by Roderick Conway Morris

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Galleria dell'Accademia, Venice
Miracle of the Reliquary of the Cross at Rialto Bridge by Carpaccio, 1495-96

Nurturing Art in the Venetian Scuole

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 26 February 2005


In an oligarchical republic, in which only a tiny proportion of the population had the right to vote or hold public office, the Venetian scuole - 'schools', or lay confraternities - played a vital role in maintaining social cohesion and giving the people at large a sense of involvement in running their own affairs.

Almost every Venetian belonged to a scuola (and often more than one). Some were organized around particular trades, others formed by groups of immigrants - a useful way of integrating these newcomers into the institutional fabric of society - and others attracted members of diverse classes and occupations. All acted as mutual aid societies, for example helping the sick and assisting members' widows and orphans.

The scuole were self-governing, but they were regulated by the state. As time went on, they began to compete with one another in building bigger and more lavishly decorated premises. The government attempted to intervene to restrain excesses, apparently without much success.

Accordingly, the scuole became among the most important of artistic patrons in the city, and their requirements and aspirations nurtured a particular kind of art - notably narrative sequences of the lives of their patron saints, their miracles ancient and modern and those performed by the relics in the scuole's possession.

The scuola artist par excellence in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was Vittore Carpaccio (also known as Carpathius, Carpatio, Scharpaza and by various other versions of his name). He is now the focus of a useful exhibition, the first to be devoted to him for over 40 years: 'Carpaccio: Painter of Stories' at the Accademia (which continues until March 13).

The Accademia already has on permanent display the impressive canvases of the legend of St. Ursula, from the eponymous scuola. The place was suppressed along with scores of other scuole and religious establishments during the Napoleonic rule that followed the fall of the Republic in 1797. Fortunately, this cycle ended up at the Accademia intact while others were dispersed and elements of them were lost. The enterprise of the present show is temporarily to reunite two other parallel sequences from the scuole of the Albanians and of St. Stephen and to provide a comparative context for the only school where Carpaccio's pictures have remained more or less in situ, the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni.

Carpaccio, who was born around 1460-66, was evidently a pupil in Giovanni Bellini's studio, where he learned to create the effect of crystalline light that suffuses his paintings. But he also reflects influences from Pisanello, Piero della Francesca, Antonello da Messina, Perugino and Netherlander artists, revealing that he had a discriminating eye when it came to identifying which other masters of his age had most to teach him.

He won considerable fame as a portraitist, but few of these works have survived. The Tuscan poet Girolama Corsi was ecstatic about his likeness of her, recording that in it she seemed to be so alive as to be about to open her mouth and speak. Carpaccio executed the first known full-length Venetian likeness, 'Portrait of a Knight,' now at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. He also painted - on the reverse of a duck-hunting scene (a section of a larger work, the two remaining fragments of which are divided between the Correr Museum in Venice and the Getty in Malibu) - one of the earliest Venetian still lifes: a trompe-l'oeil bulletin board with letters hanging from a ribbon.

Few of Carpaccio's formal portraits have come down to us, but all his works are filled with acutely observed likenesses of individuals, which vitally enhance their human richness. His scuola commissions certainly contain numerous portraits of his patrons. Whether or not this was a specific condition, we do not know, but they are so expertly done that they must surely have amused and gratified their subjects.

The other principal characteristic of Carpaccio's oeuvre is his extraordinary observation of the details of daily life, which has made him the greatest single source of Venetian visual material of his age. This extends from the minutiae of bedroom interiors, domestic pets and household plants to everyday dress, architecture and ship design.

Quite a number of scenes required oriental settings, and Carpaccio's research for these was no less meticulous. Through his association with the Bellinis, he very likely had access to Gentile Bellini's sketchbooks from his trip to Turkey, when the Serenissima lent the artist to Mehmet the Conqueror as a diplomatic goodwill gesture. Carpaccio would also have been able to draw upon newly published printed material, such as Bernhard von Breydenbach's illustrated 'Pilgrimage to the Holy Land.'

All of Carpaccio's religious scenes are firmly rooted in everyday life and the contemporary environment. This must surely have lent them the immediacy and here-and-now solidity his patrons would have appreciated. It is worth remembering that most of Carpaccio's works were done for the 'scuole piccole' (little schools) rather than the grander institutions, though these poorer confraternities were prepared to spend considerable sums on the services of an artist they rightly judged to be first class. Thus his patrons would typically have been craftsmen, mariners, boat- and shipbuilders - men with a critical eye for technical detail.

Carpaccio's canvases for the miniature Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni ('of the Slavs,' also known as 'of the Dalmatians,' since most of its members came from the eastern coast of the Adriatic) presented a particular challenge, since not only did the exploits of the dragon-slaying titular saint have to be accommodated but also those of Dalmatia's other patron saints, St. Jerome and St. Tryphonius. Full-length cycles of all three in such a confined space were out of the question, but Carpaccio responded by providing jewel-like vignettes for the entire trio.

St. George is given three scenes, charging the dragon in a wilderness scattered with bones and gruesome half-devoured human bodies, decapitating the monster and baptizing the grateful locals. The rather obscure boy-saint St. Tryphonius is depicted dealing with a frightful griffon that had been terrorizing the Albanians. St. Jerome is wittily shown arriving back at his monastery with a large, adoring pet lion loping along lovingly behind him, the saint's fellow monks scattering in panic after he indicates the beast, slightly too late.

It is ironic that Carpaccio's St. Ursula cycle should finally have found a home at the Accademia, given that the gallery occupies the former premises of Venice's most venerable grand school, the Scuola Grande della Carita (founded in 1260), from which the artist failed at least twice to secure major commissions.

He did, however, secure a commission from another grand school that would guarantee his immortality, his 'Miracle of the Reliquary of the Cross at the Rialto Bridge,' for the Grand School of St. John the Evangelist (which is now also permanently at the Accademia).

The miracle itself - the healing of a man possessed, with the aid of the relic of the Cross - is taking place on a loggia to one side of the picture, apparently unremarked by most of the crowd on the quays, the bridge and on the water in the teeming scene of Venetian life at its full tide in the heart of Venice at the Rialto market district.

This marvelous, vibrant snapshot is without equal. Not even Gentile Bellini's also brilliantly observed and executed contributions to the same cycle can so miraculously transport us back to the Venice of half a millennium ago. No picture has been more minutely studied for evidence of what Venice was really like then. And it was to be a good two centuries, until the age of Canaletto and Guardi, before Venetian artists were again to take such an intense interest in their own cityscape.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024