Painting the act of thinking

ENTERING the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, you find yourself in a room so dark compared with the outdoor dazzle of Venice that it takes a while to perceive anything at all. Above your head, around the walls, are paintings. They tell stories. They are about the three patron saints claimed by the Dalmatian inhabitants of Venice who built this building: St. George, St. Tryphon, and St. Jerome.

You are standing, in fact, in an oratory - it has pews and an altar. It is an intimate room, close around you, with a decorated beamed ceiling and paneling. It's unchanged from the early 1550s.

The paintings, done between 1502 and 1508, are by Vittore Carpaccio, one of the leading artists in Venice at the turn of the 16th century. The paintings belong so definitely to their setting, in scale and shape and placing, that it is one of the small but acute pleasures of Venice to go and see them there.

On the right side of the room are the canvases that tell stories about St. Jerome. There is a wonderful scene in which the white-bearded saint, in one of the apocryphal episodes of his life, leads a lion into a monastery. It is a kind of sacred fiction, taken from the ``Golden Legend,'' but it has a humanitarian moral: The (actually very placid) wild beast recognizes the saintliness of the man and comes to him to have a thorn taken out of its paw.

The next, grim, episode shows the funeral of the ascetic St. Jerome.

And then the final scene, the nearest painting to the door through which sunlight streams every time a visitor enters, is the picture reproduced here.

The light in the painting - and it has been made by Carpaccio, with a striking subtlety of observation, to fill the room - comes from the same direction in the picture as the light through the oratory doorway: The painted effect of light and the influx of genuine sunshine make for a happy concatenation of the depicted and the actual. This work is not just a marvelous evocation of a 16th-century interior (though it is actually meant to show an event of AD 420) pervaded by calm and thought; it is also very powerfully a visualization of sudden and awesome inspiration.

Even - or perhaps especially - the little dog sits with rapt attention to the symbolic light that has distracted its master. It is a touch of genius, that dog. It domesticates the event, adds a humorous mimicry of the scholar's intense gaze, and has subsequently charmed everyone who has looked at the painting.

The iconological art historian Erwin Panofsky suggested that this dog epitomized a conviction of the Renaissance that animals were endowed with superior awareness of the supernatural.

But what precisely has all this to do with St. Jerome? For a long time nobody questioned the notion that the scholar on the dais, with writing instrument poised, was Jerome.

In 1959, however, Helen J. Roberts published an article about the painting in which she pointed out that the picture shows a man quite different in appearance from the white-bearded sage of the preceding pictures. Also, she wrote of the difficulty in understanding why this picture of a study, with a vigorously alive ``Jerome'' in it, should come sequentially after the picture showing Jerome's burial.

Instead she related the painting to a fictitious letter attributed to St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in which he describes how he was writing to Jerome to ask his opinion about a tract he was planning to write on ``the bliss of souls in Paradise.'' At that precise moment, unknown to Augustine, Jerome died, and Augustine's cell was filled with an indescribable light and aroma, and a voice sounded telling Augustine not to be ``presumptuous.''

It is not easy for a painter to show a human's awareness of sound or smell: So the alerted senses of the dog have an essential part to play.

Roberts also cited several of the attributes around the study, all more suited to Augustine than to Jerome. The music is particularly apt. Augustine would have been considered an authority on music. In his confessions there is a chapter on his love of music.

Roberts's arguments have prevailed and the name ``The Vision of St. Augustine'' is established.

About a quarter of a century later, within a year or two of Carpaccio's death, another Venetian artist, Lorenzo Lotto, painted his portrait of a young gentleman in his study. Toward the end of his career Carpaccio's style had fallen out of fashion. The new kind of painting in Venice, introduced by Giorgione and soon followed by Titian, was softer in focus, mellower in feeling, more enigmatic, more subjective and poetical, less linear and bony.

Carpaccio had never really been a portraitist. He peopled his narrative paintings with stock characters from a studio repertoire, though their faces often have considerable character.

The new painting, however, was far more interested in individuals. It is the unusual, rather out-of-the-mainstream, Lorenzo Lotto who might be thought the most penetrating exponent of the portrait in Venice at that time.

Bernard Berenson, that connoisseur of Italian art, wrote that ``Titian and Tintoretto painted ceremonial portraits.... Not so Lotto. Already in his earliest portraits Lotto could portray individuals, not mere types: individuals with personal preoccupations and feelings, and with moods of their own. Through a career of 60 years he was always painting what was most peculiarly characteristic in the sitter at the moment he was portraying him.... He could paint, above all, sensitive people, like the exquisite young scholar ... in the Venice Academy....''

This painting, compared again with Carpaccio's, is much more in ``close-up.'' The man dominates his surroundings, and the viewer is brought into more direct confrontation with him as he looks up from his book, apparently lost in thought, and almost makes abstracted eye-contact with us. Furthermore, Lotto is not essentially being asked to tell a story, as Carpaccio was.

This said, however, the two pictures actually have a great deal in common. Both are attempts to express in visual terms a sense of a person absorbed in intellectual pursuits. Both use many ``attributes,'' or emblems, to give the viewer a key to the protagonist's preoccupations, character, and intelligence.

In the Lotto the emblems include rose petals scattered on the table, the books, papers, the blue cloth untidily disarranged, and on it a lizard looking at the scholar with a lively awareness. Behind the man hang a lute and a hunting horn.

``Painters can depict the act of thinking but cannot define thought,'' notes John Pope-Hennessy in his rewarding book ``The Portrait in the Renaissance.'' He goes on to say that one of the fascinations of Lotto's portraits is that some have ``inaudible'' messages. He mentions several examples, among them, ``that youth in Venice, seated at a table turning the pages of an open book, why does he turn his back on the lute and hunting horn hanging behind him? Why are the rose petals scattered on the tablecloth?''

Puzzling questions can often be a fruitful effect of a work of art, and why not?

Perhaps, after all, Lotto had not escaped the need for his paintings - even his portraits - to try to tell stories as Carpaccio's do. He may have wanted to be clear in meaning, yet not too obvious. His style has little of the medieval feel of Carpaccio's.

Still, however naturalistic and immediate, individualistic and secular this portrait of the young scholar is compared with St. Augustine in the Scuola, it is at least amusing to speculate that Lotto owed something - even if it was only in the back of his mind - to the earlier Venetian artist's inspired solution to the tricky problem of how to paint the act of thinking.

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