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Canaletto in Venice

Portrait of Canaletto, 1735©

Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-–1768), known as Canaletto, defined our image of Venice. With the notable exception of nine years in England between 1746 and 1755, he spent his whole career working in the city, which was already a major tourist destination, an essential stop on the Grand Tour of Italy. Canaletto painted idealised views of its canals, palaces, churches and squares, for customers from all over Europe who wished to have a record of the most beautiful city on earth.

Canaletto also produced highly finished drawings not studies for paintings, but works of art in their own right. Like his paintings, these drawings were usually produced in series, uniform in size and style. This exhibition brings together Canaletto'’s most comprehensive set of paintings of the Grand Canal, along with many of his finest groups of drawings.

The title to a volume of Canaletto drawings©

Canaletto and Consul Smith

Most of Canaletto'’s paintings were commissioned through Joseph Smith (c. 1674–-1770), a merchant banker who had lived in Venice since around 1700, and who was appointed British Consul in 1744. Smith was a friend and patron of many leading artists, and his palazzo on the Grand Canal was frequented by the British nobility passing through the city. His international contacts and his talents as a businessman made him the ideal agent for an artist.

Over the years Smith himself amassed a fine collection, including around 50 paintings and 150 drawings by Canaletto. But his finances suffered during the European wars of the 1740s and 1750s, and in 1762 George III bought Smith’s magnificent library (including his volumes of drawings), and his paintings, gems and coins, for the sum of £20,000. Many of the paintings were used to furnish the newly-purchased Buckingham House; his volumes of drawings were placed in the Royal Library, where they have remained ever since.

Iconografica rappresentatione della inclita citta di Venezia©


Rising out of the waters of a lagoon, Venice is unlike any other city in the world. Its islands were settled around the sixth century, each centred on a church beside an open space (a campo, or ‘field’), an urban structure that remains recognisable to this day. As marshland was gradually reclaimed from the lagoon, the islands coalesced to leave only narrow canals between them.

Venice’s wealth was based on trade, as it was the principal point of contact between western and northern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, and it was at the height of its power around 1500. But the discovery of new trade routes around Africa and to the Americas, and the growth of the Ottoman Empire to the east, led to the slow decline of Venice’s economy.

This map, published in 1729, shows the city as it was in Canaletto’s day. The Napoleonic invasion of 1797 saw the end of Venice’s independence after more than a thousand years, and was followed by the closure and demolition of many monasteries. With the completion of a railway bridge in 1846 and a road bridge in 1933, the northwestern area of the city was transformed. Otherwise Venice has changed little in centuries.

The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.