Carpaccio’s knight is a web of infinite connections

Easily the greatest narrative painter of the Venetian school, Vittore Carpaccio developed his own fanciful storytelling style – and stuck to it. He may have been a pupil of Lazzaro Bastiani or Gentile Bellini but his realism and naturalistic detail suggest influence by Antonello da Messina and Early Netherlandish art through him. His style was conservative, almost untouched by the Humanist trends of Early Renaissance, and he also remained impervious to the innovations of later artists, such as Titian.

Carpaccio’s Young Knight in a Landscape, now in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid, is the earliest full-length portrait in Western painting – on the assumption that it’s a portrait. Despite being signed and dated by Carpaccio on a cartellino to the right of the figure, the painting had long been attributed to Albrecht Dürer. The signature was hidden until a 20th-century restoration and the attribution to Dürer, based on the detail in which the vegetation is painted, was due to a fake monogram, now removed.

The knight’s identity, despite much conjecture, is unknown. Based on links between the sitter and the landscape through symbolic readings of various elements within it, it could be Saint Eustace, a knight of the Order of the Ermine, King Ferdinand II of Aragon, Francesco Maria della Rovere – third Duke of Urbino, a Habsburg prince, Antonio da Montefeltro (which would be a posthumous portrait), Rolando de Ragusa, Captain Marco Gabriel, or a random German soldier in the service of Venice. The debate rages on.

The knight looks like he’s facing something that requires a tough decision. The Latin motto Malo mori quam foedari (Better to die than be defiled), placed beside a short-tailed weasel, suggests that this is a picture of war and conflict, even though the actual fight is limited to a hawk and a crane fighting in mid-air, the rest is anticipation: the knight is ready to draw. The same tree, repeated three times – in full foliage at the back, almost leafless close to the knight and just a stump in the front – is a sign of action.

Carpaccio’s precise rendering of architecture and the luminous atmosphere of his paintings were praised by Ruskin. His incorporation of realistic figures into a coherent perspective made Carpaccio a predecessor of the Venetian painters of vedute, or cityscapes. His fine outlines work as airtight containers: nothing flows. His panoramas are full of realistic detail, sunny colouring and dramatic narratives, but they often, like his Young Knight in a Landscape, only present a web of infinite connections.