Sunday, 13 March 2016

When Noah Got Drunk - Giovanni Bellini at Correr in Venice

Drunkenness of Noah by Giovanni Bellini (c.1515)
(Venice, Italy) When I first saw Giovanni Bellini's painting, the Drunkenness of Noah at the Correr Museum last week, I had never heard of the pivotal Biblical story about Noah getting drunk. My knowledge of Noah was from childhood Bedtime Bible Stories, and stopped when the Ark hit dry land and God sent in the rainbow.

I found the painting riveting and disturbing. It inspired me to study up on the event, which is recorded in Genesis 9:20-23. Apparently after surviving the mass extinction of mankind because God had decided His creation was too evil and decided to destroy it -- all but Noah and his family, and the animals -- one of Noah's sons, Ham, started the whole thing up again.

Noah gets drunk and passes out, naked in his tent. Ham sees the naked Noah, and dashes out to find his two older brothers, Japheth and Shem, who bring a garment to cover their father while averting their eyes. Ham, however, thinks the whole scene is hilarious. Noah comes out of his drunken stupor and learns what his youngest son had done to him. Noah then curses his own grandson, Ham's son, Canaan, declaring that he shall be the lowest of slaves to his brothers.

All sorts of Biblical scholars have all sorts of theories about what this means. Did Ham sodomize his father in order to become the alpha male of the family? Did he castrate him? Or did he just think seeing his father naked was funny? And why did Noah curse Canaan, not Ham? If Noah and his family were the best bunch of humans that God could find to save mankind, it really makes you wonder what evil-doings the rest of humanity was up to!

The passage takes place right after God makes the rainbow covenant and the family exists the ark:

[9:18] The sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Ham was the father of Canaan.
[9:19] These three were the sons of Noah; and from these the whole earth was peopled.
[9:20] Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard.
[9:21] He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent.
[9:22] And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside.
[9:23] Then Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father's nakedness.
[9:24] When Noah awoke from his wine and knew what his youngest son had done to him,
[9:25] he said, "Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers."
[9:26] He also said, "Blessed by the LORD my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.
[9:27] May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave."
[9:28] After the flood Noah lived three hundred fifty years.
[9:29] All the days of Noah were nine hundred fifty years; and he died.

According to the press notes, "This family drama is interpreted as the reinstatement of a hierarchical order among the survivors of the purifying flood, the cause of and justification for inequality among the descendants of the three sons."

The Bible says all the people of the earth descended from Noah's three sons. Biblical scholars disagree about almost everything, even the order of birth of the sons, but very simply, Shem was the father of the Semitic people, the people of Asia; Japheth was the father of the Japhetic people, the people of Europe; and Ham was the father of the Hamitic people of Africa. Throughout history, Noah's curse on Canaan was used to justify slavery.

Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie© Jean-Louis Dousson, Ville de Besançon
Bellini's Drunkenness of Noah is considered a masterpiece, but even the painting itself is shrouded in mystery. Painted in Venice around 1515 when Bellini was 85-years-old, the work was first mentioned in 1895 in the inventory compiled after the death of Jean Gigoux, the collector who had discovered it and bequested it to the to the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology in Besançon, France's oldest public museum. Where it had been for the previous four hundred years is not known, nor were scholars sure it was by Giovanni Bellini. It is now believed to be his last painting, and, in 1956, was called by the art critic Roberto Longhi "the first work of modern painting."

Even though Bellini was very old, he assimilated the revolution of the younger painters in the Venice at the time, particularly his pupil Giorgione, who had died young in 1510. The Drunkenness of Noah was a rare theme, and the only one from the Old Testament to inspire the elderly master.

A Masterpiece for Venice: The Drunkenness of Noah is the first project in a series this year that celebrates the 500th anniversary of the death of Giovanni Bellini, and can be seen in the Salle delle Quattro Porte inside the Correr Museum, where it is on loan from the Musée des Beaux-Arts until June 18.

UPDATE August 2, 2016 - The Drunkenness of Noah is now part of the Venice, the Jews and Europe 1516-2016 exhibition currently running in the Doge's Apartments at Palazzo Ducale through November 13, 2016. Thank you to reader Rudement for pointing that out, and for the fascinating theory that, perhaps, Bellini was inspired to paint the controversial subject by the three younger painters nipping at his heels, Giorgione, Sebastiano and Titian. (See the discussion in the comments, below.)

Ciao from Venezia,
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog


  1. When I first saw Giovanni Bellini's painting, the Drunkenness of Noah at the Correr Museum last week, I had never heard of the pivotal Biblical story about Noah getting drunk. My knowledge of Noah was from childhood Bedtime Bible Stories, and stopped when the Ark hit dry land and God sent in the rainbow.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. The first and last time i saw this painting was in that huge, if not megalomaniac, Titian exhibition in 1993 in the Grand Palais. I can still see it before my eyes, forever linked with the space, the light, atmosphere and other works of art in that room.

    Could it be that Giorgione, Sebastiano ,Titian and Bellini are populating the canvas. Giorgione died in 1610, Sebastiano went for Cigi and Rome at about the same time, so Bellini was left in Venice with Titian. If so, then who of the three painters is Shem, Japheth or Ham?
    Plausiblity is very far away. Somebody hide my ugly nakedness, please

  4. Rudement, that is an intriguing question. Do you have your own theory?

    Love the Mahler.


    1. This is a very silly idea, very unlikely, i confess…but why did old Bellini choose this uncommon subject in which the main character is obviously so close to himself, this old man, ridiculed and venerated at the same time. A self portrait, more or less? Not in the flesh because he doesn’t have Bellini’s features at all, but in spirit. Those three sons of Noah, who could they stand for? A younger generation of painters, making huge steps, inventing, developing new ideas, permanently breaking with traditions They’re making Bellini’s art look like forever gone by, boring and motionless. Even if that is not their intention. And even if old Bellini incorporated much of their “new style” into his late oeuvre. (1505-1516)

      Sebastian, Giorgione and Titian are the leaders of that new gang, the triumvirate of Venetian modern painting ca. 1510. Innovators, each going for his own ride. Giorgione dies, Sebastian leaves and Titian stays. The latter obviously must have been a pain in the arse making the eminence grise’s “Feast of the Gods” already old-fashioned soon after arrival in Ferrara. In 1514, uncoincidentally.

      I think btw that the Noah is still in Venice and is now part of the “jews in Venice” exhibition.

  5. Rudement, I don't find your theory silly at all; there is a ring of truth to it. Then Ham would be... Titian?

    And, yes, you are correct; The Drunkenness of Noah is now part of the Venice, the Jews and Europe exhibition at Palazzo Ducale -- thank you for that. I have updated this post to reflect that.

    From the press notes: "Alongside the all-encompassing vision of a cosmopolitan city, painting in this century also recorded the symptoms of an underlying discrepancy, with the rise of an anti-Semitic iconography: in The Drunkenness of Noah by Giovanni Bellini and the Ecce Homo by Quentin Metsys, Jewish physiognomy becomes grotesque and heavily caricatured."