An ideal opportunity to enjoy the splendors of Venice without leaving Washington can be found at The National Gallery of Art this season. Master works of Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1525), a Venetian Renaissance painter, will be on display through Feb. 12, 2023. The exhibit is the first retrospective of Carpaccio’s work outside Italy.
Carpaccio had both the good and the bad luck to be born in the flourishing city-state of Venice when the Italian Renaissance was in full bloom. Churches, guild halls, and wealthy private citizens all commissioned splendid works of art. Although Carpaccio was a talented and successful artist in Venice, he never received the worldwide recognition of some of his compatriots — Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, et al. In another era with less magnificent competition, he probably would have been celebrated far beyond Italy.
The exhibit is a treat for a variety of reasons. The sheer beauty of the paintings is foremost amongst its pleasures. Carpaccio’s colors are vibrant, deep and rich. The oranges, reds and pinks are perfect — intense without being overdone. How is it possible that after 600 years, the colors are still arresting and so deeply moving? The show consists of 45 paintings and 30 sketches, a manageable number of works for visitors without risking museum overload.
Carpaccio is known foremost as a story-teller. The paintings are accessible to the viewer who becomes part of the narrative. Three of Carpaccio’s large narrative series are extant and included in the exhibit. They include “The Life of the Virgin Mary” and the “Martyrdom of St. Stephen.” I particularly liked the “Virgin Reading” in the “Life” series. In this painting, a young woman is clothed in fashionable 15th-century Venetian dress. There’s no halo to identify her as the Virgin. While some critics argued that it wasn’t the Virgin, the cut edge of the painting shows a portion of the baby Jesus, so the consensus is that it is indeed Mary. Somehow, envisioning the Virgin Mary as a local Venetian citizen makes her more accessible. What did the residents of Venice know of the Holy Land? Bible stories were well known but few Venetians had actually visited. Carpaccio solved this problem by using Venetian landmarks as his backdrop, even for Biblical scenes. He provided context by adding an occasional palm tree or in one instance, a menorah to a painting.
Venice was a Maritime capital and the crossroads of East and West. Money was available to commission works of art and sophisticated viewers appreciated allusions to mythology and religion in the paintings. However, not everyone was literate and the narrative paintings conveyed moral lessons visually. Carpaccio not only included religious and mythological references in his works but also represented the natural world of that region of Italy. Rabbits, likely a fertility symbol, show up in several paintings. In “Birth of the Virgin” and “Visitation,” Carpaccio depicted miraculous pregnancy and birth in elderly women.
Another favorite is the huge “St. George and the Dragon.” The dragon is ferocious, the princess terrified and St. George, handsome and brave, his courage captured by the highly detailed pieces of the dragon’s earlier victims scattered half-eaten upon the ground.
Carpaccio’s paintings were large, primarily so they could be seen from the seats in the church or hall. Tragically, a number of his larger works have been cut and parts lost. However, careful restoration uncovered several figures painted over. Six centuries is a long time and many of the churches that displayed Carpaccio’s alter pieces no longer exist.
His painting style was meticulously crafted and realistic. The sketches give insight to the planning that went into his large canvases and are outstanding works on their own. The drawings include rough sketches for paintings presented in the exhibition, along with meticulous preparatory drawings for works too large to move from Italy to the United States.
So, allow Carpaccio to take you on a quick gondola ride through Venice and follow it up with a cup of something warm in the National Gallery’s Court Cafe, a perfect winter treat.
For more information on “Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Venice,” now through Feb. 12, 2023, go to Nga.gov.