(click here to see this painting in very high resolution thanks to the Google Cultural Institute)
Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, was the supreme master of vedute, the painted or drawn views which reached the peak of their popularity in the eighteenth century. Born to a family of theatrical scene-painters, Canaletto depicted his native Venice as an atmospheric backdrop to a colourful cast of merchants, ambassadors and seafarers, and his portraits of the great city, La Serenissima, have evoked its charm for over two hundred years.
And if the barge looks familiar …
… that’s because we’re still using them. This one will start this year’s Lord Mayor’s Show by carrying the new Lord Mayor from Westminster to St Katherine’s dock.
Little is known of Canaletto’s early apprenticeship, although by 1720 he was entered as a member of the Venetian painter’s guild; and by this time he had already visited Rome. From the first documented commission, four views for Stefano Conti of Lucca, the artist’s pristine treatment of the architecture and detail and his strong contrasts of light and shade were in evidence. His work was especially prized by foreign visitors on the Grand Tour (the original, nothing to do with Jeremy Clarkson) – around the centres of classical and Renaissance civilization – who ordered paintings as souvenirs of their travels. Prominent among these patrons were member of the English aristocracy, and among others Canaletto collaborated with the enterprising Owen McSwiney, who secured the interest of the Duke of Richmond, and the collector and agent Joseph Smith.
Canaletto paid an extended visit to England between 1746 and 1756, where he produced compelling views of the Thames and its skyline, and capriccios or architectural fantasies. Surprisingly he found it difficult to secure an equivalent reputation in England, where it was even alleged that he was “not the veritable Canalleti (sic) of Venice”. For an unusual but fascinating view of his English period read this recent abstract “Canaletto’s Colours” from British Art Studies. To counter these accusations the artist invited doubters to inspect his painting of St. James’s Park for reassurance. Canaletto’s sojourn abroad eventually cast its influence on English topographical painters, and many private collection still hold examples of this work.
Canaletto’s paintings are a byword for clarity and realism, achieved in part by his occasional use of the camera obscura device, and in part by his brilliant shorthand delineation of figures. Sadly, when he died in 1768 he left almost nothing; twenty-eight unsold paintings, a single bed, two bed covers and, as the executor of his will described them, “some old cloths.” In contrast, the record price paid at auction for a Canaletto is £18.6 million for “View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto”, set at Sotheby’s in London in July 2005.
As part of my studies in History of Art at the University of Warwick, there comes the opportunity to spend the autumn term of my third year in one of the greatest, and most unique, artistic centres of the world. This term abroad is the reason I choose Warwick and two years have flown by. I am now officially living and working in Venice for ten weeks and of course this fantastic and rare chance had to be documented for AHA readers.
I have survived a full week in this watery paradise and I can safely say there is no fear I will run out of things to do, nor will I ever get bored of the stunning canal views over every bridge. Over the next ten week I hope to share some of the beauty of the city, the best places to eat and drink and some of the oddities that are only noticed one you live in a place.
Typically, a day might start by being woken up by the clanging of bells across the city (at first rather magical, but the midnight bell tolls are proving irritating). Since I am up, there is the need for coffee, so I stroll sleepily down the road, over the canal to my local coffee bar, where I use my limited (but improving) Italian to ask for a caffe latte. In true Italian fashion, I stand at the bar sipping away, enjoying the rapid chatting around me, a chorus of “Ciao”’s and “Buongiorno”’s. Once I have fuelled up on coffee, its time to get ready for the day.
With some free time in the morning, it is time for touristing. When I initially arrived, I wanted to go and see and do everything in the first week. I have decided to pace myself a bit more, once the full realisation that I am here for ten weeks sunk in. So I allow myself to get a bit lost in the crowds and find new routes. Despite being October, it is really warm and sunny here and there are still hundreds of tourist flooding in everyday. One quickly learns the winding back streets and shortcuts of Venice, and in fact the best shops, restaurants and friendliest people are often found off the beaten track.
Being a History of Art student, naturally I hit the galleries, the Guggenheim in particular. It has been one of my favourite galleries since visiting with AHA, due to the layout as well as the content, and a free day can easily be spent there admiring Peggy Guggenheim’s extensive collection.
In the afternoon, I usually have seminars and this particular aspect of being here certainly bring back memories of my AHA tour. We have seminars on site, awkwardly and eagerly writing down information whilst standing in front of our topic. The experience of seeing the live work as it is explained to you is a far more engaging method than powerpoint and a classroom and I am thoroughly enjoying getting to experience it again.
Evening approaches and life slows down a bit. From about 4 o’clock onwards, people will be sitting in cafes with a spritz aperol and bruschettas, chatting and taking it easy. So of course I join in, having always a weakness for prosecco. This is a wonderful time of day.
After an aperitif and a bowl of pasta for dinner, it is an easy walk to Campo Margherita, the resident student piazza, where the is prosecco is cheap, the company great and the pizza slices substantial. Usually the rest of the Warwick course end up here for a few laughs and catch up about what they have discovered in Venice that day. A great place to get to know the Venice students and meet the locals before heading home to bed, eagerly to bring on the next day in Venezia.
Look out for more blogs about Anna in Venice soon.
What’s in a name? Call him Paolo Spezapreda, Paolo Bazaro or Paolo Caliari, Paolo Veronese will always be among the greats, and has finally been put into the spotlight at the National Gallery.
Paolo Veronese has his name because he was, quite simply, the best artist ever to come out of his hometown, Verona. Although he moved to Venice more-or-less full time at the age of 27 in 1555, and instantly entered the top ranks of the Venetian art élite, his work was grounded in his youth and formation in the mainland city.
Born in 1528 into family of stonecutters, Paolo may have initially trained in the family business with his father, but by the age of 13 he was already apprenticed to Antonio Badile, a competent but uninspiring artist. He also seems to have worked alongside Giovanni Battista Caroto, but not for long: he was established as an independent master in his own right by the age of 18. In 1553 he signed himself ‘Paolo Spezapreda’ – Paul the Stonecutter – but within two years he was calling himself ‘Paolo Caliari from Verona’. Caliari wasn’t even his father’s name. His father, Gabriele Bazaro, married a girl called Caterina, some six years his senior. And when you’re only 14 that’s a big difference. Maybe they married because she was already pregnant. But then her parents never married: her father was an aristocrat by the name of Caliari, and by choosing the name of his illegitimate mother’s father Paolo implied he was going up in the world, no longer a humble stonecutter, but an artist with a high-class background. Nevertheless, in Venice he must have stood out from the Venetian artists and became known, quite simply, as Paolo Veronese.
The earliest known paintings by him are both in the National Gallery’s splendid exhibition. Both are painted in oil on paper, later mounted on canvas, and both show his origins clearly. They are studies for two works which are lost – one completely, and one only practically, as the full-scale version of the Bevilacqua-Lazise altarpiece survives, but is highly damaged and badly over-painted. The little modello – probably painted so the clients could see what they were getting – is a better representation of what was intended. The architectural setting, with the Virgin and Child enthroned to the side of a marble altar, shows the influence of Titian – via Antonio Badile – but also the architectural style of Michele Sanmicheli, the leading architect of Vicenza at the time. Paolo’s father probably worked for him. As a boy, Paolo may have done so too.
By the age of 20 he was apparently fully formed. What first strikes you about The Conversion of Mary Magdalene is the brilliance of its colours – chopping from sky blue to rose, emerald to primrose and a daring combination of white and vermillion, like a Bridget Riley inhabited by people. The story, probably derived from a life of Christ written by Pietro Aretino, shows Mary Magdalene falling to her knees with shame as she first beholds Jesus, and immediately removing her jewelry, the outward sign of her inner vice. Her sister Martha holds her hand and points the way, from the shadow into which she has subsided to the brilliant light of Christ. This is where we first see a compositional tendency which recurs throughout Veronese’s oeuvre: the protagonist is at the bottom, in the shade, and partly hidden by the other characters – and yet we always know who is important, as Veronese can always lead our eye in the right direction.
He excels at the depiction of religious subject matter, notably in the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine and The Martyrdom of St George in the third and fourth rooms of the exhibition respectively.Both are triumphs for the National Gallery. The former has never left Venice (painted for the Church of Santa Caterina, it now resides in the Accademia, the main art gallery there), while the latter has only left the church in Verona for which it was painted once before – when Napoleon stole it at the end of the 18th Century. Both are sublimely coloured and beautifully composed. St Catherine is arrayed in the finest of Venetians fabrics, a white, blue and gold brocade, and is about to be enveloped in a voluminous white cloth-of-gold cape by one of the attendant angels. A woman behind raised her arms high and gazes to heaven, her hands framing the faces of the Virgin and the Saint and bringing them together in a form of ecstatic union. In the next room of the exhibition, St George, brought low, accepts his immanent death while looking up at the figure of Hope, who looks to the Virgin and Child, pleading, with her companions Faith and Charity, on his behalf. The interlocking gazes and gestures of the celestial gathering lead our eye around the upper half of the painting, while the red flag of the Romans – inscribed with the letters SPQR (‘the Senate and People of Rome’) cuts like a knife from the top left corner and tears our eyes down to the brilliant vermillion of George’s hose.
If he excels with the religious, he excites with myth. The National Gallery’s own Allegories of Love look superb in what was their long-time setting, where they are reunited with a Mars and Venus that they haven’t seen forthree hundred years when they were all part of the collection of the Hapsburgs in Prague. A cheeky and delicate version of The Rape of Europa shows the heroine tentatively mounting a snow-white bull, not knowing it to be Jupiter in disguise. He tenderly nuzzles her sandalled feet, before carrying her off, in a background scene, across the lapping waves and far across the sea. A regretful heifer peers longingly into the distance, apparently regretting that she didn’t get in on the action.
If the mature paintings look as if they are bathed in sunlight, the last works have something of the night about them, they seem to be moonlit, and you get the feeling that without Veronese’s exploration of chiaroscuro Caravaggio’s career might not have been possible. The story of Lucretia is dark in every way. Raped, she kills herself rather than suffer the shame, and plunges a dagger into her breast through the cloth with which she is so desperately trying to maintain her dignity. Elsewhere in this final room a heroic Perseus plummets through the air, a secular angel rescuing a gymnastic Andromeda from the most energetic of sea monsters, while two late portraits, in tranquil mode, show that Veronese perfected his skills depicting character and surface like no other. The last painting in the exhibition is the last he ever painted, The Conversion of St Pantalon,commissioned for the high altar of eponymous Venetian church by the Parish Priest, Bartolomeo Borghi. No ideal palaces here, no soaring classical columns, but a seedy Venetian backstreet in which the Saint cures a boy bitten by a snake with the power of prayer alone. Borghi himself plays a minor role, supporting the body of the dead child before he is resuscitated. As so often in Veronese’s work the patron takes part in the religious drama: throughout the exhibition any slightly suspect characters photo-bombing the holy scene are probably portraits of the patrons.
This may be the last painting, but as you go, stop and contemplate The Agony in the Garden. Christ’s traditional vigil has worn him down, and while Peter, James and John sleep securely in the background, Jesus has collapsed in the arms of a consoling angel, who is left with the task of looking up to Heaven and pleading for forbearance. The light streaming from on high trickles like liquid gold down the angel’s violet robe, and Christ’s limbs hang heavy, forming a counterpoint with the angel’s legs and framed by the blue and red of his own robes, as if blood and water flow mingled down. It is an exquisite image: quiet, considered, contemplative, sublime.
The exhibition has 50 paintings by this great master, from the earliest known works, to the last one he painted. It’s the first exhibition devoted to him in Britain, and the size and scale of the paintings mean that the National Gallery has moved some of its permanent collection out of the way so that Veronese’s works can enjoy the space and natural daylight of the main floor. The colours shine gloriously, the dramatic compositions have space to breathe, and some of the paintings can be examined up close for the first time ever. It really is the exhibition you should be going to see – and if you can conspire to see it when the sun is shining, so much the better.
With the influence of Christianity declining in Britain, I was struck by Alain de Botton‘s statement in his recent book, ‘Religion for Athiests‘: ‘Our museums of art have become our new churches’. De Botton explores the power Christianity previously exercised over civilian life; many aspects of which he mourns as a loss to society. He is looking to replace what positives Christianity could bring to society with an atheist version. But what would this mean for art and museums.
Masterpieces which command global admiration today were often designed for worship in the past. Though some of these remain in their original intended setting, such as Titian’s ‘Assumption of the Virgin’ at the Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, many have been plundered from religious buildings, now only viewable in a sterilised gallery environment.
Perhaps this sterility is the result of tension between secular and religious perceptions of art: Hegel defined art as ‘the sensuous presentation of ideas’; whereas De Botton argues Christianity ‘never leaves us in any doubt about what art is for: it is a medium to remind us about what matters… whereby our memories are forcibly jogged about what we have to love and to be grateful for, as well as what we should draw away from and be afraid of.’ Religious culture’s power to move might be shown by the author’s own experience – an ardent atheist, he admits to a crisis of faithlessness in his twenties, which he attributes to Bach’s cantatas and Bellini’s Madonnas.
Comparing the two, it would seem that Christian art understands that images are important primarily in generating compassion, enabling the boundaries between strangers to dissolve, and provoking a sense of fragility that leads us to understand new situations and morals. Modern museums – as fascinating as their avant garde enclosures are – can be too frigid, detailing the material facts and dry context of a piece, not its meaning or what we should learn from it. Catholic architecture, for example, made a point, ‘half touching, half alarming’ about how humans function: as a race we suffer from ‘a heightened sensitivity to what is around us… we will notice and be affected by everything our eyes light upon’, a vulnerability to which Protestantism, and our secular celebrity-heavy society prefers to remain indifferent or blind.
Maybe this is what scares people away from modern art: is it presented in an inaccessible manner, too technical and seemingly unrelated to the average bystander to merit a segment of everyone’s time? Modern museums tend to groups works of art according to the period they were born from; de Botton argues ‘a more fertile indexing system would group together artworks from across genres and eras according to the concerns of our souls.’ Perhaps in one room we would be taught about love, in another fear might feature, and another might show suffering as an impetus for pathos. A compulsory dose of culture by way of a visit to a museum would then be transformed into a structured encounter with some of the concepts which are easiest for us to forget, and the most essential and life-enhancing to remember.
The Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice might be an example. Tall and striking with its ruddy terracotta facade, it is proudly indifferent to the dusty indexing science of academic methodology. The Frari instead presents an eclectic range of works – including a fresco by Paolo Veneziano (c. 1339), Giovanni Bellini’s ‘Madonna and Child with Saints’ (1488) and a large altarpiece by Titian (1516-1518) – designed to rebalance our souls, priorities and understanding. Sculpture, painting, and architecture are artfully thrown together from across regions and centuries to coordinate the impact of art on our sentiments; prioritising a coherent effect on our souls over a rigid grouping of origins and stylistic inclinations. Separating paintings by genre or period risks reducing any real coherence at an emotional level in museums. The art might not need to change, but museums maybe do.
Maybe all of this is because modern priorities have taught us as a society at large not to worry about leaving an impact on art for future generations. This ignores art’s ability to shape society, however. Though many would not like to admit it, art is infinitely indebted to religion: beliefs, a desire for status and aggregated money has fed demand for art during some of the most important aesthetic periods and can still teach us new ideas today. Auguste Compte believed capitalism aggravated people’s ‘competitive, individualistic impulses and distanced them from their communities, their traditions and their sympathies with nature… Capitalism would in the end always favour a skilled, obedient and unintrospective workforce over an inquisitive and emotionally balanced one.’ Art and culture is not part of the ends towards which our modern economic society tries to force everyone to hurtle.
But art can offer society a guiding moral force – less dogmatic than religion, merely challenging and probing. Religious pictures in the past presented images it would be easier to turn away from, but standing witness to them directs us towards those who deserve our sympathy. ‘Crucifixion’ by Andrea Mantegna (1459) demonstrates this. De Botton argues that the ‘unreliability of our native imaginative powers magnifies our need for art.’ In the past, religious works were commissioned to show specific scenes or emotions to communicate with a largely illiterate audience. Levels of literacy may be very different now, but the power of the visual is not. Art should seek to give us a moral lesson; and perhaps museums and commissioners should focus on this, marrying painters with thinkers. To specify which topics art should focus on is not to insist that it all appears identical.
This is not an argument for religion: there are many ways it has irrevocably damaged nations, societies and cultures; and its decline may be inevitable, as it increasingly struggles to reconcile itself with our scientific age. It is instead an argument for perspective; the kind of outlook religion once advocated and offered. Religion, in some ways, promotes a sense of humility in the individual, a sense of there being something bigger, greater than us; and perhaps that is a good thing. Art can help spread that perspective; perhaps museums should work to facilitate this. There are few other institutions that can.
My trip to Venice with Art History Abroad was glorious! The location of the hotel introduced me to a new and exciting area of Venice with which I was unfamiliar, allowing me to become delightfully lost in Venice’s intimate streets. For a large part of the group the aim was to become lost: you can only really appreciate Venice when you are in a state of mild desperation when the map has abandoned you and your bearings have failed.
Days in Venice were fascinating, visiting various Churches that boasted works by artists such as Titian, Bellini and Carpaccio. One of my favourite afternoons in Venice was my visit to the Accademia. The display of Gothic art in contrast to the later developed Renaissance Art was remarkable and with the help of the tutors this transition in art was explained effortlessly. However the teaching role was not always left to the tutors: student pairs were formed with the instruction to choose a curious painting to explore in front of the rest of the group. For my pair, ‘The Crucifixion of Ten Thousand Martyrs’ by Carpaccio was sufficiently curious to allow for a thorough exploration. Despite our ignorance of the event and having little knowledge of the artist, we were able to give a short presentation on our reaction to the painting.
Our evening lecture -told with glasses of ‘fragolinos’ in hand- allowed the group to fully appreciate our day ventures by associating the transitions in the style of art with the time period.
The Venice Biennale was a delightful contrast as a display of contemporary art. Meandering around the ‘Giardini de Venezia’ was wonderful; stumbling across the various countries’ entries and enjoying the cool shade provided by the trees. The group had different interpretations to the countries’ entries, allowing for good conversation on our thoughts. Despite differing interpretations on the exhibitions, the enjoyment of the morning at the Biennale was shared between all.
Our free afternoon after the Biennale allowed the group to branch out into all parts of Venetian life: some benefited from a relaxing time at the Lido, whilst others took advantage of the current Manet expedition held at the Doge’s Palace.
One of the highlights for me was our visit to the Peggy Guggenheim Museum on the final day in Venice. Its location on the Grand Canal made the group green with envy and the Modern Art was quite a contrast to the works we had seen before; yet there seemed to be themes running through, as if art was cyclical in nature. I loved their decision to display Peggy Guggenheim’s works of art alongside pictures of her in the house when she lived there.
On our last night the tutors arranged a picnic supper on the Punta della Dogana. The view of Venice at twilight was gorgeous. It was a great time to relax and reminisce (with hints of nostalgia) on the trip so far, while also feeling excitement for the next two cities.
Everyone loved our Venice stay; how could we not? The magnificent art, the charming city, the relaxed nature of the visit and the good nature of everyone involved meant that enjoying ourselves was simply inevitable!
With thanks to Helen Elston for putting together her memories of Venice, Summer 2013…
Born in Florence in 1856 to well-off expatriate New Englanders, John Singer Sargent grew up speaking four different languages and was schooled in the great centres of European civilisation, later going on to art school in Florence, Dresden, Berlin and Paris. Whilst studying in the studio of distinguished Third Republic portraitist Carolus-Duran in Paris, Sargent quickly found his own vibrant style and soon gained several commissions for portraits-in-oil from the French aristocracy. Handsome, intelligent, well-connected and with an already assured painterly technique, the young Sargent’s career naturally began to flourish.
Familiar with Venice from childhood, Sargent was a regular visitor to this faded watery paradise of ruins. He often extended his trips in order to stay with distant cousins, the wealthy Bostonian Curtis family who lived on the piano nobile of the 17th century Palazzo Barbaro on the Grand Canal. Painted on the eve of the new century, An Interior in Venice (1898) is a rare ‘conversation’ piece which depicts the Curtis’ in their grand drawing room. We find the middle-aged Daniel Curtis in profile, positioned as a man of the world, reading a starched folio and yet seemingly ready to leap into action at any given moment. The middle-aged Mrs Curtis (or the “Dogaressa” as Sargent always affectionately called her) sits passively, eyes dreaming reflectively toward us – but not at us; her hands joined and resting peacefully upon her needlework. Across the room, towards the background, we see Ralph Curtis and his new American bride, Lisa De Wolfe Colt. Ralph was an elegant contemporary of Sargent’s and both young men studied at the same time under Carolus-Duran in Paris. He, with his lacquered moustache, perches upon the edge of a gilt console table, one hand upon his slender right hip, his body a distorted contrapposto hinting at the dynamic potential placed here in repose. Lisa, dressed in feminine, virginal whites and creams has just poured herself a cup of tea and cuts a newly fashionable masculine silhouette with her puffed and padded shoulders.
An Interior in Venice possesses a vast amount of deliberately dark and indistinct space within the canvas. The architectural contours of the room itself are comprehensible only because of the timeless objects which adorn it. The past exists here, unavoidably; and for only a moment the present must submit to it. The two couples are separated here, not only generationally, but symbolically too by a significant swath of carpet whose muted tones neatly balance the Baroque exaggeration of the walls and ceiling. Apparently entirely unaware of each other, the four Curtis’ are each struck by the light of the Canal which bind one to the other. Stagey and theatrical it may be, but the painting is deeply Venetian in that the ‘narrative’ is woven together by the shimmering, generous light of the canals. What we see here is an idealised moment of family quietude marked not by the ticking of a clock but by the lapping of waves against the Palazzo walls.
Few artists are lucky enough to capture the essence of their milieu, but undoubtedly Sargent did. His work is a visual complement to the novels of his contemporary Henry James, who in fact wrote The Wings of the Dove (1902) whilst staying at the Palazzo Barbaro. Sargent’s portraits are stylish fantasies, powerful near-operatic meditations on morality and decadence and clearly evoke one of the last great moments of European confidence.
If you ever decide that the stress and effort of flying is just too commercial and looks into alternative ways of getting to Italy, do not, if you value your sleep, time or mental health, take the boat to Venice. While the magnificent city itself might have relied on the sea vessels for trade, tourism and other such things, it certainly does not need the massive cruise ships which cut through it, and tower taller than the city could ever hope to be. Interestingly enough, the BBC have recently been talking about this dilemma and even covered a local protest that went on against them.
Understand, we are not talking about a five star cruise boat with waiters in crisp white uniforms and a pool bar on the top deck. This is a cheap method of getting from one part of the continent to the next. If you do happen to find yourself on one of these magnificent works of engineering, here are a few survival tips:
1) Get a cabin. Sounds simple but to the backpacking, inter-railing, baggy-trouser-wearing hitchhikers, a simpler, cheaper option is to camp out on the main deck(and really any other bit of floor space). As you side step and hop over bundled up bodies, you will soon learn to appreciate the itchy prison blanket back at your cabin. As others sleep on anything from blow up mattress’, to lilos and even a small tent, you will certainly value your cramped hot bunk bed. Privacy may cost an extra €100 but it saves you bunking down in the “discotech”.
2) Bring plenty of entertainment. Ipods are essential to block out the crying of the baby in the next door cabin who does not like the constant vibrations of the engine(don’t worry, they are easy enough to tune out, until it comes time to sleep) Cards are however, the best option. Take the opportunity of being stuck on a moving tin can to learn those card games you always wanted to, and bond with family members as you do so. And who says it has to be with your own family?
3) Destination. In essence however, all of this is quite bearable if the place you step off at the end is extraordinary. With Venice as the destination, you can survive the plastic food, the prison blankets, the constant feeling that you are on a refugee barge. As you arrive, you are welcomed by a fantastic, highly photographic angle of the city. When you step off the gang plank, into those unique waterways, knowing many new card games and speaking more german than when you started, you will look back at your time on the sea as a grand adventure and feel like any 18th century Grand Tour personality.
While the important debate about whether these massive ships should be allowed down the Venice lagoon continues, the experience itself is perhaps, not all that bad.
Thank you so much for an amazing time on the AHA trip to Italy. I cannot tell you how much fun I had with you and the rest of the group over the two weeks. I have learnt so much and it has made me love Art History even more. Having never been to Venice or Rome before and Florence only once for a day, exploring and learning about the history and works of art in each city was an incredible experience that I will never forget. Thank you so much for the most amazing two weeks of my life.