The Royal Collection presents an exhibition that features one of the world’s finest group of paintings, drawings and prints by Venice’s famous painter, Canaletto (1697-1768). The exhibition explores the work of Canaletto and his relationship with Joseph Smith who was British Consul in Venice and became the artist’s agent and dealer.
The exhibition also presents a wide selection of eighteenth-century Venetian art, with Canaletto’s greatest works shown alongside paintings and drawings by Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Francesco Zuccarelli, Rosalba Carriera, Pietro Longhi and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta.
The first room in the exhibition sets the scene with Ludovico Ughi’s map called Iconographic Representation of the Illustrious City of Venice, first printed in 1729. Venice was unlike any other city in the world being built on a series of islands and sandbanks in a shallow lagoon. The wealth of the city had led to a series of palaces being built along the canals with attractive churches and squares.
Venice’s political power had been tied closely to their maritime power and two paintings by Canaletto pays testament to this relationship. A Regatta on the Grand Canal c.1733-4 illustrates spectators cheering the elaborately decorated eight-oared barges belonging to prominent Venetian families. The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day c.1733-4 provides a view of the great Venetian festival of the Wedding of the Sea where The Doge drops a ring into the sea to symbolise Venice’s maritime power.
Canaletto was born in Venice in 1697, the son of Bernardo Canal (1674–1744) who was a painter of stage sets. The artist initially followed in his father’s footsteps, but soon began producing paintings which included the city of Venice as his principal subject. However these views were not just reproduced, Canaletto often moved buildings and changed perspectives to create a better dramatic effect. Many of the artists drawings are included in the exhibition including some of the most famous monuments of Venice—the Grand Canal, the square around the basilica of San Marco and its distinctive Campanile (bell tower).
Venice was considered an important place on the Grand Tour undertaken by wealthy Europeans, to cater for this clientele, the city provided places of entertainment. One of the most popular forms of entertainment in this period was Opera and Theatre, Venice had nineteen opera houses, and the opera season coincided with Carnival.
The exhibition illustrates how Canaletto transformed the cityscape of Venice into a profitable subject to sell to British Grand Tourists, but another popular subject in Venetian art was rural landscapes which were often used as a setting for episodes from biblical stories or classical mythology. Marco Ricci and Francesco Zuccarelli made many landscape paintings, drawings and etchings to cater for this demand.
The city of Venice had been an important centre for printing for many centuries. However in the eighteenth century, printing became a mini industry to produce prints for visitors and collectors. Many artists in the city were attracted by this lucrative sideline, Canaletto, Marco Ricci and Giambattista Tiepolo began to experiment with etching.
‘Capriccio’ paintings and drawings refers to landscape or architectural compositions that combine real elements with elements of fantasy or imagination. The genre became associated with eighteenth century Venice and was popular among Grand Tourists. Several Venetian artists, especially Canaletto, Marco Ricci and the painter Antonio Visentini made many paintings and drawings of capriccio subjects.
Although many artists catered for the visitor market, other Venetian artists worked in a variety of media and subjects in a more traditional type of Italian painting, the exhibition features works by Sebastiano Ricci and Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini who painted on a large scale, using subject matter taken from history, literature or mythology.
The final room features Canaletto’s paintings of Venetian views with which he made his reputation. Joseph Smith commissioned many paintings from Canaletto for his own collection including a series of 12 paintings of the Grand Canal. Smith also commissioned a series of monumental views of Rome and arranged for Canaletto to travel and work in Britain where he stayed for almost ten years. Eventually in 1762, Smith decided to sell his extensive collection to George III and the remarkable collection has been in the Royal Collection ever since.
This fascinating exhibition offers an opportunity to discover Canaletto’s work in the context of a Venice that was in decline politically but was a popular destination for visitors to Italy. In many ways, Canaletto’s reputation has been tarnished by the work he did for the Grand Tourists. It has often been seen as low quality in a genre that was not highly valued. This exhibition provides plenty of evidence that this view obscures Canaletto considerable talents of a draughtsman and the sense of drama in his paintings. Since the artist’s death, the paintings have also provided a remarkable historical and visual account of the Venetian maritime empire in decline relying on tourism to maintain its past glories.
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Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended
Canaletto & the Art of Venice is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 19 May – 12 November 2017.
For more information or book tickets, visit the Royal Collection website here
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