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Canaletto (Venice 1697-Venice 1768)

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

RCIN 401036

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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. 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. This view depicts the left corner of the Palazzo Ducale and the column of San Marco, which frame the church and campanile of San Giorgio Maggiore. 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. For example, San Giorgio is heightened; and from this viewpoint there should be one upper window in the Palazzo Ducale, not two. 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. In the preparatory drawings a beam and pulley projects from the loggia of the Palazzo, discernible as a pentiment in the final painting. 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’.