Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio: An Infatuation

Pallas Athene, London, 2014.

The first time I found myself searching around in Carpaccio’s paintings was when I was writing my book on the Horses of St Mark’s. Had the Venetian Carpaccio ever used the horses as a model? An early match I got was the horse in the centre of his gruesome Martyrdom of the 10,000 at Ararat (Accademia, Venice), a depiction of the massacre of a Christian army by the Persians. The horse there faces forwards, has lifted his left front leg and turns his head in much the same way as the fine gilded copper steeds which were then overlooking the Piazza San Marco from the loggia of St Mark’s. Jan Morris goes further. She notes how actual horses had become rare in the city in Carpaccio’s day(he was active between 1490 and 1520).  Sumptuary laws forbade extravagant harnessing; horses were banned from the Piazza and the new stepped bridges were difficult to negotiate. In compensation, Morris sees the St Mark’s horses everywhere in Carpaccio’s work, ‘all fine, every one of them, perhaps Carpaccio had modelled them all, if only subconsciously’ on the originals on the loggia.

Ciao Carpaccio is a delightful work of serendipity, ‘a self-indulgent caprice’ as the author puts it. Jan Morris does not claim to be a serious art historian but her eye is a lot more sensitive than many professionals and certainly, unlike some, she has the capacity to enthuse. Her book is all the better for revelling in what she sees and enjoys in Carpaccio’s paintings. And there is, of course, so much to see: the sumptuous clothing of his subjects, the intricacies of Venetian architecture and above all the meticulously observed details from everyday life. Too little is known about Carpaccio but he must have been fun to be with. He always has an eye for what’s going on at the edges of the formalities. Everywhere there are asides, vignettes of birds, playful children or beautifully-painted ships moored alongside some distant quay. Often Carpaccio’s love of display ensures that the subject of the painting is pushed completely to one side. So when the relic of the True Cross, encased then (as it still is) in the recently restored gold reliquary in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, draws forth the demon from a demented man, you can hardly see him high up on his loggia whereas below are the bustle of well-dressed crowds and some wonderful swaggering gondoliers in front of the early wooden Rialto bridge.

Carpaccio loves a parade. It is time for everyone to show off in extravagant hats, with plenty of music from trumpeters to add to the mood of excitement. He cannot avoid display, so that his Holy Family on the flight to Egypt would have been seen by any pursuer many miles off thanks to the typically Carpaccio bright red of Joseph’s cloak—and how did the Virgin manage to get hold of such a magnificent brocaded cloak for herself?

Yet Carpaccio is also a master of domesticity, as with Ursula’s well-ordered bedroom or the scholar’s study where Augustine works. Both, typically for Carpaccio, have dogs, a lapdog for Ursula and Morris’ ‘Carpaccio dog, a tough urchin mongrel, cocky, feisty and fun’ squirrelling around in Augustine’s study as our border terrier, Dipity, does in mine. And then on a shelf, among other antique curiosities of Augustine’s imagined 5th-century interior, is a small bronze horse, surely a copy of one from St Mark’s? All these works are beautifully reproduced, the illustrations taking up as much room as the text, so that Ciao Carpaccio makes a splendid small present for someone special.

Carpaccio was influenced by a popular text, the Golden Legend by Jacobo de Voragine, the must-have book for all those painting scenes from the lives of saints (Carpaccio drew from it for his magnificent sequence from the life of St Ursula, now in the Accademia). Ursula is destined for martyrdom along with the 11,000 virgins who accompany her, but it is almost as if menace is beyond Carpaccio. The Hun who is due to martyr her after she and her companions have disembarked at Cologne simply sits around looking bored. He certainly does not look as if he has it in him to massacre virgins. In another famous sequence, in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Carpaccio gently mocks the monks who are fleeing the friendly and somewhat mystified lion that arrives at their monastery with Jerome.

The paintings in this Scuola shows another influence on Carpaccio, the Orient, always in the minds of the venturesome Venetians but with added impact after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans some fifty years before. Many of his subjects—Jerome in Bethlehem, the proto-martyr Stephen in Jerusalem, St George triumphing over the dragon in Libya—are set in the East, and Carpaccio does his best to make this clear, using woodcuts of Jerusalem or an actual gateway in Cairo to provide a backing. There is even an obelisk in one of his depictions of St George.

Jan Morris concludes with a study of Carpaccio’s Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, now in the Brera in Milan. (Titian’s version is still in Venice, in the Accademia.) It is inspired by another ancient text, the Protoevangelium of James, that tells of the early life of Mary and how she was taken in to the Temple in the years before her betrothal to Joseph. The little girl kneels humbly on the steps while her parents stand proudly ‘like parents seeing off their child to summer camp or boarding school,’ as Morris engagingly puts it. But there is another child, a little boy shown with an antelope on a lead and a rabbit chatting to a priest leaning on the balcony of the temple. For Morris, this lad encapsulates the essence of Carpaccio, his quality of kindness. Perhaps it is because his sense of fun, a tenderness to his subjects and an unabashed love of colour for its own sake predominate that he is never numbered among the greats in art; but Jan Morris reminds us just how much pleasure he gives us, as he surely does for her.

See Ciao Carpaccio on amazon.com. See it on amazon.co.uk. For a more formal and wide-ranging treatment of Carpaccio’s work, see Patricia Fortini-Brown’s Venetian Narrative Painting in the Age of Carpaccio, Yale, 1988.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. Charles wrote the historical introduction to Blue Guide Venice.

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