Canaletto & the Art of Venice

In 1762 the young monarch George III purchased virtually the entire collection of Joseph Smith, the greatest patron of art in Venice at the time. Thanks to this single acquisition, the Royal Collection contains one of the finest groups of 18th-century Venetian art in the world, including the largest collection of works by Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. 

Through over 100 paintings, drawings and prints from the Royal Collection's exceptional holdings, Canaletto & the Art of Venice presents the work of Venice's most famous view-painter alongside that of his contemporaries, including Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Francesco Zuccarelli, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta and Pietro Longhi, and explores how they captured the essence and allure of Venice for their 18th-century audience, as they still do today. The exhibition at The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, will be the largest ever showing of Canaletto paintings in Scotland. 

Joseph Smith (c.1674−1770) was an English merchant and later British Consul in Venice, a post dealing with Britain’s maritime, commercial and trading interests. He had moved to Italy in around 1700 and over several decades built up an outstanding art collection, acting as both patron and dealer to many contemporary 

Venetian artists. Smith was Canaletto's principal agent, selling his paintings to the wealthy Grand Tourists who were drawn to Venice's cultural attractions. His palazzo on the Grand Canal became a meeting place for collectors, patrons, scholars and tourists, where visitors could admire his vast collection and commission their own versions of Canaletto's views to take home. 

One of the most important of Smith's commissions from Canaletto was the series of 12 paintings of the Grand Canal, which together create a near complete journey down the waterway. Canaletto's sharp-eyed precision makes these views seem powerfully real, yet he rearranged and altered elements of each composition to create ideal impressions of the city. Two larger paintings are of festivals, including the 'Sposalizio del Mar', or 'Wedding of the Sea', which took place on Ascension Day and attracted crowds of British visitors. The Grand Canal was a subject frequently captured by Canaletto, including in a series of six drawings, among them The central stretch of the Grand Canal, c.1734. Intended as works of art in their own right, rather than as preparatory studies for paintings, the drawings are carefully constructed and rich in tone and detail. 

Alongside the grand public entertainments, Venice boasted a thriving opera and theatre scene, especially during carnival season. The need to create stage sets within a very short period of time provided plentiful employment for Venetian artists. Both Marco Ricci and Canaletto worked for the theatre, where they learned how to manipulate perspective to heighten drama. The exhibition includes one of Ricci's designs for the Venetian stage, Room with a balcony supported by Atlantes, c.1726. Marco Ricci also produced caricatures of opera singers, such as the drawing of the internationally famed castrato Farinelli, which were circulated among Joseph Smith and his fellow Venetian collectors and opera aficionados. 

Two chalk drawings on blue paper by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta are engaging representations of Venetian character types, including a boy holding a small dog. Piazzetta's 'character heads' were highly sought after by collectors. Joseph Smith displayed his large collection of Piazzetta drawings in frames on the walls of his Venetian residence. Exposure to daylight has resulted in the blue paper fading to brown, but the subtlety of Piazzetta's draughtsmanship is undiminished and they remain some of the most beautiful drawings produced in 18th-century Venice. 

Both Canaletto and Marco Ricci contributed to the development of the genre known as the capriccio – scenes combining real and imaginary architecture, often set in an invented landscape, to create poetically evocative works. The ruins of ancient Rome in Ricci's Caprice View with Roman Ruins, c.1729, and of Padua in Canaletto's A Capriccio View with Ruins, c.1742–4, convey a sense of the irrevocable loss of a great age. 

Trade and tourism in mid-18th-century Venice was affected by the War of the Austrian Succession and the Seven Years' War, which in turn disrupted several of Consul Smith's business ventures. Agednearly80yearsold,JosephSmithmadeplans to sell his exceptional library of books, drawings and prints, and his collection of paintings. The 'Bibliotheca Smithiana', a volume of the contents of his library produced by the Pasquali press which Smith had founded, acted as a sale catalogue for potential buyers. Advisors to George III began negotiations in the 1750s and in 1762 the sale of Smith's library and paintings collection to the King was agreed for the sum of £20,000. 

Canaletto & the Art of Venice is at The Queen’s Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse, 11 May – 21 October 2018. The accompanying publication, Canaletto & the Art of Venice, is published by Royal Collection Trust, price £29.95. 

Visitor information and tickets for The Queen's Gallery, Palace of Holyroodhouse:, T. +44 0303 123 7306. 

Event date: 
Friday, May 11, 2018 - 00:00 to Sunday, October 21, 2018 - 00:00