Vittore Carpaccio

(1460/65 Venice – 1526 Koper)
and his workshop

The Miracle of St. Tryphon
ca. 1506
Tempera with oil paint on softwood panel, 113 x 263 cm

Purchased at the Rouillac Auction House in Tours during an auction on 6 June 2021. Catalogued as Saint Tryphon Exorcising the Emperor’s Daughter, attributed to the Venetian school, ca. 1510.

France. Likely appropriated by the Napoleonic administration during their occupation of Kotor (Italian: Cattaro) or Venice in the early 19th century.

This painting is associated with the Scuola Dalmata dei SS. Giorgio e Trifone (Scuola degli Schiavoni) in Venice. It was commissioned by the aristocratic Buća family from Kotor.

Initial conservation:
August to September 2021.The scope of work included the analysis of the elemental composition of the paints, the removal of the layer of dirty varnish together with repaints, as well as retouching and the laying of new varnish.

A painted political testament from the workshop of Vittore Carpaccio

Jan Michalski

Key issues
1. The painting is identified as the lost political testament of Lord Đurad Crnojević, the last independent ruler of Montenegro.
2. It depicts the moment when Montenegro’s (Principality of Zeta) royal power shifted from the Crnojević dynasty to the Bishops-Metropolitans of Cetinje.
3. It features portraits of politicians, diplomats, soldiers, humanists, and clerics, mostly painted from life. It includes the only known images of the last two rulers of medieval Montenegro.
4. The ideological programme is very complex, with every detail carefully considered by Venetian theologians and humanists.
5. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam houses a smaller pendant to the Kraków painting.
6. The rich iconography of the painting, based on the resources from Carpaccio’s workshop, facilitates cross-identification with other works of art from the same period.

Each angel represents a distinct genre. The Miracle of St. Tryphon by Carpaccio and his workshop, dating back to the early 16th century, is the sole representative of a unique genre – a political testament of a ruler – not found anywhere else. An angel among Renaissance narrative paintings and the most significant discovery in European painting of the 21st century, this work possesses other distinctive qualities that will be briefly discussed.

The painting, previously unrecognized by art historians, was commissioned by Trifun Buća and Nikola Buća, aristocrats of Kotor and relatives of the Crnojević dynasty that ruled Montenegro in the 15th century. From the early 14th century, members of the Buća family in Kotor held the position of protovestarios, managing the finances and economy of the Serbian tsars. They earned substantial trust from the Republic of Venice and were responsible for organizing mail delivery from Venice to Constantinople.

Dalmatian Kotor, a merchant republic located on the Bay of Kotor at the foot of the Dinaric Alps, voluntarily became part of Venice in the early 15th century, transforming into a formidable fortress. Since 807, St. Tryphon has been the patron saint of the city, and his relics are enshrined in the cathedral dedicated to him. Kotor is the global centre of the worship of St. Tryphon.

Gordiana’s vision
The painting depicts St. Tryphon performing an exorcism on the daughter of Roman Emperor Gordian III in the courtyard of the imperial place in Phrygian Nicaea in the 3rd century AD. According to the saint’s biography recorded in the 1466 Buća Codex, kept in the Marciana Library in Venice, the boy, renowned for his miracles, was summoned to the court by the Emperor himself. Before the assembled crowd, St. Tryphon makes gestures to wave away the evil and offer encouragement and protection. Freed from the demon, Gordiana raises her eyes and hands towards the heavens. She experiences a vision, becomes a Christian Sibyl, and communicates the divine will to the gathered crowd.

With the words of Psalm 110, she declares, “Rule in the midst of your enemies!” and adds, “You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

As the expelled demon enters through a chimney into nearby house in search of his next victim, a divine proclamation is made through the Roman Emperor’s daughter. She declares that power in Montenegro is to transition from the Crnojević dynasty to the Bishops-Metropolitans of Cetinje. In acknowledgement of this divine will, the Orthodox Bishop-Metropolitan Vavila, wearing a travelling coat with a sable collar and a kalimavkion on his head, is depicted bowing. He is accompanied by monks from the Cetinje Monastery.

This is the political testament of Đurad Crnojević, the last ruler of Montenegro, which was delivered orally to his nephew, Trifun Buća, at the camp of the French king near Milan in 1499. This testament was never documented in writing (with only a private will addressed to his wife, witnessed by Trifun, surviving), but it found expression in the painting created in the workshop of the famous Venetian artist, close to Dalmatians and admired by poets and humanists.

In 1496, fleeing from the Turks, Đurad Crnojević left his native Montenegro for Venice. However, he later fell into disfavour with the Venetians and was imprisoned. Unwilling to be a political pawn, he escaped to Constantinople in 1500 during the war with Turkey. At the Ottoman court, Sultan Bayezid II welcomed him and granted him a fiefdom in Anatolia. Afterwards, he vanished from the historical record.

Portraits of Montenegro rulers
Given that no images of the last two rulers of medieval Montenegro, then known as the Principality of Zeta, have survived to the present day, the painting is exceptional. Ivan Crnojević and his son Đurad, the representatives of the last ruling Serbian dynasty after the Turkish conquest of the Balkans, actively participate in St. Tryphon’s miracle. These portraits exhibit high artistic quality.

The portrayal of Lord Ivan, the founder of the Cetinje Monastery who died in 1490, resembles the image of the itinerant Byzantine Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, preserved in Italian iconography after the union Council of Florence. Lord Ivan is depicted as the first person on the right. Portrayed as an elderly man, he is dressed in a magnificent black brocade cloak, embellished with red and gold-thread embroidery showing the flourishing Tree of Life. He dons an ornate skiadon, a velvet quilted travelling cap of the Greeks. With a commanding gesture, he extends his right arm, pointing towards the Metropolitan. Resembling a Wizard from the underworld, he instantly captures the viewer’s attention. The portrait conveys the steadfast and tough character of the wise and respected ruler, suggesting that the painter might have seen him with his own eyes.

Đurad, the son of Ivan and heir to the throne, ruled the Principality of Zeta from 1490 to 1496. A well-educated humanist, astronomer, and geometer, he was also the founder of the first printing press in the Balkans. Refined and full of family pride, he is depicted standing on the opposite side of the assembly as the first figure on the left. His attire precisely matches the descriptions provided by Marino Sanudo, the greatest historian of the Serenissima at the time, who documented Đurad’s appearance several times in his chronicle of Venice. Tall and handsome, the gentleman is dressed in golden Greek robes. He wears a small turban from North Africa featuring a winged dragon embroidered with pearls and secured with a pearl brooch. The turban is inscribed with the letters MOTRE, an acronym for Montenegro Rex. With a sweeping gesture, he invites an elegant Venetian to join the inner circle, leaving no doubt that the event is a manifestation of his will.

Humanists, politicians, soldiers, clerics, and poets
The assembly of many witnesses to the miracle of St. Tryphon, or the revelation of the new dynastic order in Montenegro, includes senior officials from the Venetian government, members of the diplomatic corps, politicians, soldiers, diplomats, humanists, and the wives of the main protagonists. There are both living and deceased individuals, such as Leonardo Loredan, the Dodge of Venice; St. Lorenzo Giustiniani, the first Patriarch of Venice; Bernardo and Pietro Bembo, eminent politicians and humanists; Sebastiano Michiel, the Prior of the Knights Hospitaller of Rhodes in St. Mark’s city; Admiral Paolo Valaresso, a benefactor and honorary member of Scuola Dalmata di San Giorgio e Trifone; Theordore Palaiologos, a leader of the Greek community and a distinguished defender of the Republic; and Cristoforo Landino, a philosopher, poet, and a professor at the Academy of Florence.
There are representatives of three continents, the grand anti-Turkish coalition, including Taghrī Berdī, the Mamluk ambassador who sailed to Venice in September 1506 to negotiate a trade treaty. The portraits were sketched from life or based on existing originals, as in the case of Landino, whose portrait was copied from Disputationes Camaldulenses, now housed in the Vatican Library.

A chair on eight legs
A few years ago, a significant document was discovered in the archives of the Ottoman Porte in Istanbul. It was an inventory of Đurad Crnojević’s possessions compiled by Turkish officials shortly after the ruler, referred to as a governor by the Turks, fled to Venice in 1496. The Lord’s inventory from his palace in Cetinje, including various items, alongside a stone measuring instrument, lists an entry labelled the “chair on eight legs.” This entry likely refers to the famous printing machine of the Montenegro ruler. The device was unknown to the compilers since printing was prohibited in the Ottoman Empire at the time.

Liturgical texts printed during the several-year existence of the Cetinje printing house were like soothing raindrops for Orthodox churches and monasteries across the Balkans, devastated in the times of Turkish conquests. The gratitude for the Lord’s pioneering work has endured through the centuries and become a legend. The succession painting with the portrait of the humanist ruler found its way to Kraków centuries later. This coincided with the time when Schweipolt Fiol’s printing house, the first in the world to print liturgical books in Cyrillic script for the Orthodox Church in Eastern Europe, was in operation.

This is emphasized because printing is a significant, although initially inconspicuous, thread in Carpaccio’s painting. In the background, between Trifun Buća and Isabetha Erizzo, the profile of Aldus Manutius, the most renowned printer from Venice, is discernible. At least three individuals in the painting are strongly associated with the burgeoning civilisation of print: Lord Đurad Crnojević, Aldus Manutius, and Pietro Bembo. The last one was the editor the 16th century’s greatest Italian hit, Petrarca’s Canzoniere, ‘in octavo’ edition. It was derived from a manuscript held in the library of his father – a humanist, ambassador, and member of the Venetian government.

Who was the creator of the painting’s ideological programme?
A group of highly cultured individuals, including well-educated humanists and theologians, crafted a coherent ideological programme for the painting. The programme was to serve unusual functions – it acted as a political testament of the ruler in the realm of divine ideas and a painted document depicting the transfer of legitimate royal authority to high priests in a small, mountainous country subject to the Ottoman Empire – the empire of a different religion, a different legal system, and its own administration. The testament regarding the cession of royal power was kept confidential and remained within a close circle. The painting was created in Carpaccio’s workshop in Venice, and then it likely sailed to the Bućas’ palace in Kotor – the only place where Đurad’s portrait would be welcomed. Subsequently, it was stolen from there by the occupying Napelonic army in the early 19th century. It is a telero, i.e. a painting commissioned by a patron in specific dimensions for a particular room under the wood panelling, evident from the black frames left around.

The presence of important Venetian politicians may indicate their participation in formulating the ideological and political concept of power succession in Montenegro after the flight of the last ruler, even though written records remain silent on this matter. But the painting is not a 19th-century forgery – it dates back to the Renaissance. It stands as a remarkable document and a national treasure of Montenegro and its neighbouring countries. It is possible that Camaldolese fathers of the Isola San Michele monastery participated in devising and adapting a political idea to local conditions, proving to be enduring and historically successful.

Bas-reliefs and architecture
Two bas-reliefs on the façade of the imperial palace traditionally accompany the ritual of the succession of royal power. In this context, representations of these images were incorporated into the coronation chalice of Polish rulers and a paten from Trzemeszno dating back to the late 12th century. The reliefs depict the scenes of the Raising of the Widow’s Son by the Prophet Elijah and Gideon’s Sacrifice. The presence of bas-reliefs with such scenes proves that we are observing the ritual of the election of a new monarch. At the same time, we are witnesses to the birth of a new political system that finds its origins in the tradition of the Serbian diarchy.

The architecture drawn by the Master at the beginning of his work on the painting represents three modalities of time. The central buildings visible behind the luminous wall represent città ideale or eternity. The Venetian townhouses with their roof terraces symbolize città reale or the present, while the imperial palace in Nicaea embodies città irreale or the past. The peeling plaster from the palace walls says that “this world in its present form is passing away.” This is an old theme, and it finds a parallel in Andrzej Wróblewski’s Execution II from 1949. The Latin phrase Sic transit gloria mundi is also a formula used during the ritual introduction of a new pope.

The sacred vine from the Rijksmuseum
In the collection of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, there is a pendant to our painting – a smaller artwork executed on the same material but trimmed on both sides, and still covered in dirty varnish. It depicts Trifun and Nikola Buća against the backdrop of the Bay of Kotor. Similar to our painting, Đurad Crnojević’s nephew appears as the mystagogue of the ceremony, pointing to the withered vine. On the left of the vine, Metropolitan Vavil once stood, but his figure was cut out and overpainted (though part of it can still be seen in infra-red imaging). And this is where the miracle performed by St. Tryphon, revered in the Balkans and Kotor as the patron saint of vine cultivation and the protection of crops from pests, will occur. Through the saint’s intercession, the withered branch will blossom again. This is because it represents a sacred vine – swiataja łoza – symbolizing dynastic continuity in medieval Serbian tradition.

There may have been a third painting related to the succession of royal power in Montenegro and another miracle attributed to St. Tryphon. Together, these paintings likely formed a triptych, with the central part featuring the Kraków painting depicting Gordiana’s vision – that is the revelation of the divine will to the Metropolitan of Cetinje and other event’s participants. The fragment of Psalm 110 may have been painted above or below the painting, directly on the wall or panelling.

The painting from the Rijksmuseum was probably created first, as Trifun Buća appears younger in it. Dating it to around 1500 is highly probable. It was commissioned immediately after Đurad’s flight to the Ottoman court once the concept of succession had been developed to prevent political vacuum in Montenegro. This was in line with the interests of the mountain clans who, after their ruler’s flight, promptly sent a delegation to the Signoria with a proposal to install his son on the throne. This also served the interests of Kotor as a trade monopoly in the region and supported Venice’s desire to secure the rear of its Adriatic fortress during its conflict with Turkey. The shift of royal authority to the Bishops-Metropolitans of Cetinje was a secret and carefully planned political move aimed at protecting the long-term interests of the Serenissima in the region.

Inscription on the Bishop’s cap
Every detail in the painting holds meaning and is more than just decorative. The acronym and dragon embroidered on the Lord’s turban, St. Geroge’s badge on the cap of the gentleman to the left, and even the black-painted inscription on the parapet of St. Michael’s Church – all these signs serve to identify individuals and situations, thereby forming the circle of community. An acanthus leaf ornament is visible on the lower band of the Bishop’s kalimavkion, while the upper band features a kind of inscription. The forms are neither symmetrical nor equal in size, and diacritical marks are visible between them. What do these marks signify?

In our opinion, this acronym may relate to the establishment of a new dynastic order in Montenegro. It is unlikely that the painter would have dared to place the completion date of his work in such a respectable and prominent place unless… its completion coincided with the date of the election. We interpret the date as 3 October 1506. However, this a working hypothesis, and it requires further competent investigation.

How many hands created the painting?
The Miracle of St. Tryphon from the Zderzak collection is a painting of a higher artistic class than St. Tryphon and the Basilisk. The latter is one of the nine paintings Carpaccio was commissioned to create in 1502 for the Scuola Dalmata, and it still hangs there today.
The painters’ efforts were focused on creating faithful portrait characterizations of the event’s participants. The painting is adorned with vibrant, well-preserved colours. The combinations of colours, visible on little Tryphon’s clothes, were chosen with great taste. On the uneven, porous softwood ground, paints were applied with virtuosity, quickly, and confidently. Imagining the result if less skilled painters had attempted to depict such a multitude of feet allows one to fully appreciate the arabesque created by the complex, vivid, and never dull line of the feet in Carpaccio’s painting.

Who painted the work? At least four individuals were involved. The Master himself crafted the impressive figures of the witnesses to the miracle, positioned at either end of the crowd. He also designed the overall composition, including the outlines of the perspective and the buildings. The middle group of figures was painted by an assistant who drew upon the Master’s sketches (Gordiana’s head and the figure of the boy) but chose to paint the folds of the robes in a different way. The crowd of figures in the background is the work of a second assistant who made use of the Master’s extensive sketchbook. This sketchbook contained a collection of life-painted portraits, used as references for his grand narrative paintings. The figures assembled in the galleries, including those of the two Camaldolese monks, might have been painted by pupil-children.

We assume that the painting was executed by individuals connected to the Dalmatian community. This is suggested by the work’s thematic focus on succession, its representative nature, and the political ideas it embodies. They were likely individuals who enjoyed the trust of the local aristocracy, bound by ties of loyalty and lineage. They were individuals who ensured a high level of performance and maintained confidentiality, given the sensitive political nature of the undertaking. Vittore Carpaccio and his sons enjoyed the complete trust of the Dalmatian community throughout their lives. They were regarded as one of their own, and the living individuals portrayed in the painting were familiar to them. The Dalmatians continued to provide him with commissions until the end of the workshop’s existence.

Why were both painting rendered on panel?
In Venice, large representative narrative paintings of the late 15th and early 16th centuries were painted on canvas. This was also the case for Carpaccio’s telera created for Scuola Dalmata between 1502 and 1507. Why were the two succession paintings, one from the Zderzak collection and the other from the Rijksmuseum, painted on softwood panels?
Softwood panel presents a challenging ground for painting – being uneven, porous, and often knotty. It requires a different, more rapid painting technique. The fragments of the Kraków artwork painted by the Master’s hand are distinguished by their virtuosity; none of the contemporary painters could match it. The colour, light, freedom, and the finely, beautifully painted details (such as the inscription on Lord Đurad’s cap or the little sword and shield on Admiral Valaresso’s cap) prove the high artistic qualifications and technical proficiency of the artist.

It is probable that the Bućas’ palace in Kotor already housed other representative portraits of rulers, painted on panels and collected over generations. The Buća family was closely linked to the Serbian Nemanjić dynasty. A traditional wooden ground may have been considered more appropriate for the theme of succession. It is also possible that both paintings were created on wooden panels sourced from Đurad Crnojević’s estate. At the court of the fugitive ruler in the village of Rika, Turkish officials recorded forty-one pine panels, one hornbeam panel, and three thick pine panels. It was recommended that these items be sold locally, providing merchants from Kotor, by the walls of which Turks collected taxes, with the opportunity to purchase them. Both works of art would then carry additional meaning – proprietary and apotropaic.

Three philosophers from the National Gallery
The collection of the National Gallery in Washington features Carpaccio’s drawing depicting three debating professors. A redrawing of the original drawing made by the Italian painter Giorgio Bonola in the 17th century is presently housed in the National Museum in Warsaw.
This sketch served as the starting point for painting the three figures on the right side of the painting: Lord Ivan Crnojevića, Averroes – the Arabic Aristotelian philosopher, and Ethiopian Bishop. The group of sages in the painting includes Theodore Palaiologos, described by Pietro Bembo as “uomo amantissimo della Repubblica.” Theodore, the leader of the Greek community in Venice and a renowned arbitrator of disputes, is portrayed wearing a travelling coat and a black stratioti cap. A leader of stratioti troops, he had worn that cap since his youth, layered over a silk skullcap. This distinctive attire is also depicted in his portrait from the palace of San Martino Gusnago, which predates our painting by several years and is now part of Victoria & Albert Museum’s collection in London.

The Oracle of Gordion
The presence of dragons, demons, and basilisks in the painting vividly illustrates a strenuous psychomachy, a struggle against transcendent evil. Indeed, the symbolic foundation of this representation is very archaic. The names “Gordiana” and “Gordion” are eponyms for the city of Gordion in Phrygia, an ancient centre of worship for the Great Mother and a hub of metallurgy and glass working synonymous with wealth (King Midas). Famous in antiquity, the city of Gordion was known for its oracle, which resolved the issue of royal succession after the extinction of a local dynasty. It was also renowned for the Gordian knot, a symbol representing the key to ruling in Asia. The high priests of the great temples in Phrygia held the status of autonomous rulers.

Did the creators of the painting associate these meanings? As humanists, they had no problem with it, living them on a daily basis. This stands in contrast to the stance of contemporary Balkan historians who find it difficult to accept the existence of a political testament painted on a panel. Indeed, this is hardly surprising. The emergence of an unknown source in the form of a large, high-class panoramic painting portraying many public figures presents a knowledge shock. Our preliminary interpretation of the painting’s ideological content as well as the identification of social circles and individuals portrayed have already contributed to solving several mysteries surrounding Renaissance paintings in world collections.

Time machine
And there will be more – the painting by the Venetian master serves as a real time machine, facilitating cross-identifications. It should be noted that one of the most insightful contemporary scholars of Vittore Carpaccio’s work, the American art historian William R. Rearick, posited that the drawing of the three debating philosophers in the National Gallery in Washington was actually a sketch for the lost painting.

The message of this remarkable work has traversed the centuries and reached us only recently, bringing with it vivid portrayals of real people, deeply concerned about the future of their homelands during periods of significant global civilizational change. These figures, our fellow human beings, have thus emerged from the depths of history. This is the most gratifying reward for explorers.

At Marta’s request, we acquired the painting from the Rouillac Auction House in Tours. Once the yellowed varnish was removed, the vibrant Venetian colours were revealed. After eliminating small repaints from later centuries, it became apparent that the painting was in a very good condition. Therefore, a prompt decision was made to conduct historical and anthropological research. This year-long endeavour resulted in the identification of the painting’s subject, its ideological framework, and the identities of the depicted individuals with varying degrees of probability. The identification process began with determining the breed of the dogs at the centre of the painting, symbolically guarding the community and feeling secure there. As more information was gathered, our functional logic matrix – our time machine – unveiled an increasing number of connections between the individuals and social circles. We have not yet fully interpreted all these connections. This masterpiece is a rich treasure trove of knowledge for generations of researchers to explore.

Comparison photos

Bibliography (selection)
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