(b. 1472, Venezia, d. 1526, Capodistria)

The Presentation of the Virgin

Oil on canvas, 130 x 137 cm
Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan

If formal history is Mantegna's outstanding characteristic and reporting is Gentile Bellini's, then Carpaccio is predominantly a historical novelist. His urban settings are often compared with those of Gentile Bellini, but there are major differences between the two. Gentile used documentation to support the accuracy of his account, and where it was lacking he relied on his imagination, but always in terms of the topographic reality of Venice. Although Carpaccio's settings are entirely Venetian in spirit, they are complete fantasies and any reference to reality is scrupulously avoided. Almost all of Carpaccio's career was devoted to producing picture cycles, for the decoration of entire interiors, that illustrated religious themes and legends connected with Venetian life. These subjects called for compositions seen as if through an imaginary window, and they made up a fabulous but not unrealistic world.

Carpaccio's urban views are not chance inventions. They belong to the Platonic idea of Venice as a painted city, which goes back beyond Jacopo Bellini's drawings, is articulated by Filarete and proliferates in the illustrations of his manuscripts. This is a development that is seen at the same time in Lombardy and in the Lombard buildings in Venice, creating a language of forms of which Carpaccio is a later prophet. Carpaccio's townscape, with its architecture, sculpture and street furniture, thus does not follow existing forms (note the invented Mannerist monuments in the background of The Disputation of St. Stephen) nor does it repeat familiar architectonic systems (see the interior divisions of the temple in The Marriage of the Virgin). The background of The Disputation is expressed in terms of exotic northern motifs.

That the setting is the main theme in Carpaccio's work is shown also by his preliminary drawings, in which the scenes are empty of figures. In The Marriage of the Virgin, he limited the role of the figure and dwelt on the numerical rhythms, the geometry and the musical sequences of the setting. The other features of his art tend toward the same end, as for instance his use of the panoramic view, which in turn meant abandoning a monumental style. Planes dominate the surface, and atmospheric perspective gives way to a constant focus embracing nearby and distant images. In this view of the cosmos, Carpaccio had learned from Antonello da Messina how to introduce Flemish vision into Italian painting.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 22 minutes):
Johann Sebastian Bach: Cantata, BWV 82