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Stealing the scene in a joyful way

Often episodes chosen to adorn the main event in a painting are more intriguing than the center theme -- at least to viewers some centuries later. This is nearly always the case in the large canvases by Vittore Carpaccio of Venice, the greatest storyteller painter of all time.

In the detail of the painting reproduced here, the action takes place on the Grand Canal's sharp curve at the Rialto. Prominent is the wooden drawbridge still in use at the end of the 1400s, the only Rialto bridge Carpaccio knew. The Present majestic stone structure was not finished until 1591.

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Venice has here put on her glory. Everything is festive. Standing boatmen, balanced gracefully on the stern of the gondolas, slide their crafts deftly through the dark water. The gorgeously clothed people, the rhythm of the oars, the luminous faces, even the fancy dog, are all accessories to an undulating pageantry.

Because sky, walls, anything bright, reflect up from her hundreds of canals, Venice is endowed with multiple light, it comes from everywhere -- seemingly at times from nowhere -- glittering and caressing. In our picture Carpaccio has used this special radiance to great advantage, letting it penetrate form and color. Figures, precise and resplendent, vibrate, the prevailing gold, silver, scarlet, and white of the costumes dazzle against the black gondolas and the metallic green water.

No detail escaped his observation. The artist was kin in this respect to certain Flemish painters.Carpaccio looked, investigated, ferreted out, related, then like a theatrical producer, turned his fantasy loose. Understanding the significance inherent in emotion, he filled narratives with life, anecdotes within anecdotes, an ensemble of diversities occurring or merely existing at the same time.

A pale yellow sunset draws attention upward; first, there is the bridge, superbly detailed (a skilled carpenter could not have represented it more exactly); every plank is justly placed. At the central opening a cortege in white files by. Against the sky stand a campanile and several closely spaced marble-walled houses, most of them with tall Gothic windows. Amid a veritable forest of "camini" (high flues crowned with large chimney pots) are loggias and "altane" (terraces where young women sumburned their hair to obtain the fashionable blond tint memorialized by Titian and Veronese).

Probably Carpaccio's reason for choosing this particular site is that to Venetians the word rialto provokes a fiery pride. In the 5th century, foreign invaders overthrew Rome and, en route, caused many residents of northeastern Italy to flee to the tidal islands of the Lagoon. Eventually, after some years, the refugees congregated on the group of islands known since antiquity by the name Rialto. Here these hardy people began operations that grew into a vast commercial and maritime empire, the Republic of Venice. It was to endure for over a thousand years, independent of both East and West.

How fortunate we are that Carpaccio held up his mirror to portray the exuberance of the Venetian spirit in the Republic's prime. The pulse of a great civic life beat in her people. They were always ready to put on their finest garments and participate cheerfully in any ceremony, whether an ostentatious procession, formal welcome, solemn conclave, or joyful celebration.

Vittore Carpaccio revives before our eyes a fabulous world. His enchanted brush adds poetry and makes of reality a dream.

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