Shifting scenery

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
Many of our images of what Venice is like are defined by the work of Canaletto. Marion Carlisle looks at one of his snapshot works.

In this picture, Canaletto provides a snapshot of the informal and lively atmosphere surrounding the largest and most spectacular of Venice's festivities: the Ascension Day celebrations of the Sposalizio del Mar, the Wedding of Venice to the Sea (the 40th day after Easter Sunday commemorating the Ascension of Christ into heaven) in the Basin of San Marco. In many ways, Canaletto's paintings and drawings have defined how we view Venice: rippling waterways, anecdotal details of everyday life, magnificent events and a skyline of palazzi and campanile. These are much more than simply a record of facts created for 18th-century tourists eager for a permanent memory of their Grand Tour; they are artful constructions.

In the foreground, on the left and right, the viewer is shown only a fraction of each gondola: giving them the sense that a world exists outside the picture. On the left, a "peota", with its scarlet awning, rushes into the frame, the gondoliers straining at their work, while on the right, a "burchiello" or passenger barge appears stationary with passengers and gondolier turned away from us. The spectacular Bucintoro, (the Doge's state barge) used only on Ascension Day, does not dominate the scene but is placed on the far right. Traditionally, the Bucintoro was rowed in procession out of the lagoon into the Adriatic, where the Doge cast a ring blessed by the Patriarch into the waters, symbolising the marriage of Venice to the sea.

Canaletto is showing the moment after the Sposalizio del Mar when the Bucintoro has returned and is moored by the Palazzo Ducale. Thus the viewer is encouraged to give the same consideration to the activities of the gondoliers and their passengers, dominating the foreground, as to the gilded Bucintoro. Our eye moves between the spectacular and the anecdotal by following the flashes of brilliant red on the peota's awning, the clothing of the gondoliers and the red flag of the Bucintoro. Canaletto, who trained as a painter of theatrical scenery, demonstrates great skill in design, composition and in the manipulation of buildings and spaces.

Venice-born, he knew intimately the layout of the city, and he used this knowledge to rework and represent the same scene many times without ever repeating himself, always making changes to the viewpoint and composition.

So the view of the basin of San Marco on Ascension Day was probably first depicted in 1729 in a preparatory sketch from which a number of paintings were made, one of which was commissioned by Consul Smith - "The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day" (1733-4). This painting has a companion piece showing a view of the central stretch of the Grand Canal - "A Regatta on the Grand Canal" (1733-4). A comparison between the preparatory sketch and "The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day" shows how Canaletto experimented with the angle of viewpoint. The lower viewpoint in the sketch helped to stretch and elongate the buildings and monuments. The higher viewpoint in the painting, on the other hand, created a greater sense of panorama. In both cases, Canaletto's skill convinces the viewer that these views represent what was experienced and seen.

Such skill was aimed at visitors to Venice rather than at Venetians themselves. A large number of wealthy 18th-century visitors on the Grand Tour flocked to the Venetian lagoon to admire the beauty of the city, visit the many restaurants, theatres and casinos and witness the carnivals, regattas and festivals. Joseph Smith, an English merchant living in Venice, who was appointed British Consul in 1744, acted as Canaletto's agent and collected for himself a large group of his paintings and drawings by the artist. In 1762, the sale of Smith's entire collection to George III brought into royal ownership the world's finest group of Canalettos, including "The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day".

Historically, the Ascension Day celebrations highlight the changing fortunes of Venice. In the 16th-century, Venice was a great maritime power.

Centuries of mercantile trade had brought the city enormous prosperity. By the beginning of the 18th century, though, the Venetian state was in decline. With much of its empire lost, the city's new source of revenue was from a growing tourist industry. Dating back to the year 998, the festival of Sposalizio del Mar was recognition of the importance and strength of Venice's maritime success. By the 18th-century, it was the ceremony itself that attracted visitors. Today, Ascension Day celebrations include a procession of boats to the waters in front of the church of San Nicolo on the Lido. A modern boat has replaced the Bucintoro, while the role of the Doge (elected ruler) has been replaced by the Mayor, accompanied by the highest civil authorities and the Patriarch of Venice.

Marion Carlisle is education development manager at The Royal Collection

Canaletto in Venice by Martin Clayton, Royal Collection Publications. 2005, pound;7.95 (paperback)

National Gallery



Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, was trained by his father: a painter of theatrical scenery. Canaletto began to establish himself as a painter of Venetian vedute (views) in the 1720s. Canaletto settled in London for 10 years from 1746. He was elected to the Venetian Academy in 1763.


Art and design

KS 12

Canaletto's 'The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day' is a busy scene.

Ask your class to describe the different sounds they can hear in the picture, for example the rippling of water; the splashing of oars; the knocking of boats and the chattering of people. Would they like to be in this picture?

Canaletto's drawings and paintings contain many anecdotal details. Ask your class to find the man sitting in the boat in the foreground of 'The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day'. Is he gesturing to the Bucintoro and explaining the Wedding of the Sea to others in the boat or is he complaining that he cannot see what is happening?

KS 34

Canaletto was born in Venice and very familiar with the city. He often drew the same view many times and would manipulate views to improve the composition. Ask your class to select a familiar view and develop a series of drawings manipulating this view, eg widening or narrowing a road or pathway or adding or taking away a building.


What is the significance of Venice's relationship with the sea and how has this shifted over time? Use Canaletto's 'The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day' as a starting point to discuss representations of the shifting wealth and status of Venice from maritime superpower to tourist destination.

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