Canaletto and the Art of Venice

Canaletto and the Art of Venice


On Ascension Day, every year, the Doge of Venice casts a ring into the sea, saying,

“Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini” ( We wed thee, oh sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination).

This ceremony was originally established in 1000 AD and symbolised the maritime domination of Venice. Pope Alexander 111 gave it a sacramental importance in 1177 AD, by casting a ring in the sea and bidding the Doge to repeat this act on every Ascension Day.

The Medieval state of Venice,a great Republic and a huge commercial power dominated the seas from the Adriatic to Constantinople with its fearsome navy. The city was a thriving centre for trade with the merchants controlling the especially lucrative spice trade.

However, as with all great powers Venice lost political prestige together with military and naval power. It moved into a hedonistic era and became famous for tourism, entertainment of all kinds; masked Carnivals, gambling and gondola trips complete with hoods for privacy. There were seven opera houses in the city and several theatres. Most significant of all, it was part of the Grand Tour and attracted rich and famous tourists. They bought pictures from the local artists. Venice never lost its allure for artists.

Into this hedonistic city of grand tourism, Giovanni Antonio Canal was born in 1697. He became known as Canaletto which could mean ‘ Little Canal ‘. His modest house can be found in a cramped courtyard off the Calle de la Malvasia in San Marco. He was unmarried and lived modestly. In his youth he was apprenticed to his father, a theatre scenery painter and studied under Luca Carlevarijis and was later recommended to the collector, Stefano Conti. Canaletto travelled to Rome with his father and painted many monuments there.

Canaletto’s work is the subject of a splendid Exhibition now running at the Queen’s Gallery which emphasises the diversity of his work and finally dispels a long lasting myth about his technique.

His early pictures were painted from nature. ‘The Stonemason’s Yard’ is a fine example of an early painting. In scenes of family groups going about their daily tasks the style is very free compared to his monumental scenes. The figures blend with the landscape and are not secondary to monumental buildings. This free rein style was known as ‘Capriccio’; scenes were painted from imagination and monuments could be moved to different settings; for example,  ‘Colleoni’, the equestrian statue by Andrea del Verrochia, is not on a crowded canal side but set in a romantic landscape with ruins.

On display are some excellent monumental paintings of Rome which are very detailed and accurate.  They include ‘The Arch of Titus’  where the light shines through it  and ‘The Arch of Septimus Severus’ which seems to send a radiance of light into the sky. ‘The Pantheon’ is majestic as it catches some light in the shade. These paintings evoke a long passed glorious age.

Canaletto’s large scale landscapes showing ceremonial pageantry and fading traditions are innovative works with splendid atmospheric effects and strong colouring. Good examples are ‘Venice: The Bacino di S Marco’ on Ascension Day (1733) and ‘Sposalizio di Mare’ ( Marriage of the Sea).

Canaletto painted the Grand Canal of Venice and its monuments. From a set of twelve paintings, the perfect balance of composition is noticeable in ‘The Mouth of the Grand Canal Looking West to the Carita’, and in ‘The Grand Canal Looking East from Campo San Vio towards the Bacino’.

He also painted several views of San Marco and ‘Piazza San Marco looking East towards the Basilica and the Campanile’ shows his mastery of composition and light and likewise, ”Piazzo San Marco looking West towards San Geminiano’ is remarkable in the way it shows how little these scenes have changed since Canaletto’s day. It is delightful to see that some of his later views he straightens the odd campanile and moves buildings to open up the view and sometimes changed topography for artistic effect. He was, doubtless, a great master of sunlight, shadow, cloud effects and the play of light on buildings. Artists should have an ‘artists’ licence’ as poets have a ‘poets’ licence’!

Canaletto also produced drawings, many of which are on display. Some were preparatory sketches for his paintings and others are great works in their own right. ‘The central stretch of the Grand Canal is a beautiful composition and do not miss ‘The Piazetta looking towards Santa Maria della Salute’.

It is not so well known that Canaletto was a successful printer who financed and directed the Pasquali Press. He was a skilled etcher who showed sensitivity in this new medium. Also when he lived in England he painted famous London monuments and stately homes.

Canaletto was accused of using ‘a camera obscura’ in his work. The Exhibition makes it clear from the displayed infra red images resulting from their expert research, alongside his drawings that this was not true. It is extremely interesting to see this evidence.

Works by Canaletto’s contemporary artists are on view, these include Sebastiano, Marco Ricci, Francesco Zuccarelli, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, Pietro Longhi and Rosalba Carriera. A good luck token showing the Magi was discovered in the frame  of the latter’s famous painting ‘Winter;’ A conservationist’s job is never dull!

The Royal Collection and Canaletto owe much to Joseph Smith, merchant, collector and later British Consul in Italy. He commissioned and collected Canaletto’s work and helped him sell his paintings to the Grand Tourists. Thus many works came to Britain. Smith’s collection was mostly bought by George 111 and came  into the Royal Collection, making it the most important collection of Venetian art in the world.

Canaletto was elected to the Venetian Academy in 1763 and appointed Prior of the Collegio dei Pittori. He painted until his death in 1768, always having the beauty and grandeur of his home city in his mind.

This Exhibition is curated by Lucy Whitaker and Rosie Razzall and is supported by lunch- time talks and evening events. In September Exhibition On Screen will broadcast a documentary film based on the Exhibition. (


Visitor information and tickets:

Tel: +44(0)30 3123 7301

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