Canaletto’s Venice revisited at the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich

The Holbourne Museum, Bath, hosted ‘Painting Venice: The Woburn Series’ last summer. It was accompanied by an impressive book by the painter’s leading British art historian, Charles Beddington. It brought to light 23 view paintings commissioned by Lord John Russell in 1731 from Giovanni Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768). The series (two dozen in total) hung in Bedford House in London until 1792, when they were moved to Woburn Abbey, the family seat of the Dukes of Bedford.

The Holbourne touted the exhibition as a unique opportunity for “art lovers to appreciate and study closely” Canaletto’s images. Less than seven months later, the entire series returns, this time to Greenwich. Before another life passes, the paintings will be exhibited in Worcester (October 1-January 7, 2023), alongside his views of Warwick Castle (Birmingham Museums) and Vauxhall Gardens (Compton Verney), to add a Venetian view of England.

As 19th century arbiters of taste, few can have such a personal opinion as John Ruskin (1819-1900). When it came to all things Venetian, his views informed the tastes of a generation of artists, architects and gallerists. There was no bashing that could make him give up his first avowed intention to be a critic once. Here he dismisses a well-known painter.

His mannerism “is the most deplorable that I know of in all the world of art. Exercising the most servile and foolish imitation, he only imitates the emptiness of shadows, nor gives shape to individual architectural features, however exact they may appear. . . Neither I nor anyone would have dared to say a word against him: but in truth he is a small and bad painter. . . [This artist] possesses no other quality than that of being able to imitate the most ordinary effects of light and shade.

Writing this in Modern painters (1843-1860), Ruskin thus condemned Canaletto with a point of view widely adopted at the time – few people had defended him during his lifetime. It was not until long after his ten-year stay in London (1746 to 1756), when he was in his sixties, that he was finally admitted, in 1763, to the Academy of Saint Luke in Venice, the city of his birth (October 28, 1697).

© From the collection of Woburn AbbeyThe Piazzo San Marco looking towards the Basilica San Marco and the Campanile by Canaletto

The lack of fashion for sight painting among the Italians and the fact that he worked mainly for the tourist market, selling to the Grand Tourists, still results in a striking imbalance.

The Italians of his day still preferred paintings of religious and historical or classical scenes. Many have ignored painting as a mere landscape genre, although Canaletto – often slavishly – copied scenes from the popular etchings that Lucas Carlevarijs first published in 1703.

Considering that Canaletto made some 350 paintings (two-thirds of which remain in private collections), more than 250 are in the UK. Only five dozen are in Italy, half of them in private hands, only three of them in Venice. Even in the 20th century, Ruskin’s excoriating criticism held. There were no major exhibitions of his paintings until that of Venice (1967), which first followed two monographs, in 1960 (Brandi) and by Constable (1962).

Seeing the extravagant and extraordinary display of these paintings, I paused to wonder about this change in taste. Much of their appeal to the foreign buyer lay in the “domestic” scale of the works, which made them easier to transport and exhibit.

Of the Woburn series, 22 of them measure only 47 × 79 cm, while only the two ceremonial scenes are larger (115.5 × 194 cm). Other painters, such as Bernardo Bellotto (1722-80) and Francesco Guardi (1712-93), also kept smaller formats with one rare exception.

Two massive paintings of the Bacino di San Marco painted by Guardi (vs.1755-70), now in the east gallery of Waddesdon Manor, measures 2845 × 4238cm. It is not known who commissioned them, but it is said that Louis XVI presented them to Marshal de Muy in 1774. Ferdinand Rothschild purchased them from Colnaghi in 1859 at a time when Ruskin despised these paintings.

Contemporaries criticized Canaletto for using a black room to align its buildings which, rhythm Ruskin, show a thorough knowledge of architectural form, even when he played fast and loose with angles and perspectives along the Canalazzo, because he was not a slave to any technical or scientific advances.

Lord John Russell set out in 1730, as a younger son, with the intention of performing an extensive Grand Tour. He is seen in miniature, standing confidently in front of a ruined Roman arch at the age of 20. He planned to visit Agra and Delhi, Samarkand and Astrakhan in the East, Marrakesh and Lisbon in the West, Inverness and Uppsala in the North, and Makkah-al-Mukarramah and Medina in the South.

© Vela SpaAscension Day, May 8, 2016

He cut short his journey to return to marry the wealthy Lady Diana Spencer in October 1731; just over a year later, he inherited the duchy upon the death of his 24-year-old brother.

Unusually, he commissioned Canaletto directly (probably for only four paintings at first), as the artist usually kept a stock of completed paintings ready to sell to visitors. The first of three surviving bills is shown here, dated February 27, 1733. Russell was encouraged to employ the artist by the English banker, bibliophile and Venetian resident Joseph Smith (1673/74?-1770).

In 1723 Smith had met the young Canaletto, who had recently returned from collaborating with his father in Rome as set designer for Scarlatti’s operas; in 1729 he had become Canaletto’s intermediary. Previously he had collected and sold works by Rosalba Carriera and Sebastiano Ricci and his nephew Marco Ricci, who offered more conventional narrative paintings and portraits.

For six years until 1735, the commercially astute Consul Smith controlled the production of Canaletto’s workshop and assembled his own collection, which he displayed in his house in the Palazzo Balbi; Facing bankruptcy after the banks collapsed at the end of the Seven Years’ War, he sold his paintings and library to George III in 1762, raising £10,000 for each collection.

The first painting we see is one of the most memorable. The Regatta on the Grand Canal depicts the annual ceremonial parade that took place on the first Sunday in September. It’s a hectic scene, in which spectators crowd every available window with the colors of the competing teams flying from the balconies and standing on the gondolas and traghetti. The vanishing point to the northeast is the dome of Tintoretto’s church, the Madonna dell’ Orto, beyond the Rialto Bridge.

At the Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, you can test your eyesight by looking at Canaletto’s first attempt at this charged composition (vs.1730). It is in a slightly larger format than Bedford’s. Thomas Osborne, 4th Duke of Leeds commissioned another version (vs.1738), one of a series of ten (two of which are in the National Gallery, courtesy of Lord Revelstoke’s 1929 bequest, NG 4453 and 4454), no doubt the envy of Russell. The most successful version was probably painted for Consul Smith and is in the Royal Collection, the pride of George III’s collecting mania and purchase in 1762.

Canaletto never tired of representing his hometown and rarely sought out clients. He even managed to sneak into two views of Palazzo Balbi in the Woburn series. His paintings recall parts of the city long lost, such as the wall of the Corpus Domini convent and the Church of Santa Lucia, demolished to accommodate the train station which was built in 1861 for visitors arriving from the mainland, no doubt clutching their copies by Ruskin’s The stones of Venice. Nowadays, it is international visitors who have brought a slow death to the city with uncontrolled and reckless maritime tourism.


‘Canaletto’s Venice Revisited’ is at the National Maritime Museum, Romney Road, Greenwich, London SE10, until 25 September. Telephone 020 8312 6608. www.rmg.co.uk

Briana R. Cross