article 64: Louvre’s Largest

One might expect the largest painting in the Louvre to be some revolutionary extravaganza by David or Delacroix. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find that it is also one of most beautiful: “The Wedding Feast at Cana” by that splendid Venetian, Paolo Veronese (1528-1588) – a putative Biblical scene (John 2:1-11) painted in 1562-3 for the Benedictine monastery on the island of San Giorgio. It’s really just an excuse for an outsized orgy of color, composition and portraiture. Its total of 130 figures have the misfortune of sharing the same space with the single most famous famous painting in art history, and are largely ignored by the crowds of tourists milling around the lady with the mysterious smile, taking “selfies”.

Among the many true portraits in Veronese’s masterpiece are found such Catholic heroes as Charles V, François I, Mary Tudor and Cardinal Pole, rubbing shoulders the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. But what interests us here is the group of musicians sitting just below the modest figure of Jesus of Nazareth. Four of them have for centuries been identified as the foremost Venetian painters of the period. Forming an equilateral triangle with Christ are Titian (in red, playing a violone) and Veronese himself (in white, playing an unusual form of viola da gamba). Behind them at the table holding their part-books are Jacopo Bassano (playing a cornetto, as befits a family associated with wind instruments) and Jacopo Robusti, known as Tintoretto, on the viola da braccio.

That last identification has sometimes been doubted, since the subject looks more like a beardless youth than the man of around 44 years of age Tintoretto would have been when Veronese was working on “Cana”. But the red cross of San Rocco around the violist’s neck (painted in later?) is a sure sign; Tintoretto was just then on the cusp of his massive cycle of paintings for the Scuola of that name. I think Veronese was portraying him as a youth, as a gentle tease at his nickname. He gets compensated with the most opulent apparel of any of the group.

Some commentators think the fifth musician, playing another viola da gamba and looking at Veronese, must be Tintoretto; and a certain resemblance to portraits of him in maturity cannot be denied. But the four painters are all wearing gold rings, asserting their place in a circolo d’oro of art. The other gambist is not bejeweled, although he easily could have been. He also has his back to the group of painters. He is clearly not one of them; he is a paladin, but of a different guild.

There is another great Venetian whom this gambist resembles even more than Tintoretto: the maestro di cappella of San Marco, Adrian Willaert. I think we have here a somewhat idealized version of the Flemish master. Compare it with (?) Titian’s supposed portrait of him at the Chicago Art Institute (see below). His weak right eye is shifted to the background, and with the other he is looking angrily at Veronese, as is the boy holding the part-book. (That boy looks like a member of Willaert’s family, a number of whom the composer had brought from Roeselare to live with him in Venice.)

It seems very much as if Veronese is being self-deprecating about his musical abilities, while celebrating himself as an artist at the same level as Titian. The older painter looks like he is struggling from his violone to keep the group together. Willaert (if that’s who it is) and his assistant are not the only ones worried about Paolo losing his place in the five-part work being played. Pietro Aretino, who called Willaert a “forza di natura”, is standing in a dark green robe behind Titian, looking over his shoulder as if to say, “What is that fool painter doing now?” His companion is commiserating with him; Aretino probably organized the band, which is in the process of falling apart. The Turkish trombonist, who a moment previously was touting Willaert’s Fama, is gesturing to the jester (a portrait of the famous Triboulet) to come and mock Veronese.

Veronese’s pictorial wit has often been celebrated. I think it reaches its high point here, just below the central figure of his greatest work.

August 24, 2022

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