One evening a few weeks ago I was on my way to the opening of an exhibition at the Venice Biennale when I stopped for a moment in a quiet campo off the main drag. An elderly priest was standing on the steps of the church of Santa Maria della Fava in the weak sunshine. On impulse I stepped inside and he followed.
For a while I looked at Piazzetta’s altarpiece, ‘The Madonna with St Philip Neri’ (c.1725). Then — as if silently to indicate that I should have a look at this too — the priest switched on the light to illuminate Giambattista Tiepolo’s ‘Education of the Virgin’ (c.1732)on the opposite side of the nave. It was indeed worth contemplating.
The incident came to mind as I walked around the new exhibition, Canaletto & the Art of Venice, at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, precisely because pictures such as those two masterpieces of 18th-century Venetian painting — so full of power and feeling — are what you don’t see much of there. The Royal Collection is astonishingly rich in art from Venice of that period, but it’s a very specific selection: reflecting what Duke Ellington once described as ‘the tourist point of view’.
That’s all the more surprising since they were accumulated by a man who spent most of his long, long life living in Venice (in fact, in a palazzo not far from Santa Maria della Fava). George III bought them in 1762 as a job lot — with a work by the then almost unknown Vermeer — from Consul Joseph Smith (1675–1770), a talented, enterprising man who combined his diplomatic post with lucrative trading in such commodities as salami and pictures.
Smith was one of the major collectors of his day but also, effectively, an art dealer.