Words by Sorcha Pixie May, photos by Factum Arte
A Venice’s hidden gem. At the heart of this journal, lies a familiar dichotomy – the desire to explore the world and experience the authenticity of deeply rooted traditions in different places and cultures, alongside the realisation that this should not be at their expense, and that we have a collective responsibility to preserve them for future generations.
Exploring these ideas, Art & Architectural historian Sorcha Pixie May looks at new approaches facilitating the cloning of ancient and endangered artworks – and how this not only preserves them, but also, in the case of a magnificent, but fragile work by Paolo Veronese, offers those willing to veer off Italy’s well trodden contemporary art track, a uniquely authentic opportunity to experience the work in its original setting, following centuries of absence.
Some of the most contemporary art in Italy is perhaps not to be viewed as part of a vast collection assembled in the Fondazione Prada, the Palazzo Grassi or Punta della Dogana – but on a small island across the canal – as part of a site specific artwork in the 16th century Palladian church, San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice.
Contained within the church’s refectory, the palatial dining room, of the residing Benedictine monks, is a piece of art which despite its deceptively 16th century appearance, represents a dialogue that spans over 400 years, between the Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Veronese and a group of 21st century artists and artisans from Madrid based workshop Factum Arte – with a project that has sparked ferocious debate in the contemporary art world.
Renaissance artist, Veronese is known for very large historical paintings. His epic painting, The Wedding at Cana or Le Nozze di Cana (1563) was commissioned by the monks of San Giorgio Maggiore, to be made in collaboration with the church’s architect Andrea Palladio.
The original brief for the painting included specifications that the painting should fill all of the 66 square meter wall, use pigments of the finest quality including precious mineral lapis-lazuli and should include as many figures as possible. The painting’s subject is a representation of the first miracle performed by Jesus, in which the Son of God transforms water into wine. Veronese applies the artistic license of placing this biblical story into a hybrid of Ancient Rome, and his present – 16th century Italy. He places Jesus within the context of a magnificent feast of food and music and populates the canvas with 130 of his contemporaries, including Tintoretto and Titian. It is said that Veronese included a portrait of himself in the painting, the musician in the white tunic to the left hand side of Jesus.
The banqueting scene is painted against a backdrop of classical / renaissance style architecture. An arcaded tower by Palladio stands in the distance – affording the dining monks beneath, a sense of trompe l’oeil, a depth of vision that from their seated vantage point, must have felt as though they were almost seeing through the physical walls surrounding them. This special effect was one of many, incorporated by Veronese, to create a truly site specific canvas. The completed work was mounted high on the wall, delicately lit by the natural light of the huge windows flanking either side, and ensuring that at around 5pm on a summer’s afternoon natural light animates the painting.
For 235 years the painting adorned the refectory of the church – until in a dramatic turn on September 11 1797, at the height of the French Revolutionary Wars, when the painting was seized as war booty by Napoleon’s men. The vast size of the canvas necessitated that the soldiers slice and tear the painting strip by strip, before rolling it up like a carpet and transporting it to Paris where, technically, it remains to this day.
To see this painting now, you must go to the Louvre, sewn back together and the largest painting in the museum, it hangs opposite the Mona Lisa and behind her throngs of selfie stick waving groupies.
Various attempts to repatriate The Wedding of Cana to its Venetian home have been made since, and met with the response that the canvas is too fragile to make the journey.
The intervening centuries have left further scars, stored in a box in Brittany during the Franco Prussian War, followed by a further period of being rolled up and stored in various locations to escape Nazi plunder during the Third Reich. It later sustained water damage from a leaking air vent while hanging in position at the Louvre, followed by three, one metre long slashes when dropped during the efforts to correct the aforementioned water damage.
To those familiar with the painting’s tumultuous history, a surprise awaited them back in Venice from 2007, as despite rational knowledge of the paintings continued residence at the Louvre, it miraculously reappeared back in position of the refectory wall in San Giorgio Maggiore – as though Veronese himself had just left it to dry.
However Veronese’s hand has never touched this canvas. It is in fact a facsimile, an exact replica – or more accurately a clone, representing a complex of digital processes by a workshop of artists, technicians and conservators collectively known as Factum Arte.
In collaboration with the Louvre, the group undertook a year long process of recording and scanning (using technology designed specifically for the task) every square inch of Veronese’s original painting. Textures of each brush stroke were recorded in order to produce a skin mirroring Veronese’s surface, and exact colour matches made and merged before being installed back into its original, authentic context and home at San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice. More information on the processes involved can be found here.
There are assertions of counterfeiting, even betrayal, but, as good art should, this project triggers fierce debate as we confront our preconceptions about the nature of art, of a copy, and in particular when this relates to visual art.
If we were talking about performance art – an orchestra performing a Bach concerto, or a play by the Royal Shakespeare company these reactions would seem odd. In the case of performance art, we do not distinguish between an original and a copy. We welcome successive versions and embrace reinventions.
So why should a painting be different? The physical canvas itself is an object, but it is also the manifestation of ideas and thoughts – which could, just as a Shakespeare play or Bach concerto, become part of a dialogue across centuries of people and culture – a continuum – rather then the final word in a statement. Factum Arte is encouraging an understanding of a work of art as a dynamic object – which ages and changes – just like a person. Their version of The Wedding of Cana not a replacement of the original, but part of its ongoing biography.
No copy will ever re-materialise everything that is in an original, but it may offer fresh perspectives, and in the case of The Wedding of Cana facsimile – we are above all, gaining authenticity of context. In the Louvre we experience the original – touched by the hands of the artist, but hung a few centimetres from the ground in a giant gilt frame, in an air conditioned, windowless room, its status undermined by its neighbour, the superstar Mona Lisa. In Venice, we can now experience the painting in the context for which it was made – and a sense of time travel. Perhaps it is not a case of one trying to supersede the other, but the two existing in a symbiotic relationship, each enriching the other.
As we’ve seen in the case of The Wedding of Cana, many tragedies can befall works of art beyond a natural ageing process. Factum Arte’s other projects include the reinstatement of a Caravaggio believed to have been stolen by the Mafia in the 60s, and reportedly subsequently used as a doormat, as well as a neo-classical sculpture whose toes were accidentally snapped off by a selfie-taking tourist. Beyond the implications for conserving fragile art, this approach also provides new opportunities for experiencing it – and especially today, during a period in which travel for many is restricted, Factum Arte have developed a multi-layered browser offering us all the opportunity to experience ancient artworks – all resources to be accessed here.