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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Carpaccio

by Honor Brooke
Volume 4, 1893/94, pgs. 127-135


THERE Is a special charm about all Venetian Art. The city where it sprung had its own peculiar life and history. It was cradled in loneliness and poverty, nursed amongst the salt waves, and it sprung up into a strong and vigorous youth, with the wealth of nations at its feet, the severe dignity of its earlier manhood passing into an old age of such prosperity and magnificence as made it the wonder of the world.

If we remember the strange beginning and career of this city, we may well be curious to know what form the Arts took there: the book of it is open; he that runs may read--only this is certain, that if we want to read it carefully we must read it there; its book is chained to its altars and walls, and cannot be removed, and it is best that it should be so.

In her Architecture and in her Painting we see that she was debtor to both the East and West; she stood, as it were, mid-way between the two, and with a hand outstretched to each received of their fulness; but the national and individual Life of the State became so strong and powerful that all outside influences were absorbed, and passed into the heart of the Republic, issued out in that distinct and significant type of Art known as the Venetian--the last to survive, for although corrupted by taint of Death, it was supremely powerful until the year 1600.

The greatest genius of the fourteenth century had spread his influence all over Italy, an influence carried by his followers to the remoter cities of the peninsula. Although we never hear of Giotto being in Venice, we know he was for a long time in the neighbouring city of Padua, working at the frescoes of the Arena Chapel; and people traveling from the one place to the other brought an account of the freer method and simpler treatment of natural forms which so charactersized the man.

Afterwards there rose up in this same city a company of artists with Mantegna at their head--men whose singular excellence in detail and fine knowledge of perspective created a higher standard of work, which made this school both famous and influential. But the early Venetian painters owed even more to their contact with Germany than any Florentine or Paduan influence. The rich and brilliant hues of the old Dutch masters passed, with their exquisite truth of detail, on to the canvases of the brothers Vivarini, who formed on the island of Murano the first school of painting that can be called Venetian. In fact, the close commercial relations between the sea-born city and the opulent towns of the Netherlands brought about a constant interchange of artistic ideas, beneficial, no doubt, to both nations.

But in reviewing the various influences that were at work on the early are of Venice, one soon loses count of them; the Republic, increasing in power and influence, soon developed an Art of its own- the outcome and expression of its own peculiar and splendid character.

Carpaccio is said to have been born in Istria. He began as an artist under the Vivarini; from them he gained something of the soft, rich, harmonious colouring that belongs to them. But none of these lesser painters owned any one master but were disciples of one or the other for a season. Thus Carpaccio turned afterwards to Bellini, and whilst continuing to form his own style [he did, after all what is the only true way of learning] he gained from others just that help and insight which he was able to adapt to his own genius, and to draft into his own manner: for he had a way of painting of his own, and a very distinct one.

He is called by critics in art, one of lesser painters; but he is that only speaking relatively. Ruskin says of his "Presentation in the Temple": "If you don't delight in it, the essential faculty of enjoying good art is wanting in you; you may measure yourself outside and in--your religion, your taste, your knowledge of art, your knowledge of men and things--by the quantity of admiration, which honestly after due time given, you can feel for this picture."

So little is known of the life of Carpaccio that we are thrown on the fewest facts.

There was a painter called Bastiani, in the year 1470, of the school of San Girolamo, and he and Carpaccio, it seemed worked together their experience of Paduan teaching, previous to forming a manner of their own. In the church of SS. John and Paul, at Venice, there is a picture by these two artists--a joint production--which shows what they were capable of in riper years. In the same church worked Gio Bellini in concert with Lugi Vivarini and Carpaccio, but unfortunately all these latter pictures are lost. Between Bellini and Carpaccio there was no rivalry; they ever worked harmosiously together, and both were employed by the State on some the most important works of the time.

Carpaccio's best work belongs to the period immediately following 1490. He executed then a magnificent series of paintings for the Chapel of the Scuoia di Sant Orsola, a beneficent institution founded for the support and education of female orphans, and so placed under the protection of the patron saint of maidenhood. They relate in the most delightful and vivid way the legend of the saint, and at the same time acquaint us with the manner and costume of the time, for all the figures and the architecture are of the fifteenth century. They are all full of life and movement. One seems to be gazing out at a world of human beings, passing in and out of buildings, embarking in boats, entertaining ambassadors, conversing in groups, walking through corridors, bending before kings and popes--yet all is harmonious, easy, and natural; there is no crowding, but rather constant clear spaces, where one can see the sky, and glimpses of perfect architectural drawing.

The story of Ursula, as told by Carpaccio, differs slightly from that told by Hans Memling, a German artist of the same time, whose exquisite little pictures on the shrine at Bruges give a very bright account of the eccentricities of the saint. He makes her martyred at Koln, and in the distance he has naively put the celebrated cathedral in all its finished beauty. But our Venetian painter has arranged it otherwise. He has given us: I. Maurus, King of Brittany, receiving the English ambassadors, and talking with his daughter touching their embassy. II. St. Ursula's dream. III. King Maurus dismisses the English ambassadors with favourable answer from his daughter. IV. The King of England receives the Princess' favourable answer. V. The Prince of England sets sail for Brittany, receives his bride, embarks with her on pilgrimage. VI. The Prince of England and his bride, voyaging with 11,000 virgins arrive at Rome, and are received by the Pope, who, with certain cardinals, join their pilgrimage. VII. The Prince and whole company arrive in the land of the Huns, and receive martyrdom there. VIII. St. Ursula received into glory in Paradise.

It is impossible to look at this series of paintings without feeling that Carpaccio was a man who had great enjoyment of life, not seeking for the extravagant or unlikely, but content with viewing and taking pleasure in every-day events. He delights in the tale he has to tell, and his quaint and homely touches show what an observer he was. He is noticeable, too, for his careful finish, corresponding to the finish of the Dutch masters of the North, so that one may count the blades of grass that spring beneath the stones of the marble pavement, yet he never sacrifices mass to detail. The latter is there carefully worked out, but never obtruded on the eye. Nor is he afraid of introducing scenery, for he is perfectly correct in linear perspective, every part of the picture being made to vanish in due proportion, and bewitching bits of scenery being as much delighted in as nearer masses of stately buildings. But one is always led to think first of the saint and her princely lover. They, and the bright gathering of the people, are ever the most interesting. The women have a special charm about them. Contrast them with those opulent and splendid beings that look out at us from Titian's canvas- how different they are! Their adornment is that of a meek and quiet spirit; their drapery falls in sharp, precise, yet graceful folds. Their hair, which is always worn long, falls over their ears, and down over their shoulders. Their faces, set in this frame, are of a type full of feminine reserve and sweetness. I remember a side-scene, so to speak, where King Maurus and his wife are represented talking in their bedroom about Ursula's marriage. The queen sits by the bed; her husband stands before her, explaining, with one finger laid on the other, what he thinks. On her face there is an expression of anxious care, such as an affectionate mother might feel under the circumstances. Lower down Ursula's old nurse is seated, her stick resting beside her, pondering deeply over the matter, and apparently not quite happy at losing her charge. This old woman, so quaintly characteristic, is infinitely superior to the more celebrated, but far uglier, old woman with the egg-basket in Titian's" Presentation of the Virgin."

The dream of St. Ursula is one of those series which we often see photographed. There is not much represented--only a quiet room, a sleeping girl, and an angel softly coming in. What calm! what quiet repose is here! The room is so airy and still one almost listens to hear the sleeper breathing. There are one or two things to be noticed about this room. The first is: there are not too many things in it! A modern leader in art says that a room ought to have "nothing in it but what is either useful or beautiful." I think that all Ursula's things may come under the head of either one or the other. I was going to except the dog! but then he is useful as her guardian, and if the visitor were other than angelic he would be up and loudly barking. As it is he appears to smile complacently. Everything in her room is expressive of a mind at peace with itself. She is fond of reading, but likes best a few books, and has been reading in one of them before she put out the light. They are all richly bound and well cared for. She is fond of flowers, but besides these there are no accessories scattered about.

Her airy, lofty room suggests comfort without display, and an occupant who cares more for the fitness and perfect order of her room than having it garnished with gewgaws. People nowadays overdo their rooms with ornament and decoration, until whether it be a drawing- room or bedroom the puzzle is how to move without upsetting something or where to place anything one may want to lay down--so many needless nothings fill the tables; at the same time the eye gets fidgeted by a constant appeal to recognise things that are worthless, useless, and nearly always unbeautiful. Now here in Ursula's room there is plenty of space, each article of furniture has its destined use, and rests in its own place. As for the Saint, every disturbed sleeper may envy her deep repose--she is dreaming of the angel, but angel thoughts are nothing new to her, and they cannot break the still contentment of her slumber. Nor does the angel look out of place--he enters, "gliding in serene and slow," in harmony with all that surrounds him--"soft and silent as a dream"--and yet all Ursula's future life depends on this vision.

As it is known by every one that Venetian painters were celebrated for their love of colour, I must say a word about Carpaccio's colouring: it is lovely--pure and rich, without, however, showing that feeling for tone which is so exquisite in Bellini, but in concert with him and Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoret, he painted the sky in luminous splendour, always enjoying the distance, and never sacrificing it to any fulness of colour in the foreground.

He was thought by the Venetians to be better fitted for painting scenes of life and action than religious calm, and he was kept incessantly employed by them in this way. One picture is interesting from showing us what old Venice was. The subject is "The casting out of a devil by the help of a relic." It shows the old Rialto bridge in the background, and the palace of the Patriarch of Grado, as existing at the end of the fifteenth century.  Such bits of ancient Venice as this, and also what Gentile Bellini gives us, are intensely interesting--we feel as we look at them how like and unlike the city of the fifteenth century is to that of the nineteenth. Perhaps our gondola is rocking at the steps outside the Accademia, and as we enter it again we wonder where the wooden bridges have gone to--the gaily frescoed palaces and brightly dressed people! Yet enough remains to make us feel that we are in the self- same place, "tho' fallen on evil times." The same brilliant sun lights up the dancing water, washing, with its changeful yet everlasting tides, the marble palaces that have stood through the drift of centuries--mute witnesses of the greatness and gentleness of the Venetian people.  About 1450 the Dalmatians inhabiting Venice founded a school of refuge for distressed seamen of Dalmatian birth, in connection with the priory of the Knights of St. John. The priory had fallen into decay, and it was to be rebuilt under the name of San Giorgio dei Schiavoni. Theses "schools" were very common in Venice, showing that the Republic was not careless of the poorer classes; they answered to our present beneficent societies, clothing clubs, and mendicity institutions, &c. They provided services for the boys and dowries for the maidens. They became very rich from the liberal donations given them, and some of the buildings in which they assembled are amongst the most remarkable in ancient Venice--for example the School of St. Roch, which is splendid as a building, and full of some of the grandest works of Tintoret. The walls of the chapel San Giorgio were hung with scenes taken from the lives of the patron saints of Dalmatian--namely, St. George and St. Jerome. The church is very small, with a low wooden ceiling, and the pictures are those on the right and on the left. Those dealing with the life of St. Jerome are the most interesting, showing much of his earlier vehemence. "St. Jerome in his Study" has always been a favourite subject for artists. Carpaccio has painted him leaning in meditation on the sash of his window, his room full of books and writing materials. In the "Death of St. Jerome" Oriental costumes are introduced, reminding us that Gentile Bellini, after his return form the East, must have often described to his friend the scenes he had witnessed in Constantinople. This last of the series was finished in 1502. The consternation of the monks, flying in alarm from the lion who is hollowing with his paws a grave for the saint, is most amusing and quaint. I have mentioned the friendly terms that existed between Carpaccio and the Bellini, who chose him to value Giorgione's frescoes on the Fondaco dei Tedeschi. No competition had ever taken place between them until called on to execute a work for San Giobbo, where there was an altar-piece already, by Bellini. How beautifully he succeeded is known to all who have gazed in rapture at the "Presentation in the Temple," now in the Academy at Venice. He never so nearly approached Giovanni--in delicate severity and precision, in softness of tone, beauty of drawing, tenderness, and deep religious feeling. The little angels who forget to play their music in looking upward at the child and its mother are the most exquisite examples of childish innocence and holy feeling--more beautiful than any proceeding from the pencil of Fra Bartolommeo or Francia. The whole picture is so perfect as an idealised representation of the scene that criticism is mute, and one stands before it in utter contentment and satisfied pleasure.

In speaking of the Art of Venice, Ruskin calls the time I am now speaking of the "Carpaccian epoch, and that it was sometimes classic or mythic, as well as religious." In the picture I have just mentioned one feels that purely religious art is still with us, thought we are in the early part of the sixteenth century, and that when religion had died out of art in the rest of the peninsula it was still vital in Venice. There is nothing "mythic" or "classic" in this picture; it is worthy of being placed alongside one of Fra Angelico's divine representations of heavenly scenes. The only different note struck by Carpaccio is in that of the middle child- angel, who appears to be struggling with an instrument too large to conveniently play on: and so diverted for a moment from the rapt contemplation her companions feel. The action of this child has always been significant to me--foreshadowing the reign of infantine beings that were soon to become so universal in art; but I know none so beautiful in childlikeness of religion as these three little beings. They typify in their innocent holy rapture the ideal aspect of religion in the mind of childhood.

The measure of Sainthood accorded by the Romish Church has ever appeared to me incomprehensible. If so many have been given that honour since the birth of Christ, why is it denied to the holy people of the Old Testament? The lovely picture I have been speaking of was placed in San Giobbo. Venice at least thought that the long- suffering Job deserved to be placed amongst the worthies of Christendom. But I know not if there be a church or spot elsewhere dedicated to him.

A most busy period now came on of our painter's life. A splendid work of his is in San Salvatore at Venice preserved under the name of Gio Bellini. He did his best in the great Council Hall of the Ducal Palace, where he painted "The Indulgence of St. Mark"; but this, with other precious pictures by the great painters of Venice, were all destroyed in a fire that swept them away.

It was the pride of the Venetian people to decorate the walls of her council chambers with such reminders of the greatness and glory of the State, as should be like silent incentives to her magistrates; the room in which they sat, speaking, as it were, from wall and roof, of the famous deeds at home, and on the high seas, of conquest and renown; and when her Senators for a moment left the council-chamber, and stepped forth into the marble balcony that overlooks the Pizzatta, what did they see but the city that they governed, lying like a jewel on the blue water, flashing and lovely in light and splendour, its churches rising with white cupolas and slender campaniles--the long line of its palaces, tracing out the sweep of the Grand Canal--the Lagune, bright with the incessant movement of gondola and barge, and boats that brought her trade from far--the low line of Lido beyond--and beyond again white sailed ships that sailed on the Adriatic.

It is significant that Venice had the power, that magnetic force of attracting and keeping by her those who once felt her fascination. We never read that Carpaccio left her shores, or, like other painters, journeyed to Rome; he lived on in Venice, or in its neighbourhood. Various pictures followed, to be found in the Brera, the Louvre, and Berlin; but his hand seemed to have lost its cunning. Was it weariness, or old age? Who can tell? In 1516 he painted, with something more of his old vigour, "The Lion of St. Mark" (done for one of the Venetian Courts). Then we can trace his existence by means of pictures up to 1519; after that he fades from view. But it is not to these late productions of Carpaccio that we must look for delight and joy--it is to those beautiful examples of the skill of his hand, and the rightness of his heart, that we see in the Academy of Venice. And once seen they are hung in that inner room of the memory, which in quiet moments we visit, that we may look on what we love and take pleasure in.