Vittore Carpaccio
Prominent Istrians


Italian Old Masters. Carpaccio

Century Magazine
W. J. Stillman and Timothy Cole
Volume 44, Issue 2 (June, 1892)

Carpaccio is one of those masters of the great period of Venetian art about whose lives we know the least. We know that he was born in Istria, then one of the possessions of Venice; and we first hear of him as a painter in connection with Lazzaro Bastiani (of whom Vasari makes two persons, brothers of Carpaccio), who was a member of the school of S. Girolamo, in Venice, in 1470. It is a rational conjecture that as the two were friends so close as to be reported by Vasari to be brothers, they were of approximately the same age and could hardly have been admitted painters earlier than thirty. As Cavalcaselle points out, Carpaccio's later works show the decay of his powers, and were painted about 1519; So he may be accepted as having lived till 1520, and to have died at a ripe age, which, for want of any clue, we may guess to be eighty. We have no more precise indications of the date of either his birth or his death. He was a pupil of the elder Vivarini, and afterward of Giovanni Bellini. He is reported to have accompanied Gentile Bellini to Constantinople, to which experience may be attributed his fondness for Oriental costumes in his pictures. The great series of subjects from the life of St. Ursula, now in the Academy at Venice, which gives the best as well as the most favorable conception of his work, was executed after 1490. The series of pictures in S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni, which Ruskin has brought into great prominence in the history of art in Venice, was painted by order of the confraternity of the Hospital of St. George. This confraternity, founded in 1451, received from the prior of the monastery of St. John of Jerusalem a hospice from among the buildings of the priory, and this building having become ruinous, the confraternity replaced it by a more splendid one, with a chapel which was completed in 1501, and dedicated to St. George and St. Trifon, a Dalmatian saint and martyr. An early historian of the principality of Montenegro, then the principality of the Zeta, says that its last sovereign, George Cernoievitch, married a noble Venetian lady, who, tired of the bleak seclusion of the rugged home to which she had come, persuaded her husband to return with her to Venice. Accordingly he took up his permanent abode there, and, finding no orthodox church in the city, had one built which he dedicated to St. George. His name appears for the last time in the records of Cettinje, the capital of Montenegro, in 1495, and his will exists, dated at Milan in 1499. The association of St. George of the Slavonians and St. Trifon, an orthodox and Slavonic saint, with the avowed purpose of making a refuge for the mariners at Dalmatia, which was then as now mainly an orthodox country in its lower provinces, and the coincidence of times and names, leave no room for doubt that S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni is the church of George Cernoievitch, since it is the only one to which we can refer the data. There had been for several generations an alliance between the Zeta and Venice against the Turks. The sea-coast along the part of Dalmatia opposite the Zeta was in the possession of Venice, and the Zetans served as guards to the caravans from the Adriatic across the Balkans to the Black Sea and Trebizond. Before taking a wife from a noble Venetian family, George Cernoievitch had been inscribed in the Golden Book of the nobility of the state.

The pictures in S. Giorgio were painted between 1502 and 1508, in the early portion of Carpaccio’s most masterly period; but I cannot agree with Ruskin’s laudation of the art in them, considered in relation to the other works of Carpaccio, any more than with what seems to me his extravagant praise of the art of Carpaccio in relation to the rest of Venetian art. Speaking of the "St. George and the Dragon" in the series, and especially of the distant figures of the sultan and his daughter, Ruskin says:

For truly, — and with hard-earned and secure knowledge of such matters, I tell you, through all this round world of ours, searching what the best life of it has done of brightest in all its times and years,—you shall not find another piece quite the like of that little piece of work, for supreme, serene, unassuming, unfaltering sweetness of painter’s perfect art. Over every other precious thing, of such things known to me, it rises, in the compass of its simplicity; in being able to gather the perfections of the joy of extreme childhood, and the joy of a hermit’s age, with the strength and sunshine of mid-life, all in one. Which is indeed more or less true of all Carpaccio’s work and mind; but in this piece you have it set in close jewellery, radiant, inestimable.

No one can dispute Ruskin’s enjoyment of this phase of art, or his right to establish his own standard of art for his own enjoyment and teaching. I can only point out that the standard is one which does not conform to that of the greater experts in art, the painters themselves, or with my view of a healthy definition of art itself. The infirmity of his judgment is further shown in what he says of some little pictures in the church of St. Alvise, which he attributes to Carpaccio, but which the highest living authority in that particular line of judgment,—not only in my opinion but in that of Cavalcaselle, and whose knowledge is even admitted by Mr. Ruskin,— C. F. Murray, distinctly declares to have no trace of the workmanship of Carpaccio beyond the evident imitation of some of his peculiarities of drawing by a follower whose inherent feebleness Ruskin mistakes for the youth of the master. But he says, with that peremptoriness of opinion which leaves no chance of modification, except in confession of ignorance, that "in all these pictures the qualities of Carpaccio are already entirely pronounced; the grace, quaintness, simplicity, and deep intentness on the meaning of incidents." It is true that Crowe and Cavalcaselle enter these pictures in the catalogue of works of Carpaccio, but as "school pictures," a term at which Ruskin inveighs, but which is in precise accordance with the opinion of Mr. Murray. To give the best view of such an extraordinary estimate of the qualities of Carpaccio, I can only say that Ruskin forms his opinion of the painter (and to a great extent of all art) on the quality of story-telling, which I hold is not, properly speaking, the art at all, but is the thought of the man, and is always to be held utterly distinct from the manner in which the story is presented, which is his art.

The "History of St. Ursula" gives higher proof of Carpaccio’s preeminence as a storyteller than do the pictures in S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni. Though he afterward painted some pictures which are to be ranked higher as art, they are more under the technical influence of the greater painters of the school in which be had his training—a training which, like that of Tintoretto, was interfered with by what must be considered as a refractory originality. He had the Venetian sense of color in a high degree, but in his use of the material he never attained the technical perfection of the secondary masters, such as Palma and Lotto. The telling of his story was evidently more important to him than his technic, and the painting in the Slavonian series is thin and in parts slovenly. What is said of his method by Cavalcaselle, referring to his best work, I accept as proof that he had never attained the complete mastery of oils that some of his contemporaries gained. He began like Bellini with tempera, but unlike I3ellini he never rid himself of the influence of his original method of working.

That a glowing, ruddy, perhaps uniform tone was habitual to him in these days, is proved by the "Christ at Emmaus" preserved in San Salvatore at Venice, under the name of Giovanni Bellini; a picture in which we neither notice Bellini’s types, nor his feeling as a colorist, nor his line as a draughtsman. If we look at the contrasts of tints and their harmony, we detect the art familiar to Carpaccio in pitting one shade against another to make up the chord; there is no subtle agency at work to blend tints together, the flesh is not broken up or varied to produce effect. Warmth, on the contrary, is obtained by an even red film thrown over all, and without partial glazes.

This is the method of a painter whose mastery of the technical appliances is incomplete. A great colorist would never be obliged to complete his harmony by a general glaze warming the entire scheme, this being a rude device to cure a recognized crudeness.

As a story-teller Carpaccio has had no superior in the school of Venice, and perhaps none in Italian art. His imagination is way ward, subtle, full of minute inventions and happy surprises, and his originality is distinct and, in his most matured and characteristic work, almost separates him from the contemporary Venetian art, though in his methods he at times adheres to one or another of the teachers with whom he was associated in his early training. He leaves upon me the impression of an artist in whom the subject had always overpowered the art, in whom invention ran so far ahead of the power of delivery that he had no time to wait for his brush to do its work completely. To the dilettante who studies him completely, and who is not led aside from the intellectual conception by the critical study of methods and technical mastery, he offers more intense satisfaction than some of the greater painters—a satisfaction which I must hold to be apart from the purely artistic standard. It is on this ground that Ruskin does him honor. Living and dying as he did in the midst of a community in which the technical appreciation of art had been fed to the utmost by daily study of the greatest triumphs of color the world has seen, his life and his exit from it, as well as his works, attracted less attention than they merited. Thus it is that we know nothing of Carpaccio personally, and know not when or where he was born and died.

A Detail from the Legend of St. Ursula, by Carpaccio

Notes by Timothy Cole

The Carpaccio detail is taken from the large picture in the Venice Academy, which is itself one of a series of nine large works showing scenes from the legend of St. Ursula. The entire picture represents the ambassadors of the king of England before the king of Brittany to prefer their prince’s request for the hand of his daughter Ursula. The compartment to the right of the picture, separated from it by a pillar and showing conventionally another room of the palace, is the detail that I have chosen. It is in itself a complete composition, and very charming it certainly is.

Much embarrassed, the king has retired from the council to his private chamber; for he knows that his daughter has made a vow of perpetual chastity and has dedicated herself to Christ, yet he fears to offend the powerful monarch of England by refusing his suit. He has delayed the answer till the morrow, and now sits meditating his reply. He leans his head upon one hand. The other, gloved, still holds the letter of the king of England. While in this mood his daughter Ursula enters, and, learning the cause of his melancholy, bids him be of good cheer, and proceeds to detail to him the conditions under which she will wed the king.

First, he shall give to me as my ladies and companions ten virgins of the noblest blood in his kingdom, and to every one of these a thousand attendants, and to me also a thousand maidens to wait on me. Second, he shall permit me for the space of three years to honor my virginity, and with my companions to visit the holy shrines where repose the bodies of the saints. And my third demand is [we can imagine the maid in the picture as in the act of telling this, for she is touching her third finger] that the king and his court shall receive baptism; for other than a perfect Christian I cannot wed.

The size of the entire work is 8 feet 9½ inches high hy 19 feet 3 inches long. That of the detail given is 3 feet 3 inches wide by 5 feet 6 inches high. It is painted on canvas, and is very rich and soft in color. It is broadly and simply treated, though upon close inspection we find it full of the most exquisite detail. The king’s robe, for instance, is richly worked in embroidery too delicate to allow of engraving on so small a scale. I have stippled it, and have thus given some impression of its rich effect. It is of a glowing, soft tone of yellow like old gold. This is relieved against the white bedspread and the canopy above, which is of a rich, soft red. The background is warm gray, and appears to be of marble. Through the grating above is seen the ceiling of another room. The Madonna on the wall is enshrined in a yellow frame like gold. The casing of the window is of a soft, dull red, the book beneath it of a brighter red, and under all there is a charming dado of flowers. The head of the princess is relieved against a dark panel. 11cr complexion and hair are fair. She is clothed in a delicate, soft, neutral blue, draped with a mantle of rich, bright red. The combination of the whole is most harmonious and pleasing.

St. Ursula is the patroness of young girls, particularly school-girls, and of all women who devote themselves especially to the care and education of their own sex.


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