Public works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music Reviews -

IN the 18th cen­tury, wealthy young English aris­to­crats vis­ited Italy to en­joy the plea­sures of the Grand Tour. Venice, with its canals and mag­nif­i­cent ar­chi­tec­ture, was a favoured des­ti­na­tion. Once the tourists had en­joyed the city’s fes­ti­vals, masqued balls, re­gat­tas and theatre, they wanted me­men­tos of their stay, and since the cam­era hadn’t been in­vented they bought paint­ings.

Many artists made their ca­reers paint­ing views of Venice (or ve­dute) for the lu­cra­tive tourist trade but the great­est painter of them all was Giovanni An­to­nio Canal, bet­ter known as Canaletto, or ‘‘ lit­tle Canal’’. Canaletto (1697-1768) was born in Venice and was taught to paint at an early age by his fa­ther, who painted scenery for theatre sets and opera pro­duc­tions. Ini­tially Canaletto helped his fa­ther but soon he was paint­ing ve­dute and be­com­ing very suc­cess­ful.

Un­like many of his con­tem­po­raries, Canaletto’s paint­ings were very in­flu­en­tial and were much more than the equiv­a­lent of a pho­to­graph. With his sure­ness of com­po­si­tion and han­dling of light, he recorded the ac­tiv­i­ties and ap­pear­ance of the city in vivid de­tail. He cap­tured to­po­graph­i­cally ac­cu­rate views of Venice that are recog­nis­able to­day.

Canaletto was par­tic­u­larly favoured by English col­lec­tors. He had a strong as­so­ci­a­tion with Joseph Smith, an English mer­chant who lived in Venice and who later be­came Bri­tish con­sul. Smith be­came Canaletto’s agent and sold many of the artist’s works to Ge­orge III.

An­other English pa­tron was Wil­liam Hol­bech. He com­mis­sioned Canaletto to pro­duce four paint­ings for the din­ing room of his fam­ily home, Farn­bor­ough Hall, in War­wick­shire. One of those paint­ings, Ba­cino di San Marco: From the Pi­azzetta, is now in the col­lec­tion of the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria.

So­phie Matthies­son, cu­ra­tor of in­ter­na­tional art at the NGA, says it was one of four views of Venice painted by Canaletto that were then in­serted into the dec­o­ra­tive stucco scheme of Farn­bor­ough Hall. Canaletto him­self vis­ited Eng­land from about 1746 to 1750 to help carry out the in­stal­la­tion of the paint­ings.

Matthies­son says Ba­cino di San Marco: From the Pi­azzetta was painted from real life rather than from mem­ory. To achieve his ac­cu­rate views of the city, he used the cam­era ob­scura and then made pre­lim­i­nary draw­ings.

The view looks south­west into the part of the la­goon be­tween the is­land of San Gior­gio Mag­giore and the quay. On the right is the Col­umn of St Theodore.

‘‘ I en­joy the paint­ing very much for its cool­ness of pal­ette and its lovely calm ar­chi­tec­tural qual­i­ties,’’ Matthies­son says. ‘‘ Once you draw a bit closer to it, it is full of hu­man in­ter­est, lots of de­tails, lots of quirks and lots of dashes of colour.

‘‘ For ex­am­ple, there’s a man sit­ting on a cage of chick­ens, which are prob­a­bly go­ing to be sold on the Pi­azza San Marco, and there are signs of posters and public no­tices. There are lots of de­tails like chil­dren hid­ing be­hind col­umns.’’

It is very typ­i­cal of Canaletto that he paints the hori­zon very low, Matthies­son ex­plains, and so max­imises the beau­ti­ful ex­panse of sky. The low hori­zon also gives you a sense of in­clu­sion in the scene as though you could just step into the paint­ing.

‘‘ It is an ex­tremely en­gag­ing picture,’’ she says. ‘‘ It doesn’t have a for­mu­laic qual­ity and it is one of those great paint­ings by Canaletto that is full of life. The lit­tle de­tails in the fore­ground of pale blue and then gor­geous Vene­tian yel­low are just mar­vel­lous. You also get a great sense of Venice on the doorstep of the Ot­toman Em­pire with these char­ac­ters who are clearly part of the Moor­ish world.

‘‘ A great picture by Canaletto is al­most a must-have for any in­ter­na­tional col­lec­tion of stature so we are very pleased to have this.’’

Oil on can­vas, 131.4cm x 163.2cm

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