Huon Mal­lalieu ad­mires an ex­hi­bi­tion drawn from one of the great­est col­lec­tions of 18th-cen­tury Vene­tian art and de­lights in Canaletto’s imag­i­na­tive real­ity

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Joseph smith (1682– 1770) was an ideal con­sul: both the coun­try he rep­re­sented and that to which he was ac­cred­ited ben­e­fited greatly by his ac­tiv­i­ties. hav­ing ar­rived in Venice aged 19, he rose to be se­nior part­ner of a trad­ing and mer­chant-bank­ing house and, from 1743/4 to 1760, Bri­tish Con­sul. ho­race Walpole sneer­ingly re­ferred to him as ‘the mer­chant of Venice’, who knew only the ti­tle-pages of the lav­ish lim­ited-edi­tion books he had printed, but the sneer was un­jus­ti­fied.

his beau­ti­ful and ac­cu­rate edi­tion of pal­la­dio’s Qu­at­tro Libri so pleased Goethe that he vis­ited the Lido to pay trib­ute at smith’s grave, and his pa­tron­age

of the pain­ters Canaletto (Gio­vanni An­to­nio Canal) and Zuc­carelli can be said to have cre­ated the 18th-cen­tury Bri­tish coun­try-house in­te­rior.

As well as build­ing up his own col­lec­tion of paint­ings, draw­ings and prints and amass­ing a for­mi­da­ble li­brary, Smith acted as agent for his favoured artists—par­tic­u­larly Canaletto— in­tro­duc­ing Grand Tourists to them and ar­rang­ing com­mis­sions. Canaletto (1697–1768) was the son of a scene painter and the train­ing shows in his work. He was also taught by Luca Car­l­evar­ijs, the prin­ci­pal

ve­dute or view painter of the day, whom he soon sur­passed.

Al­ready, in 1725, an­other agent urged a client to con­sider Canaletto’s work, as ‘it is like Car­l­evar­ijs, but you can see the sun shin­ing in it’. Smith dis­cov­ered him soon af­ter and all who called on busi­ness, es­pe­cially af­ter he be­came Con­sul, would find them­selves in a show­room of his art.

It was also Smith who en­cour­aged Canaletto to go to Eng­land when the Seven Years’ War cut off the sup­ply of Grand Tourists, pro­vid­ing him with in­tro­duc­tions and sug­gest­ing prof­itable sub­jects such as capric­cio paint­ings of Bri­tish Pal­la­dian houses.

Ge­orge III bought Smith’s col­lec­tions en bloc in 1762. The books are now the essence of the King’s Li­brary in the Bri­tish Mu­seum, but the wealth of paint­ings and draw­ings re­main in the Royal Col­lec­tion. Com­ing di­rectly from Smith, the Canalet­tos on show in this daz­zling ex­hi­bi­tion are of par­tic­u­larly high qual­ity. They are hung in pairs or groups as they would prob­a­bly have been seen on the Grand Canal in the Palazzo Balbi (now Palazzo Mangilli-val­marana), with its Pal­la­dian façade added for Smith by the ar­chi­tect-painter Visen­tini.

Six large Vene­tian can­vases are grouped in pairs on one wall, an­other has a run of 12 smaller views con­sti­tut­ing a con­ducted tour of the Grand Canal and a third is hung with large Ro­man views for va­ri­ety. There are also capricci, in which the artist plays with dis­parate, but ac­tual, build­ings, com­bin­ing them to artis­tic ef­fect.

The next gallery is hung with Canaletto’s Vene­tian con­tem­po­raries, in­clud­ing Car­l­evar­ijs, Se­bas­tiano and Marco Ricci, Pi­azzetta, Longhi, Visen­tini and

‘The Canalet­tos on show in this ex­hi­bi­tion are of par­tic­u­larly high qual­ity

‘This show de­liv­ers a heartrais­ing burst of Vene­tian sun’

Zuc­carelli, and Ros­alba Car­ri­era’s lovely, if very sweet, pas­tels of the Four Sea­sons.

Thanks to Smith, Canaletto re­mains one of Bri­tain’s favourite artists. We hardly no­tice that, when in Eng­land, he gives the Thames an Ital­ian light, nor that his pre­cise views of La Serenis­sima are not quite the ex­act por­traits of his na­tive city that they seem. His train­ing in the­atri­cal paint­ing lofts should not be for­got­ten, as it is not just in capricci that he read­justs views and de­tails to suit his com­po­si­tion. That, how­ever, is per­haps why he is much less highly re­garded in Venice it­self. It sur­prises many first-time vis­i­tors to find that, for much of its length, the Grand Canal is much nar­rower than he por­trayed it.

The city was in ir­re­versible de­cline by the time his ca­reer was at its zenith, es­pe­cially af­ter the Seven Years’ War, but Canaletto uses all his scene-painter’s skills to con­vey wealth and busy­ness. Bus­tle and ur­gency are sug­gested by the way that so many gon

dole, san­dole and bragozze are cut off on the can­vas edge as they dart into and out of shot, as it were. Fig­ures are staffage, posed in repet­i­tive, but ef­fec­tive groups and, es­pe­cially in later works for which his stu­dio was of­ten partly re­spon­si­ble, rip­pled water is ren­dered by for­mu­laic white squig­gles.

None of these quib­bles mat­ters a jot; no mat­ter what the sum­mer holds for us, this show de­liv­ers a heart-rais­ing burst of Vene­tian sun with­out the need to go on a Grand Tour. ‘Canaletto and the Art of Venice’ is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buck­ing­ham Palace, Lon­don SW1, un­til Novem­ber 12 (030–3123 7301; www.royal col­lec­tion.org.uk)

Next week: Raphael draw­ings at the Ash­molean

of the Pi­azetta with the Horses of San Marco,

Left: The Mouth of the Grand Canal look­ing West to­wards the Car­ità, about 1729–30, from the Grand Canal se­ries of 12 views com­mis­sioned by Con­sul Joseph Smith. Above: Capric­cio View

about 1743–4

Left: One of Canaletto’s most elab­o­rate capricci: Capric­cio with a mon­u­men­tal stair­case, about 1755–60. Be­low: The Ba­cino from the Punta

di Sant’an­to­nio, about 1740, one of four panoramic draw­ings of the far-eastern quar­ter of Venice, in pen­cil, pen and ink and wash, pos­si­bly sketched on the spot and fin­ished in the stu­dio

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