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Canaletto (Venice 1697-Venice 1768)

Piazza San Marco looking west towards San Geminiano c.1723-4

Oil on canvas | 134.6 x 173.0 cm | RCIN 405935

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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. Four of the views are upright in format while this painting and its pendant (RCIN 405934) are horizontal; the pendant shows the opposite view of Piazza San Marco, in evening as opposed to morning light. A closely related preparatory drawing for each view (also in the Royal Collection) may have been the basis for discussion between artist and patron. The care taken over the composition of the architecture and the changes made during the course of painting suggest that the balance and effect of the whole was important to both of them. Canaletto's training as a painter of theatrical scenery can be recognised in the creation of a clearly defined architectural space in subdued colours, animated by the brightly coloured figures. To the extreme left, part of the Campanile and the Logetta is visible, with the Procuratie Nuove seen beyond. In the centre of the façade opposite S. Marco is the church of S. Geminiano. Above the roof-tops appears the campanile of S. Moisè, on the left, and S. Stefano, on the right. In the right-hand corner of the Piazza a temporary stage is set up on trestles for a performance. The poles inserted into the pavement in the foreground are presumably for tents or booths to be set up (visible in the pendant picture, RCIN 405934). 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’.