Chances are you’ve probably heard of carpaccio – the Italian appetizer which consists of thinly sliced raw meat – but you might not know that the name was inspired by the Renaissance painter Vittore Carpaccio. According to anecdotes, when Giuseppe Cipriani – the owner of the renowned Venetian restaurant Harry’s Bar, frequented among others by Ernest Hemingway – heard the lamentations of a grand lady that she couldn’t eat any cooked food, he was quick to improvise and brought her thinly sliced beef. Intrigued, the woman asked what was the name of the dish. Since, at the time, there was an exhibition by Carpaccio and his paintings abounded with the color red, Cipriani told her the appetizer was called carpaccio and the name stuck.
As for the painter himself, today he’s largely forgotten outside Venice. That is understandable, to a certain extent, due to the fact that the early 1500s were dominated by figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. The art critic Giorgio Vasari only briefly mentions Carpaccio in his Lives of the Artists, praising the Venetian’s skill, labor and attention to detail.
The problem is that Carpaccio was somewhat of a conservative and it is believed he didn’t quite illustrate the principles of the Renaissance – mainly, the focus on intellectual pursuits, ideals and virtue. This is true for much of the Venetian school, as opposed to those in Florence and Rome. In Renaissance Venice, the emphasis was on color and paint application, instead of drawing and careful planning.
Preparation of Christ’s Tomb is an unusual artwork even by Carpaccio’s standards. The earthy tones, the high level of detail and the emphasis on the landscape reveal the influence of Netherlandish art. Although the subject of the piece is Christ’s death and his entombment, oddly enough, our eye is drawn away from his dead body, barely covered with a cloth, lying on a pedestal-like table in the lower third of the art piece. In fact, the lines in the painting direct the gaze towards the half-dressed, old man leaning against a tree, hunched and contemplative. On the other side of the tree, but farther back, are two grieving women – Mary, Christ’s mother, and Mary Magdalene.
According to the Bible, it was Joseph of Arimathea who was in charge of Jesus’ burial. He was the one who was granted permission from Pilate to take the body of Christ. This mysterious man is said to have been a secret disciple and, according to one version, he gave his own tomb to Jesus. In light of this, it’s possible that Carpaccio depicted Joseph of Arimathea as the old man. However, by some accounts, the man is Job and his anachronistic presence is symbolical, mirroring the suffering of Christ.
The actual tomb is to the left of the painting, where three men are doing the preparations. I find the whole bottom half of the painting rather barren. There’s little vegetation, a lot of debris, pieces of ornaments, human and animal skulls and bones. Compare this to the bright colors in the middle ground and background that, in this melancholic scene, offer serenity and hope – the promise of resurrection.
Note: Here’s a larger version to better see the details. Notice, for instance, the crosses of Golgotha in the top left corner.