A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I always wanted to go to Venice since I was a teenager studying Othello for A level, and, much more to the point, Byron’s Childe Harold. In Canto 3 there is the famous couplet I stood in Venice on the Bridge of Sighs | A palace and a prison on each hand. That was what hooked me. I finally made it nearly forty years later, and the four days I spent there have fed my imagination ever since.
The travel writer and historian Jan Morris has spent a lifetime getting to know Venice, and many years ago she wrote the the book that some regard as the ultimate travel book on the city. She has ranged far and wide since then, but now, in her late 80s, she has written what she states is her last book, returning to Venice to say farewell, and to the painter she learned to love when she was there, as I did too, Vittore Carpaccio.
I’ll never forget my true discovery of Carpaccio. I had seen some of his paintings in the Accademia gallery, they fascinated me and I wanted to see more. He is famed mostly for the sequences he painted for the walls of the Venetian Scuole, the opulent buildings constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries for secular companies dedicated to the saints. Their halls were decorated with scenes from the life of the patron saint. The major sequence now in the Accademia is of the life of St Ursula, who called by God travelled across Europe with her troop of virgins only for them all to be martyred. But one sequence remains in its original home. The Scuola di San Giorgio dei Schiavoni has on its walls wonderful paintings of the company’s revered saints: St George, St Jerome and St Tryphonius (me neither). What made our visit to the Scuola even more memorable is that we ducked in there because it was snowing outside, and we walked from grey, windy, cold, snowy Venice into a golden jewel box of a room lined with scenes of utter gorgeous fantasy, and some humour too. What I saw there made me love Carpaccio forever. It seems that for Jan Morris the first sight of his work had the same effect – lifelong adoration.
Jan Morris can speak of Carpaccio’s work with much more insight and erudition than I can, and it is a delight to read her knowledgeable, passionate descriptions of what can be found in these minutely detailed, immensely rich paintings. It is also a pleasure to agree with her, that what I’ve seen dimly in his work is what makes him so universally loveable. It is obvious that she has spent far more time than I have examining all the tiny details in the paintings and their symbolism. I must do likewise. These paintings are deceptively simple and static compared with Carpaccio’s Venetian successors such as Titian and Giorgione, in their appearance of calm and innocence. The imaginary landscapes and the pose and costume of the figures have an almost Northern European style (which only makes me love them more). Most of his paintings are replete with tiny details, and laden with symbols – plants and creatures. They repay a detailed reading, from top to bottom, side to side. (Being brought up on Giles cartoons is great training!)
The most enchanting details in Carpaccio’s painting, that make him most beloved, are the creatures. He painted possibly the most famous little doggie in art history, in his Vision of St Augustine in the Scuola San Giorgio, vying only with the Arnolfinis’ little Griffon. Another is there in the illustration on the cover of this book – a detail from The Healing of the Possessed Man on the Rialto Bridge. This is a huge crowd scene, with an invaluable view of the wooden lifting bridge that preceded the Rialto bridge we all know so well. Through the centre of the picture runs the Grand Canal, with all its traffic; up in the top left hand corner, if you know what you’re looking for, you’d find the man being healed by the intervention of a relic of the True Cross; but centre stage, utterly stealing the scene, in the prow of a gondola, is a little white dog (a Maltese Terrier, perhaps?). Carpaccio must have loved dogs, because they are there in so many of his paintings, and so often in that scene-stealing role. There are slender hounds, rough looking terriers, and fifty-seven-varieties mongrels. Mostly adorable.
Dogs are not the only scene-stealing creatures: there is a red parrot in the foreground of one of the St George paintings in the Scuola San Giorgio (next to a supercilious looking greyhound). And why on earth is there a little boy with a gazelle on a lead, next to a black and white bunny, in The Presentation of the Virgin? He has a field day with lions too – St Jerome is a favourite subject, and one of the funniest of his paintings shows the saint bringing the lion whose paw he cured back to his monastery, and the monks flying in all directions in terror.
Carpaccio also created some wonderful imaginary creatures too. His dragon, killed by St George, is one of the most dragon-y dragons in art. Battling on horseback (his horses are worth a look too), St George lances him to death on a field casually strewn with body parts of previous victims, while the next intended princess looks on, cool as a cucumber. And if you’ve ever wondered what a basilisk looks like, you need go no further than another painting in the Scuola San Giorgio, The Daughter of the Emperor Gordian Exorcised by St Tryphonius. He looks like an ideal family pet – he’s no bigger nor more ugly than a bulldog, and has wings to boot.
Jan Morris wonderfully isolates the pleasures and originality of Carpaccio, and illustrates them with apt details from the paintings – the menagerie of creatures, real and imaginary, the fantasy buildings and landscapes, the faces and characters of the subjects, the attention to detail in the crowd scenes. She explores the possibility that Carpaccio placed himself in his works, isolating some examples of what she calls the Carpaccio face, staring out of a crowd straight at the viewer. It’s a convincing argument. This tiny book is such a delight, for someone who already loves Carpaccio’s work, or for anyone who has never heard of his or seen his paintings. I thoroughly recommend it. It makes me want to go back to Venice so much, though, but I think that is entirely in its favour.
Jan Morris: Ciao, Carpaccio! An infatuation. London: Pallas Athene, 2014. 191pp
ISBN 13: 9781843681038
The images and details in the text are taken from Wikimedia Commons, and are of paintings by Vittore Carpaccio, in the public domain.