Gateway to the Classics: Knights of Art by Amy Steedman
Knights of Art by  Amy Steedman

Vittore Carpaccio

L IKE most of the other great painters, Giovanni Bellini had many pupils working under him—boys who helped their master, and learned their lessons by watching him work. Among these pupils was a boy called Vittore Carpaccio, a sharp, clever lad, with keen bright eyes which noticed everything. No one else learned so quickly or copied the master's work so faithfully, and when in time he became himself a famous painter, his work showed to the end traces of the master's influence.

He must have been a curious boy, this Vittore Carpaccio, for although we know but little of his life, his pictures tell us many a tale about him.

In the olden days, when Venice was at the height of her glory, splendid fetes were given in the city, and the gorgeous shows were a wonder to behold. Early in the morning of these festa days, Carpaccio would steal away in the dim light from the studio, before the others were astir. Work was left behind, for who could work indoors on days like these? There was a holiday feeling in the very air. Songs and laughter and the echo of merry voices were heard on every side, and the city seemed one vast playground, where all the grown-up children as well as the babies were ready to spend a happy holiday.

The little side-streets of Venice, cut up by canals, seem like a veritable maze to those who do not know the city, but Carpaccio could quickly thread his way from bridge to bridge, and by many a short cut arrive at last at the great central water street of Venice, the Grand Canal. Here it was easy to find a corner from which he could see the gay pageant, and enjoy as good a view as any of those great people who would presently come out upon the balconies of their marble palaces.

The bridge of the Rialto, which throws its white span across the centre of the canal, was Carpaccio's favourite perch, for from here he could see the markets and the long row of marble palaces on either side. From every window hung gay-coloured tapestry, Turkey carpets, silken draperies, and delicate-tinted stuffs covered with Eastern embroideries. The market was crowded with a throng of holiday-makers, a garden of bright colours and from the balconies above richly dressed ladies looked down, themselves a pageant of beauty, with their wonderful golden hair and gleaming jewels, while green and crimson parrots, fastened by golden chains to the marble balustrades, screamed and flapped their wings, and delighted Carpaccio's keen eyes with their vivid beauty.

Then the procession of boats swept up the great waterway, and the blaze of colour made the boy hold his breath in sheer delight. The painted galleys, the rowers in their quaint dresses—half one colour and half another—with jaunty feathered caps upon their floating curls, the nobles and rulers in their crimson robes, the silken curtains of every hue trailing their golden fringes in the cool green water, as the boats glided past, all made up a picture which the boy never forgot.

Then when it was all over, Carpaccio would climb down and make his way back to the master's studio, and with the gay scene ever before his eyes would try, day after day, to paint every detail just as he had seen it.

There is another thing which we learn about Carpaccio from his pictures, and that is, that he must have loved to listen to old legends and stories of the saints, and that he stored them up in his mind, just as he treasured the remembrance of the gay processions and the flapping wings of those crimson and green parrots.

So, when he grew to be a man, and his fame began to spread, the first great pictures he painted were of the story of St. Ursula, told in loving detail, as only one who loved the story could do it.

But though Carpaccio might paint pictures of these old stories, it was always through the golden haze of Venice that he saw them. His St. Ursula is a dainty Venetian lady, and the bedroom in which she dreams her wonderful dream is just a room in one of the old marble palaces, with a pot of pinks upon the window-sill, and her little high-heeled Venetian shoes by the bedside. Whenever it was possible, Carpaccio would paint in those scenes on which his eyes had rested since his childhood—the painted galleys with their sails reflected in the clear water, the dainty dresses of the Venetian ladies, their gay-coloured parrots, pet dogs, and grinning monkeys.

In an old church of Venice there are some pictures said to have been painted by Carpaccio when he was a little boy only eight years old. They are scenes taken from the Bible stories, and very funny scenes they are too. But they show already what clever little hands and what a thinking head the boy had, and how Venice was the background in his mind for every story. For here is the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, and instead of Jerusalem with all its glory, we see a little wooden bridge, with King Solomon on one side and the Queen of Sheba on the other, walking towards each other, as if they were both in Venice crossing one of the little canals.

There were many foreign sailors in Venice in those old days, who came in the trading-ships from distant lands. Many of them were poor and unable to earn money to buy food, and when they were ill there was no one to look after them or help them. So some of the richer foreigners founded a Brotherhood, where the poor sailors might be helped in time of need. This Brotherhood chose St. George as their patron saint, and when they had built a little chapel they invited Carpaccio to come and paint the walls with pictures from the life of St. George and other saints.

Nothing could have suited Carpaccio better, and he began his work with great delight, for he had still his child's love of stories, and he would make them as gay and wonderful as possible. There we see St. George thundering along on his war-horse, with flying hair, clad in beautiful armour, the most perfect picture of a chivalrous knight. Then comes the dragon breathing out flames and smoke, the most awesome dragon that ever was seen; and there too is the picture of St. Tryphonius taming the terrible basilisk. The little boy-saint has folded his hands together, and looks upward in prayer, paying little heed to the evil glare of the basilisk, who prances at his feet. A crowd of gaily dressed courtiers stand whispering and watching behind the marble steps, and here again in the background we have the canals and bridges of Venice, the marble palaces and gay carpets hung from out the windows. Everything is of the very best of its kind, and painted with the greatest care, even to the design of the inlaid work on the marble steps.


St. Tryphonius and the Basilisk
by Carpaccio

As we pass from picture to picture, we wish we had known this Carpaccio, for he must have been a splendid teller of stories; and how he would have made us shiver with his dragons and his basilisks, and laugh over the antics of his little boys and girls, his scarlet parrots and green lizards.

But although we cannot hear him tell his stories, he still speaks through those wonderful old pictures which you will some day see when you visit the fairyland of Italy, and pay your court to Venice, Queen of the Sea.

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