The diabolical realism of the Venetian painter who inspired one of the most famous dishes in Italian cuisine.
Perhaps the most famous is that which appears in the “Due dame veneziane” [“The Two Venetian Ladies”], a painting preserved in the Correr museum. There is a tiny dog, yet with a truly determined personality. The snout is deformed in an almost malefic snarl. At that time the presence of dogs in a canvas had a symbolic meaning. It meant to wish for fidelity. However, there is some art historian convinced that for Vittore Carpaccio, one of the painters par excellence of the Serenissima, working in the 1400s, the century that anticipated the masterpieces of Tintoretto and Titian, dog represented something far more malicious, perhaps Satan in person.
Another dog, larger in size, is also found in the painting – his head seems cleanly truncated, as if his body were to “continue” somewhere else. And maybe it was just like that. This is just one of the Carpaccio mysteries. A possible solution was found in another painting, kept at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. In “Hunting on the Lagoon”, the setting seems quite different, with men armed with bows and arrows on board small boats. On the base (or presumed so) a flower appears. It is the natural continuation of the vase that is on the top and on the right in the “Two Venetian Ladies”.
When placed together, the effect is unequivocally that of a single canvas, or rather, half of an even larger one. In fact, the signs of what was a hinge are quite evident. Moreover, on the back of the canvas, there is a decoration that suggests the fact that the painting could be “closed”. Only one element is missing, the other large piece, lost forever. The “Ladies” (“dame” in Italian, meaning courtesans, as the intellectual John Ruskin called them, helping to make the painting famous) and the “Hunting”, were perhaps cut in 1800s. The upper part fell into the hands of Joseph Fesch, a passionate cardinal of the arts and uncle of Napoleon, who, along with his illustrious nephew, shared a taste for looting.
This is the less glorious, but intriguing, end of what was called a “telero – a large painting – which was quite popular in time of the Venetian Republic. Carpaccio was one of its greatest prophets, with his “Lion of San Marco” as his best known work, at least among those created with his the brush. This piece covers three meters in length, with its hind legs in the sea and the front ones on the ground, to indicate the “dual nature” of the Serenissima, which as coming out of the very difficult war against the League of Cambrai.
The teleri are one of the many demonstrations of ostentation offered by the patricians, the brotherhoods linked to the churches. Carpaccio would later some other works for the “Grandi Scoli” (Great Schools), which like never before had begun to flourish. The set of the Stories of Sant’Ursola, for the school with the same name, has nine of them: a hagiography full of allegories, but with a profound realism.
This pictorial style also contains a philosophical orientation, known as “vedutismo” (or Veduta, a style meaning a highly detailed large painting). Not in the later meaning of artistic technique, but in the Aristotelian one, mediated by the pragmatism taught at the University of Padua. It represents what you see, as you see it. In short, this is an ante litteram realism, where Carpaccio would be a forerunner.
Including the dogs, which will re-emerge nearly everywhere. In the “Sant’Agostino nel studio” (“St. Augustine in His Study”), the painter would offer a Maltese, while in the “Portrait of a Knight”, a beagle. In 1950, Carpaccio was the protagonist of an exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale. For the occasion, a painting arrived from the Louvre, the “The Sermon of Saint Stephen”. The red of the cloaks inspired Giuseppe Cipriani of Harry’s Bar in the choice of the name for a dish invented in Piazza San Marco that same year. Of course, this was the birth of beef carpaccio.