“A wonder of the world,” wrote the artist Giacomo Barri in 1671 of Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana, “and whosoever comes to Venice and departs without a sight of the Picture may be said to have seen nothing.” The enormous wall painting (approximately 22 feet by 32 feet) is set not, as the Bible would have it, in Galilee, but boldly in a late-Renaissance Venice, portraying 130 life-size figures—courtiers, musicians, soldiers, and a variety of animals—milling about an ornate marble terrace in lavish costumes. The entire scene of Venetian society’s bacchanalian decadence is drenched in vivid colors beneath a lapis lazuli sky, a stunning testament to the artist’s mastery of oil paint.
When, in 1562, the Benedictine abbot Girolamo Scrocchetto commissioned the work—which depicts the biblical scene of Christ performing his first miracle, turning water to wine—for the new refectory at the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore, he made it clear to Veronese that the painting was not only to rival but to transcend Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, in Milan. When Veronese completed the job a year later, he delivered a tour de force. “This is not painting, this is magic,” wrote another awed 17th-century artist.