“What a wonderful thing a sunny day” or in Italian “O sole mio.” Although the song was written in 1898, long after the Venetian artist Canaletto lived, that is what American tourists think of gliding down the Grand Canal in a gondola. Indeed, a voyage can be taken down the Grand Canal through the work of Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768). Well-known for his numerous paintings of Venice that earned him the sobriquet Canaletto, readers are invited on a vacation tour of the Grand Canal. Antonio Canal came from a family of artists and studied with his father and in Rome. In 1725, Alessandro Marchesini a Venetian painter and picture dealer advised a client looking for veduta (topographical views/city scenes) to look at the work of a new, young painter. Of Canaletto’s painting he said, “you can see the sun shining in it.”
Venice was founded after the fall of the Roman Empire when the Lombards (568 CE) drove many northern Italians from the mainland into the islands and lagoons then inhabited by fisherman and salt miners. Years of war and dispute followed, but Venice grew and eventually became a major port city for Italy. Ruled by several different dynasties, Venice is home to a combination Byzantine, Gothic, Moorish, Renaissance and Baroque architectural styles. Canaletto’s “Grand Canal toward the Punta della Dogana from Campo San Ivo” (1740-45) (21” x 27.5”) (Brera) begins the tour at the inland end of the Canal, one of Canaletto’s favorite views. There are over 170 buildings along the Grand Canal which is over two miles long, seventeen feet at its deepest, and ranges from 100 to 225 feet wide.
This painting depicts a sunny day in Venice. Gondoliers pole down the busy canal, and a small sailing ship is moored to a busy dock. On the left bank the largest building is the Palazzo Corner della Ca Grande. It was rebuilt after a fire destroyed the original ca (house) by the well-known architect Jacopo Sansovino (1533). The style is Renaissance, ordered and classical. Three Roman arches form a central porch. The second story has eight pairs of Ionic columns, and the third story eight pairs of the more flowery Corinthian order. Italian palaces were built with the second floor to accommodate the family quarters known, not as the second floor, but as the “piano nobile.” Frequently the first floor was devoted to the family business and the top floor to servant’s quarters. Canaletto paintings are known for their attention to realistic and accurate detail. Of particular interest is the wall along the right front edge of the painting. The lower floor is taller and has high barred windows for security. Two women can be seen leaning out the wooden shuttered windows on the second and third floors, the one on the third-floor balcony with the cloth and broom. The red tile roof completes the splendid detail.
The Rialto Bridge, one of the four bridges crossing the Grand Canal, is the most picturesque. On another sunny day in Venice, gondoliers ply their trade moving cargo and people. In the foreground the red pants of a gondolier catch the viewer’s attention as he and his companion guide the gondola containing a barrel across the canal. Citizens and merchants continue about their daily business on both sides of the canal. The Rialto area is the financial district of Venice. The Merceria, the land path connecting the Rialto to St Mark’s Square, can be seen as people leave the bridge at the far right of the painting. At the left side of the painting, an open arcade leading to the bridge, is an example of the numerous covered but open areas in which merchants set up their daily shops.
The Rialto Bridge is the oldest extant bridge crossing the canal, built by Antonio da Ponte in 1590 after winning a design competition. The bridge is supported by a large stone arch. Above the arch is a two-story arcade of shops. Stairs on both ends of the bridge allow people to walk up to the bridge from the quay. Canaletto precisely depicted the scene, including the architectural details of all of the buildings.
The entrance into Piazza San Marco is a short distance down the Grand Canal from the Palazzo Corner. “The Pier toward Riva degli Schiavoni with the Column of St Mark” (1742) depicts the Molo, the ceremonial landing quay that leads people to the Piazza San Marco. At the top of the tall column is a winged lion holding a book, symbol for St Mark the patron Saint of Venice. St Mark replaced St Theodore as the patron saint, when Venetian merchants managed to smuggle in a barrel of pork the body and relics of St Mark from Alexandria Egypt in 828 CE to Venice. A matching column, not seen in this painting, is topped with a statue of St Theodore on a crocodile. The granite columns were brought from the Orient in the 12th Century.
The large pink building is the Doge’s Palace, built in 1340 in the then popular Venetian Gothic style. Canaletto’s painting depicts the lower floor loggia (covered corridor) constructed with Gothic pointed arches. The second-story loggia has a balcony consisting of Gothic columns topped with quatrefoils (four lobed design). The third-story is a wall of pink Verona marble in a Byzantine diamond pattern. The roof is topped with decoratively carved crenelations. The elaborately carved balcony on the upper-story leads into the Chamber of the Great Council. Designed and built by Jacopo Sansovio between 1531 and 1538, it has a relief sculpture of the winged lion with the Doge Andrea Gritti kneeling before it. The four statues in the niches are Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, and Neptune.
A short walk from the Molo past the Doge’s Palace brings visitors to the Basilica of San Marco and the Piazza San Marco. In the painting “San Marco” (1742-44) (45×66”) (NGA), Canaletto places the Molo and the column with the winged lion of Saint Mark at the middle right side of the painting. He provides a glimpse of the Grand Canal with larger ships anchored in the Adriatic Sea. In past centuries Canaletto’s depiction would be accurate. However, in the Twenty-first Century, full size cruise ships would also be included.
An accurate depiction of the Doge’s Palace is again seen, but this time the Basilica of San Marco is the real focus. Originally the private chapel of the Doge, the Basilica was begun in 829 CE to house the relics of St Mark. Designed in the Byzantine style, the Basilica has five vaulted domes forming a Greek Cross, four domes surrounding the central dome. These can be seen above the façade. The façade has five arched portals, the largest in the center. As a primary port for east-west trade, Venetians had the first choice of objects from Byzantium and all countries to the east. The design of San Marco reflects even more than other Venetian buildings a combination of numerous styles and decorations. During the Forth crusade (1199-1204) to recapture Jerusalem, when the city was sacked, Doge Enrico Dandilo sent the quadriga horses (four horse drawn chariot) from Trajan’s arch to Venice. Placed on a porch at the top of the central portal, the bronze horses continued to be a symbol of Venetian power. Notable are the gold mosaics on the arches above each of the portals and on the four upper arches. Elaborate Gothic stone carving at the top of the arches is also depicted, as well at the carving of the winged lion in the arch above the horses. When Constantinople fell to the Muslims in 1453, crusaders were able to bring shiploads of Byzantine art treasures to San Marco, vastly increasing the wealth and ornamentation of Venice. In the Piazza vendor’s stalls with umbrellas and strolling citizens can be seen. What is missing are the flocks of pigeons that populate the 2.5 acres of the Piazza!
Canaletto’s “The Bucintoro” (1745-50) moves the viewer a short distance down Grand Canal with view of the Molo and the Doge’s Palace at the right. The right bank extends far into the distance. The lagoon is full of boats and gondolas because a popular Venetian celebration is in full swing. The Bucintoro is the large, elegant golden boat, flying the red flag. It is momentarily docked at the Molo between the Doge’s Palace and the Library of St Mark on the left. The Library was constructed in 1529, and designed by Sansovino in the traditional and orderly Venetian Renaissance style. Above the Doge’s Palace, Canaletto depicts the Campanile (bell tower) of the Basilica. The Campanile, free standing and 324 feet tall, is covered with Venetian red-clay bricks. In the middle distance at the left is the tower of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute.
The Bucintoro, the Doge’s boat, is used only for special celebrations. Although not specifically designated by name, this painting could depict the Sposalizio del Mare. Venice’s power and prosperity were reliant on the sea. Once a year a great procession led by the Bucintoro sailed to the Church of San Nicolo del Lido, (St Nicolo was patron saint of sailors) where prayers were offered for calm and peaceful seas for all sailors. The Doge then drops a consecrated ring into the sea and said, “Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini.” “We marry you, sea, as a sign of true and perpetual domination.”
Canaletto’s painting trip down the Grand Canal starts inland. This painting takes visitors to the other end of the Grand Canal, the Adriatic Sea. “The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice” (1730) (19.5’’ x 28.9’’) depicts another famous landmark, the Church of Santa Maria della Salute (St Mary of Health or Deliverance). Every year on November 21, a pontoon bridge is constructed to allow the citizens to cross the canal at this point for the Feast Day of the Madonna della Salute. The church was constructed as a thanksgiving offering from the citizens of Venice for saving them from the plague of 1630-38. They believed Mary had delivered them from the epidemic and the Republic vowed to build Her a church. The competition was won by Baldassare Longhena, a Baroque period architect, adding yet another style to the Venetian landscape. Longhena wrote: “I have created a church in the form of a rotunda, a work of new invention, not built in Venice, a work very worthy and desired by many. This church, having the mystery of its dedication, being dedicated to the Blessed Virgin made me think, with what little talent God has bestowed upon me of building the church in the…shape of a crown.”
Canaletto’s painting depicts the impressive landing stairs that led to the entrance of Santa Maria della Salute. In Baroque fashion, there are no stories, the façade covers the entire height of the church to the base of the drum of the dome. The church is octagonal, noticeable in this view by the eight doors. At the base of the dome large round circles set on end provide bases for figurative sculptures. The base of the dome is also octagonal, with each of the eight sections composed of two angled windows creating a slight undulating movement beneath the dome. Longhena did create a unique structure for Venice, and one that towers over the three-story buildings across the canal.
Canaletto lacked any real rivals during his lifetime. His work was well received by the European nobility, especially the English, who flocked to Venice to vacation in the warmth and sunshine of Venice. They enjoyed shopping for brocades, silks, and spices from the east and luxuriated in the magic atmosphere of canals, castles, and the sunshine of the Lido beach. Canaletto’s paintings were the favorite souvenir. His paintings included the veduta and capriccios (fantasy landscapes). He also made etchings. In the 1740s the war of the Austrian Succession made travel to Venice difficult. As a result, Canaletto moved to London in 1746 and remained there until 1755. His London paintings offer another look at this prolific and fascinating artist. He was elected to the Venetian Academy in1763, and he painted until his death in 1768. Canaletto’s works remain popular today. Canaletto’s “The Bucintore at the Mole, On Ascension Day” sold earlier this year for $20 million.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.