Picturing Venice I
Updated: Jun 13, 2022
Venice suffered grave damage after days of flooding in November 2019, which impacted ninety percent of the city. Already fragile, and affected by years of rising sea water and mass tourism, the floods sounded the death knell for many small businesses and forced the 50,000 who live in Venice to re-evaluate the feasibility of continuing to reside in the city. The surrounding lagoons, which for centuries protected the city from mainland attacks, have a precarious ecosystem. Is this a dire warning for Venice? Is this the new normal?
An astounding 30 million visitors a year either took transportation from the mainland or a cruise ship to Venice. Although it is jam packed with tourists, especially in the summer, they still come. After the floods tourism was down, but I imagine that will change with warmer weather and peak tourist season.
Why has the appeal of Venice endured? How did the city become an iconic symbol? Its natural beauty, architecture, the British, and artists all played roles in idealizing Venice. A three part blog post will explore the role Venetian and foreign artists have played in capturing the beauty of the city and creating a symbolic ideal which persists today.
Dozens of artists have captured the essence of Venice. Seven are notable: Antonio Canaletto, Francesco Guardi, William Turner, James McNeil Whistler, Maurice Prendergast, John Singer Sargent, and Claude Monet. Venice has attracted foreigners and tourists practically since it was founded. Venice is unique with its distinctive Muslim influenced architecture situated on the edge of the Adriatic Sea. The over one hundred islands, connected by bridges over numerous canals, offer romantic and spectacular views of palaces on the shimmering water. Venice begs to be painted or photographed.
Doge's Palace from the loggia (balcony) of San Marco. It is possible to visit Venice without the crush of crowds. This was taken in September in the middle of the week. It is striking how Venice opens up to the lagoon and sea.
Nowadays visitors can take as many “selfies” and smart phone photos of the city as they wish. Prior to the development of the camera and photograph, visitors wanted a souvenir of their trip and something to display at home. They usually purchased paintings or engravings of Venetian views, and it was big business. Venice was a marketable commodity. It was this desire to capture the monuments and uniqueness of Venice that created the market and established the icon status of the city.
A kind of a love affair with Italy developed into a quasi “study aboard” Grand Tour of Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries with the British making Rome, Naples, and Venice obligatory stops – especially Rome and Venice. Purchasing paintings or engravings of the famous Venetian Grand Canal, San Marco, Ducal Palace, and enchanting canal scenes became de rigueur for visitors.
The Brits led the way in commissioning and purchasing views of Venice. And Venetian artists, particularly Antonio Canaletto and his contemporary Francesco Guardi, could churn them out. Today, Canaletto and Guardi are synonymous with iconic panoramas of the Grand Canal, Doge’s Palace, and San Marco (St. Mark’s), reproduced on innumerable tourist objects.
Artists continued to paint Venetian scenes after the demise of the Venetian Republic and surrender to Napoleon. American, British, and French artists took Venetian view painting in another direction, which will be explored in the next two posts.
The Grand Tour
The Italians did not invent urban views but rather responded to market demands from tourists, primarily British patrons and visitors. Italy was renown for Renaissance and Roman art and came into its own as a “must see” destination by the early 1600s. Italian music, culture, ideas, literature, art, fashion, science, and philosophy dominated throughout Europe. The British were the early Rick Steves of the travel world, developing itineraries, information about what to see, and for the well-traveled, social clubs back home for those who had toured Italy. They even published a detailed guidebook to Italy in 1670.
The Grand Tour was at its peak from about 1764-96 primarily for the upper classes to experience a broader world view while making connections with ex-pats and foreigners. There was little interest in current Italian political problems, economic or social issues, poverty or contemporary culture. They were there to see the historical sites first hand.
Pompeo Batoni, Portrait of Richard Milles, The National Gallery, London, c. 1759, Open Access Creative Commons. A fairly typical Grand Tour traveler. Milles had his portrait painted in Rome during his Grand Tour. Later he was a member of Parliament. The rich clothing, confident pose, inclusion of a map, Roman sculpture, and mountains in the background attest to his voyage and wealth.
Before railways, travel was uncomfortable, long (many months to years), expensive, and required an entourage. Groups and families traveled together which required long term detailed trip planning. Some travelers even brought beds to avoid sub-standard sleeping accommodations infested with fleas or lice, along with many trunks for clothes and provisions through many seasons. There were three ways to get to Italy: by sea from England to an Italian port, through the Alps or via southern France along the Riviera. Mountain passes required hiring local labor as tourists were carried on chairs with long poles. Trunks and other items required backbreaking work to cross summits. Carriages were disassembled and carried on pack mules, then re-assembled after reaching flatter ground.
Rome was the epicenter of the tour. Ruins of the Roman Empire were the main attraction, not necessarily the Vatican and many churches, for most of the tourists were Protestants. Naples and the newly re-discovered ruins of Pompeii were usually next on the itinerary, after which they trekked northward to Venice, then continued north through the valley of what is now the Alto Adige or the South Tyrol, through the Dolomites, to the Brenner Pass, onward to Austria and beyond. Carnival was a popular attraction for the Grand Tour as there were 12 days to celebrate in Rome but the decadent Venetians milked the festival for weeks from December 26-Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent starts).
The Grand Tour waned with the Napoleonic Wars and 1000 years of the Venetian Republic collapsed when Venice surrendered to Napoleon in 1797. Venice was a spoil of war eventually awarded to Austria. Precious objects were looted and Napoleon carried off all that he could to Paris. Tourism did not pick up again until the 1820s. Although always a destination for travelers, by that time the world was quickly changing. Venice was forever transformed by three events: a railway line from the mainland to the islands in 1846, photographic daguerreotypes developed in the 1840s, and the unification of Italy in 1861.
Two artists – Canaletto and Guardi – served most of the Grand Tour view painting needs. Grand Tour travelers did what all tourists do – purchase mementos and souvenirs of their trip to proudly display at home. The British landing in Venice undoubtedly knew of Joseph Smith, art collector and Canaletto dealer, who resided in Venice acting as the middle man between Canaletto and British patrons. Smith became the conduit for artists selling their works to the British.
Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, (1697-1767) was the first well-known urban Venetian view painter. View painting was not well-regarded in academic or professional circles. It was considered the lowest form of artistic production. The Venetian Academy reluctantly admitted Canaletto at age 66 even though he was famous in Europe and had produced numerous paintings for well to do travelers. Because of Venice’s location on the Adriatic, about five miles from mainland Italy, landscape painting was highly unusual in Venetian art. There was little land – only water, buildings, and the occasional “campo” or piazza. So how did view painting become so popular? Supply and demand.
Canaletto, The Grand Canal Looking South Towards the Rialto Bridge, 1730s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Canaletto’s paintings are more esteemed today than they were in his time. The local life he painted in his pictures – hanging out laundered clothes, people strolling along the canals, merchants transporting goods in their boats – lend a personalized character to the city. His refined detail in the architecture is unmatched. He took liberties with architectural elements and placement of buildings. He stretches a canal wider or alters a roof line, what we would call photo-shopping, by including a column or element not visible if one would stand or place oneself in that spot. The artistic license didn’t bother patrons as he gave them what they wanted.
Canaletto, The Square of St. Mark’s, 1720s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Canaletto’s Venice is alive with boats, people, commerce, and processions. The sky is usually blue or partly cloudy, with hardly a bad weather day. His viewpoint is typically from a second story window so a broad expanse of the city can be included. His Venice is harmonious, pleasing, composed, and represents an enhanced reality. Because of the large quantity of paintings he completed, some appear redundant and perfunctory. One of his favorite compositional techniques is a “scena dell’angolo” with oblique architectural image receding far back. This draws the eye and viewer into the picture.
Canaletto was comfortable but not a rich man. He died with little property despite a forty-five-year career and creating more than 1500 paintings and drawings. Only 28 paintings were inventoried in his studio at time of his death. Middle man Joseph Smith sold 52 Canaletto paintings and 140 drawings to King George III in 1762, realizing a healthy profit. Canaletto had no studio followers but many imitators.
Canaletto, The Square of St. Mark’s, 1742-4. The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
Piazza San Marco, Venice
Francesco Guardi (1712-93) devoted his artistic career to view painting in the late 1750s following his training in his brother’s studio. Patrons primarily consisted of the British, Venetian nobility, and expatriates living in Venice. Guardi’s painting style differs significantly from Canaletto’s detailed precision. His view paintings are characterized by loose strokes, dabs of paint to indicate people, little or no individualization of figures, and a sense that his scenes are always in motion rather than a fixed snapshot. The thickness of paint is very visible with small specks of people – and usually there are lots of people in his paintings.
Like Canaletto, architecture is the real subject, but not a literal copy of buildings. Angles are modified, building elongated, and perspectives are changed to enhance the composition or for betterment of the view. Venice is presented at her best, lively, full of pomp, showcasing the architecture, and active citizens parading in the squares. One can see from the photograph of Piazza San Marco at approximately the same location as Guardi how some elements were modified.
Francesco Guardi, Piazza San Marco, 1760s. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Digital image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0.
The reality of Venice in the late 1700s was quite different. It had long ceased to be a major mercantile or trading center. Economically or politically the city was not influential in Europe. The British didn’t even appoint an ambassador to Venice for lack of significance, yet the city still staged lavish and outrageous spectacles and processions with allegorical floats and barges. The rich Venetians had plenty of opportunities to display their material goods and wealth. They continued to put on a show regardless of their status in Europe. And it was the show that view painters captured. Long regattas from the islands down the Grand Canal were typical on religious holy days, when important foreigners visited, or during the Bucintoro festival, commemorating Venice’s marriage to the sea. The gold gilded Bucintoro was a 38 yard long vessel decorated to the hilt and carried the Doge in procession.
Guardi’s Venice is often situated with a very wide view as if see from far off. Architectural details are not rendered in great detail, nor are people. His palette is darker and the atmosphere frequently seems stormy. The sky figures predominantly in the composition, taking up sometimes half the space. He places the horizon low in the painting to allow more compositional space for the sky.
Francesco Guardi, The Grand Canal, c. 1760. The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. Digital image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art Open Access Policy, CCO 1.0. Santa Maria della Salute is on the right, built as an act of thanks in 1631-81 by Baldassare Longhena after a plague that wiped out thirty percent of the population. The name means St. Mary’s of Health and stands majestically at the entrance to the Grand Canal.
Unlike Canaletto who lived and worked in England for a period, Guardi lived in Venice and worked in or near Venice his entire life. In the late 1760s Guardi drew and painted a number of “capricci” or fantasy architectural scenes. These are even more loosely composed with rapid brushstrokes, implying a sense of movement. Guardi was not considered an important painter in his day and like Canaletto, achieved more acclaim in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries. View painting did not earn the big expensive commissions like church altar paintings or palace decorations.
By the time Guardi died in 1793 the western world was on the cusp of great change. The French Revolution was close at hand. In less than fifty years daguerreotype photographs were common and the type of view painting popularized by Canaletto and Guardi became obsolete.
However, Venice never went out of style and picturing Venice resumed with great enthusiasm in the nineteenth century, which will be explored in the next post.
Kerber, Peter Björn. Eyewitness Views: Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe. J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017.
Libby, Alexandra, Marina Pacini, and Stanton Tomas, eds. Venice in the Age of Canaletto. Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, 2009.
Madden, Thomas F. Venice: A New History. Penguin Books, 2012.
Martineau, Jane and Andrew Robison, eds. The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century. Yale University Press, 1994.
Russell, Francis. “Guardi and the English Tourist.” The Burlington Magazine, vol. 138, no. 1114, 1996, pp. 4-11.
Wilton, Andrew and Ilaria Bignamini, eds. Grand Tour: The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century. Tate Gallery Publishing, 1996.