This vivid 15th-century painting presents a fascinating mixture of religious and worldly subjects. It combines The Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross with a bustling scene at the Venetian Rialto – the international marketplace at the financial heart of the medieval city.
The multicultural Rialto
Carpaccios’s lively narrative scene depicts the miracle of a possessed man being healed with a fragment of wood from Christ’s Holy Cross. Yet this miraculous event is confined to the left-hand side of the painting. The rest of the canvas is crowded with the commercial life around the Rialto Bridge. There is a busy multicultural mix of Venetians in red and black togas, Armenians or Turks in tall-brimmed black hats, and turbaned Turkish or Arabic traders. White-robed members of the Scuola (a fraternity in Venice) process across the bridge, while below it gondoliers carry their passengers on the Grand Canal, and on a high ledge above, a woman beats her carpet.
Carpaccio and Shakespeare: ‘What news on the Rialto?’
It has often been noted that two of the 14 smartly-dressed gondoliers are black men; probably slaves, domestic servants or freed slaves originally from sub-Saharan Africa. One is clearly visible in the foreground, with his feathered red cap, red jerkin and flamboyantly patterned hose, while the other is less prominent on the right-hand side. Black gondoliers appear again in Carpaccio’s Hunting on the Lagoon (c. 1490–95). They provide an interesting context for Shakespeare’s later depiction of Othello in Venice.
In Shakespeare’s other Venetian play, The Merchant of Venice, the Jewish moneylender Shylock asks the Christian merchant Antonio, ‘What news on the Rialto?’ (1.3.38). He tells how the place is buzzing with news of Antonio’s international ventures to Tripoli and the Indies, Mexico and England (1.3.19–20).
Later Shylock’s question is echoed precisely by Antonio’s friend Solanio (3.1.1) suggesting that, in the Rialto, differences are put aside in the name of shared trading interests. As in Carpaccio’s painting, it is a locus for the exchange of news, exotic goods and encounters between people of different ethnicities, languages and religions. Yet Shylock also reveals that these multicultural interactions can be deeply problematic. ‘In the Rialto’ Christians abused him, calling him ‘cut-throat dog’ for lending money at interest (1.3.106–113).
Where did Carpaccio’s painting hang?
The painting by Vittore Carpaccio (c. 1465–1525/6) was part of a cycle of nine large works by prominent Venetian artists on the Legend of the True Cross. They were commissioned by one of the five fraternities of Venice, the Scuola di San Giovanni, to hang in their headquarters.