Vittore Carpaccio – The Legend Of St. Ursula

In the guise of an old legend, this series of large canvases portrays the brilliant pageantry of Venetian life at the zenith of its power and luxury. There are broad spacious vistas of canals and harbors, castles and marble palaces, ships and gondolas, flags flying, trumpets blowing, crowds of elegant idlers, pompous arrivals and departures, and ceremonious processions of nobles and ecclesiastics, magnificent in many-colored velvet, satin, gold and heavy stiff brocade. The sad story of the betrothed couple, ending in the terrific slaughter of Ursula and her eleven thousand virgins, is but a slender connecting thread. The chief interest of the series is direct, in its eye-filling panoply of decorative forms. In the picture illustrated, several incidents of the story are told, with the same characters repeated, and two different places are shown, separated by the flag-pole. But these facts are irrelevant from the standpoint of design: the scene is treated as one broad harbor, filled with one throng of Venetians.

To include so much in one picture without confusion, a high degree of skill at space composition is needed; and in that branch of painting Carpaccio is unexcelled. A good way to measure his ability is to look for a moment in a neighboring room, at Gentile Bellini’s Corpus Christi Pro-cession in the Piazza of St. Mark (567). That itself is no mean achievement; but it seems monotonous and artificial after looking at Carpaccio. The large area it takes in is box-like, tiresomely regular. The people in it are all too much alike, not only in dress but in posture; they stand bolt upright in long stiff gowns, as vertical as the buildings. Those nearby, in the parade, swing their arms at just the same angle, like soldiers; their heads are on the same level; their coloring is gray and sad. In the center other groups are placed methodically, here, there, and there. They too are stiffly vertical.

Returning to the Carpaccio, what a burst of life and color one feels! This is not through represented action, for the figures are rather quiet; but through the variety of elements in the design. Figures in the row nearest us are kneeling, bending, sitting, reaching, drawing their variegated costumes into sweeping curves and diagonals. A great ship is settled on its side, with its hull making another curve, like the dome on the right, and its long mast cutting across the background in another diagonal. These diagonals are echoed in slanting flag-poles, pennants and stairways. Such repetitions, at various distances from the eye, knit together all parts of space, but there is never too much regularity. Crowds appear far off on different levels; fantastic towers and battlements cut the sky; walls are at different angles; some are flat, some rounded, some rough dull stone and some the tinted green, rose and white marble of Venetian palaces. The expanse of water in the center is empty: a cool green background to rest the eye, and to set off the gorgeous costumes and the oriental rugs to best advantage. In short, space is not only large, and in correct perspective, and filled with objects, each at the distance intended; what is more, space is interestingly filled, with surprising and inventive contrasts of shape and color. And it is unified, made into a self-contained, harmonious world of its own, by constant unobtrusive recurrences of theme.

Color is more brilliantly decorative than in the Bellinis, but also well merged into the general sunlight. In many later Venetian works the pattern of contrasting colors is considerably toned down, to increase the effect of one pervasive golden glow. Here the atmosphere is less rich than in Titian, but a fair share of both values is combined and harmonized.