12 June 2014

Carpaccio and Nauplion

Carpaccio, Harbor Drawing, composed of elements from various harbors,
including Candia and Rhodes (and I think also Nauplion).
London, British Museum m. 1897-4-10-1.

Before Europeans established colonies in Africa and Asia, they established colonies in Europe, which was closer. My interest is in the Venetian colonies (although they only used that word for Crete and Cyprus), known as the stato da mar. I grew up in a British colony -- a protectorate, really -- Nigeria, and I have come to see the stato da mar as composed of protectorates. Protectorate is a legal term. The mentality, though, is very much the same, whether protectorate or colony, and whatever the century and whatever the nationality. I have seen dozens of colonial towns in West Africa -- former German towns, Belgian, Portuguese, French, and especially British -- and nothing pictures the colonial town any more accurately than does Carpaccio.  

This 1502 painting, The Death of St. Jerome, shows perfectly the severe, undecorated center of a colonial town and though St. Jerome is supposed to have died in Bethlehem, this is a composite of the colonial centers Carpaccio would have seen along the Dalmatian (and Greek) coast. (St. Jerome came from Roman Dalmatia, from a town that might have been in today's Croatia or Slovenia or Bosnia.)  

I have been told of an article that discusses Carpaccio's travels, but as I have never been able to locate it, I have been able to indulge a fantasy that this painting shows elements of Nauplion.  It is much larger, with more and larger buildings, than Nauplion would ever have had, but there is the wall like the one Minio built along the waterfront (to which my ca. 1700 Venetian house was attached), the plateia, the residents of a monastery near the wall, a clumsy machine for loading barrels of wine onto a cart, an administrative building or two, a loggia for the merchants, the mountains of the Morea in the distance.  I suspect that Carpaccio has composed this painting, as he did the drawing at the beginning, by taking a building from each Dalmatian town he visited, and so making St. Jerome belong to all of them.

These are simply-constructed buildings (plaster over half-timbering) in bad repair -- a good bit of stato da mar correspondence concerns buildings and walls in desperate need of attention, along with a goat, a donkey, and a horse that looks as if we might have seen him in another painting.  There are also Turks, who would have been seen in Nauplion on occasion as of 1480, as well as in Dalmatian ports, and an exotic-looking animal which must have been acquired by a merchant on a trip much farther to the east.   

It has the spots and tail of a cat, say, a cheetah, but the head and front legs don't fit at all with that.  I was thinking of a pangolin, until I noticed the tail.

 The people on the balconies and under the shed roof are all clerics.  This would not have been the case in Nauplion where the administrators were hard-put to have even two Franciscans assigned. The corresponding personnel in a Venetian colonial town, in Greece or Dalmatia, would have been administrators, merchants, servants, secretaries.

This painting reminds me too of the inexorable heat and dust of the West African colonial towns, and the promise of the large markets that would fill that dusty empty space -- weekly for the Venetians, every fifth day in my Nigerian town, held at night, illuminated by small flames from the kerosense lamps made out of milk tins.  The Venetians and the Africans had regular daily markets, too.  There were specific areas for bread and vegetables and fruit and soap and medicines and dried fish, with the meat market far to one side.  At Nauplion it was outside the walls, beside the marsh, and all meat sold had to arrive on its own feet and be slaughtered in sight of a market official. 

Carpaccio has a generic shade tree, not the platan  of the Greek towns, or the mango of the West African.  The West African towns have palm trees, though not for shade.  I have no idea whether Nauplion had palms before Independence and Kapodistria, but it probably did, and I suspect Carpaccio would have seen them on the Dalmatian coast.  I see this painting as the direct and intentional antithesis of the dust-free Bellini painting of St. Mark preaching in Alexandria, but I won't get into that now.

I don't know whether Carpaccio ever got to Nauplion.  I hope so.

NOTE: You can apparently buy cloth dinner and cocktail napkins of The Funeral of St. Jerome.  I would have thought St. Jerome an unlikely accompaniment to a martini.

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