Before there was copyright there was censorship: the tale of "The Feast in the House of Levi” by Veronese

When one thinks about censorship, he or she usually has in mind restrictions imposed on the contents, reproduction and distribution of printed works. Indeed, for over a century before the first enactment of a copyright law, the Statute of Anne in 1709, there was institutionalized censorship of printed works by both the Crown and the Church. But censorship during that time was not limited to books; works of art also were subject to attempts at censorship. Perhaps the most noteworthy case was the interrogation carried out in Venice on July 18, 1573, by the holy court of the Inquisition with respect to the large-format painting created by the Renaissance master, Paolo Veronese, also known as Paolo Caliari. Despite the temporal distance between those 16th century events and our modern world, the circumstances surrounding that attempt at censorship has a remarkably contemporary feel.

Veronese, best-known for his use of colors, was among the most distinguished of the Venetian Renaissance painters, mentioned in the same breath with Titian and Tintoretto. He was renowned for his paintings of feasts and pageants and he was the leading painter of ceilings of his time. The painting in question was first known as "The Last Supper", and it was commissioned for the rear-wall of the refectory of the Basilica di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Castello, Venice.

The painting was challenged for its alleged "irreverence and indecorum”. Indeed, given the costumes, setting, and overall extravagance of this work of art, it can be viewed as the artist’s depiction of a Venetian patrician feast. The transcript of the interrogation has been preserved, so we more or less know what happened that day. The interrogation, in part, went like this (English translation taken from Wikipedia):

"Q. In this Supper which you painted for San Giovanni e Paolo, what signifies the figure of him whose nose is bleeding?

A. He is a servant who has a nose-bleed from some accident.

Q. What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds [a type of weapon] in their hands?

A. It is necessary here that I should say a score of words.

Q. Say them.

A. We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.

Q. And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?

A. He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures.

Q. Who are the persons at the table of Our Lord?

A. The twelve apostles.

Q. What is Saint Peter doing, who is the first?

A. He is carving the lamb in order to pass it to the other part of the table.

Q. What is he doing who comes next?

A. He holds a plate to see what Saint Peter will give him.

Q. Tell us what the third is doing.

A. He is picking his teeth with a fork.

Q. And who are really the persons whom you admit to have been present at this Supper?

A. I believe that there was only Christ and His Apostles; but when I have some space left over in a picture I adorn it with figures of my own invention.

Q. Did some person order you to paint Germans, buffoons, and other similar figures in this picture?

A. No, but I was commissioned to adorn it as I thought proper; now it is very large and can contain many figures.

Q. Should not the ornaments which you were accustomed to paint in pictures be suitable and in direct relation to the subject, or are they left to your fancy, quite without discretion or reason?

A. I paint my pictures with all the considerations which are natural to my intelligence, and according as my intelligence understands them.

Q. Does it seem suitable to you, in the Last Supper of our Lord, to represent buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs, and other such absurdities?

A. Certainly not.

Q. Then why have you done it?

A. I did it on the supposition that those people were outside the room in which the Supper was taking place.

Q. Do you not know that in Germany and other countries infested by heresy, [referring to the rise of Protestantism, with its origins in German lands] it is habitual, by means of pictures full of absurdities, to vilify and turn to ridicule the things of the Holy Catholic Church, in order to teach false doctrine to ignorant people who have no common sense?

A. I agree that it is wrong, but I repeat what I have said, that it is my duty to follow the examples given me by my masters….. Q. …. Do you think, therefore, according to this or that view, that you did well in so painting your picture, and will you try to prove that it is a good and decent thing?

A. No, my most Illustrious Sirs; I do not pretend to prove it, but I had not thought that I was doing wrong; I had never taken so many things into consideration. I had been far from imaging such a great disorder, all the more as I had placed these buffoons outside the room in which Our Lord was sitting.

These things having been said, the judges pronounced that the aforesaid Paolo should be obliged to correct his picture within the space of three months from the date of the reprimand, according to the judgments and decision of the Sacred Court, and altogether at the expense of the said Paolo."

One is struck by the methodical nature of the interrogation and the answers given by Veronese, as he seeks to explain the artist's task ("the same license as poets and madmen"), while also suggesting that he may have gone too far. Still, Veronese did well by not being found a heretic, where the stake might have awaited him. Instead, he was merely ordered to make changes to the painting within a fixed period of time in accordance with the decision, without however further guidance what those changes might be (shades of the recent US Supreme Court decision in the Apple-Samsung case). The inquisitors went so far as to provide that all expenses incurred in carrying out the changes would be borne by the painter. All in all, this was censorship lite with no denouncement of the entire work.

So to what extent did Veronese comply with this judgment? Remarkably, it seems that he ignored its terms. Instead, he simply changed the name of the painting to "The Feast in the House of Levi", referring to an episode in chapter 5 of the Gospel of Luke, where Jesus chooses to take part in a banquet frequented by "tax collectors and sinners." Veronese made no alterations to the painting itself. As such, what was ultimately objectionable seems to have been not various elements of the painting per se, but the connection between the subject matter as embodied in title—the "Last Supper", and its artistic depiction by Veronese. Once that linkage was severed, the artwork itself was no longer a problem.

In a rough sense, just as a modern trademark might cause confusion with respect to the goods that it identifies, mandating a change of the product name, here too a change of the name of the work of art took it out of the realm of the problematic. Politics might also have come to the rescue of Veronese. The interrogation took place in Venice, a proud, if declining, empire. The apparent lack of any attempt by the Inquisition to enforce its decision, allowing Veronese to fashion his own solution, might also be explained, in part, by the power struggle between Venice and the Papacy. Then, as now, it is one thing for a tribunal to issue an order and quite another for it to be implemented.

Before there was copyright there was censorship: the tale of "The Feast in the House of Levi” by Veronese Before there was copyright there was censorship: the tale of "The Feast in  the House of Levi” by Veronese Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Wednesday, December 21, 2016 Rating: 5


  1. Interesting post: where did you get the story from? I am presently interested in the intersection between Art and Law, and also in museology and copyright, so inquiring minds always want to know (more). Kindest regards, and keep up the good posting. Have a Merry Christmas, or as we say around these parts of the globe (Lisbon): Feliz Natal! JOAO (PS- any bibliography you can suggest on these topics is also "christmasly welcome".)

  2. Hi Joao

    Please feel free to contact me off-line.

    Neil Wilkof

  3. Changing a name to overcome a legal prohibition is akin to the present practice of allowing the continued manufacture of supposedly-banned traditional tungsten filament lamp bulbs by labelling them with markings such as as "Rough service, not for domestic use".


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