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'Ciao, Carpaccio!' Painter's Reputation No Longer Sliced Thin


Carpaccio has become familiar in our time - on menus. But Vittore Carpaccio, whose last name has been stuck on just about anything that's raw and thinly sliced, was one of the great painters of the Italian Renaissance with a feel for animals, a glint of personality, even a sense of whimsy that makes him distinctive among the masters of that period, even as his works are sometimes overlooked today, no longer. Jan Morris, the Welsh writer, who's feel for Venice where Carpaccio lived goes back more than 50 years, has a book "Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation." And we spoke with Jan Morris about the artist she loves, starting with a favorite painting "Vision Of St. Augustine."

JAN MORRIS: It's a picture that shows a saint sitting in his library, surrounded by books and all the equipment that a cultivated gentleman of the Middle Ages. And on the floor beside him is a little dog...

SIMON: Yeah.

MORRIS: ...Looking up at him in a sort of rather cheeky kind of way.


MORRIS: And the little dog is perhaps the most famous in all art as a matter of fact, isn't he?

SIMON: So how did his name get put on an appetizer?

MORRIS: (Laughter). Well, his name got put on an appetizer. In Venice, there is a well-known bar called Harry's Bar, which I know all too well and to which I've dedicated this book as a matter of fact.

SIMON: That should be worth at least a daiquiri, but go ahead please.

MORRIS: (Laughter). Yes, I hope so. The owner of Harry's Bar, Senior Cipriani, he was preparing the restaurant for the evening meal. When they arrived, a grand lady of his acquaintance and an old customer of his too, who said oh Senior Cipriani, an awful thing has happened. My doctors have told me I can't eat anything cooked. What can you do? And he said oh well, I'll think of something. Don't you worry. And he made a dish which was very thinly sliced beef. And he presented it to her and she said what's it called? It so happened that there was an exhibition of Carpaccio's pictures all over Venice at that time. And in it predominated the particular color red that Carpaccio was very fond of. So old Cipriani thought at once oh, that's it. It's called carpaccio, he said to the old lady. Anyway, he's given the name to the world, hasn't he? I'm afraid he wouldn't be half so well known in the world if it weren't for Senior Cipriani.

SIMON: Yeah. What made you decide you wanted to do this slender, beautiful little book about an overlooked artist?

MORRIS: I've written lots of books of people who've said have been my last but they haven't been. And I thought at the end I'd like to do something small - not pretentious or grand in any way - but something with expressed affection and happiness and some humor and a love of a particular painter and his art. So that's what I've done and I have said it is truly my last book. But even that is a half-truth because in fact, I've done a posthumous book and it won't get into the bookstores until I kick the bucket. It's called "Allegorizings," about the belief I have that absolutely nothing in life means only what it first means. It's got two or three meanings behind.

SIMON: I don't like the idea that we can't interview you about that book.

MORRIS: Well, you have now, don't you?

SIMON: I guess so.


MORRIS: Well, you have to wait for me to die and then you can interview me.

SIMON: I don't want you to stop writing.

MORRIS: I'm 89 years this coming year, and it takes an awful lot of energy to write a book. Most of my life - my professional life - has been wandering around cities and writing about them and what they mean to me and the conclusion that I draw about them. I can't do that anymore. I - just physically I'm not so good. I can't jump in and out of boats in Venice, for example, or leap in and out of airplanes of as I used to do it, so that part of my profession has died upon me already. That's why I write these little things.

SIMON: May I ask you about one of the world's great love stories?


SIMON: Yours.

MORRIS: Oh, go on.

SIMON: You got married in 1949 to a woman named Elizabeth. You, of course, famously had gender reassignment surgery - wrote about that so beautifully. You got divorced, continued your literary career and in recent years you have remarried Elizabeth, I've read.

MORRIS: Yeah, we went through a civil union, you know, which you can now do. But it didn't make much difference to us. We've lived together all these years anyway as a matter of fact.

SIMON: So what's the key to a long-term love?

MORRIS: There's a long silence here, isn't there? Because there's no key to love itself, is there? I suppose just plain, simple love is the only answer to the whole thing. And even that can be reduced to something simpler, which is the overwhelmingly important idea of kindness. Sometimes you can't go as far as love, but you can always be as kind as you possibly can. And at the end of this book, I'm sure you know, I end up with a conclusion that above all, this painter who loved animals and children and women - and men too I dare say - he is above all, to my mind, the supreme artist of the idea of kindness.

SIMON: Jan Morris. Her new is "Ciao, Carpaccio!: An Infatuation." Thanks so much. I hope we get to talk to you again.

MORRIS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.