Venice Academy – Room XVI – Sala Del Carpaccio

VITTORE CARPACCIO, whose St. Ursula pictures entirely fill this octagonal room once a part of the Church of the Carità, is a subject of considerable controversy to the critics. It is not known exactly when or where he was born, nor is the date of his death definitely settled. The probabilities, however, seem to be that, though calling himself a Venetian, he was actually born at Capo d’Istria, somewhere about 1450. The earliest known work by him is dated 1490, and his latest, according to Molmenti, 1521. Gentile Bellini was his master, though he seems also to have been influenced by Alvise Vivarini. His first works are in tempera, but he abandoned that medium to adopt the more easily managed oil. It has been conjectured that he went with Gentile on his trip to Constantinople, but this has not been proved; the fondness he shows for Oriental costumes could have easily originated in Venice, where were met the nations of the earth.

Carpaccio unites in his works some of the attributes of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, of Alvise Vivarini, at the same time keeping much that re-calls the Primitives. But he is not merely a composite of all these tendencies. He has a distinct personality of his own that effectually differentiates him from all others of his contemporaries. All critics have granted Carpaccio preeminence as a story-teller. Though his fêtes and pageants may recall Gentile Bellini in conception, Carpaccio’s treatment of these typically Venetian subjects makes them all his own. There is a lightness of fancy, a brightness of view, a serenity of regard, a frank joyousness about all his work very unlike the sober dignity and simple poise of Gentile’s pro-cessions.

Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio, Veronese, — these three painters filled their canvases with Venice, Venice en fête. Carpaccio has not the splendour, the magnificence, the gorgeousness of Veronese, any more than he possesses the sedateness and impressiveness of Gentile. But he has what neither of these men had so fully, if at all. There is absolute sincerity in all his work, though the playful, the gay, is seldom lacking. He is not so good a draughtsman as Gentile, he has not the depth of tenderness or profound piety of Giovanni. But he has, nevertheless, a joyful sanity, a strong sense of the picturesque, and always and everywhere the love for incident, for action, for life, especially and ever for Venetian life. In his compositions live again the streets, the costumes, the customs of the days and nights of the City of the Lagune in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Whatever story Carpaccio tells, it is always Venice that is his background, — Venice the beautiful, the youthful, the Venice of intense life, of care-free days. If in Gianbellini is first felt the wealth, the glow, the depth of colour that was to be the pre-dominant characteristic of this North Italian school, Carpaccio was no mere follower. His brush has a golden limpidity of tone, a sweetness and mellowness that were his alone, and that are as distinctive of his art as is his love of pageant and running story.

These Ursula pictures are the first works which are credited to him. They were painted for the Scuola di Sant’ Ursula, between 1490 and 1495. This Scuola was a benevolent institution in Venice for the support and education of orphaned. girls.

St. Ursula, according to the story, was the daughter of a certain King of Brittany, Theonatus in English, Mauro in the Italian version. Ursula was a most devout maiden, and had refused all the many suitors for her hand, determined to live a life wholly consecrated to the Church. When Agrippinus of England asked her hand in marriage for his son Conon, King Mauro wished her to accept. Ursula agreed on three conditions : first, that Agrippinus should give her eleven thousand maidens of noble birth for attendants; next, that for three years they should accompany her on a pilgrimage to Rome to visit the shrines ; and, lastly, that Prince Conon and all his suite should turn Christian. These terms were accepted, and Conon set out at once to make her a visit before she began her pilgrimage. At length Ursula and her maidens were welcomed at Rome by Pope Cyriacus, and joined there by Prince Conon and his suite, who came by a different way. Here Ursula tells him that she has dreamed that she and her maidens will all be martyred at Cologne, a city they would pass through on their return home. The prince at that resigned all hope of marrying, and was baptized by the Pope, receiving the name of Ethereus, indicative of his purity of heart and purpose. With their arrival at Cologne came the fulfilment of the princess’s dream. They were surrounded by the Huns, then besieging the city, and all were put to death. Conon died at his betrothed’s feet, and she and her companions were killed by the arrows of the heathen. Then the spirits of all the party ascended into heaven. This is the legend that not only Carpaccio but earlier painters chose as subject for their brush. Hans Memlinc, in Bruges, had already painted the Shrine of St. Ursula, and Carpaccio’s work bears a near relationship with Memlinc’s conception of the story. Carpaccio, indeed, has, to many critics, suggested the Flemish painter in his works.

The series has been universally regarded as al-together the greatest work of Carpaccio’s brush. As colour effects they are restrained, quiet, almost monochromatic in their golden brown tones, with little of the glow and scintillation usually associated with the Venetian colour, or with some of Carpaccio’s own altar-pieces. But there is a gaiety, a charm to the colour, a frank revelling in the bright costumes, the brilliant surroundings, that, while not detracting from the real earnestness of the scenes, give a fairylike sparkle to them all. The figures themselves are not remarkably well drawn. As recent critics have remarked, they are often ” spindle-shanked, short-bodied, and sometimes cloven almost to the waist by their long legs; their faces are frequently homely, others of them are lacking in construction, but the charm of his work makes up for all, while the lightness of treatment of sacred legend is qualified and ennobled by some of the clearest and most golden colour to be found in the whole range of art.”

The series, described in order of occurrence of scene rather than by the placing on the walls, begins with the one showing the Ambassadors of the English King Asking the Hand of Mauro’s Daughter and the Conference between King Mauro and Ursula. Such combining of distinct and time-separated incidents, depicted with no separation except the columns of a loggia and the open wall of a room, ought, by all the laws of composition, to be a failure. Actually, it is not only one of the best of the nine, but is excellent in spacing, in massing, in climax. None better than Carpaccio knew how to subordinate detail, and bring the ends of his pictures together into one composite, coherent whole. The introduction of varying and numbers of incidents does not, with Carpaccio, make a dis-jointed, episodic composition.

The picture is a long panel, nine feet high by nineteen long, not quite three times as wide as it is high. The central part is occupied by Mauro’s open audience-hall, a hall with ceiling and one solid frescoed wall, against which, on a platform, is seated the king and his court. Before him kneel the ambassadors, the first presenting the letter of King Agrippinus. His robe of rich gold brocade, with its embroidered flowers of black, catches the light on the shoulder and arm, while his companion, on the lower step, is more completely in the light. The distribution of light in this whole panel, the spotting of the figures against the higher-keyed background and the slightly more sombre end di-visions, are all means Carpaccio takes to make a well-balanced composition despite the varying incidents depicted.

Leaning on the slender railing, which fences off this open reception hall from the piazza behind, are a number of citizens watching the ceremony within. Beyond them, the open, sunlit square is dotted with people in fifteenth-century Venetian costumes. An octagonal Basilica, other buildings, and glimpses of a garden behind, a wall bordering a canal with ships at anchor, make a truly Venetian setting for this home of the King of Brittany. A loggia opens into the audience-hall at the left, and through its arches, separated by marble pillars, gleams the sea itself. Here, within the railing again, are numbers of attendants and courtiers, and at the extreme left, outside, standing at the corner, is another subject of Brittany in cap and gown. He makes an effective foil for the woman at the other end of the panel, who is sitting on the lower step of the short flight leading to the room where Mauro and his daughter are conversing. This room has its outer wall completely removed, a customary way with both Gentile Bellini and Carpaccio to introduce the spectator into the interior of a house. At the left of a very bare little room the king sits leaning his head on his hand, while Ursula stands before him counting off on her fingers the conditions upon which she will accept Conan. This end of the panel is considered the least satisfactory of the three divisions.

The next panel shows King Mauro Bidding Fare-well to the Ambassadors. He is sitting at the left, on a throne raised several steps above the floor in a handsomely frescoed hall which opens at the right through big doors into another. This second apartment has a finely proportioned winding stair-way, over which people are passing. Before Mauro kneels one of the ambassadors, and lower down is another. Back of these a secretary is writing at a table, with an officer standing near. At the right, two pages and assistants stand next an open door. Numbers of these are leaning against the balustrade of a wooden stairway. In the distance gleams a canal bordered with houses. Here again the effect produced by the lighting of the picture reminds one of Pieter de Hooch.

The third panel is the Ambassadors’ Return with the Reply of King Mauro. This is a picture of a square or piazza fronting on a canal, all very Venetian, though supposed to represent England ! The people are scattered loosely about the scene, and are of really secondary importance. At the right, in an octagonal pavilion with marble pillars supporting the roof, is the king, who, by the way, is far from prepossessing in countenance. He is surrounded by his courtiers, and before him kneels one of the returned ambassadors. Farther back, extending almost to the middle of the composition, is a crowd of people listening to the news. Still more people crowd the bridge and other side of the canal. In the foreground at the left a richly dressed noble, presumably one of the other ambassadors, is hastening forward, as if already late. Standing directly in his way are two young nobles, one, back to, magnificently clothed in brocaded robes which the sunlight throws into high relief. He has golden curls, and in his youthful bearing gives credence to Ruskin’s theory that he is Conon himself, interrupting the ambassadors in his eagerness to hear Ursula’s answer.

Some of the amusing incidents that Carpaccio always loves to introduce are here in full effect. On the steps of the pavilion a monkey, dressed in the costume of a Venetian senator, is gravely eying a peahen ; and at the extreme left, behind a man sitting on a stool, is a comically arrayed boy playing on a viol. The ships drawn up to the wharf, the floating banners, the distant architecture, as well as the beautiful marble structures in the middle distance, and especially the effect of the sunlight which flashes over the scene, show both Carpaccio’s joyous humour and his love of his own city. It is a lively, naturalistic composition, and the linear perspective, as in the whole series, is wonderfully perfect.

In the fourth panel there are once more a number of incidents. A tall flagstaff divides the panel into two parts. At the left rise the castle-crowned heights of the English king, sloping down to the sea. At the right are the palace and quays of Brittany. The right side is really a view of Venice, the left, with its clumsy towers and fortifications, evidently supposed to represent more nearly what the capital of a heathen king might be. Separating the two ports is the sea, making thus practically one harbour, with an outline against the horizon in the centre, where huge ships are plying back and forth. Across the foreground of the picture runs an embankment, or wharf, and on this, as if on a stage, are displayed the personages of the story. At the left, before a crowd of people, Agrippinus is leaning forward, saying good-bye to his son, who kneels before him, several of his attendants standing near.

On the other side of the flagstaff Conon is again shown, just landed, and hurrying forward with out-stretched hands to greet Ursula, who, with only one attendant, is there to meet him. Directly at the right of this waiting-woman the betrothed ones are again depicted, kneeling before Mauro and his queen, who stands with handkerchief to her eyes.

Mauro has his left hand on Ursula’s shoulder and is clasping her right hand fast within his. The young prince kneels upright, his golden curls falling on to his shoulder, while Ursula’s long, straight hair floats down almost to her knees.

The pathos and a real intensity of expression here have captivated everybody. Many critics have gone into ecstasies, also, over the beautiful faces of Ursula and her betrothed. But, as the recent editors of Vasari critically remark, the faces are, ” in reality, the profiles of charming paper dolls. If we compare them with the homely features of the ambassadors to King Mauro, or of the councillors who sit in a row, we shall see that the heads of prince and saint alike, graceful as they are, lack any construction, and are abnormal, or very nearly so, as to cranial development.” Nevertheless, this episode is perhaps one of the most genuinely appealing in the whole series, and, in spite of the deficient cranial construction and modelling, the group of father, mother, prince, and princess affects one like a tender tale from some old missal, — quaint, archaic even, yet permeated with a spirit of the eternal verities, striking true to the heart of humanity.

Number five is the Meeting of Pope Cyriacus and Ursula outside the walls of S. Angelo at Rome. The Pope, with a vast concourse of cardinals and prelates, whose line extends far back to the castle, stands in the centre of the foreground blessing Ursula, who, with three of her maidens, kneels before him. Back of these, in a long, sweeping curve of three or more abreast, come all the rest of her maidens. A company of youths, among whom, presumably, is Canon, is in the centre of the picture, directly behind the cardinals about the Pope. They carry tall, waving banners, which break against the sky in slender, sharp-edged masses. In none of the series, except, perhaps, the Dream, does Ursula’s charming girlhood show to more advantage. The simplicity of her bearing, the deep piety expressed in her position and lifted face, all contrast effectively with the pomp of the Church, as represented in the richly robed prelates. And, al-though the story the picture tells would tax credulity to the utmost, the telling is so straightforward, so unadorned, that one believes it as, at ten, one believes Hans Andersen.

The proper sequence brings next Ursula’s Dream. All the panels have been repainted and have suffered hardly from the ravages of time, but perhaps none has been so blatantly modernized as this, the most entrancing of the nine. Beside Carpaccio’s name and the date 1495 are found the words, ” Cortinus R (restauravit) 1752.” It is not difficult to see the self-satisfied smirk which dominated that eighteenth-century vandal as he signed his name with a flourish to his completed work of ruin. Nevertheless, in spite of his worst, which, after all, was probably his best, ” Cortinus ” has not entirely despoiled this flower of Carpaccio’s creation.

It is the interior of a large, stately chamber, quietly yet sumptuously furnished in fifteenth-century Venetian style. At the left, in a handsomely carved bed, its four tall, slender posts bearing a narrow, many pointed canopy, lies Ursula asleep. She is tightly tucked under the red coverlet and turned over sheet, her hand under her cheek, her eyes fast closed, seeing only in the dream the angelic visitor who has come to warn her of her approaching martyrdom. The angel stands at the foot of the bed in the midst of a spreading light that floods angel, floor, and couch. The pose of the heavenly visitant is wonderfully effective. It is as if she had just been wafted in by that very light that spreads about her. This light, indeed, is so beautifully studied, so expressive in its realism, that Berenson seems not far afield when he says that the picture is really that ” of a room with the light playing softly upon its walls, upon the flower-pots in the window, and upon the writing-table and the cupboards.” Like the Dutch painters, he says again, Carpaccio is a painter of ” genre,” and deals with his subject ” for the sake of its own pictorial capabilities and for the sake of the effects of colour and of light and shade.” At the same time the sympathetic treatment here has so reverent a quality, so tender and expressive, that even those who do not need a literary element in a picture to appreciate it must feel the beauty and pathos of this story.

In the seventh, Ursula arrives at Cologne, a picture principally of huge-hulled ships at anchor before a walled city, from whose towers flags and banners fly. In the foreground some soldiers are standing talking, and a dog lies on a float, one of the natural, homely bits Carpaccio was always inserting.

Frightfully hurt by retouching is the Martyrdom and Funeral of Ursula. Two-thirds of the picture are devoted to the massacre of the maidens by the Huns. In the foreground, Ursula kneels with prayer-folded hands, waiting calmly for the arrow with which a gorgeously armoured Hun is about to pierce her breast. Equally unmoved appear all her maidens, each one meeting her death with a tranquillity as touching as it is extraordinary. On the other hand, there is little rage or ferocity displayed by the Huns. Almost they seem to say politely, ” By your leave, mesdames,” before they shoot.

At the right is a very beautiful little scene. Mounting the steps of a church are the four priests bearing the bier upon which the dead princess lies as if asleep, her pure, delicate profile as quietly at peace as in her dream. Behind them come more officers of the Church, and in the foreground at the steps kneels a woman praying. Over all is the soft and tender light Carpaccio knew so well how to express.

S. Ursula in Glory receiving her crown is the last of the series. Under a roofless arcade kneel the company of virgins martyred with Ursula. All are gazing upward at the princess, who, standing on a pedestal made of palms, is raised above their heads. About her fly little angels, two over her head holding the crown she is to wear. Above all is the figure of God, the Father, with extended arms. The lines of the composition here are entirely unsatisfactory, and not at all up to Carpaccio’s standard. But in the earnestness of the maidens’ faces and in the soft beauty of Ursula’s, he has displayed so deep a piety and belief that, as an expression of religious fervour, it has always been accorded great praise.

Of the entire series, Messrs. Blashfield and Hopkins say, ” The dream of Ursula is the most naïvely charming, the scene of the ambassadors the most sober and closely studied, that of the meeting of the prince and Ursula the most pictorial and entertaining.”