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