THE VENETIAN PAINTING SCHOOL II. Vittore Carpaccio. Giambattista Cima da Conegliano. Marco Basaiti

After the Bellinis, the Venetian school produced a number of excellent artists who continued their tradition, but the Venetian Vittore Carpaccio (ca. 1465 -1525/1526), who studied under Gentile Bellini, was the most interesting personality of the whole group. Most of his works are still in Venice. His art was influenced by the style of Antonello da Messina and Early Netherlandish painting. He was the painter of the merchant guilds, which competed to glorify their patron saints by having the main passages of their stories painted. The series of nine great paintings in which he depicted the Legend of Saint Ursula is one of the best assets of the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. They are several compositions painted between 1490 and 1498 that form a wide frieze with an extraordinary animation in their figures; in the background we can see cities, the sea and canals, and tall rocks with buildings suspended over the water, all within the genre begun by Gentile Bellini. The series with the Legend of Saint Ursula was painted for the Venetian Scuola di Sant’Orsola (Ursula). Carpaccio was commissioned by the powerful Loredan family, who were patrons of the Scuola and recognized for their military achievements against the “infidel” Ottomans, an assumption that is repeatedly referenced in the paintings of this cycle. The decorative program was based in the Golden Legend of Jacopo da Varagine (1259-1266), which tells that Saint Ursula, the daughter of the Christian king of Brittany, was betrothed to a pagan prince in exchange to his conversion to Christianity. Once married they both made a pilgrimage to Rome, and on her way back home, at Cologne, she was martyred by Attila, King of the Huns, together with her following of 10,000 virgins, after she had refused to become his wife.

In the panel representing The Arrival of the Ambassadors (1497-1498), the first episode of the cycle and one of the last to be painted, Carpaccio displayed his extraordinary ability at composing pageants and religious celebrations of the kind that must have been frequent at the time. The splendid architectural setting, with the open loggia against the background of a view of Venice and the intimate space of the private room, divides the scene into two sections: the ambassadors delivering their message on one side and Ursula discussing the matter with her father on the other. In the “diplomatic ceremony” section of the canvas, the light comes in from the left and illuminates the foreground, with patches of bright colors and sharp shadows. Below the wide portico that stretches out to the left with a row of arcades vanishing into the distance, alternating with areas of shadow, the elegant young members of the Compagnia della Calza (a Venetian confraternity which organized events and spectacles during Carnival and other religious celebrations) are portrayed showing indifference for the event happening nearby. To the right of the elaborate ornament surmounted by a column, with marble and bright metal decorations, the English ambassadors are delivering a letter which requests the hand of Princess Ursula in marriage to the crown prince of England, and are received by King Maurus; they are portrayed in attitudes of deference and respect. The King sits, like the Doge, amidst his counsellors on a high seat against a wall covered in precious ornamented leather hangings, placed at an angle to the light and opening out onto a view of a Venetian-style city dominated by a round domed temple-like construction, reminiscent of Perugino‘s Marriage of the Virgin (1500-1504). The man in the red cloak to the left, outside the main scene and looking towards the viewer, has been identified with Pietro Loredan, one of the patrons. At the far right, Ursula’s nurse sitting at the far right in an attitude of resignation, introduces us to the conversation between Maurus and Ursula, which takes place in the domestic intimacy of her bedroom. We see how the King has abandoned all the official royal formalities imposed by protocol and simply listens to the conditions set out by his daughter. She will marry Ereus if she is granted a retinue of ten beautiful virgins; she and each of the ten shall further be assigned a thousand virgins each; and the young man who has asked for her hand shall be baptized and instructed in the faith. The two figures, father and daughter, are set against the canopy of her bed and the wall is decorated with a devotional icon of Mary and Christ Child in an inversion of patches of color that is almost an anticipation of the art of Paolo Veronese.

Arrival of the English Ambassadors, tempera on canvas, by Vittore Carpaccio, 1497-1498, 275 x 589 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

For the canvas number four of the series on the Stories of St. Ursula, Carpaccio represented the Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims (497-1498), which is the largest painting in the cycle and contains six different episodes of the legend. The different scenes of the story follow each other without interruption, within the carefully constructed composition. To the left we see Ereus saying good bye to his father; to the right of the pennant, on top of which a banner is shown blowing in the wind, we see the betrothed couple at their first meeting, as they leave from Ursula’s parents, as they board the 12-oared sloop and then the ship; to the left we see the ship again, its sail billowing in the wind. While the English city (painted to the left) is surrounded by an impregnable set of walls and towers, on the right the city in Brittany stretches out totally defenseless, built along the water’s edge, full of buildings with elegant marble facades. As is the case during traditional and religious celebrations that still take place in Venice today, the streets, bridges, alleyways and steps are crowded with onlookers and many more are shown looking out of the windows.

Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims, tempera on canvas, by Vittore Carpaccio, 1497-1498, 280 x 611 cm Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

In the Dream of St. Ursula (1497-1498), the canvas number 5 of the series, Carpaccio displayed his masterful ability at grasping each detail while still preserving the unity of the scene, resulting in an intensely lyrical feeling of space, with a magical and enchanted spirit. The elements are arranged in perfect perspective, Carpaccio here was capable of describing a late Quattrocento Venetian bedroom with an objectivity that reminds one of Vermeer’s works. Below a canopy supported by tall thin rods, the sleeping Ursula is visited in her dreams by the angel (casting a sharp shadow on the ground) who tells her of her imminent martyrdom. The light shines brightly behind the angel and penetrates into the room from the roundels on the wall below the ceiling beams, from the windows and from the half-open door leading to the next room. In this beautiful and dreamy chiaroscuro atmosphere, Carpaccio rendered every detail with subdued light and soft shadows: the little slippers, the gold crown and the little dog at the foot of her bed; the little table with the hourglass on it and the book, still open at the page where Ursula stopped reading; the pots on the window ledge with carnations and myrtle growing in them, plants that symbolize earthly and heavenly love (faithfulness in the marriage); the holy image on the left wall lit by the smoking candle that we can see through the elaborately carved frame and the equally richly carved chair below it; the antique gilded bronze statuettes of Hercules and Venus above the door-frames; the cupboard with its doors ajar so that we can see its contents.

The Dream of St. Ursula, tempera on canvas, by Vittore Carpaccio, 1497-1498, 274 x 267 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

Like this series on the Story of St. Ursula, many of Carpaccio’s major works were large scale canvases destined for the decoration of the halls of Venetian scuole (or charitable and social confraternities). In 1494, he painted the Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto (ca. 1496) for the decoration of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. This Scuola‘s confraternity commissioned many important Venetian painters of the period (including Gentile Bellini) to paint nine canvases for their headquarters’ Great Hall depicting the Miracles of the Holy Cross. The subject of the telero (as these canvases were known) painted by Carpaccio is the healing of a man possessed performed by Francesco Querini, the Patriarch of Grado, through the intercession of the relic of the Holy Cross in his palace at the Rialto. The actual miracle is portrayed in the upper left part of the painting and takes place in the airy loggia of the palace decorated with gold leaf. This resource focus the viewer’s attention on the view of Rialto Bridge and the banks on either side of the Grand Canal. The bridge depicted is the one built in 1458; at its sides can be seen the shops and in the center the part which could be raised to allow taller ships to pass. This construction, built in wood, collapsed on August 4, 1524 and was replaced by the present stone bridge which was inaugurated in 1592. On the dark waters of the Grand Canal and along its banks the intense daily life of the city runs its course while the noble-men and the very elegant compagni della Calza members cluster below the loggia of the Palace of the Patriarch of Grado. We can even see numerous foreigners with eastern style garments (turbans), women dusting carpets, and workers who are clearing their barrels. The buildings with the typical medieval Venetian inverted cone chimneys stand out against the pale blue and pink sky. The scene has an asymmetrical composition, with figures in the foreground at the left and, behind them, the façade of the buildings following the canal.

Miracle of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto, tempera on canvas, by Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1496, 365 x 389 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

For the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, which served one of Venice’s immigrant communities (Schiavoni= Slavs or Dalmatians in Venetian dialect), Carpaccio also worked between 1502 and 1507, on a series of paintings depicting episodes from the legends of the lives of the Schiavoni‘s three patron Saints: St. Jerome, St. George and St. Trifon. These works cemented his reputation as one of the foremost orientalist painter of his time. Contrary to the traditional use of a continuous narrative sequence that Carpaccio applied in his St. Ursula series (see before), with the main characters appearing multiple times in each canvas, each painting of the Schiavoni series focus on a single episode in the lives of these three patron Saints.

The series of paintings with the story of Saint George are particularly famous; the painting with the saint’s fight with the dragon, St. George and the Dragon (1502), is one of the artist’s most accomplished works. This canvas was the 4th episode of the series of seven paintings he executed about the life of Sts. Jerome, George and Trifon, and the first of St. George’s story. Carpaccio set the scene in a wide open space. The foreground is completely occupied by St. George, depicted as a spirited paladin, a knight on a black steed, determinedly attacking the monster, who is now wounded and dying. Both figures were arranged along a diagonal line that follows St. George’s spear, and that goes from the praying princess on the right, along the line of the spear to end at the tip of the dragon’s curved tail. On the ground, baked by the sun, we can see the macabre remains of the dragon’s victims, as well as vipers, lizards, toads and vultures, all realistically portrayed. To the left, from the terraces of the fairytale palaces, the inhabitants of Selene of Libya watch the outcome of the tournament. The hills on the background, with castles and rocky spurs, slope down to a harbor with ships.

St. George and the Dragon, tempera on canvas, by Vittore Carpaccio, 1502, 141 x 360 cm (Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice).

All the splendor of the oriental life was transmitted by Carpaccio in the other scenes of St. George’s story: the Triumph of St. George and the Baptism of the Selenites (1507). This last is the episode 6 in the series of seven paintings we mentioned before, and gives us a glimpse of the type of oriental subjects that were popular in Venice at the time: Carpaccio gave great attention to the depiction of foreign costumes, and hats are particularly significant in indicating the exotic, for example: one of the recent converts has placed his elaborate red-and-white, jewel turban on the ground in order to receive the Christian sacrament from the saint. The Baptism of the Selenites certainly contains details of great richness of color, like the group of musicians playing for their King (to the left), who is receiving the sacrament of baptism from St. George (right).

The Baptism of the Selenites, tempera on canva, by Vittore Carpaccio, 1507, 141 x 285 cm (Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice).

We can see that what characterizes Carpaccio’s work is a very aristocratic sensibility: all his work is imbued with the “good taste” and distinction of the time. Even in his mysticism his work is subtle refined. In 1510 he painted the a lamentation on the dead Christ (now in Berlin), which is considered, together with his St. George and the Dragon, the culmination of his work. In the Lamentation (ca. 1510), Carpaccio transmitted a sense of bitter sorrow that can also be found in works by Mantegna, as well as an extensive use of allegoric symbolism. The treatment of light in the Lamentation accentuates the waxy pale tone of Christ’s flesh, he rigidly stretches out on the shiny marble slab, as if he was suspended in the foreground of the painting. In the rocky landscape of the background, a number of symbols of death relate to Christ’s life on earth and suggest the transience of human life: we see the Virgin, supported by Mary Magdalene (to the right); a mourning figure with his back to the spectator; St. Job in meditation leaning against a tree; graves opened and violated (left); broken and shattered tombstones, columns and slabs.

The Dead Christ, tempera on canvas, by Vittore Carpaccio, ca. 1510, 145 x 185 cm (Staatliche Museen, Berlin).

Of the same year (1510) is a Young Knight in a Landscape. The young man, standing with his legs slightly apart, is shown as he unsheathes his sword: he dominates the landscape depicted with a Flemish attention to detail. Every species of flora and fauna in the painting has been depicted with clinical accuracy, as are the knight on horseback standing against the walls of the castle. On the right side, we can see every detail of the city built on the hillside; the city’s reflection appears on the flat surface of the water and almost blends in the background with the steep rocky mountains at the distance. The identity of the young knight is unresolved; he remains simply as the idealized model of many “heroes” of the Humanist world, the virtues of which are clearly referred to in the motto MALO MORI QUAM FOEDARI (“Better to die than to lose one’s honor”) inscribed on the scroll to the left among the plants and above the ermine, a symbol of purity and integrity, while the peacock by the helmet of the armed soldier on horseback is a reference to immortality. The heron caught in the sky by a hawk might hint at the knight’s death in battle, also alluded to by his posture, which recalls that of a funerary statue. The other knight on horseback might be the same person during his life or, alternatively, the figure on horseback might be his page. Young Knight in a Landscape is the earliest full-length portrait in Western painting, and though the assumption is an important innovation in portraiture, the style of the painting seems in other respects to look back to the traditions of the previous 15th century.

Young Knight in a Landscape, tempera on canvas, by Vittorio Carpaccio, 1510, 218 x 152 cm (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid).

The Lion of St Mark, painted in 1516 for the Magistrato dei Camerlenghi in Rialto, is an imposing image standing with its hind legs in the water and its forelegs on dry land, one firmly resting on a rocky shore and the other holding up the book with the traditional inscription PAX/TIBI/MAR/CE/E/VANGELI/STA/MEUS (“Peace be with you. Mark my evangelist”). This allegory symbolizes the power on land and sea of the Venetian Republic. Behind the lion, symbol of St. Mark, portrayed in splendid and triumphant isolation, Carpaccio gives us an extraordinary wide-angled view of some of the most celebrated places in the history of Venice. We can identify the basin of St. Mark’s towards San Nicolo di Lido, all the way to the heart of Venice: the Doges’ Palace, St. Mark’s Basilica, the columns of St. Theodore and St. Mark, the Piazzetta, the bell-tower and the Clock Tower. Carpaccio died in Capodistria (now Koper, in Slovenia), where he spent the last years of his life.

The Lion of St. Mark, tempera on canvas, by Vittorio Carpaccio, 1516, 130 x 368 cm (Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

Other masters within the same school followed the path of Carpaccio and the Bellinis. They were quattrocento artists with a brighter and more luminous body of work than those by other artists from the rest of Italy, though more languid and sentimental at the same time.

The most important of them was Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano (ca. 1459 – ca. 1517), who was extremely refined in his handling of chromatic nuances. His work was also influenced by that of Antonello da Messina, and the most of his production included religious subjects in small format for private devotion, although he also painted a few mythological works. Giovanni was born in Conegliano, then part of the “continental” territories of the Republic of Venice (now part of the province of Treviso). His father was a cloth-shearer (a “cimator” in Italian), reason why he was called Cima (da Conegliano, his birth place). In 1492 he moved to Venice and once there his painting was influenced by that of Giovanni Bellini. In the same year, he painted the Baptism of Christ, now considered his masterpiece. In the background, we can see groups of turban-wearing men seemingly making their way to the City of God on horseback or on foot. Christ stands at the center of the scene with joined hands in prayer. His attitude shows humble submission to baptism, which is being given to him by Saint John the Baptist, who appears standing on the right. At the left are three angels carrying Christ’s garments, in red and blue colors. An angelic choir hovers in the sky, and a generic oriental City of God is on a spur in the left behind the angels, while another one is visible in the far background in the middle of the composition.

Baptism of Christ, oil on wood panel, by Cima da Conegliano, 1492, 350 x 210 cm (Church of San Giovanni in Bragora, Venice).

In Madonna and Child in a Landscape (1496-1499), the Virgin watches tenderly at the Christ child, whom is, uncharacteristically for this type of iconography, standing on both his mother’s left hand and her right leg. Both, mother and son, exchange looks at each other. While the two figures prominently occupy the foreground of the canvas, the background (including architectural details, bucolic scenery, rolling hills, and open sky) extends behind them giving depth to the scene. We can distinguish a small hill town to the right, probably a reference to Conegliano, Cima’s birth place. The background also has references to episodes from Mary’s life, including the Flight into Egypt and the Visitation, which are depicted on the left.

Madonna and Child in a Landscape, oil on wood panel, by Cima da Conegliano, 1496-1499, 110 x 88 cm (Los Angeles County Museum of Art, California, USA).

Cima’s Incredulity of St. Thomas (ca. 1502-1504) now in the National Gallery (London) displays a graceful richness of color. The altarpiece was commissioned by the Scuola di San Tommaso dei Battuti of Venice. In this altarpiece we see the traditional iconography of the initially doubtful Saint Thomas, being convinced of Christ’s resurrection after studying his wounds with his own hands. Both are surrounded by the astonished apostles: the young and fair-haired John the Evangelist wearing light blue, immediately on Christ’s right, and the bald Saint Peter wearing orange and blue on his left. The painting is signed and dated in the small cartellino placed on the floor on the right lower corner of he painting: Joanes Baptiste Coneglane[n]sis / opus 1504 (“the work of John Baptist of Conegliano 1504”). The larger cartellino in the center, immediately below Christ’s feet, gives the names of the officers of the scuola. The vibrant treatment of colors and the way the draperies are modelled are heavily influenced by the work of Giovanni Bellini. In this painting we can appreciate how Cima was a master of the technique of building up light and shade by the application of layers of glazes. At this time, Venice was a center of the pigment trade and many Venetian artists of this generation benefited from this assumption.

The Incredulity of St. Thomas, oil on synthetic panel transferred from poplar wood, by Cima da Conegliano, ca. 1502-1504, 294 x 199.4 cm (National Galelry, London).

Between 1505 and 1510, Cima paints the Sleeping Endymion, a subject taken from Greek mythology. The legend said that Endymion, young and handsome, caught the attention of Selene (or Diana), daughter of Jupiter, who, in order to enjoy the beautiful sight of the young man every day, asked his father to make his beauty immortal. Jupiter fulfilled his daughter’s wish and made Endymion fall into a deep sleep which made him young for eternity. The enamored Selene visited her beloved every night, who kept sleeping unaware that he was under a spell in a cave near Milo. Cima shows us here the young man deeply asleep in the middle of a forest inhabited by animals, and (in the background beneath the trees) we see Selene’s moon watching over her eternal love.

Sleeping Endymion, oil on wood panel, by Cima da Conegliano, between 1505-1510, 24,8-25,4 cm diameter (Palazzo della Pilotta, Parma, Italy).

The beautiful panel with the Adoration of the Shepherds from 1509-1510 gives us another wonderful landscape by Cima. In addition to the adoring shepherds and the Nativity scene, we see St. Catherine, St. Helen, as well as Tobit and the Archangel Raphael. In fact, this painting contains two scenes in chronological sequence from the back to the foreground. In the background on the small hill, a shepherd and a shepherd boy are with their dog and flock: the shepherd leans on a tree playing his pipes while the boy sleeps at his feet. When their attention was caught, they followed the path to the central event, between the manger and the large cross held by St. Helen.

Adoration of the Shepherds, tempera on panel, by Cima da Conegliano, 1509-1510, 300 x 185 cm
(Chiesa dei Carmini, Venice).

But with Cima, and with other of his contemporaries such as Marco Basaiti (ca. 1470–1530), Venetian painting would perhaps have remained within the same themes despite its beauty of color, and it would have suffered the same fate of the school of Siena, which faded due to its repetition of forms and themes.

Marco Basaiti was born either in Venice or Friuli (in Northeast Italy). His body of work includes mainly portraits and religious themes. It is believed that, around 1490’s, he trained with Alvise Vivarini, and apparently he reached the position of major assistant as he finished Vivarini’s altarpiece St. Ambrose Enthroned with Saints (1503) after Vivarini’s death. Besides Vivarini, Basaiti’s was influenced by Giovanni Bellini and Netherlandish painters. After 1500’s, Basaiti’s work reflected that he was more concerned with complex landscape composition and spatial consistency. Between 1510-1520, he received several large commissions like the Call of the Sons of Zebedee (1510), originally for the high altar of the Carthusian church of Sant’Andrea della Certosa in Venice. This narrative painting is noteworthy for its grandiose composition and warm, luminous colors. Zebedee was a Hebrew fisherman, the husband of Salome, and the father of James and John, two of the Apostles of Jesus. The call of the new apostles was seen as a metaphor for the monastic vocation. The remarkable broad landscape in the background is nonetheless framed by walls and rocks. This painting is considered as one of Basaiti’s best pieces. 

Call of the Sons of Zebedee, oil on wood panel, by Marco Basaiti, 1510, 386 x 268 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

Also around the same period, is Christ Praying in the Garden (1510 or 1516), where it can be noticed the influence of the style of Antonello da Messina (see in the integrity of color, and the arrangement of saints at the sides of the portico, of the apostles, and of Christ absorbed in prayer) and of Giorgione in the lyrical character of the landscape. The saints are, from left to right, Louis of Toulouse, Francis, Dominic, and Mark.

Christ Praying in the Garden, oil on wood panel, by Marco Basaiti, 1510 or 1516, 371 x 224 cm (Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice).

Between 1520 and 1530, Basaiti’s paintings became more focused and returned to one-figure paintings, though in The Lamentation (1527) he again demonstrated his ability to compose narrative scenes. This painting blends many of the influences in Basaiti’s work and shows his progress towards more organic lighting and forms.

The Lamentation, oil on canvas, by Marco Basaiti, 1527, 122 x 154 cm (The Hermitage, St. Petersburg).

Up to this point, it seemed that painting reached a level of stability and security (but also of stagnation and conformism) in Venice. But a brilliant artist came to alter this static environment, a man who had the frankness to expose his feelings without showing vestiges of medieval sentiment, and that dared to paint the soul of the rich free Venice of the Renaissance, a style that Titian will later popularize and immortalize. We know little about this extraordinary genius, Giorgio de Castelfranco, popularly known as Il Giorgione.