There are relatively few views which have been painted by so many artists as Piazza San Marco, Saint Mark’s Square, in Venice. Others, like the cliffs at Étretat, have only relatively recently become popular, and offer many different approaches. In this article, I show a selection of paintings of this favourite square to illustrate the different techniques which have been used in their composition.
If you’ve ever been to Venice, seen the city in films, or in photographs, you will be familiar with this large open area surrounded by ancient buildings. There is a good account of its geography and history on Wikipedia.
You may not be so aware that the Piazza is not in the least bit rectangular, and isn’t even strictly trapezoidal. Its eastern end, dominated by the distinctive Basilica and the high Campanile tower, is broader than the opposite, whose lower buildings date from Napoleon’s time. Neither are the two other sides, on the north and south, equal in length or height.
As a landscape (or cityscape) painting, it presents another major problem: the Campanile tower is high relative to the frontage of the Basilica, the immediate area of interest. If you place your canvas in the ‘portrait’ orientation to accommodate the height of the tower, then it will lack the breadth needed to show the north and south sides of the Piazza. If you choose the ‘landscape’ orientation to encompass those sides, then the canvas will lack the height to show the Campanile.
This photograph shows how difficult it is to accommodate three sides and the tower, and hopefully will remind you of the buildings that the paintings are intended to depict.
Although the view has changed in detail since the erection of the first Campanile in 1499, its general layout has remained remarkably similar over the last 500 years, another important factor in making this comparison.
Giovanni Antonio Canal, known universally as Canaletto, was the first and most prolific specialist in Venetian scenes, or vedute. I have chosen three of his many views of the Piazza as broadly representative. The first, Piazza San Marco (1720), presents the classical view of the Piazza, from the middle of the western end, looking straight at the Basilica. However, recognising the imbalance that would produce, Canaletto has angled the view slightly towards the Campanile, putting the centre of the Basilica to the left of the midline, and the Campanile slightly to the right.
This brings the higher buildings on the right (the south side) to greater prominence, which is corrected for by placing the north side in full sunlight, as it would be, with the sun to the south, and with a profusion of bright awnings along its length. Although Canaletto was never afraid to make ‘adjustments’ in his paintings to enhance their aesthetics, the markings in the paving of the Piazza suggest that this view is quite faithful to actual appearance. He has also populated the Piazza with colourful figures as staffage.
Painted about a decade later, his Piazza San Marco with the Basilica, Venice (c 1730) is almost identical, but with some interesting differences other than the new buildings shown to the left of the Basilica. The sun is higher in the sky, shortening the shadows cast by the south side of the Piazza. The south and north sides appear less balanced, in the absence of awnings, and the north side (left) is at a more marked angle to the marks in the paving, making the east side (that of the Basilica) significantly longer. The Campanile also has an additional two slit windows up its height, and reaches to the very top of the canvas, so appears slightly higher.
These differences demonstrate that one or both paintings are not as accurate depictions as might appear.
Obscure relative to Canaletto, Michele Marieschi painted The Procession in St. Mark`s Square in Venice (c 1740) another decade after the later Canaletto, from a very similar point and showing an almost identical view. Unfortunately the only digital image available is not of comparable quality (I suspect the colours, in particular), but its details are much closer to the later Canaletto (c 1730) rather than the earlier (1720).
If you try to locate an image of this painting, you’re likely to find it inverted, with the Campanile appearing on the wrong side of the Piazza: I have corrected that in the image above.
Towards the end of his career, Canaletto painted a very different view, in his Piazza San Marco: Looking South-West (1755-9). Here the viewer is at the opposite end of the Piazza, to the north-west of the end of the Basilica, and looks directly at the Campanile, and out into the Piazzetta behind and to the left of the tower.
With the irregularity in the shape of the Piazza, this gives the appearance of being projected using a wide-angle lens, and is remarkably early for such optical effects to be seen in a painting. It has been suggested that Canaletto made extensive use of the camera obscura to construct his paintings, which could explain that, although given the inconsistencies between his paintings and the reality of Venice, that may seem unlikely.
Here the sun is in the north-west, with long cast shadows, implying that it was a summer’s evening. The Campanile is shown with the correct number of slit windows, but being much closer to the viewer in this case, it may well be depicted rather shorter than it should have been, in order to fit it into the canvas.
After Canaletto, the next most prolific painter of views of Venice was probably Francesco Guardi. In his Piazza San Marco in Venice (c 1770) he opts for a ‘panoramic’ canvas, and places the viewer at the north-western corner of the Piazza, to show the Basilica, Campanile, and the whole of the southern side of the Piazza. With the sun low in the north-west, this too was a summer evening scene, putting all those buildings in sunlight.
This painting is dominated by the tower and the higher, newer block of buildings along the south side, giving it a formal linear air with deep perspective projection. The curved domes and arches of the front of the Basilica are distant and subjugated, and by placing the Campanile as deep as possible, he has accommodated its height within the relatively shallow canvas. Although as asymmetrical as possible, the composition balances the perpendicular of the tower against the advancing terrace of the Procuratie Nuove.
Just five years later, though, Guardi’s The Piazza San Marco, Venice (c 1775) marries the more conventional and classical view with a marked change in his painting style. The highly-finished precision of the earlier paintings has been replaced by looser application of paint, allowing the marks made by the brush to be seen.
This is most obvious in the Basilica, which has lost its previous rigorous rectilinear appearance. The flagpoles in front of it appear less ‘perfect’, and its multitude of aerial spires and decorations has become an irregular jumble. Marks are most visible in the various fabrics, such as the clothing of the figures in the Piazza, awnings and other staffage, and in the clouds above. There is nothing to suggest that it was painted en plein air, and given the size of the canvas and the intricate detail shown, it was almost certainly the product of many days work in the studio.
Despite this radical departure in facture, the composition follows the traditional approach: the view is from the middle of the western end of the Piazza, with the centre of the Basilica and the Campanile straddling the centreline of the painting. The sun is again in the north-west, setting the time to a summer’s evening.
In his tragically brief life, Richard Parkes Bonington produced some remarkable paintings, and his unfinished Venice: The Piazza San Marco (1827-8) shows signs that it might have been among his best. At the time that he started this, Canaletto’s work was still popular and able to command good prices from collectors, and he was perhaps aiming for the same market.
Bonington’s composition is one of the few to recognise the problem of incorporating the height of the Campanile, and attempt a resolution which combines proportion and visual effect. The viewer is low down on the south side, gazing up into the sky. The tower, gently distorted by its projection, occupies the right, with the lower Basilica making a formal right angle at its foot. This spares us from the staffage needed to decorate large areas of pavement in the Piazza, which is relegated to the lowest eighth of the canvas. He painted an earlier watercolour to check that this would work.
The buildings have a golden glow from the setting sun, here low in the north-west (again), but those colours would undoubtedly have been enhanced by rich glazes, had Bonington lived long enough to complete it. It is baffling that, when sold the year after his death, it fetched a mere £18.
The Russian Impressionist Valentin Serov painted a study of Saint Mark’s Square in Venice (1887) probably en plein air. His composition is the tightest so far, showing the Basilica, the foot of the Campanile, and that south-eastern corner of the Piazza, a closer crop than even Bonington’s.
Its brushwork is loose and sketchy in places, as would be expected of a study, and Serov uses mainly earth colours apart from a little blue in the sky. It’s not clear whether he made an underdrawing (none is visible in this image), but the five arches forming the front of the Basilica are carefully formed and regular, and the flagpoles in front of them well marked out. Staffage is very light, just a few figures depicted by simple marks. He achieves a lightness with his oils which could be mistaken for watercolour.
Although several of the French Impressionists painted views of Venice, as did JMW Turner, rather than choose a conventional motif such as the interior of the Piazza, they universally opted for very different views, normally well away from the square itself.