Tempera on canvas, 280 x 611 cm
Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice
by Vittore Carpaccio (b. 1472, Venezia, d. 1526, Capodistria)
Canvas No. 4 of the series of nine large paintings "Stories from the Life of St Ursula".
The Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims, signed and dated 1495, is the largest painting in the cycle and actually contains six different episodes of the legend. To the left Ereus takes leave of his father; to the right of the pennant, on top of which the banner is shown blowing in the wind, we see the betrothed couple at their first meeting, as they take their leave from Ursula's parents, as they board the twelve-oared sloop and then the ship; to the left we see the ship again, its sail billowing in the wind, and the inscription MALO is rather like a foreboding of the tragic fate that lies ahead for the pilgrims.
In the most natural way all the various moments of the story follow on each other without interruption, within the carefully constructed composition. Within this unitary space, the free and varied vibration of the lighting makes even the smallest details totally plausible, created as they are by brushstrokes of unfailing precision. This kaleidoscopic pageant also contains very realistic elements, such as the two towers of the Knights of Rhodes and St Mark of Candia, probably modelled on woodcuts by Reeuwich illustrating the Peregrinatio in Terram Sanctam by Breydenbach that was printed in Mainz in 1486; Carpaccio has placed these two towers on the steep slopes of the hill protected by walls, towers and castles.
While the English city is surrounded by an impregnable set of walls and towers, on the other side of the canvas the city in Brittany stretches out totally defenceless, built along the water's edge, full of buildings with elegant marble facades. These are clearly reproductions of the palaces that Codussi and the Lombardo brothers were building in Venice towards the end of the 15th century and which were rapidly changing the appearance of the city.
The characters in the foreground are clustered together in groups to the left, on the quarter deck and on the pier stretching out from the harbour over the greenish water; they are all wearing clothes in keeping with the fashions of the time, each one according to his age and social standing. Notice the splendid young man to the left of the pennant, with the coat-of-arms of the Fratelli Zardinieri, one of the Compagnie della Calza, embroidered on his sleeve.
As is the case during traditional and religious celebrations that still take place in Venice today, the streets, bridges, alleyways and steps are crowded with onlookers and many more are shown looking out of the windows; in the background of the painting we can see the caulkers working on a huge ship, dry docked and lying on its side. And the Breton and English cities in the distance are also hives of activity. In the clear air one can almost hear the trumpets and the drums beating at the foot of the tower and on the bastions, the screeching of the halyards against the blocks stretching the sails billowing in the wind and even the scratching of the goosequill on the parchment on which the diligent scribe in the upper right-hand corner is recording the highpoints of the event and the names of the most important protagonists.