Mysteries of a Venetian Perfectionist Revealed in Washington
WASHINGTON — For Henry James, our man in Italy, “There is something ridiculous in talking of Venice without making him almost the refrain.”
The year is 1882, the American writer is not yet 40, and the him is Vittore Carpaccio: the painter of the early Renaissance whose narrative cycles of Christian saints decorate churches and confraternities all around the maritime city. James is falling in love with Venice, and writing a first essay in which he gasps before the paintings of Tintoretto and Bellini and whines about the other tourists. (“Though there are some disagreeable things in Venice, there is nothing so disagreeable as the visitors.” Still true!) He finds Carpaccio, more than Tintoretto, “sailed nearer to perfection,” though he feels no need to dwell on the point, “his fame being brighter to-day,” James wrote in 1882, “than it has ever been.”
Not quite so bright these days. With the coming of the 20th century, Venice’s pilgrims and day-trippers gravitated to the fervent, agitated paintings of Titian and Tintoretto — Tintoretto even appeared as a “contemporary” artist in a recent Venice Biennale, holding his own in the white cube. Carpaccio, working half a century earlier, was more Gothic and more uptight. His name may now draw only dull recognition as one of many old masters who lost his celebrity status when the modernist typhoon came in.
It’s a treat, therefore, to take the full measure of this painterly perfectionist in “Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice,” at the National Gallery of Art here. It’s the most important Carpaccio show in 60 years, the first ever outside Italy, and it follows and builds upon the National Gallery’s excellent Tintoretto show of 2019. Do not be misled by its Karpaccio-for-Kidz subtitle; this is a landmark undertaking, with loans from nearly 50 museums, universities and churches from Atlanta to Croatia, and several monuments of Venetian painting that I never expected to see this far from the lagoon. (The show has been organized by Peter Humfrey, a professor emeritus of art history at St. Andrews University in Scotland, in collaboration with the curators Andrea Bellieni and Gretchen Hirschauer.)
Your mileage may vary, but after two visits my estimation of Carpaccio remained about where it had been. Killer line. Magnificently refined in his prime, sloppier in his later years. Plush, fanciful even, but always solemn. Never quite as moving as Bellini. Far less cerebral than Titian. Definitely less edge-of-your-seat than Tintoretto. Come decide for yourself! This much Venetian painting doesn’t bob up often on our side of the Atlantic, and the National Gallery has exceptionally obtained two of the nine mesmerizing paintings he painted shortly after 1500 for the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, the epicenter of Carpaccio.
One is his gory panorama “Saint George and the Dragon” (c. 1504-07), in which the scuola’s patron martyr lances the beast right in the throat. The other is the splendid “Saint Augustine in His Study” (from 1502 or so), probably Carpaccio’s most famous work, which James estimated “a pearl of sentiment, and I may add without being fantastic a ruby of color.” The paintings have recently been restored with the help of the nonprofit conservation agency Save Venice, and now gleam in the National Gallery’s neo-Classical west wing. The show is rich in drawings, too: extremely fine studies of saints’ heads and soldiers’ armor, and quicker sketches in which crossed lines suddenly resolve into a gondola and its oars.
Unlike many Venetian artists who immigrated to the floating republic, Carpaccio was a native son of the Serenissima, born sometime in the early 1460s to a fur and hide merchant. Did he train under Giovanni Bellini, or maybe his less famous brother Gentile Bellini? Hard to be sure, though by the early 1490s he was painting religious and domestic scenes like “Two Women on a Balcony,” lent from Venice’s Museo Correr, that applied the Bellinis’ examples but bore new Carpaccio signatures.
The women appear in profile: a frequent choice for Carpaccio, who favored static composition that can feel timeless, or even a little medieval. They play with pet dogs and sit among exotic birds, which let the painter show off his skills and devotion to detail. And they overlook the green lagoon from a fancy marble balcony: an invented space, but arranged with rigorous one-point perspective.
John Ruskin, the excitable Victorian critic, gassed up “Two Women on a Balcony” in one of his later books as “the best picture in the world.” Really, it’s not even the best Carpaccio of a woman on a balcony. Far more engaging is his “Virgin Reading,” from 1505 and also newly cleaned, for which Mary throws off her usual blue dress for a gown of lustrous vermilion. (Recent conservation has revealed a surprise at the sliced left edge: a milky white forearm draped in blue fabric, a tiny remainder of the Christ Child blissing out in the sun.)
Carpaccio’s best paintings were made in narrative cycles — the Legend of St. Ursula, the Life of the Virgin Mary, the Life of Saint Stephen — and commissioned by Venice’s scuole: the middle-class civic brotherhoods that held feasts, provided for the poor, and arranged funerals for the city’s citizens. This show reunited all six paintings ofThe Life of the Virgin Mary (from birth to annunciation to dormition. But the showstoppers here are two monumental paintings from the cycle in the Scuoli degli Schiavoni, whose visions of saintly courage and knowledge exhibit immense care and contain wondrous detail. (This was an immigrants’ guild: The Schiavoni, or “Slavs,” were the local Dalmatian community, and the coast of Croatia was then part of the Republic of Venice.)
In “St. George and the Dragon,” the saint charges forward on a leaping horse, but Carpaccio had even more fun with the mutilated carcasses of the dragon’s earlier victims, who are providing a buffet to various lizards and snakes. A very fine drawing on blue paper, lent from the Met, shows the care he lavished on the plate armor: soft ripples of the chain mail, a shimmer of light on the greaves.
And in “St. Augustine in His Study,” Carpaccio’s gift for constructing fictional spaces and tantalizing narratives reached its apex. Augustine (long misidentified as St. Jerome) sits at his desk gripped by a mystical vision. All around his studiolo are open books and sheet music. A miter and crosier nestle in a back niche that echoes the Scuola degli Schiavoni’s own architecture. The supernatural light from the window transfixes not only Augustine but a fluffy little dog on the floor, next to a letter bearing Carpaccio’s name. Henry James, visiting the painting in Venice, wrote that it “unites the most masterly finish with a kind of universal largeness of feeling,” but griped in 1882 that at the Schiavoni “the pictures are out of sight and ill-lighted, the custodian is rapacious, the visitors are mutually intolerable.” (I went this past April to the little scuola, smushed between a canal and the Arsenale, and am happy to provide this TripAdvisor-style update: The pictures remain shadowy, but the crowds are zero!)
By the mid-1510s, as prosperous Venice tipped into war, Carpaccio had begun to lose his grip, and the pleasures of his exacting line and close examination gave way to a strange, even cartoonish late style. There’s a bonkers altarpiece at the National Gallery depicting the martyrdom of 10,000 Christians, their boneless bodies tangled (or crucified) in the trees. Later paintings of the Flight into Egypt or the Pietà appear almost amateurish, with unconvincing drapery and lurid color. It’s as if the aging painter was trying to keep up with the times, with young Giorgione and Titian, and couldn’t quite get the hang of it.
In case this review has left your stomach rumbling, Carpaccio’s legacy is as much culinary as painterly. Beef carpaccio, a plate of raw meat sliced whisper-thin that might seem to predate the discovery of fire, is named after this guy; the dish was invented in 1963, according to the catalog, at the Venetian institution Harry’s Bar. Giuseppe Cipriani, the owner, christened the new dish after a giant Carpaccio exhibition then on view; apparently the reds inspired him. (The bellini, that sickly sweet blend of prosecco and white peach puree, is another Harry’s invention with an artistic pedigree.)
This new exhibition will travel to Venice next year, to the Palazzo Ducale, which lent Washington a grand piece of propaganda: Carpaccio’s panorama of the winged Lion of St. Mark, the emblem of the Venetian republic. Just next to the lion’s jaw you see the palace itself, and the campanile of Piazza San Marco nearby. The Punta della Dogana and the church of San Giorgio Maggiore sit on the water’s edge above the great beast’s tail. Like so many of the pictures here it’s beguiling, a little weird, but redolent with what James called “the luxury of loving Italy.”
Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice
Through Feb. 12 at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; nga.gov.