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CARPACCIO -Nascita della Vergine

Vittore Carpaccio: Drawings and Paintings

Exhibitions at National Gallery of Art, Washington, 20 November 2022–12 February 2023; Doge’s Palace, Venice, 18 March–18 June 2023

Peter Humfrey, ed, with contributions from Susannah Rutherglen, Sara Menato, Deborah Howard, Catherine Whistler, Joanna Dunn, Linda Borean and Andrea Bellieni

Marsilio Arte, 2022

340 pp ISBN 9791254630679 €58

Roderick Conway Morris

‘He was a fine draughtsman, learned in proportions and in anatomy. He surpassed all others in perspective. He had good judgement and composed with graceful simplicity. His imagination was rich and fertile. He painted with unlimited love and pursued good expression with the fullest truth,’ wrote the Venetian artist and critic Anton Maria Zanetti of Carpaccio in his Della pittura veneziana in 1771.

It was to be half a century before such warm appreciation of the artist spread north of the Alps, beginning in France in the 1830s and becoming widespread in Parisian artistic circles by the 1860s, when painters led by Degas, Delaunay and Moreau began to take a serious interest in him – as Andrea Bellieni relates in his enlightening essay on Carpaccio’s widening reputation during the 19th century. And, as Bellieni points out, it was only in the 1870s, with the encouragement of Burne-Jones, that Ruskin finally fell utterly under Carpaccio’s spell. By the end of the century, the English critic was being credited as the chief rediscoverer of the artist, ‘his fame being brighter today – thanks to the generous lamp Mr. Ruskin has held up to it – than it has ever been’, in the words of Henry James.

In 1963 there was a landmark Carpaccio exhibition at the Doge’s Palace. In more recent times there have been two stimulating smaller exhibitions, one devoted to his work for the Venetian scuole, ‘Carpaccio: Painter of Stories’, at the Accademia in 2005, and the other to his later years, ‘Carpaccio: Vittore and Benedetto from Venice to Istria’, at Palazzo Sarcinelli in Conegliano in 2015.

Much fruitful research on the artist over several decades has now been expertly marshalled by the leading Carpaccio authority, Peter Humfrey, for this timely tour d’horizon of the artist’s entire oeuvre staged in Washington and Venice. The accompanying book, with its readable specialist contributions, will surely remain the best account of the artist for some years to come.

Carpaccio was most likely born in the mid-1460s and seems to have been an independent master by the time he was in his early twenties. Evidence for his training is scant but the assumption that he must have spent time in Giovanni Bellini’s studio has been further reinforced by the discovery during cleaning that an accomplished, highly Belliniesque Madonna and Child at the Correr Museum in Venice, dated around 1488–89, was signed VETOR SCHARPACO OPUS. Other early works were inscribed with his family name Scarpaza, which he soon Latinized to Carpatius (later Carpathius). In the 17th century it was Italianized by Carlo Ridolfi to Carpaccio.

The artist must have been something of a prodigy to receive in 1490 the prestigious commission for all nine monumental canvases – The Leave-Taking of the the Betrothed Pair is over 20 feet long – relating the story of St. Ursula at the eponymous scuola at SS Giovanni e Paolo, which occupied him for over a decade. His successful completion of this task confirmed his lively narrative inventiveness, mastery of perspective and light, command of colour, knowledge of architecture, ability to handle multiple figures including miniature portraits of individuals, and sheer painterly élan.

During this period, he took time off to contribute to another cycle of huge canvases for the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in San Polo. In 1368 the Confraternity had received as a gift a fragment of the True Cross, which was reputed to be the most powerful miracle-working relic in the city. Gentile Bellini provided canvases of the Procession of the Cross in S. Mark’s Square and a miracle performed at the S Lorenzo Bridge. Lazzaro Bastiani painted the Donation of the relic and Giovanni Mansueti two other miracles attributed to it. But most striking and animated was Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Possessed Boy at Rialto, a glorious evocation of life on the bridge, quays and water at the very heart of the city under an enchanting Tiepolesque sky.

The Ursula and Rialto canvases made Carpaccio’s name as Venice’s foremost narrative artist and led after 1500 to further commissions from scuole piccole: the Scuola degli Schiavoni, Scuola degli Albanesi and Scuola di S Stefano, the first of which being now the only scuola where his works remain in situ.

The spectacular effects and sure composition of Carpaccio’s canvases could not have been achieved without his skills as a superb draughtsman and we have more surviving drawings by him than for any other Venetian painter of the era. These give us a unique insight into how he built up his images. Some are preparatory sketches of pictorial elements but others are highly worked-up compositions, suggesting they may have been used as modelli for commissions. His underdrawing, revealed by modern technology, is often extremely precise: in A Young Knight, every plant on the ground around him is identifiable; in some cases, every line in the folds of figures’ drapery is delineated; and in the Disputation of St Stephen, every leaf on the trees in the background is underdrawn.

The remarkable survival of this precious corpus of autograph drawings is mainly thanks to the fact that after his death in 1526 they were employed as studio reference materials by his artist son Benedetto well into the 1530s and 1540s.

The much-debated decline in the quality of some of Carpaccio’s later works seems substantially to be the result of his assigning more work to assistants, including his son. The standard of his last scuola cycle, the Life of St Stephen (1511–1520), shows only a slight falling-off in the final canvas.

During the War of the League of Cambrai (1509–1516) Venice lost all her mainland possessions and faced total destruction. At the end of the conflict, when the Republic returned to her pre-war borders, Carpaccio marked the occasion with his Lion of St Mark stepping triumphantly from the lagoon onto terra firma once again. It remains one of the most superbly executed and unforgettable images of his maturity and, indeed, of his entire career.