a clean, deep slash on Ranuccio’s thigh, and the boy crumpled to the ground with a wail. The blood was immediate and copious, and I was horrified, but also exultant, for Michel had won, and with only minor wounds. I took a step forward, whether to congratulate Michel or help tend to Ranuccio I didn’t know. But then Michel’s head snapped up and his eyes met mine. I stopped in my tracks, terrified by what I saw there.

It seemed a very long time that he and I stared at each other over the fallen form of Ranuccio, though in reality it must have been only a few seconds. In Michel’s steady gaze I saw reflected all of the demons that haunted him, all of the troubled history between us. I saw melancholy and madness, and most frightening of all, I saw a sort of resignation, a recognition that the demons were too powerful, and that he wasn’t going to fight them anymore. There was a sense that this moment was one that could never be turned back from.

And then, very deliberately, Michel turned his gaze upon Ranuccio, bleeding and cowering at his feet. A long moment passed in which time seemed to have stopped altogether, and then he drew back his sword, and completely ran the boy through.