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Palladio’s Refectory

Artworks removed during political upheaval, restituted digitally through modern technologies

Palladian Refectory and the Wedding at Cana

In 1562, the Benedictine monks of the Abbey of San Giorgio, Venice, commissioned Paolo Veronese to create a large painting of about 70 square meters to fill the entire back wall of the Cenacolo designed by Andrea Palladio, completing the ancient refectory in a glorious trompe-l’oeil fashion. 

The painting illustrated the famous biblical episode of the feast of the Marriage at Cana, the first miracle attributed to Christ, clearly an appropriate theme to embellish the great hall in which the monks and their guests dined. The sacred theme was thus framed in a setting that was well suited to the architectural space. 

The masterpiece became so famous that anyone visiting Venice could not help but go to San Giorgio to see it. According to Cosimo de’ Medici, the painting alone was a reason to visit the city. Sovereigns and princes from all over Europe asked for copies. This generated so much interest that the friars, not to be disturbed by all the requests, decided that no one would be granted permission to reproduce the painting.

The continuous chorus of praises and wonders also induced Napoleon and the French – who had occupied Venice – to seize the work in 1797 as war reparation. Cut into several parts for transport, the canvas was packed – as shown in a report signed by Napoleon’s commissioners – and shipped to Paris on September 11, 1797. The work was duly reassembled and exhibited in the Louvre (where it still stands today) on November 8, 1798. 

A few years after The Wedding at Cana was removed, the monastery was closed and the island of San Giorgio became a military depot. For about 150 years it remained in a state of degradation and abandonment. 

The Palladian refectory, like the other great architecture of the island, was restored to its former glory in the early 1950s by Vittorio Cini – an entrepreneur from Ferrara and one of the leading figures in the history of Italian industry at the time, founder of the Giorgio Cini Foundation. But the bare rear wall of the refectory, a stubborn mute artifact, betrayed the incomplete nature of the restoration. Although the wall once occupied by the large canvas was filled by a Tintoretto, the space lacked the “irreverent illusionistic extravagance” (as Puppi commented in 1980) that Veronese had added to Palladio’s severe architecture. 

The fact that the masterpiece could not be brought back to the place for which it had been conceived was an open wound and a source of sorrow for Vittorio Cini, who strove in vain to have the work returned.

At the beginning of 2001, when a new restoration of the monuments was being planned, the possibility of reconstructing the boiserie that once adorned the side walls of the refectory was discussed. The idea was abandoned not only because of the high cost of the work, but above all because, according to many, it would have further highlighted the absence of Veronese’s painting. In March 2005, these sentiments prompted the Foundation to attempt to stage a virtual return of the Marriage at Cana, projecting a high-definition image of the painting onto the wall, but the results were disappointing. The large windows had to be obscured in order to see the image and this prevented the understanding of the dialogue between the painting and the architecture. 

At this point Factum Arte, a studio in Madrid specializing in the use of digital technologies for the reproduction of works of art, entered the troubled history of the Palladian cenacle . The idea was to recreate a physical reproduction of the original canvas that would be so accurate as to be indistinguishable from the original, an incredible feat given its size. 

Many people worked on the project, which involved the use of sophisticated digital technology and the craftsmanship of professional restorers. The facsimile was assembled and placed in the refectory in August 2007. On September 11, 2007, exactly 210 years after its removal, the canvas was “unveiled” and the overall work of art consisting of architecture and painting was completely reconstructed and could again be admired by Venetians and the rest of the world. 

An accurate facsimile installed in its original environment makes sense of the painting’s composition and the architectural references that inform its design. The collaboration between Palladio and Veronese led to an environment that was one of the crowning achievements of the Venetian Renaissance. 

Digitality is not a rupture, nor is it a revolution, rather it is a continuation. Digital mediation is just one skill and activity among the many types of mediation that have been developed over time and that are indispensable today for preserving and understanding our shared cultural heritage.

In the web object provided here, you can experience the Refectory in 3D and see how it is impacted by the absence of the painting. If you visit the space on the Isola di San Giorgio, part of the Cini Foundation, then you will be able to use the AR effect in order to see the painting disappear before your eyes, giving a glimpse into the space as it was before the painting’s facsimile was returned to its original home.

Palladian Refectory and the Wedding at Cana

Two works of art inextricably linked come back to life together. 

Date 

XVI century – Venetian Renaissance

Artists

Andrea Palladio – Monks Refectory
Paolo Veronese – Wedding at Cana Painting

Dimensions

666×990 cm

Location

San Giorgio Maggiore island, Venice

Augmented reality

You can try the effect of this painting at home, just follow the instructions:

  1. Make sure you have Instagram installed on your phone
  2. Open the camera or an app to scan the QR code (if the QR code is not an option for you, use the link)
  3. Match the image you see on your phone with image of the painting below to activate Augmented Reality
  4. Enjoy the experience and share it