November 2014

Peter Landau

nonfiction

Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation by Jan Morris

Great books come in all shapes and sizes. Years ago, Pocket Books claimed the space reserved for your wallet without affecting its contents too severely. Now you could slip Jan Morris's newest volume in your back pocket. Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation is a slim and attractive 5.1" x 7.2" dimensions, but the publisher framed it in hardcover, which implies a more stately location in your library. You'll want to keep it close at hand, though, for it demands repeated visits.

My first encounter with Morris was as a travel writer, when I was editing a travel magazine app and researching voice and tone. Not being a travel writer myself I was ignorant to the subtly of the art, but I knew what I didn't want -- affluent rubbernecking -- and I knew when reading Morris that she was the ruler, in more ways than one, to which I could measure the success of a story.

It wasn't her famous travelogue Venice, but her fiction that first intrigued me. Hav, recently reissued by New York Review of Books, is so convincing in its depiction of an imaginary city that supposedly, when first published in 1985, readers searched it out as an ideal getaway.

What I did read was Manhattan '45, a portrait of New York City on the cusp of its greatest period, before its decline and resurgence as the empty gilded cage it has become today. The book systemically goes through the people, culture, architecture, food, races, and ethnicities of New York City in evocative and deeply intimate prose that made me nostalgic for my hometown. It was as if one of my off-the-boat relatives was relating their life stories from growing up on the streets of the Lower East Side where I had just come back from stumbling drunk. The kicker is that Morris never visited Manhattan until a decade after the time she's focusing on, and didn't write the book until the late 1980s. Not only does this add a wash of melancholy to the picture, as the text is annotated with this-closed and that-demolished site, but it speaks to her power as a writer able to conjure time and place out of seemingly nothingness.

That ability is at play in this portrait of the Venetian painter Vittore Carpaccio, an artist Morris first admired in researching her book on Venice, who then became an obsession. In her introduction, she states that the book is "purely for my own pleasure," a "self-indulgent caprice." True, perhaps, but Morris's hedonistic whim is the reader's pleasure, too. We're lead through her "First Acquaintances," "Looking for Meaning," "Pomp and Circumstances," "Laughter," and more personal landmarks that are both a historical quest for the underappreciated and under-documented artist as well as a memoir of her relationship across the vast expanse separating the two minds, and a visual investigation of Venice in the 1500s.

Morris's obsession is clear. She talks to the paintings while leafing through her art books. She searches for portraits of the artist, whom she can recognize instinctively, embedded in his work. She can hear the flapping of a painted bird's wings and falls in love with the animals, both real and imagined, who populate the painter's canvases. The marriage of a great writer with a great obsession is a mix that sends a reader enthusiastically propelled forward.

Along the way Carpaccio lost his modern association with raw meat, a throwaway name given to a dish created by Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry's Bar in Venice, and became my obsession, too. Carpaccio's panels are windows into an era in history. Even his most famous religious paintings with Jerusalem backdrops are detailed with Venetian architecture. Morris notes the blueprint precision of his buildings and bridges, renderings of the maritime city's various ships, all things of beauty but also artifacts.

There is a mystery to the artist and his works, part of the Italian Renaissance and yet apart, discarded and denied by the burgeoning movement. Carpaccio is the missing link between Medieval and Early Modern Europe and it can be seen in every one of his works, both flat and full of perspective, muted and bright with life. His brush turns away attention even as it draws an eye deeper into its intricate strokes. It's easy to see how he could have been ignored. His talent is not showy, almost cartoonish, in the best sense of that word.

Morris notes the similarity between Carpaccio and cartoonists with his cycle paintings, most famously "The Legend of Saint Ursula," which could be read as a story. Look into the faces of the crowds who populate his paintings and there are caricatures of people as psychologically rich as Charlie Brown.

His canvases are time machines. They invite curious lookers to assemble the past captured in oil and resins. Morris does so with many paintings, including "Hunting on the Lagoon," which is currently part of the Getty's permanent collection in Los Angeles. That painting was torn in two, maybe in more parts, sometime before the 1800s. It is the only Carpaccio exhibited in a room with its contemporaries, and yet it may as well be hanging alone, so strong is its attraction, even in pieces.

What is it about Carpaccio that calls to the mind's need for unity, closure? It's not merely his obscurity. There are warehouses of obscure artists collected since canvas was first stretched. Is it the humanness, the ordinary life he portrayed even in the midst of such extraordinary images as "St. Jerome and the Lion"? The foreground's holy men running from the timid but imposing beast lead into town by St. Jerome is only a third of the painting. Behind the story is the real story: buildings and street life, both mechanically drafted and beating with flesh and blood. As Morris writes, there is subtle humor and depth of expression beyond the craftsman's skill at mathematical perspective.

Morris is our guide and her omnivorous intelligence is never boring. What's most interesting is her voice in congress with the layout of the book. Small and detailed pieces of the many paintings written about are illustrated like the severed canvas of "Hunting on the Lagoon" at the Getty. This both illuminates Morris's points while providing breadcrumbs for readers to follow into their own wooded forest of imagination. Carpaccio and Morris offer a banquet where, like any religious experience, the substance is never ending.

Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation by Jan Morris
Liveright
ISBN: 978-0871407993
160 pages