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Vittore Carpaccio was the Grayson Perry of his day. A storyteller as much as an artist, he eschewed the intellectual reach of Giorgione and Titian, whose grasp of humanism was reflected in their geometric perspective and comely Hellenic figures. Carpaccio was less lofty in his ambitions. His dainty lines, love of detail and compressed, crowded spaces harked back to the Gothic. He loved nothing better than to translate Christian narratives into the painterly equivalent of comic strips; gripping tales of everyday folk set in the familiar surroundings of 15th-century Venice complete with gondoliers, washing lines and laconic courtesans.
His most famous cycles are the Legend of Saint Ursula (1490-1491), now in Venice’s Accademia, and the canvases dedicated to the dramas of St Jerome, St George and St Trifon, which still decorate the School of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni in Venice’s Castello district.
These paintings, which beguile viewers with their touching directness, were commissioned by the local brotherhoods known as Venetian scuole (schools). Most were executed before Carpaccio was 40. Until now, critical opinion has always maintained that in his later years the painter, who was born in the mid-1460s, dropped out of the limelight. While Titian’s decorous Arcadian symmetries seduced Venetian imaginations, Carpaccio looked archaic by comparison. In his final decade, his decision to cross the Adriatic and work in Istria was a symptom of his desperation.
Now, however, that reading is challenged by an exhibition at Palazzo Sarcinelli in Conegliano, northern Italy. According to the curators of this show, Carpaccio’s late works testify to an artist steeped in the political and religious ideologies of the day. Furthermore, they argue, he had both the technique and the imagination to express them
To be honest, they are pushing a point. Nothing here compares to those marvellous earlier panoplies. But the show is worth visiting for the chance to witness rarely seen late works, some of which are joyous, and a clutch of lovely drawings which testify to Carpaccio’s prolific draughtsmanship. Furthermore, the decision to attend to the artist’s final period with gravitas entails a riveting journey through Venice’s own history.
There’s no question that the finest work here is the “Crucifixion and Apotheosis of 10,000 Martyrs of Mount Ararat”, 1515, which usually resides in Venice’s Accademia Gallery. A grande guignol of the lissom male bodies that were a Carpaccio trademark, skewered against trees whose naked branches map the victims’ porcelain-smooth limbs, it chronicles the legend of the imperial Roman soldiers who converted to Christianity and were punished for it by their own emperor who had himself just made an alliance with the pagan eastern kings.
For Venetians, such heresy resonated. Terrified at the prospect of an alliance between the Ottoman Turks and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian Habsburg — both of whom were already Venice’s enemies — they would have responded viscerally to Carpaccio’s fantasy of carnage, which imagines the murderers as a mongrel army of centurions and turban-wearing Turks.
In fact, an east-west concord was the least of La Serenissima’s worries. In the first decades of the 16th century, the dominion relinquished its role as the most powerful state in Europe. The ever-hungry Ottomans, the new cartographies discovered by Vasco de Gama, and the League of Cambrai, which saw France, the papacy and Maximilian ally Venice, stripped the latter of both territory and trade routes.
For artists such as Titian who served the very powerful, the political misery — and the punitive taxes it engendered — proved little impediment. But for a painter like Carpaccio, who relied on the smaller scuole for his bread and butter, the situation was challenging. As his clients struggled to stay solvent, he accepted state commissions designed to present La Serenissima in the most heroic light possible.
Here, a portrait of the Lion of St Mark’s was painted in 1516 for a public office near Rialto. The paws of the winged feline, who was Venice’s symbol and protector, straddle both land and sea. Behind him, Venice unfurls in a triumphant lagoon vista starring the sumptuous ducal palace and galley ships in full sail as if the city had never been in bonnier health.
In the catalogue, curator Giandomenico Romanelli makes a valiant argument that Carpaccio’s decision to look to Istria for commissions was not a sign of professional decline. Quoting contemporary sources, he makes a convincing argument for the region, one of those that remained under the Venetian flag, as a maelstrom of intellectual and religious ideas, open both to humanism and Lutheranism yet also tainted by the decadence which soiled Catholic institutions in Italy.
Certainly, Carpaccio’s Istrian paintings illuminate these curious times. Most telling is the “Entrance of the Podestà Sebastiano Contarini to Koper Cathedral” (1517). On one level, it’s a gloomy affair; the dinginess of the buildings looming over the posse of local notables is intensified by the canvas’s layer of dirt; the only flash of colour is provided by Contarini, whose saffron robe is a glowing contrast to the black-cloaked gents all around him. But the decision by Contarini to celebrate his arrival as chief magistrate with such verve smacks of a determination to trumpet La Serenissima’s continued international power.
Interesting too are the two Franciscans who make up the little group. Haggard and serious in their austere, grey robes, they typify the asceticism that was creeping into Carpaccio’s vision.
The puritan mood satisfied the monastic orders who were among the painter’s most important clients in his later years. Encouraged by the evangelicalism of Savonarola, Franciscan and Dominican missionaries were now preaching the Republic’s ills as divine sanction for its decadent ways. The remedy was for Catholics to purify their souls and persecution of the Veneto’s long-established Jewish population was often suggested as a method.
In this context, Carpaccio’s magnificent painting of St Paul as an honest, sun-weathered man of the soil with a crucifix piercing his chest, takes on a sinister anti-Semitic light. Commissioned by the church of San Domenico in Chioggia, its symbolism not only pays homage to this notorious scourge of the Jews but also claims him as worthy of the stigmata — a privilege the Franciscans liked to keep for themselves.
Such pious testaments to suffering were becoming commonplace as Catholic art evolved in reaction to reformist charges of ungodliness. Martyrdoms were particularly popular. Carpaccio’s scene of St George and the Dragon, painted in 1516 for a monastery on the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, is dominated by the vision of the golden-haired hero skewering his foe. But a theatre of saintly agony is also unfolding: in the background San Stefano is being stoned; St Benedict has flung himself into a thorn bush to vanquish his carnal desire; and in the predella below, George resists various fates — including poison and burning — before finally succumbing to beheading.
Carpaccio ended his days in the mid-1520s but whether he died in Venice or Istria is undocumented. However, the presence of Istria’s hills — their unforgiving gradient so different from the Veneto’s bucolic slopes — behind the Madonna and Child with Saints he painted for the Church of San Francesco in Pirano proves that he knew the country well.
What is certain is that for Carpaccio’s son, Benedetto, Istria was home. After settling in Koper, formerly Capodistria, he ran a thriving workshop and was rewarded with citizenship in 1540. This exhibition does not pretend that he had anything like his father’s talent. However, his altarpieces — many of which openly drew on his father’s cartoons and drawings — enjoy a notably more brilliant palette than those of his papa, who favoured clouded skies, matt light and muted colours.
The result is that the final paintings of the exhibition — their Madonnas and saints clothed in jewel-bright robes and framed by ultramarine skies and lakes — hark back to the world of Bellini and Titian in a way that Vittore Carpaccio’s paintings, even those made in Venice, never did. For all its problems, the city of Benedetto’s childhood remained alive and shimmering in his imagination.
Until June 28, mostracarpaccio.it
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