Venetian Red in Rome: Carpaccio’s Bequiling Portrait of a Lady

Editor’s Note: During the month of June, Venetian Red posts from Italy, as well as from San Francisco.


Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of a Lady, ca. 1510
Oil on canvas,
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

Vittore Carpaccio’s (1455-1523/6) delightful portrait of a Venetian woman is squeezed into the corner of an upstairs gallery at the Borghese Museum. She hangs on the same wall as Antonello da Messina’s Portrait of a Man and Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna with Child, although not with them, as Borghese curators have sequestered her in a narrow space on the opposite side of the entry door. Despite the separation, it’s a fitting grouping, since the Bellinis (Gentile and Giovanni), as well as Massina, are widely considered to be Carpaccio’s artistic influences.

Antonello da Messina, Portrait of a Man, 1475
Oil on wood, 30 x 24 cm
(Galleria Borghese, Rome)

An early Venetian Renaissance painter of the generation before Titian, Carpaccio specialized in narrative paintings of religious events set into scenes of everyday life in Venice. (Among his best known works are The Legend of St. Ursula and Life of the Virgin cycles.) Largely associated with the merchant classes of the city, Carpaccio never enjoyed aristocratic patronage or a prestigious official position, though he did receive a number of commissions from various scuole in Venice.

One must wonder if it was Carpaccio’s modest position in the Venetian hierarchy or his well-known crisis of confidence (around 1510) in the face of the radical innovations of younger artists Titian and Giorgione that has placed him in the echelon of lesser painters.

Hans Memling, Portrait of a Man with a Coin of the Emperor Nero, 1473
(Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp)

Nevertheless, Carpaccio occupies an vital spot in history of Italian Renaissance art, not just as a chronicler of the city of Venice, but as a faithful reporter on the rising middle class. Long before the time of Guardi and the Canalettis, Carpaccio painted grand spectacles and elaborate ceremonies of the type that would define the golden age of Venice.

Vittore Carpaccio, Two Venetian Ladies, 1505

In his depiction of Venetian life, Carpaccio was fond of recording minute and exotic detail in a realistic style that betrayed the popular influence in Italy at the time of the Netherlandish painters. He brought that same attention to detail to bear in his portraits. As a result, they become intriguing windows into his sitters’ souls and superb records of the life of the middle class through their accoutrements.

Already unusual for her free flowing hair (recall the last time you saw a portrait of a lady from this period with her hair down!), which Carpaccio creates as feathery feminine delicacy, this Lady‘s jaunty cap makes her all the more appealing. Carpaccio demonstrates that a Venetian woman need not be outfitted in the sumptuous costume of the aristocratic class; through the rendering of her marmoreal skin he imbues her with greater exotic allure than any damask dress studded with emeralds and rubies could.

Vittore Carpaccio, Portrait of an Unknown Man With Red Beret, 1490-93

Wider Connections

“Men’s Portraits of the 15th Century”
More Vittore Carpaccio

10 Responses to “Venetian Red in Rome: Carpaccio’s Bequiling Portrait of a Lady

  1. When I lived in Rome many years ago, I was deeply attracted to these Renaissance portraits, most especially to the way in which the eyes glanced out at the viewer. I called this the “Renaissance glance.” It’s as if the subject of the painting looks to the viewer in recognition – “Ah, you’re a human being also!”

    The Galleria Borghese portraits are especially fine examples of this glance.

    I’m not an art historian and don’t know the literature around this glance, but surely it’s well-studied. Thanks.

  2. Oh, Carpaccio is wonderful! I saw his St. Ursula series in Venice, and his St. George and the Dragon (it took me two tries to find THAT one). Carpaccio over there has been rehabilitated. In Venice especially they will look bemused and tell you he has always been one of their greatest artists, and it is art historians further West who did not agree. The St. Ursula series alone earned him a page in Jansen’s, as far as I am concerned (all of my school testing was based on whoever was in Jansen’s History of Art). I think some of the High International Gothic artists also brought some of the crisp lines you see in the architecture and clothing; am thinking of the Vivarini brothers specifically (their paintings don’t photograph well). Even Fortuny studied Carpaccio for old textile patterns. You’ll find patterns from Carpaccio in Fortuny dresses and tunics.

    • Tess
      Thank you for all your really thoughtful (and additive) comments here. I have always loved the sumptuousness of Fortuny’s fashions. Though he was not born in Venice, he is associated with his adopted city as if he had been. I do hope to post in the future on his work and look forward to your comments.

  3. Carpaccio was new to me, so this portrait was an exciting find, and it opened up a new avenue of inquiry for me. She seems, sans costume, so contemporary. (I know this sounds crazy, but in some way this Lady reminded me of Mapplethorpe’s portraits of Patty Smith…maybe it was the hair????).

    This portrait prompted me to review other 15th century portraits (some of which are included in the post). And a funny thing happened. I started to wonder whether anything of great consequence had been added to the portrait genre in the last 500 years (outside of Matisse and perhaps Francis Bacon).

    I would be curious about other thoughts on this subject.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Oddly, Carpaccio is new to me too, so thanks for the post. And, yes, she does look like Patti Smith—not just the hair, but the nose, the pallor. Is that her hair wound atop her head or a hat?
      I had a similar epiphany about portraits when I saw the Memling show at the Frick a few years ago. Some people say Memling’s portraits are devoid of emotion—I could not disagree more. I dreamed about those people I “met” that day for a week after I saw the show. I felt as though I’d encountered 25 new people in those two hours and that I’d learned something profound and moving about each one—it was emotionally exhausting. I don’t know what it is about portraits from that era—but it occurs to me that since life was even more fragile in those days, maybe people had a deeper sense of how fleeting their time on earth was and consequently were able to find more meaning in each moment? I am always haunted by that in portraits of that era, even in lighter moments, people seem more present, there’s no sense of killing time like we do today with our gadgets and endless distractions—everything mattered. And when they sat for their portrait they carried with them that strong sense of the opportunity to say: I am here now, I lived—and the great portrait painters were able to capture that…

  4. Several of the Venetian women in the portraits have the Doge’s Hat hair style which actually mimics the Doge’s special hat (it looks so much like those Peruvian caps that hang over the ears, only with a bump on top! I couldn’t believe they got away with it when I first saw portraits with that odd hair shape. Perhaps there was a whole fashion of using hair to mimic hats? Most portrait painters could not stand to do portraits their whole career. I stopped doing them twenty years ago because I got tired of people wanting to dictate to me how they appear. I can’t read their minds, and it just got to be too much trouble. There are portrait artists who specialize in that kind of painting but they will never be in a book about portraits. Our world is often spoiled by photography, which is a shame. Paintings of people are so much more interesting than a picture most of the time.

    • Christine Cariati Says:

      Oh yes, I know that hat, like in the great Bellini portrait of the Doge Lorenzo Loredan that’s in the National Gallery?

  5. Yes, exactly. I saw a number of portraits at the Academia Gallery where the women had that hairstyle, and could hardly believe it! No one in Venice was allowed to wear that hat, yet their wives were walking around with hair-dos shaped just like it. They were always trying to keep the Doge’s power from getting too strong…and this might have been an outright comment by the patricians. I will have to go back and look at the period. They executed a couple of the Doges for being naughty. I never had the luxury of really comprehending the Venetian School of Art until I went to Venice and really saw a lot of it–in America it is all spread around. I wasn’t that font of Titian until I saw a large body of his work–or Tintoretto for that matter. I was blown away by Veronese. I had an art teacher who always cautioned me not to make judgements on printed art without having a visual memory of seeing it with my own eyes. He was really right about that.

  6. Thought others would be interested in the Doge by Bellini (1501) below. And though I didn’t see this essay before I posted (, it does seem to confirm my suspicion that, if Carpaccio’s lady was wearing braided hair (not a hat), then it was most probably a hairpiece. Minutiae can be fascinating!

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