by Roderick Conway Morris

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Doge's Palace, Venice
'The Lion of St. Mark' (1516) uses the traditional symbol of Venice to imply the city's resurgence
after a crushing defeat in 1509 in the War of the League of Cambrai.

Puncturing the Myth of Carpaccio's Waning Powers

By Roderick Conway Morris
CONEGLIANO, Italy 18 June 2015


Vittore Carpaccio was one of Venice's leading narrative painters of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, whose richly detailed canvases relating the lives of saints once adorned the city's 'scuole,' or lay confraternities' meeting places.

These institutions were of immense importance in fostering a sense of communal identity in the population of Venice's oligarchical republic. They bore the names of their patron saints, such as St. John the Evangelist or St. Stephen, or of the communities that had founded them, such as the Albanians or the Slavs.

But after Venice suffered a crushing defeat in 1509 in the War of the League of Cambrai, during which the city lost nearly all her mainland territories, the scuole no longer had the resources to afford such elaborate decorative schemes.

Some modern art historians have argued that Carpaccio himself also suffered a crisis of confidence at this time. The appearance on the scene of younger artists, notably Giorgione, Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo and Lorenzo Lotto, made Carpaccio's colorful, anecdotal style seem outdated, and the general standard of his work deteriorated.

The thesis of Carpaccio's inexorable artistic decline in his later years is now challenged by 'Carpaccio: Vittore and Benedetto from Venice to Istria,' at the Palazzo Sarcinelli in Conegliano, about 37 miles north of Venice. The show, which ends June 28, is the first exhibition ever to focus on the last 15 years of the artist's career before his death in 1525 or 1526.

Curated by Giandomenico Romanelli, the exhibition consists of nearly 40 paintings, autograph drawings and documents from almost 20 collections and churches, including pieces that reveal an undiminished compositional and technical excellence.

Unfortunately, the exhibition does not include the four surviving canvases of the cycle Carpaccio painted for the scuola of St. Stephen, which are now divided among Berlin, Milan, Paris and Stockholm. These were last temporarily united for the 'Carpaccio: Painter of Stories' exhibition at the Accademia in Venice a decade ago, where they provided eloquent testimony to the artist's enduring mastery of multipart narratives. (A full Carpaccio cycle can still be seen in situ at the scuola of St. George of the Slavs, near the Arsenale in Venice.)

Carpaccio had a broad range of patrons, both institutional and private, aristocratic and more humble. In his later years, he did a number of works for patrons in Venetian possessions in Istria, on the northeastern Adriatic coast, part of which is now in Slovenia. An impressive altarpiece by him can still be found in the Cathedral of Capodistria (now Koper).

Another altar painting from Pirano (now Piran), two organ-door images from the Capodistria Cathedral and several other of Carpaccio's works made for the region have been loaned to the exhibition, but all have suffered damage and deterioration of various kinds, resulting from incompetent cleaning, repainting and, in one case, the artist's own experiments with unstable materials. None are of a quality equal to his earlier canvases and panels.

Thankfully, there are more convincing examples here of paintings that show Carpaccio was capable of producing significant pieces during his last years. Three of these works, all from Venice, show why important religious and political institutions in Venice continued to call on Carpaccio in his later years to execute commissions. All are freighted with complex references and allusions, which Carpaccio could be relied upon seamlessly to integrate into single images that could be read at various levels of sophistication.

'The Crucifixion and Apotheosis of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mount Ararat' (1515), from the Venice Accademia, illustrates the legend of the massacre of 10,000 Roman legionnaires who had converted to Christianity and were supposedly crucified by a Roman emperor. This brilliantly vivid work not only shows Christ recrucified in multiple permutations, but also depicts the perpetrators as an alliance of Muslims and Romans, their banners waving side-by-side — a reference to the then perennial threat of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor allying himself with the Ottomans to attack Venice.

'St. George and the Dragon' (1516), from the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, while providing a vigorous image of the knight killing the monster, is also dense with references specific to the Benedictine monastery for which it was made. It includes in the background miniature vignettes of incidents involving the monastery's co-patron, St. Stephen; the order's founder, St. Benedict; and St. Jerome. It also provides name checks for the successive abbots who oversaw the commission: Jerome and Benedetto.

'The Lion of St. Mark' (1516), from the Doge's Palace, picks up the traditional imagery of the Evangelist's symbol dominating both land and sea. The painting creates an unforgettable image of the glories of a resurgent Venice after the catastrophe of the League of Cambrai.

The topographical accuracy in the rendering of the buildings, fortifications and hills of the backdrop of the Pirano altarpiece strongly suggest that Carpaccio visited Istria personally. After his death, his son Benedetto took up residence there and by 1540 had become a citizen of Capodistria. The five religious canvases brought together here will not alter the consensus that Benedetto's talents were much inferior to his father's. But he had been expertly taught and his works, with their bright, bold colors and attractive landscape settings, have a kind of folksy immediacy and charm.

Benedetto eventually abandoned painting and embarked on a successful career as a local administrator. But we owe him a debt of gratitude for carefully preserving his father's beautiful drawings, as a consequence of which more graphic works by Vittore Carpaccio have come down to us than by any other major Venetian painter of the period.

First published: International New York Times

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024