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Canaletto (Venice 1697-Venice 1768)

The Piazzetta looking towards San Giorgio Maggiore c.1723-24

Oil on canvas | 173.0 x 134.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 401036

Picture Gallery, Buckingham Palace

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  • This painting forms one of a set of six views of the Piazza San Marco and the Piazzetta, at the heart of Venice. The series may have been Canaletto's earliest commission from Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice, who sold his outstanding group of paintings, prints and drawings by the artist to George III in 1762. The set is all of the same size and, judging from the compositions and broad handling of paint, was probably intended to be incorporated symmetrically into the decoration of a single Venetian room. A closely related preparatory drawing for each view (also in the Royal Collection) may have been the basis for discussion between artist and patron.

    To the left of this view is the Palazzo Ducale, its red and white tiles forming lozenge-shaped patterns. Along with the column of San Marco, the Palazzo frames the church and campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore. Upon the column is a bronze statue of the winged Lion of Venice, the symbol of St Mark. Its pair, visible in the companion painting (RCIN 405073), bore the statue of San Teodoro, the first patron saint of Venice: together the figures Behind and to the right of the column is a boat with a striped sail, known as the Fusta, the Doge's galleon, which in this period also served as a prison, a military plague hospital and an asylum. Flashes of sunlight catch the white rigging of the boats and the architectural details of the buildings, while the sky above is dark and foreboding.

    The set of paintings must date from before 1726-8, when the crowning element of the campanile (in the centre of the present view) was altered from conical to onion shape; in 1774 it was replaced by the one seen today. Canaletto combines several viewpoints and distorts topography for dramatic effect. He adds a second window on the upper part of the façade of the Palazzo Ducale, where there should only be one. Canaletto also made a number of changes from the drawing to the finished canvas: he has corrected the number of arches in the first floor loggia from five to six, omitted or painted out the pulley, enlarged the island, and placed the whole church, including its façade, to the left of St Mark's column. Mathematical instruments were used to establish the architecture: a straight edge ruled out the right side of the column and perspective lines on the Palazzo Ducale.

    The paintings appear to have arrived in London unframed; if so, this would strengthen the suggestion that they had been set into a room in one of Smith's houses in Italy. George III framed them in English 'Maratta' frames and hung them in the Entrance Hall of Buckingham House. When Horace Walpole saw them, he described them as 'bolder, stronger & far superior to his [Canaletto's] common Works'.

    Adapted from Canaletto & the Art of Venice, London, 2017.

    Acquired in 1762 by George III from Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice (Italian List nos 59-62); recorded in the Hall of Buckingham Palace in 1790

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    173.0 x 134.3 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    282.3 x 159.4 x 15.0 cm (frame, external)

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