A great thalassocracy, with hegemonic control over the trade under its gaze. A lingua franca, with which the thoughts of all those who made use of it were steadily congealed. A bourgeois oligarchy, engaged in intrigues over the funding of good works and ignoble sins. And the inevitable decline, from power and prominence to a comfortable mediocrity, using the pomp of history as cultural capital to draw in curious visitors from far afield.
It is this striking parallel between the Venice of Canaletto and the London of today which lends a particular meaning to the exhibition of the work of the former in the latter city — not least in the gallery of the very Monarch whose reign has overseen the most marked decline of British imperial power.
Canaletto, a native Venetian born in 1697, achieved artistic eminence during his own lifetime, spending the nine years between 1746 and 1755 in London before returning to Venice until his death in 1768. The narrative of the exhibition is framed around his relationship with British consul and merchant Joseph Smith (1682–1770), whose patronage committed the Venetian’s work to posterity. The parallel between Venice and London is therefore all the bolder, as the pure artist of a city already in the dusk of its glories was supported by the connections and money begotten from what was then a newer and more vigorous mercantile empire.
Canaletto depicts his native city as one of pageantry and glory, in which regattas and religious festivals dominated by high society flourish under a pure Adriatic sun, and cathedrals cast shadows over an ambiguous mix of self-made men, aristocrats, and petty traders. The sun ensures that colours are stark and attention-seeking, whether the green-blue waters or the fluttering garb of the literal show-boaters who ride upon them. Canaletto reciprocates, encasing the sun’s colours in clean lines and holding the architectural hinterground of the works with geometric discipline.
Yet, despite what comprises in many respects a realist depiction of the city, Canaletto delves just as gladly into the world of fantasy, with varying degrees of subtlety. The artist, the exhibition reminds us, gently altered the shape of how the city fits around its Grand Canal for maximum effect, allowing the likes of the Rialto Bridge and the Santa Maria della Salute to be seen at the centre of vistas which they would otherwise not be due to the curve of the waterway.
Canaletto, having visited Rome in his early 20s, drew on that city too for subject-matter throughout his career, stylising the arches and ruins of the former imperial capital for full effect, adding in bushes and vines with which the ruins might be enveloped, and visitors from Grand Tours, gazing upward to decipher script upon stone. Canaletto deliberately added life to these Roman scenes, painted from memories of years ago, showing that there remained green shoots of civilisation amidst what might otherwise be slightly depressing scenes of decay.
Further along the axis of imagination lie the capricci — imaginary scenes, usually of some pastoral arcadia, in which some semi-fictional classical ruin may lie amidst the wanderings of goatherds or peasant fishermen. The inclusion here of works of Canaletto’s contemporary Marco Ricci, a lesser-known talent in this genre, is welcome.
These latter images of Rome and rurality speak to a more profound desire for an aesthetic beyond that of a trading city in constant flux, in which labour and capital are as abstract and interchangeable as the universal Venetian Ducat. This was as much the desire of Venice, damned by the logic of time to never have been a city of antiquity, as much as a London whose true imperial summer was yet to warm. The polities around both cities sought not just a sense of agrarian rootedness but above all the aesthetic of a primordial, spiritual power beyond commercial life — and beyond mere history — befitting any truly complex civilization.
This interwoven aesthetic knot comes together elegantly in its curation. The overarching sensibility of the exhibition is one of world-historical appropriateness — one that, I suspect, goes beyond even what the curators of the Queen’s Gallery had in mind when deciding to showcase this excellent ensemble.
Canaletto and the Art of Venice runs from 19 May to 12 November 2017 at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Opening hours are 9:30am to 5:30pm, and tickets cost £11 for adults.
For further information, see the gallery website.