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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Vittore Carpaccio was a prominent Venetian artist from the 15th and 16th century who left behind a varied and technically impressive series of paintings. He was one of the more famous contributors to the history of this critical artistic city.

The artist starred whilst the Renaissance was in full flow, though he was competitively challenged by a number of other notable artists within Venice, as well as many more beyond. This would ultimately limit his career, as the work of Giovanni Bellini or Giorgione was considered more appealing by most patrons. Carpaccio was considered to have used a somewhat more conservative approach within his paintings, just as the market was starting to desire and appreciate new ideas and artistic directions. Despite that, he was still able to find plenty of support for his work and would also work with other artists from time to time on large scale projects.

The Venetian School remains highly respected within art history and Carpaccio himself was taught by Gentile Bellini, brother of Giovanni. He also took inspiration from Antonello da Messina and would often look further afield at some of the significant names in the Northern Renaissance. A large number of his artworks were wall paintings that were produced for local organisations which were significant in their profile, but far from the major institutions of the city. The artworks may have been large but they were not installed murals, rather carefully hung paintings that could be theoretically moved elsewhere. Many of these have remained within Venice ever since, which has slightly hampered his reputation spreading further afield.

Within the 1490s Carpaccio was establishing himself as a professional artist for the first time and working hard to acquire whatever commissions he could. Alongside the work for more social and community enterprises, he also contributed the Miracle of the Relic of the Cross at the Ponte di Rialto to the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista and also the Glory of St Ursula altarpiece a few years earlier. After the turn of the century he would then take an interesting new direction which is generally termed as Orientalist in style. At a tim when European art rarely looked beyond its own boundaries, for a number of different reasons, this was an exciting and unique approach taken by Carpaccio. It was specifically the style of landscape that sit in the background of many of his paintings from this period which reminded many of middle-eastern influences, but it would not be correct to term all of his compositions to be uniformly Orientalist. There were political problems between Venice and the Ottoman Turks at around this time might have brought this foreign culture under a greater focus than previously might have been the case.

If we browse the highlights of Vittore Carpaccio's career, we will discover a frequent use of architecture within his paintings, both within domestic paintings such as Birth of the Virgin and Sant' Orsola polyptych as well as outdoor such as The Sermon of St. Stephen which contains an entire cityscape across the background. Architecture and painting did not crossover in many artists' work and so this serves as a relatively unique element to this artist's career. We were several centuries away from landscape art specialists at this stage and depictions of the countryside was only used as a supporting element to other genres. That said, Carpaccio went just as far as he could do, featuring lakes, trees and rolling hills. His architectural depictions featured pillars and other classical architecture in very grand settings as well as crowded skylines which all manner of different buildings jut into the sky.

The artist eventually lived to the age of 60, which was considered a good age during the 16th century. Many of his late works were produced with the help of his sons, Benedetto and Piero, who needed greater experience in order to be competent enough to take over from their father. He also would struggle with health issues in later life and would sometimes prefer to serve more as a project manager, with control over the overall artistic direction, rather than completing as much technical work in the project itself. This is a normal transition and where family members were not available, masters would typically call on their most accomplished studio assistants to take more of a contributing role. In some cases, famous artists would pass away and a project would be left unfinished, before later being assigned to someone else who was completely unrelated to the original commissioned artist. It would then be essential to choose someone who held a relatively similar style, otherwise the final result could be inconsistent as a whole.

It was at around the age of thirty that the artist commenced a project which was to become his career highlight. In 1490 he commenced a large project which required a whole series of panel paintings based on the theme of St Ursula for the Scuola di Santa Orsola. These paintings marked him out as a maturing artist who could manage such an ambitious undertaking. The series has since been moved to the Galleries of the Academy of Venice. Many of the best known works in this series were actually carried out between 1497-1498, such as Return of the Ambassadors, Departure of the Ambassadors and Arrival of the Ambassadors. Each panel is huge, around four metres tall by just under six metres wide. The series was commissioned by the Loredan family who were highly respected locally for their efforts towards the protection of the Venetian Kingdom. The completed pieces have been treated on several occasions over the centuries in order to keep their aesthetic qualities protected for future generations.

A respected British Victorian art historian, John Ruskin, would speak favourably of the impact made by this artist and specifically pinpointed him as the original influence on what would become known in Italy as vedute, which concerned the painting of Venetian townscapes. He also greatily admired the artist's use of architecture, accurately, when previously others had failed to correctly angle their structures within their paintings. Previous to Carpaccio, the only painters that truly mastered architectural design within painting would be architects themselves, and so would have been used to drawing the various elements during planning stages for later projects. Over the next century or so, there would be a number of others who could also display a knowledge of angles, perspective and more but without ever moving beyond the boundaries of this medium of painting.

It was the stunning detail used by Carpaccio that causes many to draw comparisons with the masters of the Venetian landscapes which followed shortly afterwards. It was the same signature left in the Vedute, with perhaps Canaletto being the most famous of all of those who decorated large canvases with every last detail of the stunning architecture of Venice. They would essentially bring archtectural drawing to life, adding colour, followed by figures and transport. Few cities would be more suitable to this style of art, though Canaletto did also find success in England too, particularly in the sprawling metropolis of London, where bridges and religious architecture proved his inspiration. Francesco Guardi and Bernardo Bellotto would also help to build on the architectural beauty of Venice by capturing it in their own work.