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Biblical Banquet Scenes in The Renaissance of Art in Italy

Melville’s copy of The Renaissance of Art in Italy offered a telling contrast in how Titian and Veronese depicted Biblical banquet scenes on canvas. The third, and last, engraving after Titian in Baxter's book was Christ and his Disciples at Emmaus (fig. 1 below). The original painting was in the Louvre in Paris. The image was inspired by the passage in the Gospel of Luke in which the resurrected Christ appears before two of his disciples and dines with them (Luke 24:26-43). Baxter’s caption for this image dated the painting c. 1545, adding that “tradition says that the disciple on the right of our Saviour represents Charles V, the one on his left the Cardinal Ximenès, and the page Phillip II of Spain” (288). Although other dates have been proposed and other identifications of Christ’s companions have been suggested, this caption in Melville’s copy of the book reflected Titian’s close associations with Emperor Charles V and the rulers of Spain whose effective alliance with Venetian forces eventually led to victory in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571.

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Figure 1. Titian. Christ and his Disciples at Emmaus, c. 1545, from the Louvre. In The Renaissance of Art in Italy (New York: Scribner and Welford, 1883), p. 288.

In 1859-60, Veronese inaugurated his own series of Biblical banquet scenes with his version of The Feast in Emmaus, a painting which added dozen festively dressed Venetian witnesses, musicians, and children to Titian’s relatively austere depiction. His Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee which followed in 1560 was even more boisterous and expansive (Piovene and Marini, cats. 51, 62). These were followed by four new feast scenes more expansive than the previous ones, The Marriage Feast at Cana (c. 1562-63), a new version of The Feast in the House of the Simon the Pharisee (before 1573), The Feast in the House of Levi (1573), and The Last Supper (1580; Piovene and Marini, cat. 91, 163, 164, 237). Several of these festive Biblical feast scenes were copied by Veronese and his studio at other sizes for other patrons. During the Napoleonic occupation of Italy, several of the most expansive banquet scenes were carried off to France, where The Marriage Feast at Cana remains today (see Saltzman, chapters 9-11, 22). Melville is likely to have seen the feast scenes of Emmaus, Cana, and the larger Simon the Pharisee when he visited the Louvre and the Palace of Versailles in late November and early December 1849 (NN J 31, 33-34, 335, 346-47).

The only painting by Veronese reproduced in Melville’s copy of The Renaissance of Art in Italy is one of the Biblical banquet scenes that remained in Italy, The Feast in the House of Levi (fig. 2). Baxter’s caption for this painting indicated that it was originally created “for the refectory of SS. Giovanni e Paulo before being transferred to the Gallerie dell’ Accademia,” where Melville would have seen it on April 4, 1857 (NN J 118). This engraving in Baxter's book effectively suggested the width, height, and depth of the painting itself, 43 feet wide by 18 feet high. It was a handy reminder for Melville of the imaginary architecture within which Veronese habitually placed his imagined Biblical feasts populated with a boisterous mélange of opulent contemporary Venetians and traditional Biblical figures. The figure of Christ is clearly distinguished among the crowd by his placement as the central figure under the central arch.

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Figure 2. Veronese. Feast in the House of Levi. In The Renaissance of Art in Italy, p. 360.

Veronese had originally titled this banquet scene The Last Supper, but his doing so had offended both the Venetian authorities and the Catholic Inquisition. Lucy Baxter's commentary on the above engraving in Melville's book included the well-known story by which Veronese was officially "charged with introducing 'buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs, and similar indecencies'" into the painting, the "chief offender being the dog in the foreground." When ordered to "correct and amend the picture within three months at his own expense," Veronese "defended himself on the ground of artistic license" and simply altered the name of the painting to The Feast in the House of Levi. Baxter considered Veronese to be the last great Italian Renaissance painter. She valued him especially for having "brought the glow of human enjoyment into everything. His Last Suppers and scriptural scenes are glowing worldly feasts, in which the music and the jest are felt in full crashing harmonies of colour" (361). These very qualities made Veronese the perfect host for the literary banquet Melville orchestrated among the Old Master painters of different eras and nations who clash over their contrasting theories of the picturesque in "At the Hostelry," the narrative poem he began after returning from Italy and continued to revise while building his impressive collection of Old Master prints and books about art.