Everybody likes Carpaccio. I’m not talking about the dish of thinly sliced raw beef devised in 1970 by Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in Venice but about the 16th-century painter whose particular shade of red gave this kitchen classic its name. Carpaccio himself, Vittore or Vettor as he was known among Venetians, was a contemporary of Bellini, Giorgione and Cima da Conegliano and the creator of some of the world’s best-loved paintings. He is not, admittedly, ranked among the movers and shakers of Renaissance art. In discussions of Venetian art of this period he tends to be either treated as a charming footnote or else omitted altogether. Nothing in his work suggests a hankering after grandeur, sublimity or the formulation of timeless theological absolutes. The spirituality of a Carpaccio painting – and they are almost all religious in theme – is grounded in earthly experience rather than divine exaltation.
Yet this is what has enthralled us in the artist’s work ever since John Ruskin’s Damascene conversion to him in 1869, under the influence of Edward Burne-Jones. ‘Carpaccio is a new world to me’, he wrote excitedly to ‘dearest Ned’, going on to turn the St George cycle in the Scuola Dalmata into an allegory of England’s spiritual rebirth and to identify the sleeping girl in the Accademia’s Dream of St Ursula with his infant love object Rose La Touche. Although not specially mindful of either obsession, art lovers, under his influence, have since beaten a path to these paintings and their companions, coming away entranced by Carpaccio’s gift, as Ruskin defined it, for ‘seeing things in vision as if they were real’.
Among those transfigured through contact with these strangely numinous works is Jan Morris, who has lived in Venice and created one of the finest encapsulations of the total Venetian experience in her book on the city. In what she now claims will be her last book (though somehow I wonder), she returns to the city, the keeper of Carpaccio’s flame, to offer the warmest of eulogies to the artist and his genius. She freely admits to her amateur status, as somebody knowing nothing of art history, cultural scholarship, painterly technique or artistic affinities, offering personal fondness as her sole qualification for writing about Carpaccio. Surely this is a laudable approach. Art historians can furnish us with all the necessary critical apparatus as regards symbolism, influences, allusions and so on, but the essence of Ciao, Carpaccio! is the point at which the painter’s work most profoundly engages us – that precious moment of first meeting which, for an enthusiast like Morris, happens again and again.
For her the artist is sui generis, not absolutely of the Renaissance, ‘his art being short on incensed swirls and splendours’, or medieval or wholly naive, given his extraordinary skill as a maker of immense perspectives and his infinite variety as a colourist. One label Morris suggests for him is ‘Renaissance Innocent’, given his childlike enjoyment of fancy dress, exotic architecture and a well-stocked menagerie of animals and birds. Even the most shudder-inducing episode of slaughter and martyrdom is alloyed with Carpaccio’s sense of fun and the irrepressible brilliance of his palette. As St George, for example, splinters his bloody lance in the dragon’s mouth, we can be forgiven for giggling at the litter of half-eaten body parts scattered beneath the charging horse: ‘They do look a frightful mess, littering the field over which George heroically gallops – like rubbish fallen off the back of a dustbin truck.’
Laughter, indeed, extends across Carpaccio’s work, rippling through that much-loved scene of St Jerome turning up at the monastery with his friendly lion, only to send the monks shrieking with terror across the cloister. It tinges his portrayal of the Venetian youths, members of something called a Stocking Club, who swagger beneath the marble loggia at the edge of The Arrival of the English Ambassadors in the St Ursula cycle. The ghost of an indulgent smile lights up the already richly toned Flight into Egypt in Washington, DC, where Joseph turns an anxious glance towards the infant Jesus, a forefinger pointed towards his mouth, as the donkey, ears back, plods onwards with a sublime sense of purpose.
The Washington picture expands our awareness of a canon familiar to many of us only from the great Venetian sequences. To these Morris adds the splendid Entombment of Christ in Berlin, with its amazing profusion of imagery. She is eloquent on the symbolism of the bridge in the Holy Family in Avignon, a work in which, as she notes, the adults, including the Virgin’s parents, appear distinctly glum in comparison with the jolly music-making putti or ‘the Lord of All … most happily playing a game with the Baptist’. The rocky bridge above them, its apex crossed by a perilous plank with a handrail and occupied on one side by St Jerome with his lion, becomes, in Morris’s reading, a portal, sanctified by the foreground figures, to the paradise represented by the handsome city beyond, above a glistening green river.
The writer’s intuitive grasp of significances like these is part of the pleasure of Ciao, Carpaccio! Morris does not disdain art-historical wisdom, such as the modern consensus that what we used to call St Jerome in His Study actually represents St Augustine, but the real value of this book lies in the author’s own garnered knowledge and experience, enabling us to read these vivid pictorial texts more intently. The exceptional quality of the colour reproductions is a further delight, with their focus on the smallest of details: a breviary dropped by a terrified monk, the rigging of a Venetian galley, lizards, snakes, dogs and parrots or those mantelpiece ornaments in Augustine’s study. This small-format book will make an incomparable Christmas stocking present. It is a touching, humorous and affectionate tribute from one expert and inspired practitioner to another.