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Capriccio: River Landscape with a Column
c. 1754
Oil on canvas, 132 x 104 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

London: Ranelagh, Interior of the Rotunda
Oil on canvas, 46 x 75,5 cm
National Gallery, London

Eton College Chapel
c. 1754
Oil on canvas, 61,5 x 107,5 cm
National Gallery, London

Old Walton Bridge
Oil on canvas, 48,8 x 76,7 cm
Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

Palazzo Ducale and the Piazza di San Marco
c. 1755
Oil on canvas, 51 x 83 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

San Marco: the Interior
c. 1755
Oil on canvas, 36,5 x 33,5 cm
Royal Collection, Windsor

Piazza San Marco: Looking South-West
Oil on canvas, 67,3 x 102 cm
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford

Grand Canal: Looking South-East from the Campo Santa Sophia to the Rialto Bridge
c. 1756
Oil on canvas, 119 x 185 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin


Piazza San Marco: Looking South-East

Giovanni Antonio Canal, (1697-1768), known as Canaletto, painted this work for the merchant and collector Joseph Smith in 1727 to 1728. along with five similar paintings. This view shows the facades of St Mark and the Doge's Palace, the loggia of Sansovino with the soaring bell tower on the right, and St Mark's column, just visible in the background, not far from the water's edge. Much of the government of Venice was located in this area, while the fiscal and economic headquarters were located in the Rialto district. The figures in the paved square can be grouped into social classes by the clothes they wear. The entire square was traditionally the preserve of the aristocracy, to the exclusion of ordinary citizens.

Canaletto based his townscapes on a scrupulous adherence to the rules of perspective. Before painting in colour, he undertook a geometric construction of the scene, with a detailed perspective grid. In this case, the construction of the perspective is known technically as "accidental", with the two vanishing points situated outside the picture on the horizon line, to restrain the foreshortening and tapering effect so that the buildings were given due importance and value. The artist also used a camera obscura to help with the accuracy of his composition.

Piazza San Marco: Looking South-East (detail)

Standing on a rostrum under an awning near one of the porticos is a figure preaching to a small crowd. His clothes suggest that he is a monk or friar, possibly a Dominican. The Doge's Palace also housed many government offices which would have been visited by Venetians as well as visitors from the mainland. In St Mark's port the gondolas thread their way between the larger vessels.

The townscape is affected by the pattern of the buildings that rise to varying heights from the flat land. It is also governed by a closely observed and insistent rhythm: that oft flagpoles, the colonnade, and the gallery, with their arches, groups of columns, and the pinnacles of the buildings. The parading crowd brings the townscape to life. In the main square and in the upper parts of the buildings, the composition is more expansive, in the lower sections, more crowded.

Piazza San Marco: Looking South-East (detail)

Canaletto coolly analyzes and describes daily life in the famous square. In front of the basilica there are three booths with goods on display and in trunks, shaded by large umbrellas and awnings. Dotted across the square are magistrates in wigs and low robes aristocrats in all their finely, and members of the bourgeoisie, swathed in dominoes and capes, as required by the laws of Venice. A merchant is dismantling his stall its covers lying on the ground revealing the trestle table. Canaletto's minute attention to detail and his keen observation of everyday life in his native city echoes the Dutch genre painters, whose paintings of daily life are unrivalled in their detail.


Piazza San Marco: Looking South-East (detail)

The late afternoon light falls on the rose facade of the palace, the gold of the mosaics, and the ornamental details of the basilica. In juxtaposition with these tones are the contrasting shades of cerulean blue and turquoise of the sky. The shadow cast by the bell tower contributes to the distribution of the chiaroscuro; shadows are never black, but interpreted in different shades of brown and always subtly tinged with red.

Piazza San Marco with the Basilica
c. 1730
Oil on canvas, 76 x 114,5 cm

Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge

Piazza San Marco
c. 1730
Oil on canvas, 68,6 x 112,4 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Piazza San Marco
Oil on canvas, 141,5 x 204,5 cm
Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, Madrid

Piazza San Marco:
Looking East from the North-West Corner
Oil on canvas, 46,5 x 38 cm
National Gallery, London

A City Rich in Gold

Venice and the sea

(K.Reichold, B.Graf)

No other city in the world has been so extravagantly praised as Venice. In 1495 the French ambassador Philippe de Commines praised it as being "the most joyously radiant city" he had ever seen. He mentioned white marble facades, apartments with gilt antechambers and sumptuously ornate fireplaces. When Napoleon conquered Venice in 1797, he thought St Mark's was "the best drawing-room in Europe and only Heaven is worthy of serving as its ceiling". Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who stayed in the island-dotted lagoon in September 1786 while on his Italian journey, spoke with reverence of the "wonderful island city", which he "was privileged to visit" and in which he wished to reside "until I have satiated my desire to gaze on the image of this city". After endless warring with Genoa, Venice finally conquered her rival in 1380. From that date, the city was the unchallenged leader in world trade. In 1423 the Venetian Republic commanded a war fleet of 45 galleys specially built for combat and a merchant fleet of 300 galleys. With a population of over 200,000, Venice was one of the biggest, and certainly the richest, Western cities. Prosperity, optimism and cheerfulness reigned: "People sing in the squares, in the streets and on the canals. Merchants sing when they are prizing their wares; labourers sing when they leave their places of work; gondolieri sing when they are waiting for customers", remarked the Italian dramatist Carlo Goldoni in the eighteenth century. One wonders whether the Doge, the ruler of the Republic, sang when conducting the affairs of state.
At any rate, he had to utter the same invocation each year on Ascension Day, which was the most important event in the city calendar: "O sea, we wed thee in the sign of our true and everlasting dominion". With this incantation, a vow renewed each year, the Venetians hoped to propitiate the primal forces of the sea to ensure their benevolence and willingness to do their share in securing the supremacy of the Republic in the Adriatic. In the days of the veduta painter Canaletto, the "nuptials widi the sea" were staged as an opulent and colourful cavalcade. The Doge boarded his ceremonial ship, the bucintoro, and sailed to the Porto di Lido, the principal gateway to Venice, where the "nuptials with the sea" took place. There he poured holy water into the sea and cast a gold ring overboard. The ritual has been revived in recent years. Now, of course, something very different is at stake. No longer are the power, influence and wealth of Venice to be enhanced. The decaying city once called the Serenissima ("Most Serene Republic") must be prevented from subsiding into the sea should a raging storm unleash the forces of nature.

Return of the Bucentoro to the Molo on Ascension Day



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