Finally, after a long and meticulous restoration carried on ‘in situ’ by the American Save Venice Inc., the Cycle of Saint Ursula by Vettore Carpaccio (1490-1495) is visible again at the Accademia Galleries in Venice.
The story of the life and martyrdom of Breton Saint Ursula is narrated by the Venetian painter like a fairy tale. Ursula, daughter of the king of Brittany, is supposed to marry the British (and pagan) prince Hereus.
Ursula dictates her conditions to her father. Before she gets married, she will go in pilgrimage to Rome to see the Pope accompanied by 11,000 girls, while in the meantime prince Hereus will become a Christian.

Let’s stop a minute to enjoy the enormous canvases: here Carpaccio imagines Brittany like a sort of Venice of his days – we are in the 1490s. Venice was then one of the largest cities in Europe, a wealthy, pulsating cosmopolitan emporium with a stunning number of magnificent architectures and a multiethnic society.

Now that after restoration the colors are more vibrant, details stand out in all their evocative beauty: palaces, towers, domes, but also boats, plants, flowers, animals – the texture of precious marbles. Our eye catches the sumptuous beauty of silks and velvets worn by the ambassadors and by the other figures.

Venice was then one of the great centers of production of deluxe goods, such as silk and wool textiles, leather objects, books, artistic glass, jewels, cosmetics, paintings and statues. In Carpaccio’s canvases we also notice oriental rugs Venetian merchants imported from Egypt, Turkey, Iran and other distant lands.

The story goes on: the ambassadors return to England, Hereus decides to join Ursula and the 11,000 virgins on their pilgrimage to Rome. The huge canvas shows four different episodes. England, on the left, is a rocky land of towers & castles; Brittany, on the right, with elegant marble buildings, looks, again, like Venice.

It is interesting to observe the vessels and boats in the background, above all the large round ship being caulked in the harbor. In the foreground instead, Carpaccio displays some beautiful Middle East carpets.

A moment of intense, almost surreal poetry interrupts the lively and bustling episodes: ‘Ursula’s Dream’ shows the Saint alone in her bedroom, surrounded by familiar objects and in the company of her dog, receiving the ominous visit of an angel that, in the early morning light, brings her the palm of martyrdom.

It is probably the most unforgettable painting in St Ursula’s Cycle. The painter’s masterly control of light creates a suspense atmosphere that reminds us the interiors of the great Flemish painter Jan Vermeer. Ruskin, the great British scholar reputed this painting one of the highest moments reached by Venetian art.

The second part of the story shows the encounter of Pope Kyriak with Ursula, Hereus and the 11,000 girls in front of Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, the Pilgrims’ Arrival in Cologne, the Saint’s martyrdom and funerals, and the final apotheosis. We recognize the portraits of some donors, members of the Loredan family.

During 2020 Venice will dedicate an important exhibition to Vettore Carpaccio – the first since 1963. The venue, again, will be the Doges’ Palace, from October 10th, 2020 through January 24th, 2021. The exhibit will then move to the National Gallery in Washington. More news on this blog will follow in the next months.

If you are interested in Carpaccio’s painting and would like to see more, don’t miss Scuola degli Schiavoni, the old seat of the Dalmatian Fraternity, situated in the district of Castello, not far from St Mark’s Square.

Inside a very well-preserved Renaissance interior, far from the busy crowds, you can enjoy some on his best works, such as ‘St George & the Dragon’ and ‘St Augustine’s Dream’, still visible in their original location.