The Holburne is a little gem of a museum in a little gem of a city, Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage site. A former Georgian hotel, the museum made the controversial decision to add a modernist extension in 2011, but despite its newer style the addition enhances the existing structure. More important, it has increased the capacity of the museum, which now includes a dedicated exhibition room permitting intimate but effective displays of artists from the Bruegels to Grayson Perry.

The current exhibition, curated by Catrin Jones and Monserrat Pis Marcos, offers visitors a “once in a lifetime” opportunity to enjoy the Venetian paintings of Canaletto in a new setting.1 While this claim is a typical exhibition press release trope, there is some truth to it: the twenty-three paintings on display comprise the largest set of paintings Canaletto produced for a single patron. Remarkably, they were never separated, and are all drawn from the private collection of the current Duke of Bedford at Woburn Abbey. It was his ancestor, the fourth Duke of Bedford, who commissioned the works in the 1730s. As they have rarely been lent out since, the Holburne is justifiably proud of its coup. One of the many joys of the exhibition is the presentation: at Woburn, in the dining hall (the “Canaletto Room”) many of the paintings are hung in columns that reach the ceiling, while in the Holburne they are all at eye level, allowing close examination of Canaletto’s detailed creations.

The works on display are all excellent examples of view painting, a uniquely eighteenth-century phenomenon stimulated by the British upper classes undertaking their Grand Tours. Long before Ruskin wrote The Seven Lamps of Architecture and The Stones of Venice, Venice was much loved for its singular and elegant design, both in layout and architecture. (Its brothels were another attraction.) Canaletto was the master of this art market, and the Duke of Bedford but one of a number of deep-pocketed British patrons. Indeed, in 1746 the famously parochial artist moved to London for nine successful years to pursue commissions from his most steadfast clients.

Views of Venice are very familiar to modern eyes from documentaries, films, and advertisements, as well as from firsthand tourism, not least from the leviathan cruise ships that towered over the city at its quays (until this summer’s ban). Does a roomful of some two dozen early eighteenth-century paintings of this familiar city offer the public something new? Some of the famous views are not as familiar as one might think: Canaletto frequently compressed or expanded the city through warped perspectives to improve the compositional structure of his work. And while the city in its Old World glory is always beautiful to look at, it is the details, viewed up close, that bring eighteenth-century Venice to life, primarily through the attire of its inhabitants and visiting sailors and merchants, who are dotted across the stonework and waterways. The Piazzetta, looking North-West (1731–36) encapsulates the harmony between building and people: Saint Mark’s Campanile dominates, while the square is flanked by the Biblioteca Marciana, the Basilica, and the Doge’s Palace. The piazzetta itself reveals Canaletto the miniaturist at work depicting scores of people. Get closer and you can pick out a character leaning over the balustrade at the front of the palace. The city is not merely a subject for architectural study, but a place bustling with activity. The best of all the exquisitely detailed portrayals comes in the foreground of The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco (1731–36). Here the rower of a skiff holds up an arm to deflect the prow of a slightly larger vessel careering into his boat, its crew oblivious to the imminent impact. Also lovely are the tilers working high on the roof in The Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge from the South (1731–36). 

Canaletto, The Grand Canal, looking North from the Palazzo Contarini dagli Scrigni to the Palazzo Rezzonico, 1731–36, Oil on Canvas, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire. 

Everywhere, the detail is astonishing. Business, culture, leisure, and religion are all portrayed. In The Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking West, with the Dogana di Mare and the Church of Santa Maria della Salute (1731–36), we see two monks being taxied across the canal. In The Grand Canal, looking North from the Palazzo Contarini dagli Scrigni to the Palazzo Rezzonico (1731–36), it is a lady and her servant being ferried across. This degree of proximity offers an intimate appreciation of Canaletto’s Venetian cityscapes. Amid all the architectural splendor life goes on as normal; there is something humbling about that.

Canaletto, The Arsenal,  1731–36, Oil on Canvas, Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire.

It is not all picturesque and familiar. The Campo Santo Stefano (1731–36) depicts a less salubrious neighborhood—an unusual one-off, as Canaletto never returned to this scene again—where cluttered shops display their basic wares. In The Arsenal (1731–36), the industrial heart of the city, the main entrance is shown left-of-center to allow the viewer a peek into the ship-building area and the activity around the place.

Pride of place goes, unsurprisingly, to the large-scale The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day with the Bucintoro retuning to the Molo (1731–40), the greatest feast day in the Venetian calendar, when the ceremonial state galley, the Bucintoro, would emerge from the Arsenal. The city’s inhabitants, from the grandest to the poorest, turn out to celebrate the Doge marrying Venice to the sea, by throwing a gold ring into the water while declaiming, “We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting devotion.” Canaletto once again captures the beauty of the city with close observations, befitting an artist trained in theater design and eager to create a scene. 

The paintings are hung in sequential order, and the viewing experience has been likened to a gondola tour of the city. In any case, it is a most rewarding drift through eighteenth-century Venice.

  1.   “Canaletto: Painting Venice” opened at the Holburne Museum, Bath, United Kingdom, on May 17 and remains on view through September 5, 2021.

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