Mrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) Oliphant.

The makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters online

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other pictures of the series may be more rich in incident
and expression, and have a higher dramatic interest, but
the sleep of Ursula is exquisite and goes to every heart.
The San Giorgio in the little church of the Slavs
detaches itself in a similar way from all others, and
presents to the imagination a companion picture. Ursula
has no companion in her own story that is so worthy of
her as this St. George. Her prince is only a vision; he
is absorbed in her presence, a shadow, whom the painter
has scarcely taken the trouble to keep of one type, or
recognizable throughout the series. But the San Giorgio
of the Schiavoni remains in our thoughts, a vision of
youthful power and meaning, worthy to be that maiden's
mate. No sleep for him, or dreams. He puts his horse
at the dragon with an intent and stern diligence as if
there were (as truly there was not) no moment to lose,
no breath to draw, till his mission had been accomplished.
A swift fierceness and determination is in every line of
of him; his spear, which seems at first on the wrong side
of the horse, is so on purpose to get a stronger leverage
in the tremend.ous charge. The dragon is quite a poor


creature to call forth all that force of righteous passion;
but we think nothing of its abject meanness, all sympathy
and awe being concentrated in the champion's heavenly
wrath and inspiration of purpose. We do not pretend to
follow the great critic who has thrown all his own tender
yet fiery genius into the elucidation of every quip and
freak of fancy in this elaborate medieval poem. The
low and half lighted walls of the little brown church,
which bears a sort of homely resemblance to an English
Little Bethel, enshrine for us chiefly this one heroic
semblance, and no more; and we do not attempt to dis-
cuss the painting from any professional point of view.
But we are very sure that this knight and maiden, though
they never can belong to each other, will find their
places in every sympathetic soul that sees them, together
George charging down in abstract holy wrath upon the
impersonation of sin and evil; Ursula dreaming of the
great, sad, yet fair life before her the pilgrim's journey,
and the martyr's palm.

The lives of the saints were the popular poetry of
Christendom, catholic and universal beyond all folk-lore
and folks-lieder, before even the limits of existing Con-
tinental nations were formed. All the elements of
romance, as well as that ascetic teaching and doctrine of
boundless self-sacrifice which commends itself always to
the primitive mind as the highest type of religion, were
to be found in these primitive tales, which are never so
happy as when taking the youngest and fairest and
noblest from all the delights of life, and setting them
amid the mediaeval horrors of plague and destitution.
Carpaccio's saints, however, belong to even an earlier
variety of the self-devoted, the first heroes of humanity.
It is for the faith that they contend and die ; they are the
ideal emissaries of a divine religion but newly unveiled
and surrounded by a dark and horrible infidel world which
is to be converted only by the blood of the martyrs; or
by mysterious forms of evil, devouring dragons and mon-
sters of foul iniquity, who must be slain or led captive
by the spotless warriors in whom there is nothing kindred
to their rapacious foulness. Perhaps it is because of the
vicinity of Venice to the East, and of the continual con-
flict with the infidel which Crusades and other enterprises
less elevated had made more familiar than any other


enemy to the imagination of the city of the sea, that
Carpaccio's story-telling is all of this complexion. The
German painter from over the Alps had his dreams of
sweet Elizabeth, with the loaves in her lap which turned
to roses, and the leper whom she laid in the prince's bed,
when our Venetian conceived his Ursula forewarned of
all that must follow, leaving home and father to convert
the heathen; or that strenuous, grave St. George, with
stern, fierce eyes aflame, cutting down the monster who
was evil embodied.

These were the earliest of all heroic tales in Christen-
dom, and Carpaccio's art was that of the minstrel-his-
torian as well as the painter. He knew how to choose
his incidents and construct his plot like any story-teller,
so that those, if there were any, in Venice, who did not
care for pictures, might still be caught by the interest of
his tale, and follow breathless the fortunes of the royal
maiden, or that great episode of heroic adventure which
has made so many nations choose St. George as their
patron saint. Gentile Bellini had found out how the
aspect of real life and all its accessories might be turned
to use in art, and how warm was the interest of the spec-
tators in the representation of the things and places
with which they were most familiar; but Carpaccio made
a step beyond his old master when he discovered that
art was able, not only to make an incident immortal, but
to tell a story, and draw the very hearts of beholders out
of their bosoms, as sometimes an eloquent friar in the
pulpit, or story-teller upon the Riva, with his group of
entranced listeners, could do. And having made this
discovery, though it was already the time of the Renais-
sance and all the uncleanly gods of the heathen, with all
their fables, were coming back, for the diversion and
delight of the licentious and the learned, this painter
sternly turned his back upon all these newfangled
interests, and entranced all Venice though she loved
pleasure, and to pipe and sing and wear fine dresses and
flaunt in the sunshine with the story of the devoted
princess and her maiden train, and with St. George, all
swift and fierce in youthful wrath, slaying the old dragon,
the emblem of all ill, the devouring lust and cruelty
whose ravages devastated an entire kingdom and de-
voured both man and maid.


But of the man who did this we know nothing, not
even where he was born or where he died. He has been
said to belong to Istria because there has been found
there a family of Carpaccio, among whom, from time
immemorial, the eldest son has been called Victor or
Vettore; but that this is the painter's family is a matter
of pure conjecture. The diligent researches of Signer
Molmenti, who has done so much to elucidate Venetian
manners and life, have found in the archives of a neigh-
ing state a letter, perhaps the only intelligible trace of
Carpaccio as an ordinary mortal, and not an inspired
painter, which is in existence. It affords us no revela-
tion of high meaning or purpose, but only a homely view
of a man with no greater pretensions than those of an
honest workman living on his earnings, reluctant to lose
a commission and eager to recommend himself to a
liberal and well-paying customer. It shows him upon
no elevation of poetic meaning such as we might have
preferred to see; but, after all, even in heroic days,
there was nothing contrary to inspiration in selling your
picture and commending yourself as much as was in you,
to who would buy. And it is evident that Carpaccio had
much confidence in the excellence of the work he had to
sell and felt that his wares were second to none. The
letter is addressed to the well-known amateur and patron
of artists, he who was the first to make Titian's fortune,
Francesco Gonzaga, Lord of Mantua.


Some days ago a person, unknown to me, conducted by certain others,
came to me to see a " Jerusalem " which I have made, and as soon as he
had seen it, with great pertinacity insisted that I should sell it to him,
because he felt it to be a thing out of which he would get great content
and satisfaction. Finally we made a bargain by mutual agreement, but
since then I have seen no more of him. To clear up the matter I asked
those who had brought him, among whom was a priest, bearded and
clad in gray, whom I had several times seen in the hall of the Great
Council with your highness ; of whom asking his name and condition
I was told that he was Messer Laurentio, painter to your illustrious
highness by which I easily understood where this person might be
found, and accordingly I direct these presents to your illustrious high-
ness to make you acquainted with my name as well as with the work in
question. First, signer mio, I am that painter by whom your illustrious
highness was conducted to see the pictures in the great hall, when your
illustrious highness deigned to ascend the scaffolding to see our work,
which was the story of Ancona, and my name is Victor Carpatio. Con-
cerning the " Jerusalem " I take upon me to say that in our times there is


not another picture equal to it, not only for excellence and perfection,
but also for size. The height of the picture is twenty-five feet and t;he
width is five feet and a half, according to the measure of such things,
and I know that of this work Zuane Zamberti has spoken to your sub-
limity. Also it is true, and I know certainly, that the aforesaid painter,
belonging to your service, has carried away a sketch incomplete and of
small size which I am sure will not be to your highness' satisfaction. If
it should please your highness to submit the picture first to the inspec-
tion of some judicious men, on a word of guarantee being given to me
it shall be at your highness' disposal. The work is in distemper on
canvas, and it can be rolled round a piece of wood without any detri-
ment. If it should please you to desire it in color, it rests with your
illustrious highness to command, and to me with profoundest study to
execute. Of the price I say nothing, remitting it entirely to your illus-
trious highness, to whom I humbly commend myself this fifteenth day of
August, 1511, at Venice. Da V. Subl. humilo. Servitore,


Whether the anxious painter got the commission, or if
his sublimity of Mantua thought the humble missive
beneath his notice, or if the "Jerusalem" was ever put
into color cum summo studio, will probably never be known;
but here he appears to us a man very open to commissions,
eager for work, probably finding the four ducats a month
of the Signoria poor pay, and losing no opportunity of
making it up. But though the painter is anxious and
conciliatory, he does not deceive himself as to the excel-
lence of his work. He takes upon him to say that there
is no better picture to be had in his time, and gives the
measure of it with simplicity, feeling that this test of
greatness, at least, must be within his correspondent's
capacity. And one cannot but remark, with a smile,
how this old demi-god of art in the heroic age was ready
to forward his picture to the purchaser rolled around
a piece of wood, as we send the humble photograph
nowadays by the post! How great a difference! yet with
something odd and touching of human resemblance, too.

Of the great painters of the following generation, who
raised the Venetian school to the height of glory, almost
all who were born subjects of the republic passed through
the studio of the Bellini. The historians tell us how
young Giorgio of Castel Franco awoke a certain despite
in the breast of his master by his wonderful progress
and divination in the development of art seizing such
secrets as were yet to discover, and conjuring away a
certain primitive rigidity which still remained in the
work of the elders; and how young Tiziano, from his


mountain village, entered into the method of his fellow-
pupil, and both together carried their mystery of glorious
color and easy, splendid composition to its climax in
Venice. But the feeling and criticism of the present
age, so largely influenced by Mr. Ruskin, are rather dis-
posed to pass that grand perfection by, and return with
devotion to the simple splendor of those three early
masters who are nearer to the fountain-head and retain
a more absolute reality and sincerity in their work.
Gentile Bellini painting behind and around his miracle
the genuine Venice which he saw, a representation more
authentic and graphic than any that history can make;
and Carpaccio giving life and substance to the legends
which embodied literature and poetry and the highest
symbolical morals to the people express the fact of
everyday life and the vision and the faculty divine of a
high and pure imagination, with a force and intensity
which are not in their more highly trained and conven-
tionally perfect successors. And as for the third, in
some respects the noblest of the three he whose genius
sought no new path, who is content with the divine group
which his homely forefathers had drawn and daubed
before him, but which it was his to set forth for the first
time in Venice in all the luster of the new method of
color which he and his successors carried to such glow
and splendor that all that is most brilliant in it is called
Venetian where shall we find a more lovely image of
the Mother and the Child than that which he sets before
us, throned in grave seclusion in the Frari, humbly
retired behind that window in the Accademia, shining
forth over so many altars in other places, in a noble and
modest perfection? The angel children sounding their
simple lutes, looking up with frank and simple childish
reverence, all sweet and human, to the miraculous Child,
have something in them which is as much beyond the
conventional cherubic heads and artificial, ornamented
angels of the later art as heaven is beyond earth, or the
true tenderness of imagination beyond the fantastic
inventions of fiction. And if Raphael in our days must
give way to Botticelli, with how much greater reason
should Titian in the height of art, all earthly splendor
and voluptuous glow, give place to the lovely imagina-
tions of old Zuan Bellini, the father of Venetian art!



THE day of art had now fully risen in Venice. The
dawning had been long; progressing slowly, through all
the early efforts of decoration and ornament, and by the
dim, religious light of nameless masters, to the great
moment in which the Bellini revealed themselves, making
Venice splendid with the sunrise of a new faculty, en-
tirely congenial to her temperament and desires. It
would almost appear as if the first note, once struck, of a
new departure in life or in art, was enough to wake up in
all the regions within hearing the predestined workers,
who, but for that awaking, might have slumbered forever,
or found in other fields an incomplete development.
While it is beyond the range of human powers to deter-
mine what cause or agency it is which enables the first
fine genius the Maker, who in every mode of creative
work is like the great priest of the Old Testament, with-
out father and without mother to burst all bonds and
outstep all barriers, it is comparatively easy to trace
how, under his influence and by the stimulus of a sudden
new impulse felt to be almost divine, his successors may
spring into light and being. Nothing, to our humble
thinking, explains the Bellini; but the Bellini to a certain
extent explain Titian and all the other splendors to

When the thrill of the new beginning had gone through
all the air, mounting up among the glorious peaks and
snows, to Cadore on one side, and over the salt-water
country and marshy plains on the other to Castel Franco,
two humble families had each received the uncertain
blessing of a boy, who took to none of the established
modes of living, and would turn his thoughts neither to
husbandry nor to such genteel trades as became the
members of a family of peasant nobility, but dreamed and
drew, with whatsoever material came to their hands, upon
walls or other handy places. At another epoch it is



likely enough that parental force would have been em-
ployed to balk, for a time at least, these indications of
youthful genius; but no doubt some of the Vecelli
family, the lawyer uncle or the soldier father, had some
time descended from his hilltop to the great city which
lay gleaming upon the edge of those great plains of sea
that wash the feet of the mountains, and had seen some
wonderful work in church or senate chamber, which made
known a new possibility to him, and justified in some
sort the attempts of the eager child. More certainly still
a villager from the Trevisano, carrying his rural mer-
chandise to market, would be led by some gossip in the
Erberia to see the new Madonna in San Giobbe, and ask
himself whether by any chance little Giorgio, always
with that bit of chalk in his fingers, might come to do
such a wonder as that if the boy had justice done him?
They came accordingly, with beating hearts, the two little
rustics, each from his village, to Zuan Bellini's bottega in
the Rialto to learn their art. The mountain boy was but
ten years old confided to the care of an uncle who lived
in Venice; but whether he went at once into the head-
quarters of the art is unknown, and unlikely, for so young
a student could scarcely have been far enough advanced
to profit by the instructions of the greatest painter in
Venice. It is supposed by some that he began his
studies under Zuccato, the mosaicist, or some humbler
instructor. But all this would seem mere conjecture.
Vasari, his contemporary and friend, makes no mention
of any preliminary studies, but places the boy at once
under Giovanni Bellini. Of the young Barbarella from
Castel Franco the same story is told. He, too, was
brought to Venice by his father and placed under Bellini's
instruction. Messrs. Crowe and Cavalcaselle have con-
fused these bare but simple records with theories of their
own respecting the influence of Giorgione upon Titian,
which is such, they think, or thought, as could only have
been attained by an elder over a younger companion,
whereas all the evidence goes to prove that the two were
as nearly as possible the same age, and that they were
fellow-pupils, perhaps fellow-apprentices, in Bellini's
workshop. We may, however, find so much reason for
the theory as this, that young Tiziano was in his youth
a steady and patient worker, following all the rules and


discipline of his master, and taking into his capacious
brain everything that could be taught him, awaiting the
moment when he should turn these stores of instruction
to use in his own individual way; whereas young Giorgio
was more masterful and impatient, and with a quicker
eye and insight (having so much less time to do his work
in) seized upon those points in which his genius could
have full play. Vasari talks as if this brilliant youth, with
all the fire of purpose in his eyes, had blazed all of a
sudden upon the workshop in which Bellini's pupils
labored Titian among them, containing what new lights
were in him in dutiful subordination to the spirit of the
place "about the year 1507," with a new gospel of
color and brightness scattering the clouds from the fir-
mament. Ridolfi, on the other hand, describes him as a
pupil whom the master looked upon with a little jealousy,
"seeing the felicity with which all things were made
clear by this scholar. And certainly," adds the critic in
his involved and ponderous phraseology, "it was a
wonder to see how this boy added to the method of
Bellini (in whom all the beauties of painting had seemed
conjoined) such grace and tenderness of color, as if
Giorgione, participating in that power by which Nature
mixes human flesh with all the qualities of the elements,
harmonized with supreme sweetness the shadow and the
light, and threw a delicate flush of rose tints upon every
member through which the blood flows."

Giorgione, with his bolder impulse and that haste
which we perceive, to have been so needful for his short
life, is more apparent than his fellow-student in these
early years. When he came out of Bellini's workshop,
his apprenticeship done, he roamed a little from bottega
to bottega; painting now a sacred picture for an oratory
or chapel, now a marriage chest or cabinet. " Quadri
di devotione, ricinti da letto, e gabinetti" says Ridolfi
not ashamed to turn his hand to anything there might be
to do. Going home afterward to his village, he was
received, the same authority informs us, with enthusi-
asm, as having made himself a great man and a painter,
and commissions showered upon him. Perhaps it was at
Castel Franco, amid the delight and praise of his friends,
that the young painter first recognized fully his own
powers. At all events, when he had exhausted their


simple applauses and filled the village church and con-
vent with his work, he went back to Venice, evidently
with a soul above the ricinti da letto, and launched himself
upon the world. His purse was, no doubt, replenished
by the work he had done at home; a number of the
wealthy neighbors having had themselves painted by
little Giorgio an opportunity they must have perceived
that might not soon recur. But it was not only for
work and fame that he returned to Venice. He was
young, and life was sweet sweeter there than anywhere
else in all the world; full of everything that was beauti-
ful and bright. He took a house in the Campo San
Silvestro, opposite the church of that name, not far from
the Rialto, in the midst of all the joyous companions of
his craft; and "by his talent and his pleasant nature,"
drawing round him a multitude of friends, lived there
amid all the delights of youth, dilettandosi suonar il
liuto, dividing his days between the arts. No gayer life
nor one more full of pleasure could be; his very work a
delight, a continual crowd of comrades, admiring, imitat-
ing, urging him on, always round him, every man with
his canzone and his picture ; and all ready to fling them
down at a moment's notice, and rush forth to swell the
harmonies on the canal, or steal out upon the lagoon in
the retirement of the gondola, upon some more secret
adventure. What hush there would be of all the laugh-
ing commentaries when a fine patrician in his sweeping
robes was seen approaching across the campo, a possible
patron; what a rush to the windows when, conscious per-
haps of all the eyes upon her, but without lifting her own,
some lovely Madonna wrapped in her veil, with her fol-
lowing of maidens, would come in a glory of silken robes
and jewels out of the church door ! " Per certo suo
decoroso aspetto si detto Giorgione," says Ridolfi, but
perhaps the word decoroso would be out of place in our
sense of it for his delightsome presence rather and his
pleasant ways. The Italian tongue still lends itself to
such caresses, and is capable of making the dear George,
the delightful fellow, the beloved of all his companions,
into Giorgione still.

And amid all this babble of lutes and laughter, and all
the glow of color and flush of youth, the other lad from
the mountains would come and go, no less gay perhaps


than any of them, but working on, with that steady
power of his, gathering to himself slowly but with an
unerring instinct the new principles which his comrade,
all impetuous and spontaneous, made known in practice
rather than in teaching, making the blood flow and the
pulses beat in every limb he drew. Young Tiziano had
plodded through the Bellini system without making any
rebellious outbreak of new ideas as Giorgione had done;
taking the good of his master, so far as that master
went, but with his eyes open to every suggestion, and
very ready to see that his comrade had expanded the
old rule, and done something worth adopting and follow-
ing in this joyful, splendid outburst of his. It was in this
way, no doubt, that the one youth followed the other,
half by instinct, by mingled sympathy and rivalry, by the
natural contagion of a development more advanced than
that which had been the starting point of both confus-
ing his late critics after some centuries into an attempt
to prove that the one must have taught the other, which
was not necessary in any formal way. Titian had ninety
years to live, and Nature worked in him at leisure, while
Giorgione had but a third of that time, and went fast;
flinging about what genius and power of instruction there
were in him with careless liberality; not thinking whether
from any friendly comrade about him he received less
than he gave. Perhaps the same unconscious hurry of
life, perhaps only his more impetuous temper, induced
him, when work flagged and commissions were slow of
coming in, to turn his hand to the front of his own house

Online LibraryMrs. (Margaret Oliphant Wilson) OliphantThe makers of Venice; doges, conquerors, painters, and men of letters → online text (page 25 of 35)