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Bacino di S. Marco: from the Piazzetta


In his chapter on the topography of Turner, John Ruskin defines history painting and that of topography as the ‘most precious things; in many cases more useful to the human race than high imaginative work’.1 John Ruskin, Modern Painters, George Allen, Kent, 1888, vol. IV, part v, ch. 11, p. 17. He also writes that in a topographical painting ‘not a line is to be altered, not a stick nor stone removed, not a colour deepened, not a form improved; the picture is to be, as far as possible, the reflection of the place in a mirror’.2 ibid., p. 20. 

The Bacino di S. Marco: from the Piazzetta would certainly not have received Ruskin’s approval for, in common with many of Canaletto’s topographical works, the composition is carefully built up with masses observed from different viewpoints, which are then rearranged to give the impression of topographical accuracy. Ruskin’s well-known contempt for the ‘rascally Canaletti’ did not result from inaccuracy such as this, but from his unfaithful delineation of architectural ornament and other details.3 John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. I, part ii, ch. vii, p. 109. 

Contrary to Ruskin’s opinion, it was Canaletto’s ability to capture accurately whatever he saw that drew the admiration of his contemporaries. Owen McSwiney, the first known foreign patron of artists, wrote from Venice to the Duke of Richmond on 28 November 1727 that Canaletto’s ‘excellency lies in painting things which fall immediately under his eye’.4 W. G. Constable, Canaletto, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962, vol. I, p. 15. In fact, Canaletto was the most famous and sought after painter of views not only in Venice but also throughout Northern Europe in his own lifetime, even though his name was not included in Alessandro Longhi’s Compendio, on the lives of important Venetian painters, published in 1762.5 Michael Levey, Painting in XVIII century Venice, Phaidon Press, London, 1959, p. 70.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, popularly known as Canaletto, was born in Venice on 28 October 1697. He received his early training in painting theatrical scenery from his father Bernardo Canal, the influence of which lingers even in his late pictures. Other formative influences were the works of Gaspar van Wittel and Luca Carlevaris, as Canaletto scholars have convincingly shown. 

Canaletto’s patrons in the early period included a few Italians, but foreigners, in particular the British, valued his works more highly and acquired them apace. The eminently beautiful Venice held a great fascination for travellers from early times, but more especially in the 18th century when it became an essential part of a gentleman’s Grand Tour. About thirty thousand foreigners were said to have visited Venice in a single year, and many took back paintings with them as a record of their visit. 

Joseph Smith, a resident in Venice from 1709 and British Consul from 1744, was not only an avid collector of Canaletto’s works but also became a mediator between the artist and his British patrons, catering for the poorer ones by publishing engravings after Canaletto’s paintings. Judging from the comments of the 18th century British travellers, it became impossible to go to Venice without being acutely conscious of Canaletto’s paintings and prints. Mrs Piozzi records that when she arrived in Venice in the spring of 1785 the city ‘revived all the ideas inspired by Canaletti, whose views of this town are the most scrupulously exact … to such a degree indeed, that we knew all the famous towers, steeples, etc. before we reached them. It was wonderfully entertaining to find thus realised all the pleasures that excellent painter had given us so many times reason to expect.’6 Hester Lynch Piozzi, Observations and Reflections (ed. Herbert Barrows), University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1967, p. 77. 

When the War of Austrian Succession interrupted Canaletto’s successful career, he left Venice for England in 1746 and stayed there for ten years, only making two short visits back home. Finally, in 1763 he was elected to the Venetian Academy and became the Prior of the Collegio dei Pittori. His private life is shrouded in mystery; although reputed to have amassed wealth both in Venice and England, he died on 16 April 1768, with remarkably few assets. 

The Bacino di S. Marco: from the Piazzetta was originally one of a set of four views of Venice which were inserted into the stucco decoration of the dining room of Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire.7 Canaletto did not give titles to his works, except for a few etchings, the titles used in the article are taken from W. G. Constable’s Canaletto, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962. This valuable work is in two volumes, volume I contains Canaletto’s life and work and volume II the Catalogue Raisonne. The catalogue numbers of the four Holbech paintings are 38, 45, 128 and 173. These were dismantled and dispersed in 1930; the Piazza S. Marco: the north east corner went to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, Piazza S. Marco: looking west from the north end of the Piazzetta and Entrance to the Grand Canal: looking east were privately purchased, and Bacino di S. Marco: from the Piazzetta was recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria. Apparently William Holbech of Farnborough Hall, spurned in love by a neighbouring lady, closed the Hall and spent the next fifteen years (c. 1730–45) in Italy and while in Venice commissioned Canaletto to paint these four views. According to tradition Canaletto himself chose the Italian craftsmen to carry out the stucco decoration for the installation of the paintings in Farnborough Hall, where he also stayed during his sojourn in England. It is also supposed that only two of the four were painted in Venice and the others – including Bacino di S. Marco – were painted in England as noted by W. G. Constable in 19628 W. G. Constable, Canaletto, catalogue of an exhibition at Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal in 1964–65, p. 52. and J. G. Links in 1977.9 J. G. Links, Canaletto and his patrons, Paul Elek, London, 1977, p. 47. However, Links reversed his opinion on the Bacino di S. Marco in 1982 when an exhibition of Canaletto’s drawings, etchings and paintings was held at the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice and the four Holbech paintings were brought together for the first time since their dispersal. In the catalogue entry10 J. G. Links, Canaletto Disegni – Dipinti – Incisioni, exhibition catalogue, Neri Pozzo Editore, pp. 64–65. on this group and also in his review in the September issue of Apollo 1982,11 J. G. Links, ‘A Home Coming for Canaletto’, Apollo, September 1982, p. 189. Links states that Piazza S. Marco: the north east corner and the Piazza S. Marco: looking west from the north end of the Piazza were painted in Venice, while the Entrance to the Grand Canal: looking east ‘might have been painted anywhere; [but] it is hard to believe that the fourth, The Bacino from the Piazzetta, could have been painted outside Venice’.12 ibid. There is no preparatory drawing or oil sketch for this painting, but accurate delineation of architectural details would have been impossible from the artist’s memory alone. 

Hence, except for the Entrance to the Grand Canal: looking east, the series was executed in Venice, the Bacino di S. Marco later than the other two, perhaps between 1735–45. In the four views, the architecture serves as a backdrop against which various types of people – gondoliers, boatmen, Turks, Jews, periwigged nobility – are depicted in action. Interestingly, although all the buildings are famous and easily identifiable, none is shown in its entirety. In the sections represented, the facade is articulated by classical columns, pilasters and arches. It is tempting to speculate that the choice of subject matter was dictated by the patron’s admiration for classical architecture. 

The Bacino di S. Marco is of absorbing topographical interest. The view opens out from the Piazzetta di S. Marco into the Bacino (pool). Bathed in pearly morning light, the Molo (quay) in the foreground is animated by figures busily involved in trading. The Dogano and one of the domes of Santa Maria della Salute are depicted in the middle ground, whilst the buildings of the Giudecca are shown in the distance. The weight of the composition is concentrated on the right by the placement of the column of St Theodore (San Todaro) and a bay of the Libreria Sansoviniana. The column of St Mark on the other side of the Piazzetta is omitted in order to give an unhindered view of the panorama. The armed figure of the Greek saint, Todaro, who was the patron of Venice until displaced by St Mark in 829, and the dragon, here depicted as a crocodile at his feet, are accurately painted. This column and that of St Mark were known to have been brought from the East in the 12th century. Permission to hold gambling sessions between the columns was given as a reward to the Lombardy engineer who erected these columns; but two centuries later gallows were constructed in the space.13 Ε. V. Lucas, A Wanderer in Venice, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London, 1914, p. 78. 

The splendid classical building which now houses important collections of manuscripts was designed by Jacopo Sansovino. Begun in 1537 and completed by Vincenzo Scamozzi between 1583–88, it is popularly known as the Libreria Sansoviniana, one of the very few buildings in the world named after the architect.14 Peter Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance, Β. T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1963, p. 189. It is Sansovino’s  masterpiece and is known for its perfect proportions, rich decoration and correct use of Doric and Ionic orders. In 1570 Palladio acclaimed it ‘the richest and most ornate building that has been put up, perhaps since the time of the ancients’.15 ibid. Canaletto represents only one bay and concentrates on the accurate rendition of exactly positioned classical columns and arches. The decorative details, such as the frieze with putti bearing garlands, keystone heads and spandrel figures are sketchily painted, yet clearly recognisable. 

The Dogana di Mare (built by Giuseppe Benoni between 1677–82) which Ruskin considered a ‘barbarous building of the time of the grotesque Renaissance (1676), rendered interesting only by its position’,16 John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1853, vol. Ill, p. 293. is placed in the centre of the picture. In comparison with its neighbour, Maria della Salute, the Dogana (marine customs house) does look insignificant and perhaps even ‘monstrous’, but the artist has ingeniously hidden the Maria della Salute’s central body and conspicuous dome, with its enormous volutes, behind the Library. He has enhanced the Dogana’s beauty through this isolation and by silhouetting its tower and the figure of Fortune on a golden orb, held by two figures of Atlas, against the sky.

Beyond is the Patriarchal Seminary which now houses some fine art works whilst the secondary dome and a campanile of Santa Maria della Salute rise behind. This most celebrated landmark built by Baldassare Longhena, the city’s greatest native architect, at the entrance to the Grand Canal, was commissioned by the Senate in thanksgiving for the deliverance of Venice from the plague of 1630 and was dedicated to the Virgin in 1681.

Across the Canale della Giudecca is La Giudecca, the largest nearby island which is composed of eight islands linked by bridges. Originally called Spina Lunga for its elongated shape, it received its present name presumably because a colony was established there by the Jews at the end of the 13th century. The aristocracy deemed it a fashionable place to build their villas and gardens and in 1529 Michelangelo found shelter on this quiet island while fleeing from Florence.17 Giorgio Vasari, Lives of Seventy of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects, ed. Ε. Η. & E. W. Blashfield & A. A. Hopkins, George Bell and Sons, London, 1907, p. 125.

II Redentore (the Redeemer), the largest church visible in the painting, is the main monument on the Giudecca and one of Andrea Palladio’s most successful churches. It was built in thanksgiving for the end of the plague that ravaged Venice in 1575–76, being commenced in 1577 and consecrated in 1592. Its compact facade with three superimposed pediments, buttresses, the dominating Veneto Byzantine dome and the minaret-like bell towers are clearly visible. After its consecration, the Doge visited the Church annually across a bridge of boats and even today, the feast of II Redentore, which falls on the third Sunday in July, is celebrated with merriment and displays of fireworks. On its right is probably the Chiesa della Croce built in 1508–11 and the no longer existing San Giacomo (founded in 1340) is on its left. 

Art historians have demonstrated that from 1730 onwards, Canaletto’s work became ‘hard and mechanical’ due to the great demand for his paintings and consequently his prolific output. The Bacino di S. Marco, painted during this period, does lack the spontaneity and freshness of the artist’s early works but this is counter-balanced by the ordered composition and clear, luminous atmosphere in which the architecture stands out solidly. Recent photographs18 I wish to thank Sir James and Lady Gobbo for the photographs specifically taken at my request and also for the first-hand information supplied. demonstrate that Canaletto has ‘taken’ sections of the panorama from different viewpoints and composed a balanced overall view. The first photograph shows the Dogano complex from the same viewing angle as Canaletto’s and one finds the column of St Theodore overlapping a section of the Library. The second photograph shows the column of St Theodore and the Library as painted by the artist and one finds the whole complex of the Dogano is hidden by the Library. Thus Canaletto has swept away the column of St Mark and moved the column of St Theodore just enough to frame the dome and the bell-tower of Santa Maria della Salute. It is possible that the views were taken from the Loggia of the Doge’s Palace. The diagonal lines of the Molo leading into the background, cut off by the Library, thus create interest in the foreground. The gondolas and the barges form another diagonal leading into the distance, drawing one’s attention to II Redentore. A rhythm is established by the vertical lines of the columns of the Library and the column of St Theodore in the foreground, repeated in those of the Dogano in the middle ground, carried into the distance by the Doric columns on the facade of II Redentore and echoed in the masts of the boats. The Veneto-Byzantine dome of II Redentore is repeated and magnified in the second dome of Santa Maria della Salute.

In spite of its detailed delineation of architecture, boats and human figures, the painting is uncluttered and clear. A gentle, pearly light pervades the open space and the silvery blue sky, laden with ashy clouds tinged with rose, is finely reflected on the silky green water. Even the shadow is luminous. The buildings Canaletto has chosen to paint are built of brilliant white marble from Istria, and although the Library and the Dogano complex overlap, he has managed to set them clearly apart and avoided monotony by using various shades of grey and intense white pigment. 

Despite Canaletto’s free use of technical devices such as rulers and dividers in order to achieve crisp and accurate details, the flawlessly smooth paint layer demonstrates his mastery of painting technique. No wonder that Ruskin, the champion of Turner, who held Canaletto in great contempt, was said to have confessed that he found himself admiring Canaletto. During one of his visits to the National Gallery in London in 1887, he declared ‘After all he was a good workman in oils, whereas so much of Turner’s work is going to rack and ruin’.19 Edward T. Cook, A popular handbook to the National Gallery, Macmillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1909, p. 165. 

There is no proof that the artist used the Camera Ottica while painting the picture. Canaletto was obviously endowed with very keen eye-sight, judging from his own statement, for underneath the drawing ‘the musicians who sing in the Ducal Church of S. Marco in Venice’ he wrote, ‘Aged 68 – without spectacles, the year 1766’.20 J. G. Links, Canaletto and his patrons, p. 87. Hence one could assume that when he painted this picture, in his 40s, his eye-sight was sharp enough to enable him to see the details of even the facade of II Redentore. 

Foreign visitors to Venice commonly remarked on the ‘quietness’ of the city. Writing from Venice on 24 February 1759, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu declared, ‘Whoever is well acquainted with Venice must own that it is the centre of pleasure; not so noisy, and in my opinion, more refined than Paris.’21 Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Letters and works, ed. Lord Wharncliff, Richard Bentley, London, 1837, vol. 3, p. 180. In 1869 Mark Twain observed: ‘There was life and motion everywhere, yet everywhere there was a hush.’22 Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, George Robertson, Melbourne, 1870, p. 122. In 1908 Lord Beconsfield remarked ‘In the heart of multitude, there is stillness’.23 Lord Beconsfield, The Charm of Venice (comp. Alfred H. Hyatt), Chatto & Windus, London, 1908, p. 305. The Bacino di San Marco appears to give just that impression; in spite of the noise of human beings and birds from the market and the wharf, there is stillness everywhere. 

Dr Emma Devapriam, Senior Curator of European Painting Before 1800, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1985). 

Notes

1          John Ruskin, Modern Painters, George Allen, Kent, 1888, vol. IV, part v, ch. 11, p. 17. 

2          ibid., p. 20. 

3          John Ruskin, Modern Painters, vol. I, part ii, ch. vii, p. 109. 

4          W. G. Constable, Canaletto, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962, vol. I, p. 15. 

5          Michael Levey, Painting in XVIII century Venice, Phaidon Press, London, 1959, p. 70. 

6          Hester Lynch Piozzi, Observations and Reflections (ed. Herbert Barrows), University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 1967, p. 77. 

7          Canaletto did not give titles to his works, except for a few etchings, the titles used in the article are taken from W. G. Constable’s Canaletto, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1962. This valuable work is in two volumes, volume I contains Canaletto’s life and work and volume II the Catalogue Raisonne. The catalogue numbers of the four Holbech paintings are 38, 45, 128 and 173. 

8          W. G. Constable, Canaletto, catalogue of an exhibition at Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal in 1964–65, p. 52. 

9          J. G. Links, Canaletto and his patrons, Paul Elek, London, 1977, p. 47. 

10        J. G. Links, Canaletto Disegni – Dipinti – Incisioni, exhibition catalogue, Neri Pozzo Editore, pp. 64–65. 

11        J. G. Links, ‘A Home Coming for Canaletto’, Apollo, September 1982, p. 189. 

12        ibid. 

13        Ε. V. Lucas, A Wanderer in Venice, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London, 1914, p. 78. 

14        Peter Murray, The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance, Β. T. Batsford Ltd, London, 1963, p. 189. 

15        ibid. 

16        John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, Smith, Elder & Co., London, 1853, vol. Ill, p. 293. 

17        Giorgio Vasari, Lives of Seventy of the most eminent painters, sculptors and architects, ed. Ε. Η. & E. W. Blashfield & A. A. Hopkins, George Bell and Sons, London, 1907, p. 125. 

18        I wish to thank Sir James and Lady Gobbo for the photographs specifically taken at my request and also for the first-hand information supplied. 

19        Edward T. Cook, A popular handbook to the National Gallery, Macmillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1909, p. 165. 

20        J. G. Links, Canaletto and his patrons, p. 87. 

21        Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Letters and works, ed. Lord Wharncliff, Richard Bentley, London, 1837, vol. 3, p. 180. 

22        Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, George Robertson, Melbourne, 1870, p. 122. 

23        Lord Beconsfield, The Charm of Venice (comp. Alfred H. Hyatt), Chatto & Windus, London, 1908, p. 305.