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The dark reds in Vittore Carpaccio’s paintings may have inspired the dish of delicately sliced raw beef on the appetizer menu of your favorite Italian restaurant.

The story goes that Giuseppe Cipriani, founder of Harry’s Bar in Venice, Italy, invented the dish in 1963. Hearing that his regular patron Countessa Amalia Nani Mocenigo had been recommended a diet of uncooked meat by her doctor, and thinking that that sounded boring, Cipriani created a new recipe.

He cut raw top sirloin into paper-thin slices and drizzled it with a sauce of whisked mayonnaise, lemon juice, Worcestershire sauce, milk, salt, and freshly ground pepper.

Cipriani named the dish after Carpaccio, whose work was on display in a retrospective nearby. The color of the raw meat slices reminded him of the dark reds in the artist’s paintings.

National Gallery conservator Joanna Dunn tells us that Carpaccio used pigments typical for Venetian artists in his time. His reds are made from vermilion, red lead, and red lake.

Shown from the hips up against a landscape, a woman with pale skin, wearing a burgundy-red dress with marigold-orange sleeves and a sheer veil, sits facing our left in profile as she reads a small book in this vertical painting. She has a straight nose and peach-colored lips. Her blond hair is covered by a bone-white headdress tied over her forehead. The veil drapes over the headdress, and her head is encircled with a faint gold ring, creating a halo. Her dress has full sleeves and is cinched into pleats at the high waist. The neckline is edged with a band of nickel gray decorated with a pattern of circles and leafy forms. The book has a red cover with a red ribbon, and she holds one index finger between the pages. A low chalk-white stone wall beyond the woman suggests she sits on a porch or balcony. A swath of powder-blue fabric drapes over the ledge on which she sits near one knee. To our left, a sliver of a shoulder, elbow, and toes of one foot suggest a person with pale skin draped in midnight blue, leaning back against a maroon-red pillow with tassels at the corners, in front of the woman and to our left. Behind that second person, in the landscape beyond the balcony, barren branches of a tree twist against the sky while a second tree, to our right, has a leafy, green canopy. A mustard-yellow meadow lined with bushes leads to the water’s edge, where ice-blue water leads back to rolling hills along the horizon. A few white buildings and a tower are clustered on the opposite shore. White and gray clouds float against the pale blue sky.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Virgin Reading, c. 1505, oil on panel transferred to canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.354

You can still see Carpaccio’s vibrant red hues in works such as the National Gallery’s Virgin Reading. The artist created the rich, cool red of the dress mostly using red lake, which is a dye-based pigment. In Carpaccio’s time, the dyestuff was often extracted from textiles. In fact, looking at Virgin Reading under a microscope shows tiny red fibers, which are probably from the fabric that was used to make the red lake.

Is the Virgin’s dress the color of raw meat? You be the judge.

Based on Joanna Dunn’s pigment research and essay, “Carpaccio’s Pictorial Technique,” in the exhibition catalog, Vittore Carpaccio: Paintings and Drawings


November 16, 2022