Nov 15, 2010
Carpaccio "Young Knight in a Landscape"
The Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio (1460-1525) takes his place alongside fellow resident of La Serenissima, Giovanni Bellini, as one of many great artists after whom a culinary delicacy is named. Thinly-sliced beef or tuna served with lemon was invented at Harry’s Bar, in Venice, as the ideal accompaniment for a Bellini (a peach and champagne cocktail), also created at the legendary café and now available throughout the world.
Although such a statement may seem like a silly aside, it is in fact worth noting because many non-art historians in the world will have encountered beef carpaccio long before they ever see a painting by the dish’s namesake. This is an example of how fame and name recognition can precede the appreciation or even understanding of what the named individual actually did. One wonders what a great painter like Carpaccio would think, to know that his name is known by millions around the world—but as an Italian hors d’oeuvre?
The painter Carpaccio was a life-long resident of Venice, who likely trained with Giovanni Bellini (insert lunch-related joke here), although as is the case for so many artists of this period, no documentary evidence has been found from the start of Carpaccio’s career. His paintings are not quintessentially Venetian, the way one can see a continuum from Giovanni Bellini, to his pupils, Giorgione and Titian, whose work influenced Palma Vecchio, his son Palma Giovane, and the other great Venetians, Veronese and Tintoretto. Within that group we can see distinctive stylistic consistencies. The way faces and bodies are formed, a sense of roundness to faces, a reliance on color over line, and the paintings laid out in blocks of color rather than drawn with lines that were then colored in, all distinguish this Venetian style, as opposed to contemporary paintings from central Italy.
In Carpaccio we find hints of Antonello da Messina, the great early proponent of oil painting who worked primarily in Sicily, and the painting style that developed in Ferrara, with the likes of Cosme Tura, Dosso Dossi, and Garofalo. Stylistic precedents can provide important clues as to the biography of a young artist. Could Carpaccio have studied in Ferrara? By the looks of his paintings, certainly. But likewise could a Ferrarese painter have been working in Venice? Sure. It is a favorite game for art historians to play, filling in the gaps in documentary evidence with a geography of style, but one must always exercise caution when documentary evidence is absent, and also consider what benefit the inferred knowledge might bring us. The rather complex iconography of this, Carpaccio’s monumental allegory, may indeed be clearer for our understanding of his background.
Carpaccio first appears in records for a series of paintings for the various religious confraternities of Venice, from 1490-94, when he painted eight large works on the life of Saint Ursula for the confraternity named in her honor. Carpaccio liked to work large, and to include a great many details that would draw the eyes of his viewers and spark debate as to what they represented.
It is important to keep in mind that most paintings of the Renaissance were meant to be interactive—to be prayed through, spoken to, discussed with friends. Details would be noticed only after time and careful study, and potentially enigmatic allegories or iconographic choices were part of the fun, permitting scholarly discussion or erudite observations among friends. Paintings were not static objects to be admired once and then to serve as wall decoration. For this reason, a wealth of details and interesting diversions from traditional presentation were desirable, giving the viewer a lot to admire, a lot to consider, and many years of interaction.
And so we come to this work, of enormous size and verdant detail. Unusually, the canvas is signed and dated, on the little painted paper slip in the grass: VICTOR CARPATHIUS / FINXIT / MDX (Latin for “Vittorio Carpaccio made it 1510”). On a sheet of paper to the knight’s left, is another phrase: MALO MORI / Quam / FOEDARI, which is a family motto translating as “Better to die than to be disgraced.” A fitting motto for an idealistic young knight, like the subject of this painting.
This painting was purchased from a collection in the rather random location of Yorkshire, England, where it was attributed in the 19th century to Albrecht Dürer. Dürer’s famous monogram signature, a large capital “A” over a small capital “D,” had been added at some point by a forger, who had also covered over the two painted pieces of paper containing the Latin legend mentioned above. It was as late as 1958 that the canvas was cleaned and the signature, legend, and date were uncovered.
Scholars have had difficulty identifying the knight. It was originally thought to be Saint Eustace, a knight who saw a stag in the woods with antlers in the form of a crucifix. There is a stag in the back right of the painting, but its antlers do not seem to form a cross. The discovery of the motto led scholars to think that this was an identifiable individual, a knight of the Order of the Ermine, an honorary order of knights modeled on the famous Order of the Garter, which was founded by Jean IV of Brittany in 1448. Count Ludovico Sforza of Milan was a member of this Order of the Ermine, as was Ferdinand II of Aragon. Leonardo’s wonderful painting, Lady with an Ermine, refers to this Order. This then begs the question: shouldn’t there be an ermine in this painting? There is: just to the left of the knight’s right foot.
So, if we can agree that this knight is a member of the Order of the Ermine, then who might it be? Various studies have suggested a number of knights, all members of the Order, who lived at the correct time to have posed. Of these, the most widely accepted subject is Francesco Maria della Rovere, the third Duke of Urbino. Perhaps the landscape or animals depicted provide clues to the identity of this mysterious knight? It certainly doesn’t look like a Venetian landscape, which is the first surprise, as Carpaccio’s career is documented in Venice. Could he have traveled to Urbino, with no documentary evidence surviving?
The flora and fauna that populates this grassland is ripe with symbolism. To provide a key to each symbol would require several more pages of text, but some basic links will provide a taste: a dog symbolizes loyalty, a white lily stands for purity, while the peacock is a traditional symbol of royalty, but also has a religious association, related to the uncorrupt body of Christ. There is so much more, and it would be easy to sit before this one painting for hours, as have many art historians. Why is the castle in the background a ruin? Why is there the sign of a horse hanging off the battlements? Who is the other knight, dressed in ceremonial garb, in the middle-ground? Symbolic readings of the landscape in which the knight stands, and the animals found throughout it, may be interpreted to corroborate the theory that this is the Duke of Urbino—but other scholars have made convincing arguments for other identities of this young knight, so his identity remains an intriguing mystery.