Vittore Carpaccio – Venice painter & genius

Vittorio Carpaccio - Winged Lion of St Mark's hangs in the Palazzo Ducale, Venezia
Vittore Carpaccio – Winged Lion of St Mark’s hangs in the Palazzo Ducale, Venezia

Vittore Carpaccio was born on the island of Mazzorbo in the Venetian Lagoon. The exact year of his birth is unknown although it is estimated to be in the 1460s. Contemporary with the Bellini brothers Giovanni and Gentile he was instrumental in defining the iconography of the Venetian Republic. His painting of the ‘Winged Lion’ of St Mark’s hangs in the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) and symbolises the strength and importance of the Venetian Republic.

His painting of the slaying of the dragon by San Giorgio which hangs in the Scuola San Giorgio, just inland from Riva Schiavoni is one of the most powerful versions of this classical subject that I know. Debris from a recent battle can be seen; skulls, bones, dismembered bodies litter the foreground. Whilst chivalrous and brave George, with his Titian red hair (beloved by Venetians) bravely puts paid to the dragon. The background is a pastiche of castles and temples, reminiscent of the Holy Land. George is definitely in Crusader mode with his armour, sword and spear. A beautiful princess looks on, wishing him success in battle.

San Giorgio slaying the dragon
San Giorgio slaying the dragon – Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni (Venezia)
St Jerome leads the lion of St Mark’s as the monks from the nearby monastery scatter in terror – Scuola San Giorgio

St Jerome was a 4th century saint and scholar. He was responsible for translating the Bible into Latin. Legend has it that he preferred wild animals and beasts to people. He befriended and tamed this lion and removed a thorn from its paw. The lion was a symbol of power and strength to the Venetians who had adopted St Mark as a suitable patron saint of the city as the Republic grew and prospered. The previous patron saint of Venice was Theodore – he was deemed insufficiently prestigious. An evangelist was needed for a city as dynamic and powerful as Venice. No doubt the Venetians also liked the idea of scholarly St Jerome, usually portrayed with a long flowing beard as a man of wisdom and great intelligence. Interestingly St Jerome is known as Hieronymous in Latin – a fact I learned just today!

Carpaccio clearly felt comfortable with saintly material. Another of his exceptional canvases is the ‘Vision of St Augustine’ a wonderful representation of yet another saint sitting in his study and being inspired by the presence of God. The detail of the room in which the saint works, furniture, ornaments and manuscripts enriches the experience of the viewer and the mind of the saint. St Augustine (of Hippo) was a scholar and philosopher, he was regarded as one of the most important thinkers in the early Christian church. A man of books and learning and philosophy.

Vittore Carpaccio - Visione di Sant'Agostino - 1502 Scuola S Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venezia
Vittore Carpaccio – Visione di Sant’Agostino – 1502 Scuola S Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venezia

It’s not all serious swotting with Carpaccio though, in both the St Augustine painting and another canvas in the Accademia – Relics of the Holy Cross at Rialto – there’s a cute furry white dog in the middle of the picture. This adds a little humanity and every day normality to these otherwise stylised and highly studious paintings. Even the fleeing monks in the painting of St Jerome indicate some humour in Carpaccio’s work. So too does the range of athletic figures of the gondoliers in the ‘Relics of the Cross at Rialto’ canvas. So next time you are in Venice, head to either Scuola San Giorgio degli Schiavoni to admire the Carpaccio paintings there or head to Accademia for a different but equally interesting set of Carpaccio canvases.

Detailed painting of Rialto - Carpaccio 1494
Miracle of relics of the cross – painting of Rialto – Carpaccio 1494


The thing about Venice is that there is treasure around every corner and once you start looking, you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the richness of this medieval city which still looks (more or less) as it did in 1510.

14th Sept, 2021 / Updated: January, 2023

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