Mobile menu
Press release

Canaletto & the Art of Venice

Release date: Wednesday, 14 December 2016

The Bacino di S. Marco on Ascension Day by Canaletto

The Bacino di S. Marco on Ascension Day by Canaletto Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

In 1762 the young monarch George III purchased virtually the entire collection of Joseph Smith, the greatest patron of art in Venice at the time. Thanks to this single acquisition, the Royal Collection contains one of the finest groups of 18th-century Venetian art in the world, including the largest collection of works by Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto.

Through over 200 paintings, drawings and prints from the Royal Collection's exceptional holdings, Canaletto & the Art of Venice presents the work of Venice's most famous view-painter alongside that of his contemporaries, including Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Rosalba Carriera, Francesco Zuccarelli, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and Pietro Longhi, and explores how they captured the essence and allure of Venice for their 18th-century audience, as they still do today. 

Joseph Smith (c.1674−1770) was an English merchant and later British Consul in Venice, a post dealing with Britain’s maritime, commercial and trading interests.  He had moved to Italy in around 1700 and over several decades built up an outstanding art collection, acting as both patron and dealer to many contemporary Venetian artists.  Smith was Canaletto's principal agent, selling his paintings to the wealthy Grand Tourists who were drawn to Venice's cultural attractions.  His palazzo on the Grand Canal became a meeting place for collectors, patrons, scholars and tourists, where visitors could admire his vast collection and commission their own versions of Canaletto's views to take home.  

One of the most important of Smith's commissions from Canaletto was the series of 12 paintings of the Grand Canal, which together create a near complete journey down the waterway.  Canaletto's sharp-eyed precision makes these views seem powerfully real, yet he rearranged and altered elements of each composition to create ideal impressions of the city. Two larger paintings are of festivals, including the 'Sposalizio del Mar', or 'Wedding of the Sea', which took place on Ascension Day and attracted crowds of British visitors.  The Grand Canal was a subject frequently captured by Canaletto, including in a series of six drawings, among them Venice: The central stretch of the Grand Canal, c.1734.  Intended as works of art in their own right, rather than as preparatory studies for paintings, the drawings are carefully constructed and rich in tone and detail.

Alongside the grand public entertainments, Venice boasted a thriving opera and theatre scene, especially during carnival season.  The need to create stage sets within a very short period of time provided plentiful employment for Venetian artists.  Both Marco Ricci and Canaletto worked for the theatre, where they learned how to manipulate perspective to heighten drama.  The exhibition includes several of Ricci's designs for the Venetian stage, such as A room with a balcony supported by Atlantes, c.1726.  Marco Ricci also produced caricatures of opera singers, such as the drawing of the internationally famed castrato Farinelli, which were circulated among Joseph Smith and his fellow Venetian collectors and opera aficionados.

On display together for the first time are personifications of the Four Seasons by Rosalba Carriera, whose pastels were highly prized by European collectors.  They were intended to be hung in private domestic spaces, such as dressing rooms, bedrooms or small antechambers.  Carriera was one of the first artists to develop a commercial relationship with Joseph Smith, and her sensual pastel of 'Winter', c.1726, an allegorical female figure wrapped in furs, was one of the most admired works in Smith's collection. 

Canaletto, Marco Ricci and Francesco Zuccarelli all contributed to the development of the genre known as the capriccio – scenes combining real and imaginary architecture, often set in an invented landscape, to create poetically evocative works.  The ruins of ancient Rome in both Ricci's Caprice View with Roman Ruins, c.1729, and Zuccarelli's pastoral scene Landscape with Classical Ruins, Cattle and Figures, c.1741–2, convey a sense of the irrevocable loss of a great age.

There was a major revival in printmaking in Venice in the 18th century, with many publishers recruiting established artists, such as Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and Antonio Visentini, to provide designs for their publications.  Joseph Smith was an enthusiastic print collector and one of the major supporters of contemporary printmaking in Venice.  Smith financed and directed the Pasquali press, which contributed to the circulation of Enlightenment ideas, such as those of Isaac Newton, and imported banned foreign texts into Venice, including the work of Voltaire.  Visentini was the chief draughtsman for the press, providing many hundreds of pen and ink drawings of initials and tailpieces, several of which will be on display in the exhibition.


Canaletto & the Art of Venice is at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, 19 May – 12 November 2017.