Canaletto’s Venice Revisited is at the National Maritime Museum from 1 April 2022. It explores some of the most iconic ‘view paintings’ of Venice and how the tourism that helped establish Canaletto’s career, today threatens his city’s future.
The exhibition combines paintings from Woburn Abbey with objects from the Royal Museums Greenwich’s collections.
Canaletto’s Venice Revisited reassesses Canaletto at the height of his career. It looks beyond the broad views that he is famous for to also closely examine the features that bring his Venice to life. The iconic views of Venice rarely change in Canaletto’s work. It is the painstaking detail of the people, their lives, travels, and even pets that lend vibrancy to his work. These details highlight how Venetian life revolved around the water that flows throughout and surrounds the city.
Although known for his ‘exact’ views, Canaletto sometimes sacrificed accuracy to create more pleasing compositions. He painted the same parts of Venice repeatedly, but his paintings are all unique, each one having a different combination of people and boats in the foreground. But more than 250 years after his death, Canaletto’s work continues to capture our imagination.
The display here makes it easier to look at the detail as, while there are barriers to stop us poking the paintings, they are all hung at eye level. The gallery is also dark so the lighting on the paintings keeps your attention.
A native Venetian, Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697–1768) was known as Canaletto, meaning ‘little cana,’, after the famous waterways of his hometown.
He wasn’t the only artist in his family. His father was a scenery painter, and Canaletto started his artistic career creating theatrical backdrops for plays and operas. However, a visit to Rome in his teenage years expanded his artistic horizons, introducing him to a style called veduta or ‘view painting.’ It emerged during the 17th century and involves depicting cityscapes and urban landmarks in remarkable detail. Inspired by the vedute paintings he had seen in Rome, Canaletto turned his hand to the genre, moving away from scene painting to capture everyday Venetian life.
Interest in Venetian vistas came predominantly from British visitors on the Grand Tour (an educational rite of passage for the wealthy in the 18th century). Of the numerous artists competing to provide wealthy tourists with reminders of the city’s beauty, Canaletto was the most sought-after.
In the 1720s he adapted his artistic style for this ‘tourist market’ to a clearly defined painting style with constant sunny skies – as any of us would hope for in our holiday souvenir postcard. He also adopted a smaller size for his canvases so they could be rolled up and shipped easily.
He would travel around the city making pencil sketches which he would later work up in his studio. He would often sketch out his scenes in a mathematical way; drawing the lines of the architecture in pencil with rulers before going over it in pen. However, he would also play with perspective and key landmarks within his works, in order to manipulate the scenes and create ‘idealized’ versions of his native city. Some say Venice is almost set up to be a theatrical city with the Grand Canal as a stage, the buildings as the curtains, and the architecture as the scenery. I would love to know if any of his notebooks have survived.
Seen from a distance, Canaletto’s paintings appear incredibly detailed but closer inspection reveals how the artist used simple techniques to suggest minute details. Wavy brushstrokes bring to life the rippling surface of the canal. Blobs of paint denote the heads and limbs of gondoliers. Lines scratched in the paint indicate reflections in the water. It’s interesting that what makes Venice’ Venice’ – the water – is given less attention than other features.
Venice at the time of Canaletto was a cultural hotspot and a center for luxury crafts such as lace and glassmaking. Canaletto was part of a generation of leading Venetian creatives, which also included the composer Antonio Vivaldi and the Rococo painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.
Woburn Abbey Treasures
While Woburn Abbey is closed for renovations (until spring 2024), the National Maritime Museum has continued a collaboration to display the estate’s artworks. The Queen’s House had a fantastic exhibition to show the Queen Elizabeth I Armada Portraits together. And now we have further Sharing of the Woburn Treasures with this latest exhibition.
Woburn Abbey is the home of the 15th Duke and Duchess of Bedford and has been the principal family seat since the 1620s. It houses an outstanding collection of works of art brought together by the family over nearly 500 years.
The 4th Duke of Bedford was evidently attracted by Canaletto’s burgeoning reputation for detailed and atmospheric views of the Italian city’s most iconic views and landmarks. The Duke, then Lord John Russell, was in Venice on the Grand Tour in 1731.
At the heart of the exhibition is the complete set of twenty-four Venetian views from Woburn Abbey. This is the first time the paintings, thought to be Canaletto’s largest single commission, have been on display in their entirety in London.
It is presumed Russell met Joseph Smith, Canaletto’s newly appointed agent, who was a Venetian resident and later British consul there. He paid for the paintings in several installments and three bills from Smith to the Duke survive in the family papers dated 1733, 1735 and 1736. The bills add up to just over £188 (about £16,000 today) but may be incomplete judging from what we know of the prices Canaletto commanded. Even so, this sum was over five times the annual earnings of a skilled tradesperson at the time.
The paintings were created over a nine-year period when the artist was at the pinnacle of his career. The set features not only classic views of the Grand Canal and the Piazza San Marco but also some of the city’s less well-known views.
The paintings usually hang three high in the Woburn Abbey Dining Room so it’s a real treat to have them lowered to a better viewing height.
Bookmarking the exhibition are Woburn Abbey’s two monumental views, A Regatta on the Grand Canal (see above) and The Grand Canal, Ascension Day: The embarkation of the Doge of Venice for the Ceremony of the Marriage of the Adriatic. These paintings were commissioned as further souvenirs following Lord John Russell’s visit to the city.
The Grand Tour
The Grand Tour was a journey through Europe (and sometimes beyond) to learn about art, architecture, classical history and to foster independence. During the 18th century, it was a popular way for British upper-class men to finish their education. (On display here is a page from Lord John Russell’s travel pocketbook with an extensive list of destinations he intended to visit across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.)
Visiting Venice was one of the highlights of the Grand Tour and wealthy travelers often purchased Canaletto’s views of the city as souvenirs. Canaletto’s reputation was built on a relatively rapid turnover of breathtaking works of art for Venice’s emerging tourist industry. Venice’s reputation as a place of pleasure, with gambling houses and opportunities for drinking and partying, was another reason behind the city’s appeal.
Points of View
At a quick glance, it’s easy to say these paintings look similar but Canaletto didn’t stick with one point of view. Sometimes you feel as if you are one of the people on the street or in a boat on the canal. And other times he chose the overview looking down on the city.
In the close-up below, you see not only people but a pet dog too.
In a city built on water, it’s no surprise that a boat is one of Venice’s most defining symbols. The famous black boats have been used in the city since the 11th century, but their design has evolved over hundreds of years.
In Canaletto’s time, gondolas were status symbols used by wealthy Venetian families and their guests. A felt cabin, known as the felze, provided privacy, meaning that gondolas often hosted secret or romantic meetings. Travelling in a gondola was less about seeing the city, and more about not being seen. The felze, so often seen in Canaletto’s paintings, was removed in the 20th century to allow visitors a clearer view of the city.
Also on display, is this drawing is by 19th-century artist William Edward Cooke showing his view looking out from a gondola’s interior towards Venice and the dome of San Marco. He visited Venice ten times between 1850 and 1877.
With canals instead of streets, Venice is defined by its relationship to the sea. This relationship is central to the city’s allure which has beguiled generations of travellers and artists. However, rising sea levels brought about by climate change now threaten to destroy the way of life represented in Canaletto’s paintings.
In some of Canaletto’s paintings, green algae stains indicate the canal’s highest water level. Climate scientists have compared these marks with those on Venetian buildings today to measure sea-level changes. Their research suggests that the sea level in Venice rose by approximately 2 feet (60 cm) between Canaletto’s time and the early 2000s.
“The floods are becoming more frequent and they are striking with greater intensity.”
Venice today faces urgent threats from mass tourism and severe flooding. In recognition of these threats, the exhibition concludes with a consideration of the social and environmental challenges that the city now faces.
The development of the cruise industry has also brought large and unsustainable volumes of tourists to the city, prompting a backlash from some local communities. While the numbers of tourists increase each year, Venice’s population is in rapid decline, In Canaletto’s time, roughly 140,000 people lived in Venice’s historic centre. By the 1950s, this number had risen to 174,808, but since then it has plummeted to less than 50,000.
The exhibition displays a Venice population counter to show the decline in Venice’s population over time. A similar real-time counter is displayed in the window of the Morelli Pharmacy in Venice’s busy Campo San Bartolomeo.
Ascension Day Festival
Even though Venice today has a precarious relationship with rising sea levels threatening its future, the Ascension Day festival is a poignant reminder that the Venetian way of life has always been defined by its lasting relationship with the sea.
The final Canaletto painting looks at the annual Ascension Day festival as recorded in Canaletto’s monumental depiction of the celebration from the Woburn Abbey collection (see above). The festival is a medieval tradition revived in the 1960s and is still performed today.
The relationship of the city and the water is powerfully symbolized in the Festa della Sensa – a religious festival that takes place every year on Ascension Day, 40 days after Easter Sunday. Venice’s leaders drop a ring into the Adriatic Sea to symbolise the city’s marriage to the water. This year’s festival will be held on Thursday 26 May 2022.
It is a real treat to have the paintings at a suitable height to give them more of your attention. There are lots of ‘everyday’ moments to see in these paintings from chatting on balconies to rooftop laundry workers. I even took the time to admire the gold frames. (Have we ever had a really good exhibition about frames in London?)
The two larger ‘bookend’ paintings are well worth the extra time to study. The colours have more definition and there are attention-grabbing whites and golds that truly shine. And the exhibition is a timely opportunity to reflect on Venice’s dynamic history and its precarious present.
I’m not naive enough to think Canaletto produced every brushstroke for souvenir view paintings and I’d love to know how many junior artists were needed to help him in his studio. I definitely left the exhibition with a greater admiration for Canaletto’s work and I was a fan before I arrived.
Exhibition: Canaletto’s Venice Revisited
Venue: National Maritime Museum, Romney Rd, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF
Dates: 1 April – 25 September 2022
Tickets: Adult: £10 | Child: £5 | U-25/student: £6.50