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.
By LIZ HAGER
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.
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.
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.
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.