by Roderick Conway Morris

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Peter Greenaway
Peter Greenaway at San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

Working with Veronese

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 29 August 2009


Peter Greenaway is standing against the backdrop Paolo Veronese's enormous 'Wedding at Cana' in the Palladian refectory of the Venetian monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore and is in rhetorical mode: 'When we put art and cinema in the balance, what do we have? At least 8,000 years of painting and a miserable 114 years or so of cinema. Nothing in cinema has not already been essayed in still images in painting at one time or another. So I think it a very good idea to have a dialogue between painting and cinema.'

The occasion is a preview of the 'Wedding at Cana', subtitled 'A Vision by Peter Greenaway', the director's latest excursion into what might be called avant-garde sacred theatre. It opened in the same week as the Venice Biennale and, bringing to a nearly 450-year-old painting 21st-century cinematic techniques, music, lighting and dizzying digital devices, emerged as the most stimulating installation of the whole event.

''The 'Wedding' is an ideal picture for a dialogue between film and painting not least because its dimensions are the size of a cinema screen and it has a wealth of characters. Some reckon there are 134 of them in the canvas, but we've counted 126, and we've given them all lines of dialogue. So what we've created is essentially a painting with a soundtrack,' said Greenaway.

'But what language are these people speaking? The setting, the clothes, the architecture are Venetian, so they're certainly not speaking Hebrew, Aramaic, Hellenic Greek or Latin. They must be speaking Veronese's own language: Venetian. So, we've made the soundtrack in Venetian and English.'

Welsh-born Greenaway studied art and began life as a painter. But in 1965 he found a job at the Central Office of Information, which diverted him into film editing and then directing. His first feature film 'The Draughtsman's Contract' was completed in 1982, since then a steady stream has followed, including 'Drowning by Numbers', 'The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover' and '8 1/2 Women.'

His recent return to the world of painting has stirred up deep reservoirs of youthful enthusiasm. 'The Wedding at Cana' is the third of a series of 'Nine Classic Paintings Revisited'. His previous 'animations' of great works featured Rembrandt's 'Nightwatch' at the Rijksmuseum and Da Vinci's 'Last Supper' in Milan. (Velazquez's 'Meninas', Picasso's 'Guernica' and Michelangelo's 'Last Judgement' are among those projected to follow.)

Veronese's masterpiece appears to have evoked in Greenaway an almost holiday-like 'joie de vivre'. He describes the work in his director's notes as 'an ebullient painting, a feast, a wedding, a celebration, a grand event, a tumult, a swirl of bright convivial conversation, laughter, music, with a permissible promise of future sensuality and an expectation of happiness everlasting. Once upon a time and happily ever after. Here comes the sun. There is certainly a broad blast of bird-filled bright sky between grand architecture that opens a Palladian building to excitement, joy and the Italian sky.'

'The Wedding at Cana' is the largest and most peopled of all Veronese's banquet scenes. So large, indeed, that its almost 80 sq. yards of canvas had to be painted in situ in the refectory. The band of musicians centre stage include portraits of Veronese himself, Titian, Tintoretto and Jacopo Bassano. The writer and poet Aretino is featured close-by. Better remembered today as a satirist and composer of risquÉ verses, Aretino also wrote popular works retelling the Gospel stories in the vernacular. The free account of the Cana miracle in his 'Humanità di Cristo' is now widely acknowledged to have been a key inspiration of Veronese's composition: from the description of the social standing of the principal guests - 'the most dignified, the most noble and the most graceful in the city' to the colour and quality of the new wine - 'like distilled rubies' - poured from finely-wrought stone jars previously filled with water on Christ's instruction. Aretino emphasizes the nature of the wine both to reflect the opulence of the event and the future spilling of the Redeemer's blood.

'In modern cinematic terms,' said Greenaway, 'you could say that Aretino was the scriptwriter, Veronese the director and Palladio, whose architecture also forms the illusionistic background in the painting, the artistic director.'

In fact, the canvas onto which Greenaway paints his own dramatic light and sound effects is not the original but an extraordinarily elaborate and exact 1:1 facsimile installed in the refectory two years ago, the original having been sliced up and removed to the Louvre by Napoleon in 1797. It is doubtful, had Veronese's own work still been in place, that Greenaway would have been allowed to use it for his performance, although the cloned canvas is itself something of a wonder of digital technology and craftsmanship.

Greenaway's script and direction, realized in collaboration with cinematographer Renier van Brummelen, enlivens the painting itself and casts images from it on the refectory side walls in constantly shifting and surprising ways, accompanied by the medley of dialogues and a magnificent baroque musical score of instruments and voices performed by the Gabrieli Consort and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. Portentous birds, flapping their wings, fly overhead in Veronese's azure sky, and at one point the computer graphics seem to raise us up and we see the whole scene in 3-D as though looking directly down on the feast from some vertiginous bird's-eye viewpoint high above.

The painting is at once dramatized and analyzed, helping us to live the scene and see it in new ways. Electronic lines, for example, fleetingly scored across the canvas reveal the subtle complexity of the composition's underlying structure, the position of Christ physically and symbolically at the centre of it, where He sits like a Greek Pantokrator, the still heart of this tumultuous, noisy throng. At another moment, our eye is drawn from the meat cleaver of the cook cutting the sacrificial lamb on the terrace above the figure of Christ down to the musicians' table on which there stands an hourglass, the physical emblem of Christ's declaration that we eventually hear spoken: 'Know that my hour is not yet come', though his words seem to go unheard amid the hubbub and roar of conversation.

First published: The Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023