(b. 1472, Venezia, d. 1526, Capodistria)
Arrival of the English Ambassadors1495-1500
Tempera on canvas, 275 x 589 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
Canvas No. 1 of the series of nine large paintings "Stories from the Life of St Ursula".
The three paintings of the Ambassadors are evidence of the extent to which Carpaccio's feeling for colour had developed; in them the artist displays his extraordinary ability at directing or staging pageants and religious celebrations of the kind that must have been fairly frequent at the time.
In the painting of the English Ambassadors' Arrival a at the Court of the King of Brittany, the first episode of the cycle of Stories from the Life of St Ursula, 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 deliver their message on one side and Ursula discusses the matter with her father on the other. The entire composition is arranged with absolute self-confidence and accuracy.
In the diplomatic ceremony the afternoon light streams in from the left and illuminates the foreground, with patches of bright colours 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 are portrayed in poses of the most self-assured nonchalance, and showing indifference for what is happening nearby.
To the right of the elaborate candelabrum, with marble and bright metal decorations, a sophisticated ornamentation that is reminiscent of the work of Ferrarese artists, the English ambassadors are received by King Maurus; they are portrayed in attitudes of deference and respect, in keeping with the rigid protocol governing public audiences granted by the Venetian Republican institutions at the time. The King sits, like the Doge, amidst his counsellors on a judgment seat against a wall covered in precious ornamented leather hangings, placed at an angle to the light and opening out onto a view of the city dominated by a round domed temple-like construction, reminiscent of Perugino and almost anticipating Baldassarre Longhena's Santa Maria della Salute. Just as the colours of the architecture are reflected in the water, so the shadows of the small figures fall like dark stripes on the red brick and white marble expanse of the square bathed in warm sunlight.
Although the buildings and the landscape are quite definitely Venetian in character, it is not possible to identify them as specific constructions. And even the many identifications of the people in the painting with contemporaries of Carpaccio's are all purely hypothetical. The most fascinating theory is the identification of the man in the red cloak to the left, outside the main scene of the event, looking towards the spectator: he is traditionally supposed to be either Pietro Loredan, one of the patrons who commissioned the decoration of the Scuola, or a self-portrait. He stands in front of the iron banister enclosing the scene and appears almost to be drawing our attention towards the ambassadors and their message; like the young boy with the long feather on his cap who also looks out towards the spectator, a detail that was only recently (1983) rediscovered thanks to an excellent cleaning job. The nurse sitting at the far right in an attitude of resignation, on the other hand, introduces us to the conversation between Maurus and his daughter, which does not take place in an elegant and formal hall like the audience of the ambassador, but in the domestic intimacy of Ursula's bedroom.
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 for a period of three years. The two figures, father and daughter, are set against the canopy of the bed and the wall decorated with a devotional icon in an inversion of patches of colour that is almost an anticipation of the art of Paolo Veronese. And the harmony of colours with which Carpaccio depicts the old governess is equally masterful: she sits at the foot of the stairway leading to Ursula's bedroom and stares out into space, as though she knew what a tragic ending this royal wedding contract would lead to. Years later Titian was obviously so struck by this figure of the governess that he included a modern version of her in the Presentation of the Virgin that he painted between 1536 and 1538 for the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità.