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Canaletto’s Eternal Venice

In Venice, there are only one or two paintings by Canaletto (1697-1768), nearly everything he produced is to be found in Britain, thanks to Consul Joseph Smith (1674-1770). A wealthy trader but also art collector, Smith lived for seventy of his ninety-six years in Venice, most of them in the Palazzo Mangilli-Valmarana. Over those seven decades, he gathered together various collections of paintings, sculptures, manuscripts, and jewels. These collections were sold to King George III in 1762 and contained fifty-three paintings and one-hundred-and-forty drawings by Canaletto. Smith also sponsored and promoted many artisans to the English, among them Zuccarelli, Rosalba Carriera, and Canaletto himself.

Canaletto, A Regatta on the Grand Canal, c. 1740, Oil on canvas, 122.1 x 182.8 cm, National Gallery, NG4454 (Image: National Gallery)

Of Canaletto’s work (and this is why so little of it can be found in Venice) Consul Smith managed to sell much in London, and even dispatched the painter to work there for ten years. Smith and Canaletto: a well-matched pair – an Italianised Englishman and a Venetian shaped by English taste. A Canaletto landscape was the perfect souvenir for an English visitor on their grand tour. Today’s souvenirs are less appealing – postcards, colourful glass or carnival masks.

Yet we don’t need the precise and detailed scenes of Venice by Canaletto to show us the Venice of the past, the views you get in his paintings are the same as those you will see upon emerging from the Galleria dell’Academia or Museo Correr. The canvases from the cinquecento will show almost the same views as were painted in the settecento, and the novecento. You stagger, exhausted, heavy-limbed, out of the museums, only to be confronted by the same scenes outside. How the city was viewed, is viewed and will be viewed, is the same.

Canaletto, Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day, c. 1740, Oil on canvas, 121.9 x 182.8 cm, National Gallery, NG4453 (Image: National Gallery)

Venice is the only city whose past you do not have to guess at, it’s there before you, at least its past appearance is, which is also its present appearance, but equally its future appearance. Venice is the only place where the future is already on display, as it is without the growth, expansion and development inherent in most cities. There is a certainty in that something we can see now, will always be there and will always remain the same.

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