Rosella Mamoli Zorzi, Carpaccio e gli scrittori anglo-americani dell’Ottocento a Venezia, Supernova
Rosella Mamoli Zorzi’s short, well-researched book takes the reader back to the discovery of the works of Vittore Carpaccio by English and American writers of the 19th century a revival mainly attributed to the influence of John Ruskin, whose enthusiasm for and writings about Carpaccio in the latter half of the century brought Carpaccio’s work to the attention not only of writers, but of serious art collectors and museum curators as well. As Zorzi tells us, Carpaccio’s work, which had been all but completely overlooked in the English-speaking world until the mid-nineteenth century, soon became an obligatory stop for visitors to Venice who were serious about art.
Zorzi’s narrative evokes a world of writers and collectors that may not be very familiar to the modern reader, a fascinating aspect on its own. Zorzi tells us about how Anna Jameson, an early enthusiast for Carpaccio, was unable to view one of Carpaccio’s most famous works in 1848, Il sogno di Sant’Orsola, because it had been stored due to major damage it had sustained. In fact, visitors to Venice in the 1800s could see many of Carpaccio’s works in the Accademia Gallery, but the rest required a visit to the Scuola degli Schiavoni and several other small churches in the city and on the mainland. Today, thanks to over a century of restoration work, most of Carpaccio’s works are viewable in major museums, and this book provides some intricate details about how some of those works left Venice for England, bound for museums and private collections.
The intense interest for Italian art in the English-speaking world in the late 18th century and through the 19th century is a real revelation for the reader, at least for this one. For example, Zorzi refers to a catalogue that documents exhibitions of European painters in North America between 1776 and 1876, that is, during the first century of the United States’ existence. The catalogue included works by Tiziano, Tintoretto, Salvator Rosa, Domenichino, Raffaello and many other painters whose works were exhibited “even in the most remote cities in the United States”. Many of these, we are informed, were copies – and this evokes another element of that past world – the fact that it was not only artists or art schools that painted copies of famous works, but authors and collectors as well. The book features a remarkable copy of Il sogno di Sant’Orsola painted by John Ruskin himself as well as other fascinating examples.
In the final chapter, which deals with the “Carpacciomania” that ensued largely from Ruskin’s work and subsequent enthusiasts such as Henry James, we follow the wealthy collector Lady Layard, who we are told was herself an assiduous painter, sculptor and guitar player. In 1884 she “had herself taken by gondola to S. Giorgio degli Schiavoni to ask painter Luigi Desideri, who was copying Carpaccio’s S. Girolamo nello studio [S. Agostino] for the Arundel Society, to teach her how to make copies”. By 1886 she was requesting permission to copy works in the Accademia Gallery. Not only did she own a considerable private collection (cataloged by herself in 1899) that included works by Carpaccio, but she also played a big role in acquiring his works and placing them in the National Gallery of London, helping make Carpaccio a beloved figure for critics and copyists alike in England.
Imagining a world where people had the time to sit and copy such detailed masterworks seems a bit foreign in today’s fast-paced digital world. And yet Zorzi’s book shows us that well before the proliferation of global media there was already a robust international network of information passing between Europe, England and America regarding the great painters of Venice and Italy.
In detailing the enthusiasm for Carpaccio that writers like Ruskin and collectors like Layard sparked in the English-speaking world, the book takes the reader on a delightful excursus through Carpaccio’s work itself. The book features many prints of his most famous, and less famous, works. In doing so we get to see for ourselves exactly what attracted these writers and collectors to Carpaccio’s works. His realism, once described as “primitivism” compared to the more florid painters that were popular in the English speaking world in the mid-19th century, offers vivid details not only of his subjects but also of the dress and customs of the times in which he lived, something which Layard herself noted in her diary of 1881, describing the regatta in honor of the King and Queen of Italy:
The rowers were all in Venetian dress like that in the paintings of Carpaccio”. Or again Anna Jameson, describing the St. Ursula cycle, “The heads are full of beauty, life and character. The background is a countryside seen through majestic arches. All of the figures in the cycle are wearing Venetian dress of the fifteenth century.
These, and the many other examples of high praise for Carpaccio cited within, undoubtedly had a great impact on the writers and collectors that we are introduced to in this wonderful book. However, to really get a sense of just how high the esteem ran for Carpaccio we must return to John Ruskin, whose discussion of the “Presentation of Jesus” in his Guide to the Academy seems to throw down a gauntlet before anyone who had yet to witness Carpaccio’s greatness for themselves:
You have no similar leave, however, good general spectator, to find fault with anything here! You may measure yourself, outside and in, — your religion, your taste, your knowledge of art, your knowledge of men and things — by the quantity of admiration which honestly, after due time given, you can feel for this picture.