Venetian Painting – Carpaccio

VITTORE CARPACCIO was Gentile Bellini’s most faithful pupil. He and his master stand apart in having, before the arrival of the Venetian School proper, captured an aspect and a charm inspired by the natural beauty of the City of the Sea. Gentile, as we have seen, paints her historic appearance, and Carpaccio gives us something of the delight we feel to-day in her translucent waters and her ample, sea-washed spaces flooded with limpid light. While others were absorbed in assimilating extraneous influences, he goes on his own way, painting, indeed, the scenes that were asked for, but painting them in his own manner and with his own enjoyment.

Pageant-pictures had been the demand of the Venetian State from very early days. The first use of painting had been that made by the Church to glorify religion, and very soon the State had followed, using it to enhance the love which Venetians bore to their city, and to bring home to them the consciousness of its greatness and glory. Pageants and processions were an integral part of Venetian life. The people looked on at them, often as they occurred, with more pride and sense of proprietorship than a Londoner does at a coronation procession or at the King going in state to open Parliament. The Venetian loved splendour and beauty and the story of the city’s great achievements, and nothing provided so welcome a subject for the decoration of the great public halls as portrayals of the events which had made Venice famous. Artists had been employed to produce these as early as the end of the fourteenth century, and those of the Bellini and Alvise Vivarini (which perished in the great fire) were a rendering on modern lines of the same subjects, satisfying the more advanced feeling for truth and beauty.

Besides the Church and the public Government, we have already seen the ” Schools,” as they were called, becoming important employers. These schools were the great organised con-fraternities in the cause of charity and mutual help, which sprang up in Venice in the fifteenth century. That of St. Mark was naturally the foremost, but others were banded each under their patron saint. Each attracted numbers of rich patrons, for it was the fashion to belong to the confraternities. Riches and endowments rolled in, and halls for meeting and for transacting business were built, and were adorned with pictures setting forth the legends of their patron saints. We have already seen Gentile Bellini employed in the schools of San Marco and San Giovanni, and now the schools of St. Ursula and St. George gave commissions to Carpaccio, or perhaps it would be more correct to say that Gentile, having become pre-eminent in this art, provided employment for his pupil and assistant, and that by degrees Carpaccio became a maestro on his own account.

A host of second-rate painters were plying side by side, disciples first of one master, then drawn off to become followers of a second ; assimilating the influence first of one workshop and then of another. Carpaccio has been lately identified as a pupil of Lazzaro Bastiani, who had a school in Venice, and the recent attribution to this painter of the ” Doge before the Madonna,” in the National Gallery, gives some countenance to the contention that he was held to be of great excellence in his time.

Though some historians advance the suggestion that Carpaccio was a native of Capo d’Istria, there is little proof that he was not, like his father Pietro, born a Venetian. He seems to have worked in Venice all his life, his first work being dated 1490 and his last 1520. In 1527 his wife, Laura, declared herself a widow.

The narrative art needed by the confraternities was supplied in perfection by Carpaccio, and one of his earliest independent commissions was the important one of decorating the School of St. Ursula. Devotion to St. Ursula was a monopoly of the school. No one else had a right to collect offerings in her name or to put up an image to her. The legend afforded an opportunity for painting varied and dramatic scenes, of which Carpaccio takes full advantage, and the cycle is one of the freshest and most characteristic things that has come down to us from the quattrocento. Problems are not conspicuous. The mediocre masters who have educated the painter have made little impression on him. He is entirely occupied in delight in his subject and in telling his story. The story of St. Ursula, told briefly, is that she was the daughter of the King of Brittany. The King of England sends his ambassadors to beg her hand for his son, Hereo. Ursula discusses the proposal with her father, and makes the conditions that Hereo, who is a heathen, shall be baptized, and that the betrothed couple must before marriage visit the Pope and the sacred shrines. After taking leave of their parents, the Prince and Princess depart on their expedition, but Ursula has had a vision in her sleep in which an angel has announced her martyrdom. She is accompanied on her journey by 1,000 virgins, and they are received by Pope Cyriacus in Rome. The Pope then makes the return journey with them as far as Cologne, where, however, they are assaulted and massacred by the Huns, after which Ursula is accorded a splendid funeral, and is canonised. The thirteen scenes in which the story is told are arranged on nine canvases, and the painter has not executed them in the chronological order, some of the latest events being the least complete in artistic skill. Professor Leonello Venturi assigns the following dates to the list :

1. The ambassadors of the King of England meet those of the King of Brittany to ask for the hand of Ursula. Probably painted from 1496-98.

2. (On same canvas) Ursula discusses the proposal with her father. 1496-98.

3. The King of Brittany dismisses the ambassadors. 1496-98.

4. The ambassadors return to the King of England. 1496-98.

5. An angel appears to Ursula in her sleep. 1492. 6, 7, 8. The betrothed couple take leave of their respective parents, and the Prince meets Ursula. 1495.

9. The betrothed couple and the 11,000 virgins meet the Pope. 1492.

10. They arrive at Cologne. 1490. 11, 12. The massacre by the Huns. The Funeral. 1495.

13. The saint appears in glory, with the palm of martyrdom, venerated by the 11,000 virgins and received in heaven by the Eternal Father. 1491.

No. 10 is a small canvas, such as might naturally have been chosen for a first experiment. The heads are large with coarse features, and the proportions of the figures are poor. The face of the saint in glory (No. 13), plump and without much expression, is of the type of Bastiani’s saints. It may be assumed that such a great scheme of decoration would not have been entrusted to any one who was not already well known as an independent master, but perhaps Carpaccio, who would have been about thirty when the work was begun, was still principally engrossed with the conventional, ecclesiastical subject. The heads of the virgins pressing round the saint appear to be portraits, and were very possibly those of the wives and daughters of members of the confraternity.

The improvement that takes place is so rapid that we can guess how congenial the painter found the task and how quickly he adapted his already trained talent. In No. 5 he takes delight in the opportunity for painting a little domestic scene, — the bedroom of a young Venetian girl, perhaps a sister of his own. The comfortable bed, the dainty furniture, are carefully drawn. The clear morning light streams into the room. The saint lies peace-fully asleep, her hand under her head, her long eyelashes resting upon her cheek : the whole is an idyll, full of insight into girlish life. The tiny slippers made, no doubt, one of the details that caught his eye. The crown lying on the ledge of the bed is an arbitrary introduction, as naïf as the angel. In the funeral scene the luminous light is diffused over all, the young saint lies upon her bier and is followed by priest and deacon, the crowd is composed with truth to nature, the draperies and garments are brought into harmony with the sky and background, and in all those that follow we find this quality of light. The landscape behind the massacre has gained in natural character, the city is at some distance, houses and churches are half buried in woods ; the setting is much more natural than are the quaint and elegant pages who occupy it, and who are drawing their crossbows and attacking the martyrs with leisurely nonchalance. The panel in which the betrothed couple meet shows a great advance, and this and the succeeding ones of the ambassadors, which were painted between 1495 and 1498, must have crowned Carpaccio’s reputation. He paints Venice in its most fascinating aspect ; the enamelled beauty of its marbles, its sky and sea, its palaces and ships, the rich and picturesque dresses men wore in the streets, the barge glowing with rich velvets. He evinces a fairy-tale spirit which we may compare with the work of Pinturicchio. His Prince, kneeling in a white and gold dress, with long fair curls, is a real fairy prince ; Ursula, in her red dress and puffed sleeves, her rippling, flaxen hair and strings of pearls, is a princess of story. Carpaccio’s art is simple and garrulous in feeling, his conception is as unpassionate as the fancies of a child, but he has a true love for these gay crowds ; Venice going upon her gallant way—her solid, worthy citizens, men of substance, shrewd and valuable, taking their pleasure seriously with a sense of responsibility. They throng the streets and cross over the bridges, every figure is full of freedom and vitality. The arrival and dismissal of the ambassadors are the best of all the scenes. In the middle of the great stage King Maurus of Brittany sits upon a Venetian terrace. In the colonnade to the left is gathered a group of Venetian person-ages, members of the Loredano family, which was a special patron of St. Ursula’s Guild, and gave this panel. The types are all vividly realised and differentiated : the courtier looking critically at the arrivals ; the frankly curious bourgeoisie ; the man of fashion passing with his nose in the air, disdaining to stare too closely ; the fop with his dogs and their dwarf keeper. Far beyond stretch the lagoons ; the sea and air of Venice clear and fresh. What is noticeable even now in an Italian crowd, the absence of women, was then most true to life, for except on special occasions they were not seen in the streets, but were kept in almost Oriental seclusion. The dismissal of the ambassadors affords the opportunity for drawing an interior with the street visible through a doorway. A group at the side, of a man dictating a letter and the scribe taking down his words, writing laboriously, with his ‘shoulders hunched and his head on one side, is excellent in its quiet reality. The same life-like vivacity is displayed in Ursula’s consultation with her father. The old nurse crouched upon the steps is introduced to break the line and to throw back the main group. Carpaccio has already used such a figure in the funeral scene, and Titian himself adopts his suggestion.

Carpaccio is not a very great painter, but a charming one. His treatment of light and water, of distant hills and trees, shows a sense of peace and poetry, and though he is influenced by Gentile’s splendid realistic heads, the type which appeals to him is gentler and more idealised. His fancy is caught by Oriental details, to which Gentile would naturally have directed his attention, and of which there was no lack in Venice at this time. All his episodes are very clearly illustrated, and his popular brush was kept busily employed. He took a share with other assistants in the series which Gentile was painting in S. Giovanni Evangelista. In 1502 the Dalmatians inhabiting Venice resolved to decorate their school, which had been founded fifty years earlier, for the relief of destitute Dalmatian seamen in Venice. The subjects were to be selected from the lives of the Saviour and the patron saints of Dalmatia and Albania, St. Jerome, St. George of the Sclavonians, and St. Triphonius. The nine panels and an altarpiece which Carpaccio delivered between 1502 and 1508 still adorn the small but dignified Hall of the school. His ” Jerome in his Study ” has nothing ascetic, but shows a prosperous Venetian ecclesiastic seated in his well-furnished library among his books and writings. He is less successful in his scenes from the life of Christ ; the Gethsemane is an obvious imitation of Mantegna ; but when he leaves his own style he is weak and poor, and imaginary scenes are quite beyond him. In the death and interment of St. Jerome he gives a delightful impression of the peace of the old convent garden, and in the scene where the lion introduced by the saints scatters the terrified monks he lets a sense of humour have free play. The monks in their long garments, escaping in all directions, are really comical, and in conjunction with the ingratiating smile of the lion, the scene passes into the region of broad farce. We divine the same sense of the comic in the scene in St. Ursula’s history, where the i i,000 virgins are hurrying in single file along a winding road which disappears out of the picture. In the principal scene in the life of St. George, Carpaccio again achieves a masterpiece. The force and vivacity of the saint in armour charging the dragon, lingers long in the memory. The long, decorative lines of lance and war-horse and dragon throw back the whole landscape. The details show an almost childish delight in the realisation of ghoulish horrors. He rather injures his ” Triumph of St. George ” by his anxiety to bring in the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem ; the flying flags distract the eye, and the whole scene is one of confusion, broken up into different parts, while the dragon is reduced to very unterrifying insignificance. His series for the school of the Albanians dealt with the life of the Virgin, who was their special patron. Its remains are at Bergamo, Milan, and in the Academy. The single figures in the ” Presentation,” the priest and maiden, are excellent. A child at the side of the steps, leading a unicorn, emblem of chastity, shows once more what a hold this use of a figure had taken of him. In the ” Visitation ” the figures are too much scattered, and the fantastic buildings attract more attention than the women. He still produced altarpieces, and the Presentation of the Infant Christ in the Temple, which he was called upon to paint for San Giobbe, where one of Bellini’s most famous altarpieces stood, challenged him to put forth all his strength. He never produced anything more simple and noble or more worthy of the cinque–cento than this altarpiece (now in the Academy). It surpasses Bellini’s arrangement in the way in which the personages are raised upon a step, while the dome overhead and the angel musicians below give them height and dignity. The contrast between the infant and the youthful woman and the old men is purposely marked. Such a contrast between youth and age is a very favourite one.

Bellini, in the same church, draws it between SS. Sebastian and Job, and Alvise Vivarini, in his last painting, balances a very youthful Sebastian with St. Jerome. This is the most grandiose, the least of a genre picture of all Carpaccio’s creations, although he does make Simeon into a pontiff with attendant cardinals bearing his train. One of his last works is the S. Vitale over the high altar of the church of that name, where we forgive the wooden appearance of the horse which the saint rides for the sake of the simple dignity of the rider and the airy effect given by the balcony overhead. Nor must we forget that study of the Two Courtesans ” in the Museo Civico, full of the sarcasm of a deep realism. It conveys to us the matter-of-fact monotony of the long, hot days, and the women and the animals with which they are beguiling their idle hours are painted with the greatest intelligence. It carries us back to another phase of life in Carpaccio’s Venice, seen through his observant, humorous eyes, and if there is nothing in his colour distinctive of the impending Venetian richness, it is still arresting in its brilliant limpidity ; it seems drawn straight from the transparent canals and radiant lagoons.

We apprehend the difference at once in Bastiani and in Mansueti, who essay the same sort of compositions. They studied grouping carefully, and it must have seemed easy enough to paint their careful architecture and to place citizens in costume with appropriate action in a Miracle of the Cross,” or the ” Preaching of St. Mark”; but these pictures are dry and crowded, they give no illusion of truth, there is none of the careless realism of Carpaccio’s crowds,—of incidents taking place which are not essential to the story, and, as in life, are only half seen, but which have their share in producing a full and varied illusion. The scenes want the air and depth in which Carpaccio’s pictures are enveloped. We are not stimulated and charmed, taken into the outer air and refreshed by these heavy personages, standing in rows, painted in hot, dry colour, and carrying no conviction in their glance and action.


Berlin. Madonna and Saints ; Consecration of Stephen. Ferrara. Death of Virgin. Milan. Presentation of Virgin; Marriage of Virgin; St. Stephen disputing. Paris. St. Stephen preaching. Stuttgart. Martyrdom of St. Stephen. Venice. Academy : The History of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins ; Presentation in the Temple. Museo Correr : Visitation ; Two Courtesans. S. Giorgio degli Schiavone : History of SS. George and Tryphonius ; Agony in the Garden ; Christ in the House of the Pharisee ; History of St. Jerome. S. Vitale : Altarpiece to S. Vitale. Lady Layard. Death of the Virgin ; St. Ursula taking leave of her Father. Vienna. Christ adored by Angels.