Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Tall Tale of Two 'Ladies'

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

The Tall Tale of Two 'Ladies'

Article excerpt

CARPACCIO By Vittorio Sgarbi Abbeville Press 272 pp., $95 Some works of art gather myths around them which, in extreme cases, become popular to a degree beyond sensible argument. This has happened to the painting by the 15th-16th century Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio called "Two Venetian Ladies." The women have been given a dubious reputation that is quite unjustified. Such myths are often perpetuated by those not always scrupulous entertainers, tour guides. Sometimes such people are more concerned to hold the interest of their culture-saturated groups than to be strictly factual. An amusing play a few years ago, called "Lettuce and Lovage," explored this phenomenon. The guide who was the main personage in the play felt that elaborate fiction was, after all, far more enjoyable than dull fact, so why shouldn't her clientele enjoy themselves? Such things do not occur only on stage. The owner of an old English country house told me she once overheard one of her voluntary guides call the Rubens on the main stairs a Rembrandt. When she gently remonstrated with her, the surprisingly conscience-free response was: "Oh, I knew it was by one of them old men!" Truth to tell, even art historians often disagree about which "old man" - or more specifically, which young man - painted certain paintings which have survived the centuries without much documentation. I say "young man" because it is often pictures which may (or may not) be the early work of a particular artist that get art historians arguing most. The early paintings by Carpaccio are a case in point. In a new, handsome book about him by Vittorio Sgarbi, a specialist in the art of the great Italian maritime city at that period, the nonspecialist reader might be forgiven for getting lost in some of the author's arguments for and against Carpaccio's authorship of disputed works. The "famous" works are not really disputed, and most readers will go straight to them and the fine details reproduced from them. One such detail is the elegant and colorful gondolier from the painting called "Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at Rialto." The so-called supernatural occurrence is actually a small part of this large painting, full of details of contemporary Venetian life. The real subject is Venice and its inhabitants. Carpaccio might even have said of Venice, as John Constable did of the particular English landscape in which he was born, that "it made him a painter." Sgarbi shows how peculiarly suited the painter and the city were to each other. Carpaccio's paintings bring "precision to fantasy and verisimilitude to unreality," and Venice is "a city where the line between reality and imagination is not easily drawn." Among other works for which Carpaccio is chiefly known are his cycle of paintings devoted to the life of St. …
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