The Tall Tale Of Two 'Ladies'

CARPACCIO

By Vittorio Sgarbi

Abbeville Press

272 pp., $95

Some works of art gather myths around them which, in extreme cases, become popular to a degree beyond sensible argument. This has happened to the painting by the 15th-16th century Venetian artist Vittore Carpaccio called ''Two Venetian Ladies.'' The women have been given a dubious reputation that is quite unjustified.

Such myths are often perpetuated by those not always scrupulous entertainers, tour guides. Sometimes such people are more concerned to hold the interest of their culture-saturated groups than to be strictly factual.

An amusing play a few years ago, called ''Lettuce and Lovage,'' explored this phenomenon. The guide who was the main personage in the play felt that elaborate fiction was, after all, far more enjoyable than dull fact, so why shouldn't her clientele enjoy themselves?

Such things do not occur only on stage. The owner of an old English country house told me she once overheard one of her voluntary guides call the Rubens on the main stairs a Rembrandt. When she gently remonstrated with her, the surprisingly conscience-free response was: ''Oh, I knew it was by one of them old men!''

Truth to tell, even art historians often disagree about which ''old man'' - or more specifically, which young man - painted certain paintings which have survived the centuries without much documentation. I say ''young man'' because it is often pictures which may (or may not) be the early work of a particular artist that get art historians arguing most.

The early paintings by Carpaccio are a case in point. In a new, handsome book about him by Vittorio Sgarbi, a specialist in the art of the great Italian maritime city at that period, the nonspecialist reader might be forgiven for getting lost in some of the author's arguments for and against Carpaccio's authorship of disputed works.

The ''famous'' works are not really disputed, and most readers will go straight to them and the fine details reproduced from them. One such detail is the elegant and colorful gondolier from the painting called ''Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross at Rialto.'' The so-called supernatural occurrence is actually a small part of this large painting, full of details of contemporary Venetian life. The real subject is Venice and its inhabitants.

Carpaccio might even have said of Venice, as John Constable did of the particular English landscape in which he was born, that ''it made him a painter.'' Sgarbi shows how peculiarly suited the painter and the city were to each other. Carpaccio's paintings bring ''precision to fantasy and verisimilitude to unreality,'' and Venice is ''a city where the line between reality and imagination is not easily drawn.''

Among other works for which Carpaccio is chiefly known are his cycle of paintings devoted to the life of St. Ursula. Even more original is another group of five canvases he painted for the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. These last include his masterpiece of St. Augustine in his study receiving a vision. The vision seems as natural as daylight and is symbolized by light pouring into the room. It is a vision entrancingly shared by one of the many dogs the artist liked to include in his pictures.

And then there are the ''Two Venetian Ladies.'' This picture was originally the lower of two door panels. In this book they are given the title ''Waiting'' - which aptly describes the mood, but sounds like a 20th-century concept.

The myth to which these two ladies have been subjected is insulting. They have been called ''courtesans.'' They go on being identified in this way even though art historians, including Sgarbi, have corrected the notion over several decades.

The picture is in the Museo Civico Correr - and no visit to Venice should leave this collection out, any more than it should omit a visit to the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. (The ''scuole,'' Sgarbi explains, were ''confraternities or associations,'' in this case of Dalmatians).

But if your guide or guide book informs you that the two ladies are the sort of people Toulouse-Lautrec is more likely to have painted in the 19th century - don't believe it. This is actually a picture of two Venetian ladies, presumably waiting for their menfolk who are out hunting in the lagoon, as pictured in the upper door panel.

How this myth has stuck around for so long is mysterious. It is so obviously preposterous given the sort of respected and official artist Carpaccio was in the city-state which employed him, and given the kind of subjects his other paintings represent. And yet, even as a picture of ladies, this is still a unique and strange painting. It does not need to be mythologized to make it seem more intriguing.

Sgarbi describes it in these words: ''The subject's domestic and 'feminine' nature, with its tones of intimacy and its marked sense of psychological depth, makes 'Waiting' truly exceptional among Carpaccio's works. The rigid dignity of appearance and bearing that the painter attributes to the two women, vaguely related to classical statuary (the young one, deadened by boredom, stares into space; the older one attempts futilely to enliven the melancholy atmosphere), reveals an unusual level of understand ing of the sacrifices and silent worries of the housewife's life.''

And yet, somehow, I cannot see too many tour guides introducing their bemused entourage to ''the famous Carpaccio called 'Two Venetian Housewives.' '' There are limits.

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