Vittore CARPACCIO | Birth of Mary [Nascita di Maria]

Venice 1460/1466

Birth of Mary [Nascita di Maria] c.1502-04
oil on canvas
128.5 (h) x 127.5 (w) cm Accademia Carrara, Bergamo
Legacy of Guglielmo Lochis 1866

The painting is part of a cycle by Vittore Carpaccio made for the Scuola degli Albanesi [Albanian School] in Venice, consisting originally of six episodes from the life of the Virgin inspired by The golden legend.[1] The Albanian School, founded in 1442, grew partly as a rival to the Dalmatian community’s Scuola degli Schiavoni [Slav School], both being meeting places for the respective refugee groups who had migrated from the Adriatic shores with the advance of the Turks in the fifteenth century. Curiously, the rectors of the two schools commissioned the same artist, Vittore Carpaccio, to decorate the main rooms of their buildings at almost the same time. The building to house the Albanian School was begun in 1497 and completed in 1502. It seems likely that Carpaccio started the first episode in the series, Birth of Mary, as soon as the building was completed.[2]

Saint Anne, having recently given birth to her daughter Mary, is resting in a canopied bed, observed from a distance by her elderly husband Joachim who appears intimidated by the women busily engaged in various attendant activities. One prepares to bathe the newborn; another is giving the first broth to the mother; in a further room clothes are hung to dry in front of the fire; and further still, game is being prepared for roasting. The elegant architectural setting is meticulously detailed, with the arrangement of the rooms shown in a long perspective view that opens onto a courtyard, at the end of which we see yet another door set in a wall—a construction that has led to the belief that the artist was familiar with Flemish painting. Among the many appealing details we note two rabbits, generally a sign of love or fertility, and by contrast associated with the virginity of Mary. The woman intent on her sewing, who is sitting on the parapet covered with a carpet, is an idea the artist must have worked out in a preparatory study, given that it is found again on a larger scale and with a better quality finish in his The Virgin reading c.1505.[3] The panel with curtain and lamp on the wall alongside the bed has an inscription in Hebrew, which translates as ‘Holy Holy Holy/Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.

The Latin inscription ‘VICTOR CARPATIVS Vs. FACEBAT’ [Vittore Carpaccio made this] at the base of the parapet could perhaps be the transcription of an original signature previously identified on the left, along the lower edge of the painting—this area has been extensively damaged and restored.

Giovanni Valagussa

[1] The golden legend (c.1260) was a popular Medieval compilation of the lives of Christian saints by Jacobus de Voragine (c.1229–1298); see The golden legend of Jacobus de Voragine, Granger Ryan and Helmut Ripperger (trans.), New York: Arno Press 1969 pp. 519–30.

[2] See Adriana Augusti, ‘Nascita di Maria’, in Giovanna Nepi Scirè (ed.), Carpaccio. Pittore di storie, Venice: Marsilio, 2004, pp. 102–03; Miklós Boskovits and David Alan Brown, Italian paintings of the fifteenth century, Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2003, pp. 100–01; Marta Ajmar-Wollheim and Flora Dennis (eds), At home in Renaissance Italy, London: V & A Publications, 2006, pp. 11, 15, 61, 86–87, 359, cat. 108; Giovanni Valagussa and Giovanni Villa, I grandi veneti: Da Pisanello a Tiziano, da Tintoretto a Tiepolo. Capolavori dall’Accademia Carrara, Milan: Silvana Editoriale, 2010, pp. 78–79.

[3] National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.