Vittore Carpaccio


NO painter has portrayed the life and manners of his time and surroundings more vividly than Vittore Carpaccio (pronounced Car-pahtch’yo). In pictures that still glow with the colors that his brush bestowed upon them four hundred years ago, he has set before us imperishably the palaces, streets, bridges, and open squares of Venice of the fifteenth and early sixteenth century, not only showing us the city gay with the fêtes and pageants that were dear to the hearts of her pleasure-loving people, but admitting us also to the intimate seclusion of Venetian households, where we seem to participate in the interests and occupations of the personages he represents.

But of the character and personality of the man who has given us these true pictures of Venetian life during the early Renaissance, history has pre-served but few and meager details, not even noting the time or place where he was born, nor when and where he died.

Vasari, who calls him, after the Venetian fashion, Scarpaccio, and whose account of his life, in a chapter devoted to several of the early Venetian paint ers, is exceedingly brief and unsatisfactory, says that he came from Venice. Ridolfi also speaks of him as a Venetian, “noble by reason of his ancient rights of citizenship, but more illustrious because of his talent.” Zanetti, in his work on the painters of Venice, alludes to this right of citizenship, and Lanzi, in his notice of Carpaccio, says that the family of the painter was Venetian—possibly originating in the Island of Murano. Recent writers, however, are of the opinion that Carpaccio, although perhaps of Venetian descent, was born at Capodistria, then one of the possessions of Venice, on the eastern shore of the Adriatic. No positive proof that such was the case can be adduced, but documents have been found in Istria showing that a family of the name of Carpaccio lived there for many generations, and that it had long been the custom to give to the eldest son of the house the name Vittore in honor of St. Victor, who from time immemorial had been regarded with special veneration by the Istrians.

If, however, it be true that Carpaccio was born at Capodistria, it is extremely probable that he went to Venice in his early youth, and spent the rest of his life there, identifying himself so completely with the Venetians that even the pictures he painted for his native Istria bear the signature: VICTOR CHARPATIUS VENETUS PINXIT, Or VICTORI CHARPATII VENETI OPUS.

Nothing is known of Carpaccio’s education in art, but it is supposed that he worked in the studio of Alvise Vivarini, and became later a pupil of Gentile Bellini. Because of the predilection he has shown in his pictures for oriental costumes it has been thought that he may have accompanied Gentile Bellini when that artist was sent to Constantinople in 1479 to paint the Sul-tan’s portrait; but no proof exists of his having done so, and the frequent introduction of eastern costumes in his works may readily be accounted for by the fact that Turks, and representatives of other races from the East, were so numerous in the streets of Venice in those days that an artist had ample opportunity to observe and study them.

Between the years 1490 and 1495 Carpaccio painted his most famous work —a series of nine pictures illustrating the medieval legend of St. Ursula—and between 1502 and 1511 he executed another series for the Dalmation Con-fraternity of St. George and St. Tryphonius, representing scenes from the lives of St. Jerome, St. George, and St. Tryphonius, which may be reckoned as second only in importance. A third series of five pictures, showing scenes from the life of St. Stephen, was painted for the Scuola di San Stefano. In addition to these he executed many works for churches and confraternities, of which the most celebrated is the great altar-piece `The Presentation in the Temple,’ now in the Venice Academy.

It would seem that Venice was not unmindful of Carpaccio’s talents, for existing records show that he was employed by the government to embellish the Ducal Palace with his works. In 1501 he painted for it a large historic composition representing Pope Alexander III. celebrating mass in the Church of St. Mark, and a few years later he worked in the Hall of the Great Council of the Palace in collaboration with Giovanni Bellini, receiving for his services the sum of five ducats a month. Unfortunately all his paintings in the Ducal Palace were destroyed by the great fire which broke out there in the year 1577.

Carpaccio’s best works were produced between the years 1490 and 1515. After that a decline in his powers is perceptible, although he does not seem to have ceased his labors until 1522, as one of his pictures bears that date. It is believed that he died at Venice, but in what year is not known.

In the absence of information concerning the life of Carpaccio, the following letter, signed by his hand and recently discovered among the archives of the Gonzaga family at Mantua, is of special interest as putting us into personal touch, so to speak, with the man who, except for this, is known to us only through his works. The letter is addressed to Francesco Gonzaga, Lord of Mantua, well known as a patron of artists; but whether it led to any result is not recorded, and there is no evidence to show that Carpaccio had any subsequent relations with the Court of Mantua, nor has any trace been found of the picture of `Jerusalem,’ for which the painter is so anxious to find a purchaser.

MOST ILLUSTRIOUS SIGNOR,—A few days ago a person unknown to me, conducted by others, came to see me to look at a `Jerusalem’ that I have painted. As soon as he had seen it he insisted that I should sell it to him, be-cause, as he said, he felt it to be something from which he should get great content and satisfaction. Finally we made a bargain by mutual agreement, but since then I have seen no more of him. That the matter might be explained, I inquired of those who had brought him, among whom was a priest, bearded and clad in gray, whom I had several times seen in the Hall of the Great Council in company with your Highness. Asking the man’s name and condition from the priest, I was told that he was one Messer Laurentio, painter to your Illustrious Highness. I then easily understood where this person might be found, and accordingly I direct these presents to your Illustrious Highness that I may make you acquainted with my name and with the subject of my picture.

First, my Lord, I am that painter who was chosen by our Illustrious Signory to paint in the great hall, where your Highness deigned to ascend the scaffolding to see our work, which was the history of Ancona; and my name is Victor Carpatio. As to the `Jerusalem,’ I take it upon myself to say that there is not in our time another picture equal to it, not only for excellence and perfection, but also for size. The height of the picture is twenty-five feet, and the width five feet and a half, as all such things should be measured. Zuane Zamberti has spoken of this work to your Sublimity. It is true, and I know it for a certainty, that the painter belonging to your service has carried away a sketch—unfinished and of small size—which I am sure will not be to the satisfaction of your Highness. If it should please your Highness to submit my picture first to the inspection of some competent judges, upon the least intimation being given to me it shall be at the disposal of your Highness. The picture is on canvas, in distemper, and can be rolled around a piece of wood without any injury to it. If your Lordship should desire it to be painted in oil-colors, it is for your Illustrious Highness to command, and for me, with the utmost care, to execute. Of the price I say nothing, leaving it entirely to your Illustrious Highness, to whom I humbly recommend myself. The xv August, MDXI, at Venice.

I have sent a copy of this letter by another way, so that one may surely reach you.

From your Highness’ very humble servant


( Originally Published 1903 )

Masters In Art – Vittore Carpaccio:Vittore CarpaccioThe Art Of CarpaccioAndré Pératé ‘La Grande Encyclopédie’Bernhard Berenson ‘Venetian Painters Of The Renaissance’W. J. Stillman ‘Old Italian Masters’E. H. And E. W. Blashfield And A. A. Hopkins, Editors ‘Vasari’s Lives’The Works Of Carpaccio