Vittore Carpaccio
Prominent Istrians


With Carpaccio in Venice

[(By an Amateur, in The Architect, a weekly illustrated journal of art, civil engineering and building, Vol. XII, Sept. 26, 1874, Published at 175 Strand, W.C. (London, 1874), p. 183.]

Venetian art-history is very obscure, and it is often difficult to distinguish and individualise the lesser painters who crowded the Schools of the Great Masters, and who generally followed so closely the several styles and methods of their models, that they almost lost their own individuality. At that great period, the close of the 15th century, the disciples of Vivarini, of the Bellinis, and others, renowned painters were most numerous; amongst them a few stand apart, and above the rest, taking a distinct place, and rising to the rank of great and original painters themselves.

Vittore Carpaccio is pre-eminently one of these, and it was our good fortune to discover him, and enjoy his works for the first time, during a recent visit to Venice. Nor is it wonderful that a mere amateur in art-study should have failed to find out this great man before, when we know that till lately some of our first art-critics have lived in ignorance of Vittore Carpaccio, and that none of his works is in any public gallery in England.

Yet it is hardly possible that anyone can have passed without notice the large picture by Carpaccio of the Presentation of the Infant in the Temple, which now hangs in the largest Sala of the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Venice. The picture rivets your gaze, notwithstanding the paleness of its colours, rendered still paler by its nearness to the burning hues of Titian and Paris Bordone.

Its quietness and simplicity are the more remarkable, nor can we fail to be struck by the great beauty of the composition, by the quaint grace of the three boy-figures at the feet of the Virgin, sitting and making melody in their hearts, and with their long taper fingers on lutes and other instruments, and looking with dreamy eyes straight out of the picture; and by the rich draperies of the Vecchio Simone, the long folds of whose sacerdotal garb are so important in the composition, if not suitable to the saint. This work, probably the very finest ever painted by Carpaccio, has been so cleaned, painted over, rubbed, and otherwise "restored," that one hardly feels in it now the touch and spirit of great genius. But after passing through the large room where it hangs, we come upon a series of pale cold-coloured pictures, by the same hand, which, faded and battered, as most of them are, at once arrested and carried one away to the distant mythical days of middle-age devotion, when St. Ursula lived and led her 11,000 virgins to suffer and die. One cannot choose but believe it all in looking at these pictures. Carpaccio paints her life as if he lived it, all is so frank, simple, and careful; from that opening chapter of it where, in the early dawn, she lies asleep on her bed in the wide chamber, with its stately hangings, polished floor, and carved wood-work, with eyes serenely closed, and an angel comes in with the first sunbeam at the open door, a martyr's palm in his hand, and she, waking or sleeping, knows what her life shall be. This, perhaps, is her dream at Cologne, when she was already some way on her pilgrimage; but we have earlier scenes of her life, though they were neither painted in chronological order, nor are they hung with regard to their proper sequence.

We know the legend, which some have tried to make more probable by suggesting that XI. M. V. merely meant eleven martyred virgins! The fact that stands as basis to the story is that a noble maiden and several of her companions were actually murdered for their faith near Cologne: at that dark time when Christianity was struggling with heathenism in Germany, from the third to the fifth century. As the story goes, Ursula was a Princess of Brittany, a wonder of beauty and learning, asked in marriage by all the nobles around, refusing all till the Prince of England came forward. So urgent are the entreaties of his ambassadors, that she consents, but on certain conditions, which she hopes will deter him from carrying his suit further, for she has really vowed to marry no one, but to devote her life to heaven. Her terms are, that a thousand noble maidens shall be given as her attendants, and to each one of these a thousand, and that he and they shall be allowed freedom for three years to depart and visit the shrines of the saints. One of the finest of the series of pictures is that in which the "Re Mauro" receives the ambassadors from England. In the centre the King sits on a throne surrounded by his attendants, behind we see a landing place, and buildings characteristic of a town near the sea. Carpaccio was wonderfully truthful and careful in his surroundings, and is remarkable for the perfection of his architectural detail and perspective. In all points of costume, too, he is most exact, and seems quite at home in the highly ornamented and complicated dress of his time. There are side compartments to this large picture of the reception of the ambassadors, in which we see the King seated, with his head on his hand, in a melancholy aspect, whilst his daughter stands beside as if comforting him. An old crippled nurse sits on the steps in the foreground, also meditative and mournful. She is a most characteristic figure, and appears to bear a sympathetic part in the story, for we meet her again at its tragic close, where she is witness to the fearful end of her lovely mistress, a presentiment of which is, perhaps, before her now in this early scene. To continue the story — the Prince consents to all conditions, and troops of noble maidens from Scotland, France, and Cornwall come flocking to Brittany, where knights and nobles crowd to behold them, and there, assembling her virgins "in a meadow near the city, which meadow was of the freshest green, all over enamelled with the brightest flowers," Ursula ascended "a throne which was raised in the midst." She preaches to them in such moving terms that with one accord they vow to cast in their lot with her, and follow her wherever she goes. Carpaccio has not taken this beatiful scene as one of the illustrations in the life of the fair saint; but, except for the difficulties of representing this great multitude of maidens, it would be a lovely subject to depict the beautiful Ursula enthroned above them all, amidst the flowers, and green grass, and sunshine of the sweet spring time. The painter gives us, instead, the Return of the Ambassadors to England, and The Meeting of Prince Canon and his Bride, St. Ursula. The Prince is represented as handsome and youthful; St. Ursula is generally in profile, with a sweet, pale, grave face. We see the parting between her and her parents. They embrace her with tears; she looks sad and quiet; the old nurse weeps behind. Carpaccio goes on to the arrival at Cologne; but before they all reach so far, they encounter many risks, for they set out on their voyage to Rome alone, managing their ships themselves, without the help of sailors, and so, of course, meet with sundry disasters, including their detention at Cologne, which is sadly out of the direct route. Before departing, St. Ursula had prayed the Prince to stay and comfort her father, but some say he insisted on following her; at any rate, in Carpaccio's pictures he soon reappears on the scene. He paints for us the ships full of virgins arriving at Cologne. We see them in all directions; they cover the decks, they look out of the portholes with serene curiosity.

At Cologne, St. Ursula has her dream that on return there she will suffer martyrdom. Then on to Rome they go, over the Alps, conducted by six strong angels, who clear the way before them, level all obstacles, guard them from the avalanches, and pitch tents for their shelter at night. So they come to the Tiber and the Sacred City. Carpaccio paints how Pope Cyriacus, greatly astonished and, perhaps, somewhat discomposed at the arrival of this goodly multitude, goes out to meet them with all his clergy. He receives them with grave dignity; St. Ursula kneels in devotion; the grave faces of the bishops in their mitres mingle with the youthful heads of the virgins, their joyful and pious attitudes and the priestly dignity of their reception produce a most impressive and picturesque scene. In the distance is the Castle of St. Angelo. By this time Prince Conon has joined his bride, and kneels with her at the feet of the Pope. He is baptized afterwards, and vows to share all her privations and to die with her.

After visiting the Holy Shrines St. Ursula wishes to depart, but the Pope himself must needs go with her, and a company of bishops and priests. They arrive at Cologne, after great perils, to find it besieged by the barbarians. And now the end soon comes. Carpaccio goes to it at once, and after St. Ursula's reception at Rome, paints at once her martyrdom; for the heathen captains in Rom were in terror lest all those Christian maidens should convert the nation and christianise it altogether, and had sent secret orders to Cologne to exterminate them on their arrival there. They are all slaughtered, with first the Prince, at the feet of his bride — we see them in Carpaccio's picture — hewn down, stabbed, transfixed by arrows — all meeting their fate without resistance. St. Ursula stands alone, and beholds the death of her husband, who has sacrificed his life for love of her; the fierce soldiers, awed by her beauty, do not touch her at first, then they carry her to their chief, who says if she will marry him he will spare her life and make her Queen of Germany. At her lofty refusal, he shoots her with three arrows, and so she dies. On one side of the great picture of the massacre, Carpaccio represents her lying on her bier, her long golden hair around her. She looks lovely and at peace. Then follows the last picture in the series — her Glorification. She stands on the palms of all the virgins bound together. The Almighty, surrounded by cherubs, looks down upon her; her face is upturned, her hands folded; the virgins pass around, looking up. Pope Cyriacus and several bishops are amongst the kneeling virgins. The faces of the virgins are most beautiful and varied in expression. Throughout, the virgins are in the Venetian costume of the fifteenth century.

All these pictures are so injured that there is little trace left of the "ruddy colour" for which Carpaccio was noted. He was already celebrated before painting these works, being first in the school of Vivarini, then of Gentile Bellini, and always much under the Bellini influence, though never so much as to lose his individuality. It seems to us that as a painter he is himself and no one else. No work of his maturity could be taken to be by any other hand. Carpaccio came from Istria, the place and date of his birth are uncertain. In contemporary records he is called "Scarpaza," and by Vasari "Scarpaccia." One of his first great works was an altar piece for the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, which he painted in conjunction with Vivarini and Bellini. The life of St Ursula was begun in 1490 for the Scuola or Refuge of St. Ursula, which stood close to the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo, but is now suppressed. The first subject he chose from it was the Saint's arrival at Cologne. Carpaccio had studied perspective, and learnt all that was known about it from Bellini's master in the same science. His greatest work, The Presentation in the Temple, of which we have spoken, was painted in 1508-10, for the church of San Liobbe, where one of Bellini's masterpieces already stood, so he possibly put forth ail his power to produce a not unworthy companion, and succeeded, for even in the picture as it now stands, after all its scrubbing and repainting, we recognise his capo d'opera.

Carpaccio painted also another series of nine small easel canvasses, and an altar piece, for the Scuola di San Giorgio di Schiavone. This was originally a refuge founded by the Dalmatians in Venice for the relief of distressed seamen of Dalmatian birth. Carpaccio was chosen to decorate it with pictures, and he took as bis subject incidents from the Life of our Lord, and of the Patron-Saints of Dalmatia and Albania, St. Jerome, St. George, and St. Trifone. These are said to be amongst his most beautiful works, and are still to be seen, comparatively uninjured, in the Scuola di San Giorgio. It was not the good fortune of the writer to find them out during his short visit to Venice.

There is little else left in Carpaccio's work. He seems to have declined in after years, and sad to say his later works are his feeblest. He painted for churches in Istria certainly up to the year 1519, and his latest known picture is in the church of Pozzale near Cadore. We cannot help mourning that this man, who could paint the story of St. Ursula with such power and pathos, should not have grown stronger and greater with advancing years, so that Vittore Carpaccio should have left us other pictures before which we might stand, and, as Zanetti did before this life of St Ursula, watch their wonderful effect on the minds of the people. Zanetti says, and we can well believe it: "I myself could hardly turn away my eyes from that charming figure of the saint, where, asleep on her maiden couch — all grace, purity, and innocence — she seems, by the expression on her beautiful features, to be visited by dreams from Paradise."

But we cannot be too grateful for this and the other beautiful works of his maturity, and recommend all who do not yet know Carpaccio to make acquaintance with them before time and the hands of the "restorers" shall have done them further injury.

Source:  Google Books

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Created: Monday, July 04, 2011; Last Updated: Sunday, April 10, 2016
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