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Saints, Knights, and Dragons

Vittore Carpaccio is a splendid example of someone who can reach out and entertain us across a span of 500 years.

St Augustine in his studio
St. Augustine in his studio (also known as Vision of St Augustine), 1502-1507, by Vittore Carpaccio (ca 1465-1525 or 1526). School of San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

Upon entering the Vittore Carpaccio exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, we see a picture of two women sitting on a balcony. Above the scene, we see men fishing in the lagoon. For years, art historians and visitors took these females to be high-class courtesans, but now—based on their outfits, hairstyle, jewelry, and some symbols strewn around the balcony—scholars think these are virtuous wives.

Whatever the interpretation, these women seem unhappy with their confinement to the house, especially while their menfolk are free to go boating and fishing. The troubled faces of the women remind me of several female characters in HBO's celebrated comedy-drama series White Lotus, especially that of superrich Tanya McQuoid, played by award-winning actress Jennifer Coolidge. It is rare when an artist's work from long ago unexpectedly resonates in the present. But Carpaccio (c. 1460/1466–1525/1526) is a splendid example of someone who can reach out and entertain us across a span of 500 years.


The exhibition contains a selection of 45 large and small Carpaccio paintings and 30 of his drawings, many of which were preparatory for the paintings. This is the first show outside Italy devoted to this delightfully bingeable artist. 

Bingeable? The subtitle of the NGA show is Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice. Victorian literary giants John Ruskin, Henry James, and Marcel Proust held Carpaccio's narrative art in the highest regard. Of course, storytelling in the Venetian Renaissance was somewhat different than in their time, or in ours: Biblical episodes, religious legend, or ancient histories were required subject matter. And yet there is a connection between the Tolkien or George R.R. Martin schools of mythmaking so popular today and Carpaccio. Painters absorbed mythical stories about the saints from the Golden Legend by Jacobus De Voragine, as did Tolkien hundreds of years later. Carpaccio's narrative art involved multiple canvases, each filled with intriguing details, like episodes of a prestige television series, culminating in a mortal climax. 

While little is known of Carpaccio's early life and training, looking at his earlier work, guest curator Peter Humfrey suggests he may have apprenticed with the two most outstanding 15th century Venetian painters, the Bellini brothers, Gentile and Giovanni. Gentile would have taught him to paint wall-sized canvases, filled with familiar architectural details in the background and a large cast of Venetian characters, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish, in the foreground. Giovanni was the absolute master of more intimate scenes for the private homes of the elite. He painted sacred subjects like the Madonna and Child or the Dead Christ set in the most exquisite natural landscapes. Think of Bellini’s St. Francis in Ecstasy at the Frick. The Venetians, having little green space, loved Giovanni's pictorial innovation. Carpaccio followed the master and added his own love of animals to his pictures.

The lay confraternities called scuole in Venice were crucial to Carpaccio's career. The scuole combined religious, charitable, and professional guilds of great significance in the republic's social structure. There were five major scuole and at least 200 smaller ones, the latter open to men and women from all ranks of society. Each was dedicated to a chosen saint or saints, and many of the scuole commissioned artists to commemorate the lives and miracles of their particular holy persons. The leaders of the scuole encouraged their artists to emphasize color, variety, and touches of seductive fantasy to add to the popular appeal of their pictures. The result was a distinctive kind of storytelling painting, fundamentally sacred but enjoyable too, educational and grandly decorative. Carpaccio became famous for his immersive cycles of the particular saints for at least four scuole.

Carpaccio's first cycle, completed over seven years in the 1590s for the Scuola di Sant'Orsola, illustrates the legend of St. Ursula on nine large canvases. The princess was the 4th-century daughter of the Christian king of Brittany, who was promised in marriage to a pagan prince of England on the condition that he convert. While the wedding is underway, bad news arrives in the form of a dream where an angel tells Ursula that the Huns in Cologne will martyr her. Being a heroic figure, she does not try to escape her fate. There is a large cast of gloriously costumed characters, ambassadors, nobles, and royalty, and spectacular scenery, climaxing in the bloody massacre of the princess and her 10,000 followers. If you like Game of Thrones, this is a Christian predecessor to the Red Wedding episode.


The nonprofit organization Save Venice has restored these and other Carpaccios. Despite pleas from the curators, these canvases were kept from making the trip to Washington for the exhibit. If you visit Venice, be sure to visit the Accademia Gallery, where all these magnificent canvases are housed.

Two enormous restored wall paintings did arrive from Venice for the exhibit, from the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, dedicated to the lives of St. Jerome, St. Augustine, and St. George. A central theme in the Renaissance is the contemplative life vs. the life of action. There is a tradition of portraying philosophers and theologians in their studies, especially St. Jerome, as in the famous one by Antonello Da Messina and later Albrecht Durer. I'm sure Carpaccio knew the former work, but his St. Augustine is subtly dramatic. Set in a sumptuous study, the philosopher-theologian sits at his desk writing a letter to his friend St. Jerome. Augustine is famous for his attempt to reconcile elements derived from the Bible (revelation) and classical philosophy (reason). He stares out the window as an unusual flash of light fills the room. The message is that Jerome has died. I don't know a more remarkable pictorial example of the sovereignty of revelation over reason.

St. George and the Dragon, 1502 (Creative Commons)

The monumental duel between St. George and the Dragon is familiar in Medieval and Renaissance art. But this is the largest and most dynamic version that I know. According to the Golden Legend, a city in Libya sacrificed its people to a monster hiding outside the town walls. When the princess of the city was to be sacrificed, the Christian soldier George appeared on the scene, armed with the sign of the cross, and dealt the dragon a deadly blow. The creature's monstrous appearance makes a hideous contrast with the handsome George in black armor, his magnificent steed, and the princess praying. On the ground between the two combatants are horrific remains of dead men and women—severed heads, skulls, and bones. Lizards, snakes, vultures, and toads feast on the remains or devour each other.

There is one complete cycle in the show Life of Mary for the Scuola di Santa Maria degli Albanesi. Six episodes from birth to death and ascension into heaven are illustrated. As the excellent catalog notes, the enchanting first work in the series, the birth of Mary, is entirely Carpaccio's work. It echoes bright and orderly Netherlandish genre painting, which was much appreciated and avidly collected in Venice by its wealthy merchants. There is some evidence that the artist's assistants may have done most of the other paintings from Carpaccio's designs. 

Several rooms contain private devotional paintings for upper-class homes, such as the Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist (dressed as aristocratic Venetians) and Meditation on the Dead Christ. There are also two secular pictures of young Hercules at the crossroads, choosing between virtue and vice. Finally, there is a life-sized portrait of a young knight. This is unusual because full-length portraits were usually reserved for monarchs, and Venice was a republic. Even the elected leader of the republic, the doge, only gets a bust-sized portrait. Peter Humfrey thinks this is a painting commemorating a young aristocratic soldier who died defending Venice. It is one of Carpaccio's most famous works and of all Venetian paintings of the early Renaissance. 

Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist, c. 1500 (Creative Commons)

A noble image of a young knight in gleaming, elaborate armor stands in a landscape full of flowers, animals, and birds. He is sheathing or unsheathing his sword. His squire is on horseback in the middle distance. A message is written on paper on the ground: "Death before dishonor." All these images are meant to encourage moral and civic virtues. The enchanting beauty of these pictures is designed to help shape the heart of Venetian citizens, especially the young, making them passionate about the common good of the republic.

Carpaccio's bingeable narrative and immersive approach made him beloved by his fellow citizens. Today, when these same experiences are so popular in televisual form, this show should draw audiences if people are properly alerted to it. The exhibition is curated by Peter Humfrey, distinguished scholar of 15th- and 16th-century Venetian painting and professor emeritus of art history at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, in collaboration with Andrea Bellini, curator at the Musei Civici di Venezia, and Gretchen Hirschauer, curator of Italian and Spanish painting at the National Gallery of Art. They are also responsible for the excellent catalog.

Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice will be on display on the main floor of the west building at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., until February 12, 2023.