Carnival of the Animals

The Italian artist Carpaccio cast a careful, loving eye on his many nonhuman subjects

<em>The Flight into Egypt</em>, c. 1515 (National Gallery of Art)
The Flight into Egypt, c. 1515 (National Gallery of Art)


After a good dinner one evening, with excellent company and a bottle of wine, I settled by my fire with a volume of paintings by the 15th-century Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio. For much of my life I have been under the spell of this artist. I am no connoisseur, cultural scholar, or art historian. I know nothing about painterly techniques, chromatic gradations, or artistic affinities, and my infatuation with him is largely affectionate fancy. I feel I know him personally, and I often sense that I am directly in touch with him across the centuries, across the continents, as one might be in touch with a living friend.

But however much I delight in Carpaccio’s virtual company, I know hardly anything about the man, and in this I am not alone. Scores of scholars have written about his work and influence, but his life story remains indistinct. “Of noble birth and long descent was blithe Carpaccio,” proclaimed Haldane Macfall magisterially in his eight-volume A History of Painting (1912), but he did not really know, either. Vittore is variously supposed to have been born, around 1465, in Venice itself, on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian lagoon, or at Capodistria—now Koper in Slovenia, but in his time under Venetian rule. They say his family originated somewhere in the Istrian peninsula, itself an opaque sort of place, and the family name was originally Scarpazza, Scarpazo in the Venetian dialect. When Latin forms became all the rage among the literati of Venice, Vittore Latinized his signature indiscriminately as Carpatio, Charpatio, Carpatius, Carpacio, Carpazio, Carpathus, or Carpathius. Only after his death did Carpaccio catch on.

Most of his greatest works are in Venice, the city of their commissioning. Many are in the Accademia art gallery, but many more hang to this day in the very building they were painted for, the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, the School of St. George of the Slavs. Visiting them there is the closest one can get to spending time with Vittore, and I will now tell you how to get there. If you leave the Piazza San Marco through the Piazzetta, turn left when you reach the waterfront, cross the next bridge and take the first turning left again. At the T-junction turn right, then take the first left and follow the street until it ends at a canal. Turn left again, and then take the second bridge on the right. When the street divides, take the left fork. Follow the street to the end, turn right, turn immediately left over the bridge, and the Scuola is on your left. “By God’s sonties,” Shakespeare’s Old Gobbo exclaimed when told the way to Shylock’s house through the Venetian lanes, “ ’twill be a hard way to hit,” and by God he was right.

It was because of the paintings in this little building that John Ruskin found himself seduced by Carpaccio. Like me, at first he was ravished simply by their charm and intricate detailing—he painstakingly copied, in pencil and watercolor, one of Carpaccio’s chairs. The paintings offered the effect, he wrote then, “of a soft evening sunshine … or the glow from some embers on some peaceful hearth, cast up into the room where one sits waiting for dear friends, in twilight.” Being new to the artist’s work, he had not yet recognized its profounder messages—Carpaccio was, he wrote, “never to be thought of as a responsible person.”

To my dilettante mind he is certainly not a properly Renaissance painter, his art being short on incensed swirls and splendors, but he is in no way a naif, either, as his mastery of perspective and subtle coloring shows. For years I used to think of him as a Renaissance Innocent, because there is in his work a particular leaning toward things that children like. I have counted in his pictures 20 species of animals and at least 11 sorts of birds, plus a winged lion, a basilisk, cherubs, peculiarly multi-antlered stags, and sundry angels. They are pictured with anatomical accuracy (although in the case of the angels it is difficult to make out where flesh ends and feathers begin).

Ruskin was particularly taken by Carpaccio’s menagerie. He thought one of its birds, a scarlet parrot, might be an unknown species, and proposed to paint a picture of it in order to “immortalize Carpaccio’s name and mine.” It might be classified as Epops carpaccii, he suggested—Carpaccio’s Hoopoe. Ruskin was intrigued, too, by a lizard that Carpaccio depicted holding up his own signature in one of his paintings, and he decided to copy it for a zoological class he was conducting at Oxford.

Vittore has been called pantheistic. I am quite sure he revered Nature, anyway, or he could not have painted the birds and beasts as he did. He seems to have loved them in the way Montaigne loved his cat—as equals, unpatronizingly, clear-eyed, never gushingly. Consider the little dog in his celebrated painting concerning Saints Jerome and Augustine, one of the most famous dogs in all art—the Carpaccio Dog, in fact. Nearly everyone wonders what kind of dog he is. Ruskin, in 1851, thought he was exactly like his white Spitz Wisie (which he described, during a nadir in that animal’s career, as being a “poor little speechless, luckless, wistfully gazing doggie”). Pompeo Molmenti (1907) considered him “a lively little spaniel.” Terisio Pignatti (1958) believed him to be a Maltese puppy, and called his coat “fluffy.” So did Kenneth Clark (1977) in his book Animals and Man. I myself though (2014) prefer to think of him as a dog of no particular breed, a tough urchin mongrel, cocky, feisty, and fun, rescued from the street perhaps by one saint or another, and cherished by multitudes down the centuries. To me he is simply the Carpaccio Dog. Doggie indeed! Fluffy my foot!

There are many other dogs in the oeuvre, not all of them as appealing. There is a surly-looking bruiser waiting for St. Ursula and her 10,000 virgins to disembark from their ship at Cologne, where they are all about to be murdered by the Huns; the scholars tell me it is sitting next to the scoundrel who will presently kill her—his bow is on his lap already. There is the white puppy in a gondola beside the Rialto bridge, in The Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross, looking rather mamby-mamby to me. And then there are the disturbing dogs in the foreground of the picture traditionally called The Two Courtesans (and now known as Two Venetian Ladies, the virtue of the women restored). The two ladies are sitting on their balcony looking extremely bored, and in their listless way they are apparently playing with a couple of dogs. These are not very lovely animals, rather nasty in fact. One seems to be some sort of white hairless terrier; it is sitting on its haunches in a sickly begging attitude at the feet of one of the women, and looking balefully at us with small protruding eyes. She is holding a stick, or perhaps a whip, which is clasped between the bared teeth of the other dog. Only this creature’s head shows, at the edge of the picture, and an ugly, half-snarling head it is, while its paw appears to be clamped upon the piece of paper, lying on the floor, that bears Carpaccio’s inscription. Neither of the two women takes any notice of them.

The picture is famously full of enigma, and I don’t know what Carpaccio meant those dogs to represent. I only know he didn’t much like them. Nor do the Venetian ladies, and nor do I.

Looking again at that picture, I am struck by the deliberate way in which the terrier is looking so directly at us, as though it has a message in mind, and it occurs to me how often Carpaccio employs this collusive device—as comedians sometimes do. Often it may be a hint that the character portrayed is Vittore himself, but I recall being looked at in a suggestive way by many and varied characters of Carpaccio’s world: off the top of my head, a Breton boatman, St. John the Evangelist, a Persian chieftain, the man who killed St. Ursula, more than one horse, several cherubs, and St. Jerome. What are they all saying to me? Is their message always the same?

In a preliminary sketch for his picture about Jerome and Augustine, the Carpaccio Dog was not a dog at all, but what seems to be a cat, a crouching, weasely thing with a collar around its neck. Having failed so abysmally in this exercise, Carpaccio gave up, turned the animal into a dog and, so far as I know, never tried to paint a small feline again.

However, he did have a go at the big ones. All Venetians were familiar with leonine imagery, because St. Mark’s winged variety was everywhere in their city, in architecture as in coinage, on banners and memorials and official documents and trademarks. They were often unconvincing hybrids, sculptors and artists being undecided about how wings were fastened to bodies, but even without wings they were a peculiar lot. There were skinny lions and portly lions, scrunched-up lions, elongated lions, lions uncanny, and lions absurd, and though Carpaccio may have been shown other more or less accurate representations from antiquity, or from foreign artists, I feel sure he never set eyes on a live one himself.

So when lions appear in his own paintings, they seldom do so very leoninely (leonically?). The famous lion of St. Jerome appears twice in Carpaccio’s cycle of pictures about him. First we see the animal soon after Jerome has removed a thorn from its paw, and they have made friends with one another. The saint is leading it into his monastery to introduce it to the rest of the monks, with untoward effect. One and all the brothers are terrified, and flee madly in all directions, leaving the poor lion smiling a slightly embarrassed smile. Next time we find the animal in the background of St. Jerome’s funeral, and although people sometimes claim to see it looking properly mournful in a distant corner of the yard, it looks to me as though it might be yawning.

All the more remarkable, then, was the lion of St. Mark that Carpaccio painted almost at the end of his career. Consider its splendid physique, the hair on its belly, and its tail of tails. Of all the lions of Venice, chimerical or realistic, down all the ages, down all art perhaps, it is surely the champion.

Horses were very Carpaccian. He clearly admired horses, and was familiar with their anatomies. It was not so long, after all, since horses had been commonplace in the streets of Venice. There were still a very few about in Carpaccio’s day, and anyway, every Venetian knew a good horse when he saw one because the city possessed five of the most magnificent equestrian statues in the world. Brand new in 1500 was the final work of Andrea del Verrochio, the colossal equestrian statue of the condottiere Colleoni that stands to this day, marvelously arrogant on its high pedestal outside the church of San Zanipolo. Vittore certainly knew it, because in sublime anachronism he placed it on a still taller pedestal in the background of a picture of St. Stephen in Jerusalem. And he was most certainly familiar—who wasn’t?—with the four golden stallions, the iconic Horses of St. Mark, which had stood on the façade of the basilica ever since the Venetians had looted them in Constantinople in the early 13th century. We meet these glorious creatures time and again in Carpaccio’s work, portrayed in various guises, numbers, roles, and colors, but always with admiration.

Here they stand fastidiously aloof to the slaughter, while all around them the Christians are crucified on Mount Ararat. Here two of them, splendidly caparisoned, impatiently jostle one another while St. George delivers the coup de grâce to his dragon on the great square of Silene; two more stand ostentatiously ready to take the pagan king and queen of the place to their baptism off-stage (i.e., to the next picture in the cycle). Above the high altar of his eponymous church in Venice, the soldier-saint Vitalis is proudly seated on a white charger, attended by four more saints, and another showy horse, primped as for dressage, carefully saunters into the background of that Young Warrior in Madrid. There is also a model of a horse on a mantelpiece in another of Carpaccio’s paintings—even in his time model Golden Horses were desirable souvenirs.

They are all fine, every one of them, perhaps because Carpaccio had modeled them, if only subconsciously, upon those five glorious studs of Venice. But then he never demeaned an animal. There is nothing freakish to his winged lion of St. Mark; as elegant as any Golden Stallion, and as beautifully groomed, is the donkey that conveys the Holy Family to safety in his Flight into Egypt.

By and large it seems to me that in Britain and America, at least, only those who have been to Venice know just who I am talking about when I mention Carpaccio, and their faces light up when they remember him. Even in Venice itself, though, even in his own lifetime, he died in eclipse. It is an irony of art history that in 1508 he was commissioned to judge the work of two young artists who had been employed to paint frescoes on the walls of the Fondego dei Tedeschi, the German trade headquarters at the Rialto. Fifty years old himself, he was chosen for the task as one of the supreme Venetian masters of his day, but as it turned out, the artists whose work he was to judge were principal agents of his nemesis—Giorgione and Titian. Their revolutionary images were to propel Venetian art into the sensual splendors and spiritualities of the High Renaissance, and make the Carpaccian Style almost instantly obsolete. Carpaccio’s judgment of the frescoes is not recorded, but their only surviving examples, the ectoplasmic remnants of Giorgione’s contributions, are reverently preserved at the Franchetti Gallery in Venice to this day.

Vittore’s last years seem to have been a long decline. He was out of date, and perhaps lost heart. All the critics seem to agree that his gifts faded, and even I find many of his later pictures short of inspiration, spontaneity, or even fun. After the splendid metropolitan commissions of his prime, he was gradually reduced to painting altar fronts or organ cases in country churches. Titian, after his death, was honored with a stupendous monument in the great church of the Frari. Carpaccio has no monument at all, except in his works and in the minds of his admirers.

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Jan Morris has written some 40 books of history, travel, biography, memoir, and fiction.


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