Artistic License: Canaletto and the Art of Venice

Capturing the colour, drama and vibrancy of the floating city, curator ANNE HODGE gives us a grand tour of the new exhibition at the National Gallery of Ireland which opens today …

Canaletto and Venice are entwined historically and the artist did much to put the floating city on the map. Can you tell us a little about his life in the city?

Antonio Canal was a Venetian born and bred. He spent most of his long life in the city and was christened and buried in the Church of San Lio, near the Rialto Bridge. His father Bernardo Canal was a painter of theatrical scenery and the young Antonio began his career as his assistant. Around 1720, he abandoned the theatre to concentrate on view painting and became known as Canaletto (little Canal). In the 18th century Venice was a thriving maritime republic that drew merchants and tourists from all over Europe. The Carnival with its street theatre and masks, opera houses, and rich artistic heritage, made Venice a must-see destination on the Grand Tour. This was a popular journey through Italy undertaken by young noblemen from northern Europe in search of cultural enrichment. Canaletto found a ready market for his light-filled paintings of Venice among the ‘Grand Tourists’, especially the British.

Tell us about the show-stopping Grand Canal series … 

These paintings are very much one of the highlights of the show. Canaletto painted twelve views of sections of the Grand Canal for his most important patron Joseph Smith, an English merchant based in Venice. Created in stages over almost ten years, the series of twelve is complemented by two dramatic festival paintings on larger canvases. Smith displayed them in his palazzo on the Grand Canal, where he was regularly visited by wealthy Grand Tourists, many of whom commissioned their own versions. Smith probably displayed them double-hung in pairs. I have had them hung singly to allow each image to be enjoyed as if one is travelling along the Grand Canal by gondola. They create a lovely calm, meditative atmosphere. Anyone who is frazzled by the pre-Christmas busyness should come in for a bit of peace and Venetian sunshine!

The exhibition comprises almost 100 works, paintings, drawings, prints and books – what have you found to be most illuminating about the artists and how they worked?

Both the exhibition and the two lavishly illustrated publications which accompany it are the result of in-depth research by Royal Collection curators and conservators. One of the things that excited me hugely was the number of drawings and prints. Drawings are wonderful in that they show us how an artist develops an idea from a simple sketch quite often made in a rough manner. Canaletto jotted down details of a view on the spot with pen and ink on paper and then, back in the studio, he would use these small works on paper to create both finished drawings and his distinctive sunny canvases of the city. Because the exhibition includes works by other artists who were active in Venice such as Sebastiano and Marco Ricci and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta you get a sense of just how vibrant the city was at this time, especially in terms of visual art. Native Venetians were not enamoured by Canaletto’s views. They preferred narrative paintings, scenes from the bible and mythological tales as well as amusing genre scenes like “The Married Couple’s Breakfast” by Pietro Longhi which is on display in the show. It was the well-to-do tourists who bought Canaletto’s work as ‘souvenirs’ of their time in “La Serenissma”.

Does the National Gallery of Ireland hold any works by Canaletto?

It is a real treat for our visitors to see so many great works by Canaletto in Dublin as the NGI holds just one painting by Canaletto. This is a view of Piazza San Marco which dates to 1756. It is on display in the main galleries. The exhibition which is on loan from the Royal Collection, represents a remarkable opportunity to see a large collection of Canaletto’s work, created when he was at the height of his powers.

The provenance of this exhibition is as interesting as the artworks – in that they are from the Royal Collection. This is a follow-up to the successful Leonardo da Vinci exhibition … I believe you found an interesting Irish connection too?

The idea of a Dublin showing of their Canaletto exhibition was brought up shortly after the opening of the very successful Leonardo show in 2016. The collection of paintings, drawings and books was gathered together by Joseph Smith, a wealthy English merchant and diplomat who was Canaletto’s agent. He sold his whole art collection to George III in 1762. There is an interesting Irish connection which I had to draw out – Owen McSwiney, an Enniscorthy-born theatre impresario was very likely the person who initially introduced Canaletto to Joseph Smith. McSwiney, who had moved to Venice from London to escape creditors, worked as an agent bringing Italian performers and art to London. In 1722 Canaletto was among the artists McSwiney commissioned, on behalf of the Duke of Richmond, to produce a series of allegorical paintings. He was lodging in Joseph Smith’s Venetian home on the Grand Canal at this time so it is possible he is link between the Englishman and the Venetian artist.

Have you got any particular favourites of the artworks on display?

Yes, I have quite a few favourites, but I’ll mention just two … A gorgeously vibrant painting of the famous “Regatta” which is held in Venice in February. It is a riot of colour, with every window and canal-side crowded with people straining to see the gondoliers racing down the centre of the Grand Canal. Canaletto’s paintings merit close looking as there are so many fascinating details to discover.

Another of my favourites is a dramatic drawing of the campanile under repair. Most of Canaletto’s drawings are landscape format but he had to use a vertical sheet to get in the whole of the tower on one sheet. A little note in the left-hand corner in Canaletto’s hand explains that he made the drawing on St George’s Day 1745 after the tower been struck by lightning. You can clearly see the ragged edge of the brickwork and scaffolding at the top. It very much gives you a sense of history and “being there”.

Need to Know: “Canaletto and the Art of Venice,” opens at the National Gallery of Ireland today Wednesday, December 5 and runs until Sunday, March 24, 2019. Tickets cost €15/€10/€5 and Friends of the National Gallery of Ireland and children under 16 go free. www.nationalgallery.ie.

Penny McCormick

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