Eighteenth-century Venice was famous as a city of spectacle and diversion, of louche pleasures and festive entertainments. The only one of Italy’s city-states to have preserved its republican status, even during the tumultuous territorial wars of the Renaissance, Venice had long paraded itself as a bastion of political liberty. But during the years of its glittering decline, when its power was eclipsed and its once great trading empire shrunk to almost nothing, it came to stand, rather more uncertainly, for a moral and sexual freedom that could be experienced nowhere else in Europe. The French historian Charles Montesquieu, who travelled there in 1728, snootily remarked that Venice still stood for liberty, but “the kind of liberty most decent people do not want to have: to visit the girls of the town in broad daylight; to marry them; not to have to perform one’s Easter duties; to be entirely unrecognised and independent in one’s deeds: there’s the liberty that one has.”
No painter caught the appearance and seductive appeal of eighteenth-century Venice more brilliantly than Giovanni Antonio Canal, popularly known as Canaletto. Born in 1697, near the great bridge of the Rialto, he spent much of his long career painting sunlit views of the city’s canals and palaces. He depicted its religious processions, its festival occasions and many a sleepy morning aftermath of the debauched night before. His work was both symbol and product of Venice’s metamorphosis from world power into tourist attraction. Canaletto was admired, above all, by the numerous English milords who travelled to the city during the first half of the eighteenth century, on the pretext of that supposedly self-improving journey of discovery known as the Grand Tour. But the finest collection of his work was formed by an Englishman who actually lived in there, Joseph Smith. A successful man of business, and subsequently English consul, Smith accumulated an unparalleled quantity of canvases and drawings by Canaletto. Late in life, after falling on hard times, he sold his entire collection to George III. This treasure trove of Venetian view-painting has remained in the hands of the British monarchy ever since. A generous proportion is currently on display in the Queen’s Gallery, in an exhibition which shows the artist at the absolute peak of his powers, both as painter and draughtsman.
The multitude of drawings on display include some of the finest works Canaletto ever produced. Fact-gathering for future paintings or simply off-duty, with pencil in hand, the artist observed a multitude of quotidian events. He depicted them with such attention to detail that the past thus recorded still seems as fresh as yesterday. He draws a wooden cradle hung precariously from ropes on the Campanile of St Mark’s, for the workmen whose job it was to repair damage caused by a lightning strike that took place – according to the artist’s neat inscription – on 23 April, 1745. He draws nuns chatting and dilettantes conversing under the arcades of the great piazza. Then, in a series of beautiful wash drawings, he ventures out eastwards, away from city’s the main island, to places in its watery hinterland that recall the barrenness of its earliest settlements. Out on the lagoon, Canaletto pauses to draw the Olivetan monastery of Sant’Elena, isolated on its own small island amidst the mudflats. A strip of human habitation sandwiched between sea and sky, it might stand as an emblem of Venice itself – the stubbornness that created it, as well as the sheer fragility of the place. Smoke floats upwards from the monastery chimneys and drifts sideways on the sea breeze, like the idea of transience made visible.
Official Canaletto, who worked in oil on canvas rather than pencil and wash on paper, is just as fascinating as his unofficial self. He is represented by fourteen highly finished paintings, which consist of twelve small views of the Grand Canal and two larger paintings of Venetian festivals. All were commissioned by Consul Smith to decorate the walls of his palace, the Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana, just north of the Rialto bridge. They were painted between 1723 and 1733 and amount to a journey through the city recreated in art. The earliest of the pictures in the series are The Canale di Santa Chiara looking north towards the lagoon and The Grand Canal looking west with the Scalzi and San Simeon Piccolo, painted in about 1723 and about 1726 respectively. They preserve the appearance of a part of Venice that was much altered, and partly demolished, to make way for the city’s railway station in 1861. They also show how rapidly Canaletto evolved as a painter during his early career.
The first picture is relatively low-toned and finished in a sketchily impressionistic manner that has the effect of eliding the differences between the different buildings in the scene. A group of figures in the foreground usurp the attention, being implicated in a moment of accidental social comedy. A little white dog barks at a rotund bewigged gentleman in English dress, who points a pompously reproving finger back at the animal. The second picture is much lighter and sunnier and the buildings have been painted with a far higher degree of architectural detail. On one side of the canal the grand domed church of San Simeon is under construction and a number of great blocks of stone – each painted, with great economy of means, as a single lick of white paint – are piled up before its portico. Opposite, where the buildings are caught by raking sunlight, the artist has worked and scumbled a number of virtuoso variations on the theme of peeling stucco and crumbling brickwork. The baroque marble façade of Santa Maria di Nazareth, known as the Scalzi – literally “the shoeless”, in allusion to the barefoot Carmelites whose church it was – is a gleaming exception to the rule of picturesque decay. The marble statues perched on its pediment demonstrate Canaletto’s habit of taking liberties with the literal truth. On the church itself, which survives, they are ponderous. But in the picture they gesticulate with histrionic urgency, pointing heavenward into a blue sky lightly hazed by veils and wisps of cloud.
This group of pictures was created not simply to furnish Consul Smith with vistas of the city that he loved. They were also demonstration pieces, examples of Canaletto’s nonpareil skill as a painter of all things Venetian. And they were part of a business plan. Smith was an art dealer as well as a collector and connoisseur, who not only accepted commissions on Canaletto’s part but arranged for the framing and shipping of his pictures. Smith’s series of Venetian views provided prospective customers with a template of vistas from which to choose when commissioning their own variations.
Canaletto was prized, by those customerrs, for his presumed accuracy but his pictures are emphatically artificial versions of the topographical truth. He was the son of a successful theatrical scene-painter, Bernardo Canal, with whom he is known to have collaborated on the sets for an opera by Scarlatti in 1720. His paintings of Venice often have a theatrical dimension to them. Canaletto would turn buildings around, add others that were actually invisible from his chosen viewpoint, and compress the gaps between landmarks to omit duller buildings. He would open up the different sides of a particular view, rather like someone opening up the pages of a book, to depict a particular palace or church at an angle that pleased him. In The Grand Canal looking West from the Palazzo Vendramin-Calergi towards San Geremia he flattened and straightened the left bank in order to be able to reveal the full splendour of one of the jewels of Byzantine architecture in Venice, the Fondaco dei Turchi, the ancient offices and warehouses of the city’s Turkish traders.
Canaletto’s priorities reflect those of the Grand Tourists for whom he painted the majority of his pictures, in that they record the better known sights of the city and often do so at the cost of its minor buildings and less spectacular views. But he could also be touchingly alert to the sentimental associations of particular buildings to particular people. When he painted The Grand Canal looking north-west from near the Rialto, the fifth in Smith’s series, he dwelt in detail on the neo-Palladian façade of the Consul’s own palace, which appears in the right middle distance, and squeezed the geography of the city so that the belltower of Santi Apostoli rises, quite impossibly, into the sky above it. The picture was completed in 1727, the year in which Smith’s only son, John, died. The child’s remains were laid to rest in Santi Apostoli.
Canaletto’s humanity is as notable as his habit of artful composition. He paints the living inhabitants of Venice as if they were actors in a daily unfolding drama. He notes the state of mutual dependency that links the indolent rich, who are colourfully clothed and often wearing the masks of Carnival, to the hordes dancing attendance upon them: the footmen, the whores, the ubiquitous gondoliers, stooped at an angle of forty-five degrees to the water as they strive to propel their vessels at maximum velocity. Over the ten-year period spanned by the paintings for Consul Smith it is noticeable, too, how Canaletto modifies his handling of the water through which those gondolas glide. In the earliest pictures he represents it as a flat, somewhat turbid substance. Gradually it becomes more responsive to light and atmosphere, eventually metamorphosing into a medium in which the whole city is reflected and refracted as if in the surface of an unstill mirror. In Canaletto’s hands, it seems to become a metaphor for Venice’s enchanting instability.
His pictures conjure the illusion of a weightless and occasionally dizzying experience, which is heightened by his habit of framing them from physically unattainable points of view. Many are painted from the perspective of someone who would have to be five metres tall. They are images of a floating world, painted as though seen by a floating, disembodied eye. Perhaps this was the deepest secret of his appeal to the English abroad in Venice. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who visited the city in 1740, loved it for the very reason that Montesquieu had hated it. She felt liberated not just by Venice’s watery beauty but by its prevailing spirit of social tolerance: “it is so much the established fashion for every body to live their own way, that nothing is more ridiculous than censuring the actions of another”. It was Canaletto’s genius to capture not just how Venice looked, but also how it felt, to upper-class people from strait-laced England. He painted it as a place of freedom and release, a city through which it was possible to move freely and with apparent invisibility – to see without being seen, and act without fear of reproach.