If you always wondered, the answer is yes: The elegant appetizer known as carpaccio (sliced raw beef dressed with olive oil and lemon juice, but not too much) was named for Vittore Carpaccio, the 16th-century Venetian painter. The dish was invented in Venice, Carpaccio’s home turf, and it became popular during a landmark 1963 exhibition devoted to him.
Unfortunately, carpaccio is easier to send around the world than the works of Carpaccio, many of which are large and not easily moved. Thus, the National Gallery of Art exhibition “Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice” requires visitors to fill in some blanks. It is a must-see show — the first retrospective organized outside Italy and thus, for many Americans, the first encounter with a highly seductive artist.
At the same time, however, it is a frustrating introduction to a painter who could be uneven. Each room in the exhibition, which includes some 75 paintings and drawings, contains something magnificent — and that’s not a bad average. But near the end of his life (he died in 1525), or when he worked with assistants, or for some reason when his inspiration wavered, Carpaccio made rather bland work, especially when it came to faces and details of psychology.
Much of his oeuvre was cinematic — large-scale paintings that told stories, full of bustle and incident, with distractions that are often more interesting than the main event. These narrative cycles were designed to be symbolically and architecturally integral to key buildings in Venice, so they also functioned on the decorative level, full of color and lively patterns and sometimes flattened to seem like a frieze, with the action playing out across on a flat plane.
Among these works is a cycle based on the life of Saint Ursula, subject of one of the more elaborate and fanciful legends of the Middle Ages. She was a Breton princess who set off on what became a grand tour of Europe, accompanied by 11,000 virgins who were later martyred in Cologne, Germany.
The subject was popular among artists during the Renaissance, and Carpaccio told the overwrought story in a sequence of nine large canvases designed for a confraternity building known as the Scuola di Sant Orsola. Unfortunately, these monumental paintings, which now have a room to themselves at the Galleria dell’Academia in Venice, are not in this exhibition, but they are enormously important to understanding Carpaccio. The cycle, made early in his career, fired his imagination, and he responded with densely packed scenes of processionals, formal arrivals and departures, and architectural settings of great and sometimes fanciful complexity.
The exhibition curators, Peter Humfrey, Andrea Bellieni and Gretchen Hirschauer, have made an impressive effort to find a substitute for the Ursula cycle. They have reassembled the Scuola degli Albanesi cycle, a suite of six paintings devoted to the life of the Virgin Mary. Dispersed among three museums in Europe, the full Albanesi cycle has never been seen outside Italy. Unfortunately, while these works have some of the artist’s rich representation of architectural space, they lack the psychological poignancy and facial detail of his better efforts. They are variously attributed to Carpaccio and his workshop.
Another painting, from a third and much finer series known as the Scuola degli Schiavoni cycle, offers worthier compensation for the missing Ursula works. “Saint Augustine in His Study,” ca. 1502, is arresting and one of the show’s highlights. We see the saint on a raised platform, in a sumptuous room with an ornate ceiling and classical architectural elements. He stares at the light streaming through an open window, his gaze following the sharp perspectival line of the room’s ornamental wall molding, as if the saint and room are psychologically of a piece.
The image is teeming with visual metaphors for spiritual and intellectual openness, a curtain drawn to show the interior of a cupboard, a door open to reveal an overstuffed closet, books open to reveal text and music, the saint’s eyes open to the light coming through open window cuts. Augustine’s position on a raised platform presents him to the viewer theatrically, allowing us to read the drama of his revelation as we might read the books that are staged around him like props. The dogma of religion, the benighted hatreds and bigotry it so often inspires, seem a world away from this safe space, flooded with light, like a portal between the sensuous and spiritual world.
Carpaccio’s life and work straddles two better-known chapters of Venetian art history: the earlier, luminous and hieratic work of Giovanni and Gentile Bellini (the artist may have studied with one or the other of the brothers) and the high drama of Tintoretto, Titian and Veronese. Early Carpaccio works have much of the luminous silence of Giovanni Bellini’s altar pieces, and his portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan rivals the great portrait of the same wily political operator by Bellini.
But while Carpaccio internalized much of what he may have learned from the Bellini brothers, he must have seemed a rather old-fashioned painter in comparison with the masters who would follow him. That has left him with a curious reputation, as a painter of quaint simplicity and bygone charm. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was discovered, rediscovered and adopted by intellectuals looking for a certain refuge from crass modernity, including John Ruskin and Henry James. You can’t help but be overwhelmed by a painter like Tintoretto or Titian, but that’s a bit like being impressed by Beethoven. Loving Carpaccio is more like choosing Haydn or Mozart as your spirit animal.
The poet Rainer Maria Rilke referenced Carpaccio in his 1910 novel “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” a rambling, first-person narrative by a hypersensitive, neurasthenic young man who seeks to write a few, perfect verses of poetry. “I have written a study on Carpaccio which is bad,” he tells us, before listing all the things one must know or have done before it is possible to write a good poem. The list is a long, detailed summary of the petty joys and minor travails we enjoy or suffer in the ordinary course of life. It makes perfect sense that Rilke’s narrator would be drawn to Carpaccio, and thoughts of Carpaccio lead him to think of life as a compendium of stuff that is both insignificant and existentially momentous.
The paintings of Carpaccio are visual lists of analogous things, inviting you to notice their oddity and abundance, whether it is the play of animals in some nook or cranny of a building or a garden, the pattern of a rug or wall hanging, the plates and dishes in a kitchen, or the books, papers and astronomical devices in a scholar’s study. Sometimes the density of detail can be overwhelming, as in a fascinating but awkward altar piece depicting “The Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand Christians on Mount Ararat,” in which the artist seems intent on individualizing the fate of each of the 10,000 unlucky souls.
But more often, the amount of detail is just right, enough for us to get happily lost but not so much that we are bewildered. Moving through these paintings becomes an analog for moving through life. The experience is reassuring: Life will never run out of things to say to us, if we just keep looking.
Vittore Carpaccio: Master Storyteller of Renaissance Venice Through Feb. 12 at the National Gallery of Art. nga.gov.