All Commentary
Friday, February 14, 2014

Defending Veronese

(“Feast in the House of Levi,” ca. 1573, formerly titled “Last Supper”)


What has he done, poor terrified pittore,
to end up haled before this stern tribunal?
He’s painted the Last Supper as the glory
of Venice. Sculpted sightlines into archways,
pigments into marble colonnades,
costume, color, and sweep into the marches
of banqueters, gesticulating servants,
a liveried dwarf, a cat who bats a bone—
just there, below the lace edge of the linens—
a feast for the eyes, for the refectory wall
of the rich house that paid well to enjoy it,
the monastery of Saints John and Paul.
How, in an eyeblink, old men’s views can change!
All art’s upended. Now they’re blasphemies,
those drunkards, dwarfs, and soldiers he’s arranged
for drama. Now they mock the sacred setting
where all of Europe’s staged an argument.
And so our Paolo stands stiff-legged, sweating
answers, babbling, barely making sense.
Artists, he blurts, use license, just the same
as poets and madmen. This is his best defense:
cloudy unknowing.  He’ll slither free of blame
by promising repentance, and he’ll change
nothing at all except the picture’s name.
For none but the inquisitors mistook
his real intentions. It’s his light that’s prayer.
Color and movement: prayer. To make us look
is what he wants. No vexed theology
of sacrament, of hoc est enim corpus,
challenges those who stroll the Gallerie,
only the gorgeous tumult of that sky.   


And this is grace. This is the catechesis
we need now, for the kind of sight we work with
here, where the world kabooms. Where all we see is
each day’s amazement blasting at our eyes,
we need to master finding the still place,
seeing through bloom and buzz to mysteries
where not quite at the focal point, the Holy,
wordless and calm, waits now for our attention.
That gesture that saves lives, that food of souls,
keeps low to the table, and the troubled face
is lit with a nimbus we have to squint to see,
framed as it is by backlit cumulus 
at twilight, hung above the port of Venice. 

  • Maryann Corbett is the author of several books of poems, most recently Credo for the Checkout Line in Winter (Able Muse Press, 2013). She is a recipient of the Lyric Memorial Award, the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize, and the Richard Wilbur Poetry Award.