A chance to explore Canaletto’s Venice

Posted in: News on June 5, 2017.

Frankincense wafting out from the churches mixes with the salt rot smell of the fish market. The crowds, in the heat, out in their droves for the endless calendar of religious festivals, pour from exquisitely decorated churches. Thick dark water laps at the houses rising out of the canals, leaving a pattern of polluted water marks along their exterior. Imagine the dirt, the disease set right together with architecture and imagery so beautiful it can do nothing but urge you to live a better life (although the scenes of damnation illustrated in the candlelit alcoves of the churches are assuredly lived out in every dark corner of the city). The noise the crowds the stench the life the death the mortal and divine it is all so apparent in this city as it is nowhere else. Now, a Disneyland for the cultured, a pilgrimage to romance (the city physically shaped like two clasped hands). Then, a Republic, a centre of the manufacture and trade of luxurious goods, a hotbed of sanctity and sin.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as il Canaletto (1697-1768) and his circle are amongst those who remind us of this Venice of times gone by. Often painting directly from nature (though undeniably using an element of artistic licence to perfect their vistas), the huge panoramas of the 18th century city are quite literally a snapshot into the past. They allow us to look out across the Lagoon of over three hundred years ago, our view of the city hindered by huge sail ships and the dark lacquered boats used by the very rich, their lace curtained windows obscuring whichever aristocrat, courtesan or fallen member of the clergy seated within. They enable us to visualise the hindrance of high Venetian fashion in this period, the wide and heavy skirted dresses proving those innumerable bridges a near impossibility. We can imagine the stuffiness and stench of the city in high summer where the only respites were the darkened churches or the hidden courtyard gardens of the Grand Canal palazzi.

Canaletto’s Venice was above all a city for pleasure seekers, a holiday destination for virtually every aristocratic family in Europe. It was the de rigueur destination for any young cad wanting to let loose, unbound from family ties. And it is this, the city’s most hedonistic era, that many of us know best. We travel to Venice yes of course for the churches and the art, but also for the Carnival, for the music of Vivaldi, to immerse ourselves in the exploits of Casanova and to drink excruciatingly expensive espresso on Piazza San Marco. With the Arsanale simply an empty shell sporadically filled with often pretentious contemporary art, the military prowess of the city is just a distant memory. This belief was certainly held dear by the wealthy cultured masses of the Grand Tour, who travelled in their hordes to Pompeii, to Rome, to Florence to experience the bygone age of the Empire. When Canaletto and his circle were painting, the medieval city state, at one point a super power, had been in decline for centuries. Venice was little more than a high class tourist destination for those with money to burn.

A painting is as close to time travel as we will ever likely get. To coincide with the Queen’s Gallery exhibition ‘Canaletto and the Art of Venice’, (19th May – 12th November), on June 24th Dawson’s is offering two 18th century circle of Canaletto vistas of Venice. The first, a view of Venice from the Guidecca, spans across the busy lagoon. Piazza San Marco and other notable sights are displayed in the distance, including the Doge’s Palace and the San Marco Campanile (estimate £2,000-3,000). The second painting shows figures pouring out of the Santa Maria della Salute, gondolas crowding the water before the church (£4,000-6,000). An opportunity to own an exemplary view of Venice in this iconic period, and, for any Venetian at heart, one not to be missed.

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