Maligned Throughout History


For the longest of time, eras at least, these two woefully pathetic souls, venetian by birth, idly sitting side by side adorned in fine clothes, jeweled necklaces and pained expressions were believed to be ladies of the night. A curious conclusion when considering the presence of a white kerchief, strands of pearls, and a pair of cooing doves, (the bird of Venus), all representing symbols of chastity. Something was clearly amiss.

Further investigation of their slumped, dispirited and exhaustive bearing might make one wonder if, perhaps, their patrons were either too few, or too many, in which case they could well be — comatose.

This wonderfully quaint observation of daily life, painted around 1490, by the famed scuola artist par excellence in the late 15th and early 16th centuries, Vittore Carpaccio (also known as Carpathius, Carpatio, Scharpaza and by various other versions of his name), who was well renowned as the ” Painter of Stories,” has had historians grappling for years over what tale he was meaning to tell.

Had the women been seized by remorse, ennui, impatience? Or were they merely taking a well earned breather? Communing with the dogs, enjoying the day, reveling in the “now” with their Lilliputian man servant at the ready?

The title “Two Venetian Ladies” (c. 1495 from the Correr Museum in Venice), provided no clue. Hence, these dreary damsels were maligned for nearly all of history as ladies of ill repute. Naturally, this being history, (it was well before the time of “defamation of character” suits, after all), there was little recourse to be had in preserving one’s reputation.

Who might have guessed that centuries would pass before the learned academicians discovered, rather sheepishly, one would think, that this historic depiction was but a section of the original work of art. Not until 1944, was it realized, that ‘Two Venetian Women’ was but a panel (or if you prefer, shutter or cupboard door), part of the same work as another panel, entitled “Hunting on the Lagoon,” (c. 1495 from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles), that portrayed several boats fishing in a lagoon. When the historians were made aware of the error and concluded that the two panels were at one time hinged together to form a diptych or folding door or shutter, a far more chaste version of the story emerged.

The revised narrative now explained the meaning of the scene as two rather prosperous women awaiting the return of their husbands after an expedition hunting, or fishing with cormorants, in the Venetian lagoon. Mystery solved! The damsels, puzzled over for centuries, were not, after all, enchanting seductresses of men, but simply bored housewives. Alas! The facts were not nearly as titillating as the endearingly rumored, but imperfectly flawed fantasy. Dreams do die hard.






~ by eaesthete on 04/23/10.

8 Responses to “Maligned Throughout History”

  1. Brilliant!….(really) :)

  2. Perhaps the subtitle of the painting is Belle de jour. In either case, the painting is interesting in that their boredom is quite palpable.

  3. The painting of the two wemen incredible of simplicity and iconographic richness at the same time

  4. have always found this so interesting with the busy activities around these two. The dogs, doves-and the balcony. dress and hairstyle- a real study, now made more interesting with your information and 2nd painting. Not to mention the crazy shoes! pgt

  5. It’s difficult for some to believe that anyone could be bored in Venice. And it’s always a temptation to police women’s virtue. By the way, the clouds in the second panel are marvellous.

  6. I can not express enough what a treat it is to read your brilliant articles. I always enjoy it tremendously. You inspire me in so many different ways…Just yesterday I posted a new post in my Blog with mention of you and the result of the inspiration from your Blog. Wishing you wonderful weekend.:-)

  7. Author,

    Merci. And thank you for your very lovely note which requires more time than I can give it at the moment; I will get back to you. Promise.



    It is that very expression of utter boredom that forms the heart of this painting.



    I’ve often thought it is the contrast of opposition that makes for a great masterpiece.


    As you point out, there is so much included, each a source of chaos and commotion, one has to marvel at the stillness of the ladies in question. As for the shoes, those treacherously clumsy chopines, you have inspired me to render a post on those alone.


    You do go right to the heart of the matter – how could one possibly be apathetic in Venice? And amen as to policing women’s virtue throughout the whole of history. A resounding yes on the clouds.


    One can never tire of hearing that they have inspired. It is, after all, the point, no? My humble thanks at your unabashed enthusiasm. It means much.

  8. What fun. I recently attended a JJ Tissot lecture at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It focused on the way that Tissot deliberately captured a ‘moment’ of immediacy in so many of his works in the Les Parisiens series of (exquisite) prints. I think this applies to the ‘Two Venetian Ladies’…a much more formal image, with the dogs providing the sentiment of the moment.

    Fun – and the discovery of the second panel – that is most interesting – it brings to mind the wise expression, “Boys will be boys”….how many of us women folk have felt exactly the same way as these gals, while our men partake in such masculine sporting tasks as setting up a flat screen tv…..XO

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