The spectacular Convite in the House of Levi (or the Pharisee) by the Haeredes Pauli in Verona

In this post we delve into a spectacular work: the Convite in the House of Levi (or of the Pharisee) made by the Haeredes Pauli, i.e., Paolo Veronese's brother and sons, which is located in Verona-a great work!

Those who have been following our podcast on Paolo Veronese (or those who have been to the exhibition dedicated to him in Verona), will surely know that in the last section of the exhibition set up at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia, it is possible to admire the imposing Convito in casa di Levi degli Haeredes Pauli, owned by the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice but in storage in Verona at Palazzo Barbieri, the seat of the City Council. The work occupies an entire wall: it is in fact a painting over five meters high and almost ten meters long. We decided to devote an in-depth study to the so-called Convito in Levi’s house for several reasons. First, because it is useful to talk more extensively about Paolo Veronese’s workshop. Then, because it is a work in which the relationship between master and workshop emerges clearly and also gives us a way to see, within the same painting, the differences between the hand of the master and those of his pupils. Also, because the work has undergone extensive restoration. But let’s go in order.

Haeredes Pauli, Convito in casa di Levi
Haeredes Pauli, Convito in casa di Levi or Convite in the House of Levi or Convite in the House of the Pharisee, 1588-1590; Oil on canvas, 509 x 984 cm; Venice, Gallerie dell’Accademia on deposit in Verona, Palazzo Barbieri

We said that the painting was made by the Haeredes Pauli. This Latin wording, in the “extended” formula Haeredes Pauli Caliarii Veronensis (“Heirs of Paolo Caliari il Veronese”) was used, after Paolo’s death in 1588, as a signature for paintings that came out of his workshop and were made by his brother Benedetto (c. 1538 - 1598) and sons Gabriele (1568 - 1631) and Carlo (or Carletto, 1570 - 1596). It was, therefore, a family-run workshop: the signature Haeredes Pauli concealed none other than the three most direct heirs of Paolo Veronese, and it took the form of a kind of brand (“brand,” we would say today) whose aim was to assure clients of the quality of the paintings. This was also due to the fact that the Haeredes Pauli made use of a style that, even with its limitations, echoed that of the great master. It was a homogeneous style: for this reason it is difficult to distinguish, in paintings bearing the Haeredes Pauli’s signature, the different hands of the makers. And this is but one of the problems concerning, at the present state of our knowledge, the workshop of Veronese’s heirs: for another problem consists in establishing how this workshop was organized. That is, whether it took the form of a collective of artists in which everyone had equal responsibility, or whether it was a group with a strong hierarchy, as it was when Paolo was still alive (of the workshop, in fact, the undisputed leader was Paolo, whose name constituted a guarantee for the patrons). There is little documentary evidence on the issue, which cannot yet be conclusively clarified.

One such documentary evidence concerns precisely the Convite in Levi’s house: it is a payment note dated 1590. This is the text: Adì September 13, 1590. Recevi io, Gabriel Caliari, duchatti cinquanta dal reverendo padre fra Cosmo prochurattor nel monasterio di s. Jacomo della Zudecha; et questi sono a buon conto del quadro che noi havamo fatto li nel suo refettorio. Valid ducats 50. I Gabriel sopradito servant. We thus derive several useful pieces of information from this document. The first: the payment arrived in 1590, so it is fair to expect that the painting was finished that year, especially since Gabriele Caliari speaks of the painting “that we have done.” The second: that “we did” indicates that the painting is a collective work of the Haeredes Pauli, although we do not know how the workshop divided the work. The third: the work was made for the refectory of the convent of San Giacomo della Giudecca, which no longer exists as it was demolished in 1806. The fourth: it was Gabriele, Paolo’s eldest son, who withdrew the note (and thus, perhaps, also conducted the negotiation with the friars of the convent). This note, however, is insufficient to understand whether Gabriel was really the head of the workshop, not least because we are left with other documents in which it is instead Benedict who is the intermediary between the workshop and the patron.

The painting recounts the Gospel episode in which Jesus is invited to lunch at the home of a Pharisee, whose name, however, is not mentioned: the story is described in Luke’s Gospel (11:37-53). The episode alluded to instead by the title by which the work is known, namely, the dinner in the house of Levi, refers to another situation, that of Matthew’s vocation: the evangelist’s real name was in fact Levi, and after the call he organized a dinner in his house together with Jesus and many other people. The episode described in the Haeredes Pauli painting, as mentioned, is the first one, the one in which the host does not have a specific name: we can deduce this from the iconographic details of the work. The ambiguity between title and content derives from the fact that the art writer Carlo Ridolfi, in his book Le Maraviglie dell’Arte (a collection of biographies of the most illustrious Venetian painters in history, published in 1648), speaks of a grand canvas for the Reffectory of the Fathers of San Jacopo della Giudecca, ov’entra nostro Signore alla Mensa di Levi Banchiere, where by “banker” we must mean the one who sits at the “bench” to collect taxes (Matteo was in fact a publican, that is, a kind of tax collector). Ridolfi then goes on to describe the painting by referring to the episode of the banquet held at Levi’s house. Since then, the work has always been known as the Banquet in the House of Levi, although it would be more correct to identify it as the Banquet in the House of the Pharisee, taking for granted the assumption that the episode depicted is the latter. It is also not uncommon to find those who refer to the painting as the Convite in Simon’s house, an iconographic hypothesis that, however, is to be completely ruled out since the figure of St. Mary Magdalene, present, as per the Gospel account, in the supper at Simon’s house (and, indeed, together with Jesus the absolute protagonist), is missing.

The boundary between the two subjects, supper in the house of Levi and supper in the house of the Pharisee, is, however, very blurred, for in both cases criticism of Jesus is made, and in both cases Jesus responds by accusing those who criticize him, and again in both cases the iconographies are such that the two situations are not clearly distinguishable by an unmistakable detail: the two episodes have, in fact, no major identifying elements. In the Haeredes Pauli painting, however, there are two characters who seem to address Jesus directly: one is the one seated in front of him, and whom Jesus is looking into the eyes. He is supposed to be the Pharisee who invited him to dinner. The other, however, is the character on the right, wearing an ermine, who is hinting a step forward, holding a book in his left hand and raising his right hand instead, as if to enter into a discussion. This character could be identified with the doctor of the law mentioned in the Gospel episode. In fact, it is said that, during the dinner, the master of the house had criticized Jesus as being guilty of not performing the ablutions, or purifying rites before the meal: Jesus would then respond by lashing out at the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Immediately thereafter, a doctor of the law would tell Jesus that with that criticism he was offending his own category as well, at which point Jesus would move into another criticism, this time precisely against the doctors of the law. The moment depicted by the Haeredes Pauli is precisely that in which the scribe (the book could be identified as a symbol of the law) breaks into the discussion to express his displeasure to Jesus, who is still finishing speaking with the Pharisee.

The compositional scheme traces that of the celebrated Convito in casa di Levi painted by Paolo Veronese for the Basilica of Saints John and Paul in Venice in 1573. Veronese, who was always careful to give his works a monumental architectural scope, as emerges from the Verona exhibition and as we also mentioned in the podcast, demonstrated for his painting that he drew on the architecture of the stage front of the Palladian Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza: in essence, a monumental architecture had the task of dividing the proscenium (i.e., the part of the stage closest to the stalls) from the space behind, occupied, in the case of the stage sets of the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza, by the perspective of the streets of the city of Thebes. The Haeredes Pauli, in their painting, develop this scheme, however, making it heavier: the arcade dividing the back of the stage from the space on which the characters move is in fact preceded by a colonnade with eight Corinthian columns, which encloses the space of the characters. The background is occupied by marble Classical buildings, while the space in the foreground is crowded: there are characters dressed in robes of the most varied styles, there are mothers with children, various animals (dogs, cats, and even a monkey on the lower left corner). This tendency to load scenes with characters was typical of the art of the Haeredes Pauli. However, in this painting it is also possible to try to distinguish the hand of Paolo Veronese.

In fact, the refectory of San Giacomo della Giudecca was already completed in 1585, and therefore it cannot be ruled out that the master himself participated in the creation of the work. Scholars have found a greater quality in the right portion of the work, particularly where we find the characters included between the last two columns. These characters are arranged in a more harmonious and balanced way than those that appear in the rest of the painting: this can be explained by the intervention of a better hand than those that made the other elements of the work.

As mentioned at the beginning, the Haeredes Pauli’s Convito in the House of Levi was the subject of a major restoration, desired by the curators of the exhibition that can be visited until October 5 in Verona, namely Paola Marini and Bernard Aikema, and which was also made possible thanks to funding from the Banca Popolare di Verona, Inner Wheel-District 206 and the CittàItalia foundation. The restoration, conducted by Barbara Ferriani’s studio, meanwhile ensured that the work, which was in a poor state of preservation, would be recovered: it had in fact been affected by color fading and yellowing (which, moreover, had the effect of making the repainting, or subsequent interventions, much more evident, to the detriment of the original drafting), and furthermore, given its display in a public building such as Verona’s city hall, it had been subject to the action of dirt. Finally, in addition to the full recovery of the work, the restoration made it possible to identify the hands of Paolo’s three heirs, thus clarifying a debated issue: whether the entire credit for the painting should be attributed to just one of the heirs, or to all three together. And, again with regard to the realization, the restoration clarified an important aspect, namely the fact that the artists began by first making the architecture and only inserted the characters when the architecture was completed.

The result of this restoration conducted in an exemplary manner can be seen, for a few more days, at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona, where the exhibition Paolo Veronese. The Illusion of Reality. The effect is scenographic and spectacular, for the Convito surprises the viewer with its grandeur and grandeur: and the perspective effects really seem to project us into the loggia of a rich palace of 16th-century Venice. We really feel as if we are participating in the dinner, watching the event unfold, casting our eyes beyond the columns to get a better view of the buildings in the background. It seems to us that those characters are alive, that everyone is moving as if in a kind of theatrical drama on a marvelous stage. It is the power of Veronese painting, of which the Haeredes Pauli were worthy continuators.... !

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