Carpaccio’s double take on Venice of his day

Vittore Carpaccio, described by some as the most anthropologically detailed artist of the Italian Renaissance and the definitive painter of Venice second only to Giovanni Bellini, is the author of two striking scenes of his native city. What exactly they depict has never been agreed on by art historians and the mystery of different characters performing different activities in indoor and outdoor scenes has only deepened with the discovery that the two images form a single painting.

The first scene, which now hangs at the Museo Correr in Venice as Two Venetian Ladies, shows two women sitting on the roof of a palazzo with patently vacant and bored expressions. They have alternatively been identified, including by Ruskin, as high class courtesans waiting for their clients – or as noblewomen based on their exquisite clothing and expensive jewellery. The latter theory is supported by the depiction of the white doves perched on the balustrade – a known symbol of chastity.

The second scene, known as Hunting in the Lagoon now in the John Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, gives viewers the illusion of looking into the Venetian Lagoon with bird hunters at work. Groups of three rowers and archers stand in boats and hunt cormorants, using clay pellets rather than arrows in order to stun the birds and not damage their plumage. A pellet has just been fired by an archer in the lower right-hand corner and is about to strike the bird in the foreground.

A recent examination indicates that the hunting scene served as the background for a scene of two ladies sitting on a roof overlooking the lagoon. The lily blossom at the bottom left of the hunting scene matches an empty stem in a vase sitting on a balustrade of the scene with the two women. There are traces of hinges on both paintings, suggesting that they once formed a single panel, probably a door, which is further confirmed by the identical wood grain in the two halves.

The two halves juxtaposing the male world of the hunt with the female world of the tranquil terrace show a panorama of the unique world that, like Carpaccio’s other paintings, is pure Venice. Influenced by Gentile and Giovanni Bellini as well as Antonello da Messina, the Sicilian painter who brought the Netherlandish Renaissance art to Venice, Carpaccio’s is a double take on Venice of his day. It’s also one that cherishes the immersion of the individual within the city’s turbulent excess.