Laura Gascoigne

Portraits of a fantasy city

Laura Gascoigne on a small but select exhibition of Venetian paintings in Amsterdam

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There are 13 Canalettos and 19 Guardis in our National Gallery; there are no paintings by either artist in the Rijksmuseum. The Dutch, having been painting landscape views for years, had enough of their own by the 18th century not to bother with Venice: canals were not exactly a novelty to them. So while the English went overboard for Venetian vedute, the Dutch politely ignored them. They can do so no longer, since a Venetian exhibition has opened on their doorstep.

Venezia! Art from the 18th Century is the third exhibition at Hermitage Amsterdam, the State Hermitage Museum’s latest European outpost in a converted 17th-century old folks’ home on the Amstel. Until work is complete, the space is small: just big enough to house a select display of 65 Venetian paintings, prints and drawings from the imperial collection started by Peter the Great, whose capital St Petersburg, reclaimed from the Neva swamps, has traditionally challenged Amsterdam for the title of Venice of the North.

For a show about Venice, this one actually includes surprisingly few views. It is in fact less about the appearance of the city than about its efforts to keep up appearances during a century which opened with the threat to its precious neutrality posed by the War of the Spanish Succession, and closed with the loss of its independence to the French. Venezia! depicts a fantasy city, the painted face La Serenissima turned to the world as her powers declined and her economy became increasingly dependent on that familiar post-imperial fall-back, tourism.

With her fabulous setting and famous theatres, casinos and brothels, 18th-century Venice was a natural party capital, but what turned her into a perfect playground for princes was her native gift for ceremonial. The Venetian calendar was a rolling programme of spectacular religious festivals, and the Republic was always ready to push the boat out for a foreign prince who visited out of season. Not only would it stage a regatta in his honour, but its artists would also be on hand to record the event. It was Luca Carlevaris who set the trend for souvenir pictures like the ‘View of the Landing Wharf at the Doge’s Palace’ in this exhibition, marking the visit of King Frederick IV of Denmark in 1709. But it was Canaletto who cashed in on the Grand Tourist market developed by the astute British Consul Joseph ‘Giuseppe’ Smith, dubbed by Horace Walpole the ‘Merchant of Venice’.

Canaletto was a lucky boy. Born into a family of set-designers, he might have spent his life behind the scenes had he not had a row with a playwright in 1719 and ‘solemnly excommunicated the theatre’. Within a few years of setting up as a view-painter he had more work than he could handle, and by the 1740s was keeping Consul Smith’s expanding client list supplied with a production line of Venetian vedute ornamented with that familiar shorthand of dots and squiggles we know from his ‘mature’ works in the National Gallery. No wonder Turner, in his picture ‘Venice: Canaletti Painting’, showed the artist at an easel with his back to the view. He would have gasped at the freshness of observation in two early views of the lagoon in this exhibition, painted in the 1720s before the rot set in. ‘View of the Islands of San Michele and Murano from the Fondamento Nuovo’ (once the prospect from Titian’s garden) is the soul of simplicity: open sky, glassy water, the dreamy distant hills of Friuli lightly brushed in behind the sunlit huddle of buildings on San Michele, and the shorthand strictly reserved for the white highlights — a sail, the shirt of a passenger in a gondola, the shawl of a woman waiting on the quay — designed to titillate the peripheral vision.

Unfortunately, as Canaletto discovered, there was more money in action-packed vistas of the ‘Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day’ bobbing with gilded ceremonial barges, including the Doge’s Bucintoro. After all, it was the tourists, not the locals, who kept the vedutista afloat: why hang on your wall what you could see from your window? Anyway, to contemporary Italian eyes the view-painter was a common copyist, lacking the invention to turn painting into art. In Rome a classical monument might lend a ruin-piece an air of scholarship, but in Venice? In Venice you had to cheat, flying in a classical ruin and plonking it down, trailing weeds and all, on your home turf, as Francesco Guardi does so delightfully in the sun-dappled watercolour ‘Capriccio with Triumphal Arch on the Quayside’ in this show.

In the city of masks, the capriccio was an artistic face-saver, a way of making up in fancy what you lacked in archaeology. It came in various shades, from gentle ‘scherzo’ to out-and-out ‘bizzarria’, and coloured every genre of art. There’s a battle scene here by Francesco Casanova — brother of Giacomo — which is pure capriccio: all foreshortened corpses, plunging horses and bristling sabres, but no war. No subject was sacred, not even sacred art: in an early ‘Annunciation’ by Giambattista Tiepolo, a teenage Mary rides her prie-dieu like a jet-ski — while apparently following instructions in a hand-jive manual — when in blows a half-dressed angel unannounced with what can only be a party invitation.

There’s more wind ruffling the surface of this one picture than 40 years’ worth of Canaletto lagoons. Tiepolo had to let off steam in his sacred paintings, when the secular alternative was so stuffy. You can sense his frustration in ‘Maecenas Presenting the Free Arts to Augustus’, an elaborate allegory of 1743 designed to flatter the connoisseurship of Count von Br