Two Venetian Ladies by Vittore Carpaccio

Two Venetian Ladies by Carpaccio (C.1510)

We know Vittore Carpaccio was born in Venice but his precise birth date is not known but it is thought to be around 1460.  His father Piero Scarpazza, who came from nearby Istria, was a leather merchant.  Vittore is believed to have trained in the studio of the Jacopo Bellini family, which at that time after his death, was run by his two sons, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini.  Carpaccio’s art was very much influenced by the works of Gentile and Giovanni Bellini as well as Antonello da Messina, the Sicilian Renaissance painter who introduced the Netherlandish Renaissance art of Flanders and Holland to Venice.  Later he would work as an assistant to the Paduan artist, who had a studio in Venice, Lazzaro Bastiani

Carpaccio’s greatest work of art was his large nine painting series entitled The Legend of Saint Ursula, which was originally meant for the Scuola di sant’Orsola but can now be found in the Gallerie dell’Academia in Venice.   This work completed in 1497 is absolutely breathtaking and is one that should be a “must see” if you visit Venice.  I featured one of the large paintings in My Daily Art Display, March 22nd 2011.  During the first decade of the sixteenth century, Carpaccio worked on a series of paintings for the Hall of the Great Council in the Doge’s Palace along with his former tutor Giovanni Bellini. Unfortunately, like many other major works, the series was entirely lost in the disastrous fire of 1577.  This was the third serious fire to devastate rooms in that building.

Between 1502 and 1507 Carpaccio worked on a cycle of canvases for the Scuola di S.Giorgio degli Schiavoni, with the story of St. George and the dragon and episodes from the life of St. Jerome.   Following this Carpaccio started in 1511 to work on a series of paintings based on the life of St. Stephen in the Scuola di S. Stefano.  It took him three years to complete the works.  Carpaccio received many commissions including ones from the Venetian government.

His popularity in the ten years prior to his death in 1525 waned mainly due to a young artist who had arrived in Venice in 1500 and like Carpaccio went to work for the Bellini brothers.  His name was Tiziano Vecellio, better known simply as Titian and it was this young man who was to amass numerous commissions from the Venetian government and rich Venetian patrons.  Carpaccio ended his career back in the provinces where his somewhat out-dated approach to art still attracted many buyers.   After his death he was almost completely forgotten as an artist but now art historians look upon him as a fifteenth century Venetian artist, only bettered by Giovanni Bellini.

My Daily Art Display’s featured work today is a tempera and oil on wood panel painting entitled Two Venetian Ladies and can be found at the Correr Museum in Venice.  It was completed by Carpaccio around 1510.  Before us are two unknown Venetian ladies.  Who they were has never been agreed on by art historians.  They sit there with what can only be described as vacant and bored expressions.  Early scholars including the English art critic, John Ruskin, believed that the two ladies were high class courtesans, a polite term for high class prostitutes, and they were waiting for their rich clients. John Ruskin, who thought this work at the time was one of the finest in the world, actually referred to the painting as Two Courtesans.   The story of the two ladies was further embellished by stating that the small page we see to the left of the painting has just arrived with a message from a lover for one of the ladies.  Another reason Ruskin and other believers in the “courtesan” argument gave for their theory was that in front of the page, on the floor, are a pair of wedge platform sandals which were often worn by prostitutes to make themselves look taller.  Those who did not accept the “courtesan” theory pointed out that most women of the time wore such sandals.

However, those who did not accept the “courtesan scenario” would have us believe that because of their exquisite clothing and expensive jewelry, they were members of the aristocratic Torella family.  Another reason for believing that they were not courtesans, mistresses of rich men, is Carpaccio’s inclusion in the painting of a white handkerchief held by one of the ladies, strings of pearls worn around their necks of both women, and the white doves perched on the balustrade, which were known as the birds of the Goddess of Love, Venus, and all of which symbolized chastity.

Hunting on the Lagoon by Carpaccio (c.1510)

In 1944 all the speculation about the Two Venetian Ladies painting changed when the upper half of the painting was discovered.   Professor Pamela Fortini Brown of Princeton University may have solved the question regarding the two ladies as she wrote that this painting is part of a larger one, in fact the lower right hand section of a very large work.     The upper right half of the original work is now housed in the Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and is entitled Hunting in the Lagoon.  This upper part depicts several boats in a lagoon.  Because of the way only half of the dog’s head is shown in the painting, suddenly cut off behind its ears, it is thought there is a complete missing left hand side of the work in which the rest of the dog is depicted.

So now we must rethink what we are seeing in the original painting.   One now must believe that the husbands of the two ladies seated are in this party of hunters and that the ladies are waiting their return.  We can see each boat has a group of three rowers and an archer who all stand in these shallow-bottomed craft and hunt the glossy black cormorants which they will sell or train to catch and retrieve fish from the lake.   Rather than bring the bird down with an arrow which would damage the plumage, the archers use clay pellets which will stun the birds. If we now consider the two paintings together it would explain the meaning of the paintings title, as the two women are awaiting their husbands’ return after a hunting and fishing expedition in the Venetian lagoon. Look closely at the two paintings.

Juxtaposition of the two paintings

So do you agree the two paintings are part of one original work?  Observe the majolica vase of flowers on the balustrade in the upper left background of the Two Venetian Ladies painting.  Note how the stalk of the flower is cut off at the top edge of the work.  Now look at the bottom left foreground of the Hunting on the Lagoon painting and you can see the stem and head of a lily which when looking at just that painting makes no sense, but if the two paintings are juxtaposed, one on top of the other, one can then see that the head of the lily in one painting is a continuation of the stem protruding from the vase in the other painting.  Add to this visual evidence the fact that when the two panels were examined, the wood grain of the two panels was found to be identical and this confirmed that they were once a single panel. It is thought that the two parts were probably sawed apart some time before the nineteenth century.