If you’re in London this summer, and can get to Greenwich, you might like to enjoy a unique trip to eighteenth century Venice, courtesy of an exhibition of twenty-four of the most wonderful paintings of the city, which you’re unlikely to see again.
The exhibition is Canaletto’s Venice Revisited at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London (well worth a visit in any case). It’s open daily until 25 September 2022.
The paintings on display are the complete set of views of Venice which Canaletto painted in the 1730s, from the collection at Woburn Abbey, which is currently undergoing major refurbishment. Particular emphasis is put on the artist’s fine details which make his paintings so absorbing, so don’t try to rush your visit. You’ll want ample time to enjoy those little scenes he depicts on the streets and waters of Venice.
Although I don’t have access to usable images of any of these paintings, those below should give you a good idea of what you can expect.
This view of the renowned Piazza San Marco from 1720 presents its classical face, from the middle of the western end, looking straight at the Basilica.
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.
Widely known as The Stonemason’s Yard, and held to be among Canaletto’s finest paintings, his view of Campo S. Vidal and Santa Maria della Carità from about 1725 features fewer and larger figures than many of his later works. Most of its people are in the lower left corner, which is a hive of activity, as shown in the detail below.
At the top left corner of the detail, a woman leans out over a balcony as if calling to those below her. In the middle of the foreground, another woman, who has been sweeping with the broom behind her, raises her arms towards an infant, who appears to have fallen on their back and is now urinating. Another older child stands watching.
Caught in the same patch of sunlight, on the right, a stonemason is working with hammer and chisel. Further back, in the shade, three other figures are talking or passing the time inactively. Behind them a man, his back to the viewer, is talking to three gondoliers who are stood in their boats. More distant figures are also seen scattered along the opposite bank of the canal.
These figures populate the space without telling us anything specific about it or them. They give the image a realism by their everyday routine nature and activities. They are pure staffage.
This one of the ten paintings by Canaletto on display in room 38 of the National Gallery, on the other side of the River Thames.
This view of Canale di Santa Chiara, Venice from a few years later, probably around 1730, is more typical of Canaletto’s better views of Venice. There is a fairly even spread of figures along the pavement in front of the buildings, and they are dispersed among the gondolas on the canal.
The detail below reveals them to be engaged in similar everyday routines: talking, walking, a man and child standing at a shop front. They’re all well dressed, but without distinction, apart from the gondoliers who wear typical costume for the job.
If I’ve whetted your appetite but you can’t get to Greenwich to see these wonderful paintings in the flesh, the book of the exhibition is already available. Canaletto Painting Venice: The Woburn Series by Canaletto scholar Charles Beddington is available from the museum shop, or through all booksellers. Its ISBN is 9 781843 682066. My copy has just arrived, and I look forward to reading it and studying its superb pictures in the coming days.