Canaletto and the Art of Venice Back

Paintings and drawings by Canaletto (1697-1768), forming part of the Royal Collection, have been selected to form the centrepiece of this exhibition which provides a magnificent opportunity to see them displayed together in the spacious Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. However, the exhibition Canaletto and the Art of Venice is about much more than just Canaletto. It underlines the importance of Joseph Smith who acted as a dealer and agent for the many British collectors who visited Venice during the 18th century as part of the Grand Tour. In 1762 the bulk of the contemporary Venetian paintings, drawings and prints in Smith’s possession, and his library, were sold en bloc to the young George III at the time of his purchase of Buckingham House in London. This very impressive exhibition is composed from many items selected from Smith’s sale, which has resulted in the Royal Collection possessing one of the largest and finest collections of paintings in the world by Canaletto and early 18th-century Venetian artists.

If Rome was visited for enlightenment, Venice was for pleasure, as it still is today, and the tourists in the 18th century, for the most part British, included a visit sometimes on their way to Rome but more likely on their return journey. The city filled up for the lengthy period of Carnival before Lent but there were many other attractions and what was most remarked upon was the sheer contrast with any other city in Italy and the colour and the sparkle of the water which greeted them on arrival. By the 18th century the greatness that Venice had experienced politically and economically during the 16th century had diminished under Ottoman pressure, but it was still a great cosmopolitan centre and a magnet for visitors with much of its energies employed in maintaining the myth of greatness in the face of a changing world.

The exhibition opens with Iconografica rappresentatione della inclita città di Venezia (1729), a large engraved map of Venice by Ludovico Ughi which shows the two island masses separated by the Grand Canal with the smaller islands of the Giudecca to the south. In the upper right is a personification of Venice wearing the Doge’s ‘corno’  holding a sceptre and trident riding in triumph on the waves, emphasising how Venice had once been a great maritime power and empire. Beside this hang two splendid and colourful paintings by Canaletto of major festivals which attracted the tourists, A Regatta on the Grand Canal (c. 1734-4) which took place during Carnival, and The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day (c. 1733-4) which illustrates the return of the Bucintoro (ceremonial galley of the Doge) to the Molo after the ceremony of ‘The Marriage of Venice with the Sea’, the greatest of all Venetian festivals. The production of decorations for processions, feasts and ceremonies, as well as supplying stage scenery for performances in opera houses, of which there were at least nineteen, provided much employment for artists and craftsmen. Canaletto’s father was a designer for the theatre and, although brought up in the theatrical world, the young Canaletto was by the 1720s painting views of Venice following in the steps of Luca Carlevaris (1665-1731) whose views had been published as Vedute in 1703. Canaletto’s talents were soon spotted by an agent, Marchesini, who wrote to his patron that his canvases outstripped those of the older artist “because we can see the sun shining in them”. He was soon taken up by Joseph Smith, who had settled in Venice in the early years of the 18th century as a business man and banker and who began collecting books, antique gems and paintings before becoming Canaletto’s dealer in the 1720s.

Smith first commissioned Canaletto to paint a set of six large views of the area around San Marco for his business premises (c. 1723-24). These are hung together in the exhibition along the wall of the largest gallery grouped with two horizontal pictures framed by pairs of vertical canvases. This arrangement demonstrates how they were designed to be seen as two sets of three. The weights of the shadows are complementary, and characterise different times of day. The Piazza San Marco looking East towards the Basilica and the Campanile is fluidly painted with the right hand side of the composition in dark shadow only relieved by a theatrical glimpse of the Doge’s Palace illuminated by the midday sun and seen between the dark Procuratie Nuove and the Campanile. Canaletto drew the pattern of brick work of the Doge’s palace into the wet paint with the end of his brush and from close scrutiny it is evident that he used dividers for each arch of the façade of San Marco and a ruling instrument for the roof of the Procuratie Nuove. Paired with it is Piazza San Marco looking West towards San Geminiano. The left hand side of this picture is in dark shadow while the west side of the Piazza is illuminated by full morning light which catches the pale hangings of a temporary stage. Smith owned six of Canaletto’s drawings for these paintings, displayed at the beginning of the exhibition, which illustrate well the significant adjustments he made when he came to execute the pictures. The variety of figures populating these views have been created by freely manipulating thick strokes of paint. The bright red robes of a procurator in The Piazzetta looking North towards the Torre dell’Orologio add an accent which sets off the whole composition. These six paintings are the most lively and dramatic of all Canaletto’s work in the exhibition. It is postulated they were to decorate a particular room in the Palazzo Balbi (now the Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana) where Smith then lived and which he was later to purchase in 1740.

With his eye on future business, Smith had also commissioned Canaletto in the early 1720s to paint twelve less theatrical views of the Grand Canal in a smaller format to show to potential clients visiting his Palazzo. For those unable to visit, or to afford a painting, he had them etched by his friend Antonio Visentini with the series title Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetianum. They were published by Giovanni Battista Pasquali in 1735. This was the year Smith set up his own printing press in Venice, again under Pasquali. For the twelve views Canaletto used considerably smaller canvases, which made future commissions less expensive and easier to transport. They are painted more tightly, full of incident and displaying much greater detail than the previous set. Until recently these perspective views of the Grand Canal have generally been thought to have been constructed with the aid of a camera obscura, but certain drawings for the series have been examined with infra-red imaging for the first time, only to find no evidence of it. An extensive use of pencil under-drawings setting out the details of the buildings with great accuracy was revealed though they are rarely visible to the naked eye under the ink drawings. A sketch book containing these drawings is now in the Accademia in Venice. Canaletto painted directly onto the canvases using the drawings as an aide memoire and often moving elements to make a more satisfactory composition. The two festival scenes displayed at the beginning of the exhibition were added to Smith’s Grand Canal series which would seem to have been painted in pairs, possibly with the intention of encouraging patrons to order pairs. The expanded 1742 edition of Visentini’s Prospectus has an additional 24 views. As is pointed out in the catalogue, Canaletto’s technique had changed. His use of beige ground for the sky and grey for the water led to his palette lightening, and the paintings become more luminous. Indeed, Smith later requested Canaletto to repaint the skies in his set so as to make them less dramatic, and also make a number of changes to bring the views up to date. This included repainting the gothic façade of the Palazzo Balbi, which he had commissioned Visentini to re-model in the Palladian style. Although Smith did not have a monopoly over Canaletto’s production he was involved in the sale of many large sets of paintings to British aristocrats which in turn led to his increasing personal wealth.

Through acting as the agent for Canaletto, Smith also exploited the links and contacts between Venetian artists and British patrons which had been established at the beginning of the 18th century, including Gianantonio Pellegrini, Marco Ricci and his uncle Sebastiano Ricci who had all worked in Britain. Smith bought contemporary Venetian art which is displayed in the first large gallery of the exhibition and is dominated by the paintings by Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734). He had been a leading Venetian artist in the early part of the century and his major source of inspiration was the great 16th-century Venetian artist Paolo Veronese. This is immediately recognisable in The Adoration of the Kings which harks back to Veronese’s version of 1573 now in the National Gallery, London, but painted with the bravura and dazzling richness of colour, light and elegance associated with the 18th century. This belonged to a series of seven scenes of the life of Christ painted by Ricci in the mid-1720s, which included Christ and the Woman who believed and Christ and the Woman of Samaria. This series of paintings was engraved by J-M Liotard and published by Pasquali in 1742. Ricci’s debt to Veronese is particularly evident in The Finding of Moses, closely based on Veronese’s version of the subject c.1580 (Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid) which, in the so-called ‘Italian List’ (connected with Smith’s pictures by then in the Royal Collection), was listed as by Veronese. However, the refinement and sensibility are 18th-century in character and technique though it is known that Ricci made nine copies, some potentially misleading, of works by Veronese for Smith who also owned the largest group of Sebastiano Ricci’s drawings, in six albums, now in the Royal Collection. Amongst his drawings are those for The Adoration of the Kings, and his painting of The Sacrifice of Polyxena, as well as a Design for a Monument to Newton. Ricci died in 1734 and it is a strong possibility that Smith acquired the unsold work in his studio.

Throughout his career Marco Ricci worked closely with his uncle and specialised in small landscapes and capricci often executed in gouache or tempera and on goatskin. He is very well represented in the Royal Collection and Smith owned a large number of imaginary scenes of figures among ruins, for example the Capriccio View with Roman Ruins, 1729. The entry in the ‘Italian list’ states that this painting was a collaboration between Marco and Sebastiano and that it was Marco’s last work. He died the following year. Both Sebastiano and Marco Ricci also worked as theatrical designers, Marco at Drury Lane before returning to Venice with Sebastiano in 1716. Two of his drawings for stage sets, as well as a caricature of the famous castrato singer Farinelli which he probably drew when Farinelli performed in the Teatro San Giovanni Christomo during Carnival 1729-30, are included in a substantial section devoted to opera and theatre. It is well known that Smith had a life-long interest in the stage, eventually marrying Catherine Tofts, an opera singer.

Smith went on to patronise a younger generation of artists amongst whom was Francesco Zuccarelli (1702-88), a landscape painter who arrived in Venice in 1730. He was employed by Smith who commissioned six large canvases of the story of Jacob of which Landscape with Jacob Watering Laban’s Flock (1743) and Jacob and Leah with their Sons (c. 1743) are displayed. These are pastoral landscapes full of atmosphere in which delicately painted figures are set beside the river with views into distant landscapes recalling those of Claude Lorrain but seen through Rococo eyes. Landscape with Classical Ruins (c. 1741-2) and Figures and Landscape with a Wayside Tavern (c. 1741-2) are pastiches of 17th-century Dutch paintings which Smith had acquired from Pellegrini’s widow after his death in 1741. Zuccarelli became hugely popular with the British, spent two periods in England, and was elected a founder member of the Royal Academy in 1768, before returning to Venice.

The epitome of 18th-century artistic sensibility is represented by the set of four allegorical figures of the Seasons delicately executed in pastel by Rosalba Carriera (1673-1757) a personal friend of Smith. Winter, represented as an alluring girl with a fur wrap, was one of Smith’s most admired possessions and later hung together with Summer in the King’s bedchamber. Although 23 other pastels arrived in 1762, Spring and Autumn are later additions entering the Royal Collection as gifts to Queen Mary in 1923. Smith was also acquainted with Giovanni Battista Piazzetta (1683-1754), today considered to be one of the greatest Venetian artists and best known for his drawings of heads in black and white chalk on blue paper. Although not documented, the 36 ‘character heads’ in the Royal Collection undoubtedly came from Smith and despite the blue paper on which they were drawn having faded they are most exceptional, notably The head of a moor and The head of a mathematician. Two girls with a bird cage and a youth with a gun was superbly engraved by Giovanni Cattini, in a set of 14 character heads after Piazzetta, and published as the Icones ad vivum expressae (Images taken from Life) by the Pasquali Press in 1743. This hangs together with the print.

Changes came with the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession in 1740 and many fewer visitors travelled to Italy.  Canaletto continued to produce views for Smith such as The Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute looking East towards the Bacino (1742) which was a reworking of an earlier version of 1722-23. It has been suggested that his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780) contributed some of the figures and the left side of the painting. Bellotto was working with Canaletto when the latter painted five large views of Roman Monuments for display in Smith’s palazzo in 1742 but which are rarely seen together. They represented the Arches of Titus, Constantine and Septimus Severus, the Ruins of the Forum looking towards the Capitol, and the Pantheon. All are signed by Canaletto and dated 1742. The sources for these pictures are debated. Either he used early sketches made on his trip to Rome with his father 1710-20, or a later visit, or he relied on sketches by Bellotto whom he had sent to Rome in 1742, besides the use of other topographical material. Canaletto and Smith, who worked closely together, clearly had in mind the grand tourists whose destination was Rome. In each painting there are amusing theatrical groups of tourists, some of them carrying guide books, listening to their cicerone explaining and admiring the monuments (scenes still in evidence today!). The death of Vanvitelli in Rome in 1736 no doubt encouraged Smith to expand into the market for Roman views although Giovanni Paolo Panini remained active into the 1760s.

The Roman views were followed by two pairs of panoramic Venetian views of the Piazza and Piazzetta of San Marco which Canaletto painted much more tightly. Responding to the demands of his patrons his style had hardened and lost the vibrancy of his previous set, with details such as the mosaics on the façade of San Marco much more clearly depicted than before. They were engraved by Visentini and published by Pasquali in 1744, the year that Joseph Smith was appointed Consul. Smith had purchased the Palazzo Balbi in 1740 and soon set about replacing its Gothic façade. The view of the Palazzo Balbi, by Apollonio Facchinetti (1715-57) sold at Sotheby’s, 6 July 2017 (lot 169), with its new façade designed by Visentini, was almost certainly commissioned by Smith.

A large number of Canaletto’s drawings are on view which bring one close to the artist’s working methods and encourage a close examination of the variety and development of his work. There are preparatory drawings which are often lively, with birds flying across the sky only to be omitted from the final paintings, and also rapid sketches contrasting with finished drawings for collectors. His later drawings, however, tend to become more formulaic and sometimes he repeats an earlier pen and ink drawing in a looser style with a grey wash. Four small panoramic views of the little visited area of Castello, facing out into the lagoon, are unusual in Canaletto’s work and depict scenes arranged along the horizon such as Sant Elena and the Certosa from the Punta di Sant’Antonio. Among them is The Bacino from the Punta di Sant’Antonio with a ship moored in the foreground seen against a low-angle view of the Bacino with the Campanile and the Doge’s Palace on the horizon, executed in pencil, pen and wash. One of his most intriguing drawings is The Campanile under repair. The bell tower of the title had been struck by lightning in 1745 and Canaletto records the repairs in progress by means of a very accurate drawing. The Campanile takes up the whole of a large vertical sheet of paper and the drawing shows a platform suspended from a higher level by ropes beside the damaged brickwork of the Campanile. This carefully finished sheet is executed in pencil, pen and ink and wash in a rather mechanical style but at the top left of the sheet it has an inscription recording the event in Canaletto’s own hand.

The 18th century saw a great revival of interest in the work of Andrea Palladio and his architectural theory of ideal buildings based on classical values and proportions as published in I Quattro libri dell’architettura, 1570. In Britain this revival was spear-headed by Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, who had commissioned Sebastiano Ricci to decorate the staircase at Burlington House, Piccadilly. Burlington returned to Italy for a second time in 1719 with the intention of studying the buildings of Palladio. This set a fashion for a host of country seats built for the Whig aristocracy in the Palladian style. In 1743, at the height of the War of Austrian Succession, Smith commissioned Canaletto to paint thirteen overdoors to exploit this British taste for Palladio, though only five actually depict his buildings. Canaletto must have referred to Palladio’s engraved plates for the buildings themselves while the settings were imaginary. San Giorgio Maggiore in a Capriccio Setting, c. 1744, shows the dome of the Salute seen over a wall on the left and a colossal statue on the pillar attached to the wall. The strangest is Capriccio View of the Piazzetta with the Horses of San Marco, where the famous bronze horses, looted from Constantinople and displayed for centuries on the facade of San Marco, are shown on high pedestals erected in the Piazzetta in front of the Doge’s Palace. Of the various interpretations put forward perhaps the horses were intended to symbolise the link of the Venetian Republic with Ancient Rome. In 1746, with Canaletto short of commissions, Smith arranged for him to go to England in search of new patrons where he was to remain, apart from short return visits to Venice, until 1755.

This series was continued with a second set of overdoors executed by Visentini and Francesco Zuccarelli for Smith’s country villa, illustrating a series of well-known English Neo-Palladian buildings. The View of Burlington House (1746) has been painted from the engraved plates in Colin Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus (1725) but set in a hazy background by Zuccarelli, and also displayed is the Capriccio with a view of Mereworth Castle, Kent (1746). Included in the exhibition is the facsimile edition of I Quattro libri dell’architettura, by Palladio, first published in 1570, commissioned by Consul Smith and re-published in 1768 by the Pasquali Press. Of other 16th-century books re-published, Torquato Tasso’s La Gerusalemme Liberata (1581) was reprinted with exquisite rococo illustrations by Piazzetta and published by Giambattista Albrizzi in 1745. The copy on display was bound for George III when Prince of Wales. Another example is Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, first published in 1516 and republished in 1772 by Antonio Zatta. Vivaldi used the poem as the source for two operas, which were first performed in 1727 at the Teatro Sant’Angelo in Venice.

Venice became a flourishing centre for the engraved print industry supported by Joseph Smith together with the collector Anton Maria Zanetti the Elder. Canaletto with his nephew Bellotto began to experiment with etching in the 1740s after a journey they had made along the Brenta. Recording subjects from the countryside of the Venetian mainland, and capricci, they are some of his most imaginative work. Thirty-one of his prints were published together as Veduti alle prese da i luoghi altre ideate with a frontispiece dedicated to “Signor Giuseppe Smith, Console di S.M. Britanico” sometime after 1744. Considering the artists represented in Smith’s sale one might ask why he had not patronised Giambattista Tiepolo?  Although there are no paintings by the artist included, there are amongst the prints supplied by Smith, eight from the set of ten Vari capricci of his first independent etchings. They represent groups of figures and animals executed with the brilliance and sparkle which mark out Tiepolo as one of the great artists of his time.

Canaletto finally returned to Venice in 1755 and one of the last paintings executed for Consul Smith and included in the exhibition is The Nave of San Marco looking East. A small picture recording the sumptuous interior, with light pouring in from the right, it is executed in Canaletto’s  rather mechanical late style which contrasts with his earlier picture of The Crossing of San Marco looking to the North Transept on Good Friday (c 1725-30) which is much more painterly and fluidly executed.

The different treatment accorded by Smith to his library as against his works of art is revealing. In 1755 Smith commissioned Pasquali to print a catalogue of his library no doubt with a view to its future sale, since the War of Austrian Succession (1740-48), followed by the outbreak of the Seven Years War (1756-63), affected his business ventures adversely. Some failed and they combined to delay the negotiations of the block sale to George III. For Smith his works of art were commercial stock and not a collection assembled in accordance with a vision of a dedicated collector and indeed some items may well have been acquired specifically for inclusion in the royal consignment. Consequently this exhibition and accompanying publication have provided invaluable material by which to assess Smith’s role as an artistic entrepreneur and the route by which George III eventually brought to Britain this exceptional collection of Venetian 18th-century art.

Canaletto and the Art of Venice is at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace from 19th May to 12th November 2017. It is accompanied by an excellent and lavishly illustrated catalogue by Rosie Razzall and Lucy Whitaker which covers all aspects of the exhibition, and to which is appended the valuable ‘Technical Comparison of Canaletto’s Paintings’ by Claire Chorley.