This remarkable canvas, datable circa 1754, is the most monumental view of Venice of Canaletto's London years and his last ambitious celebration of what was the most spectacular of the annual ceremonies of the Serenissima.
The view is taken from the Riva degli Schiavoni -- but at a very much exaggerated angle, showing, from the left the Dogana, S. Maria delle Salute and the Mouth of the Grand Canal, with, to the right, the Granaries (now destroyed), the Zecca, the Libreria, the Piazzetta with the Columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, the Doge's Palace and the Prison; behind the Doge's Palace, the Campanile is the key, vertical element of the composition. Constable's surmise that the Bucintoro, which is drawn up at the Molo, is shown 'probably, but not certainly, after the ceremony of the Sposalizio del Mar', is surely confirmed beyond reasonable doubt by the implied afternoon lighting.
The ceremony of the wedding of the sea, the Sposalizio del Mar, commemorated Doge Pietro Orseolo's decisive naval victory over Slav pirates of circa 998, which was said to have taken place on Ascension Day. In 1178, after saving the Papacy from the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Doge Sebastian Ziani was granted by Pope Alexander III the ring with which he and his successors were to celebrate the marriage of the republic to the sea.
The Bucintoro was the state vessel used exclusively for the ceremony. That which Canaletto depicts, which was still in use when the Venetian Republic was suppressed in 1796, was designed in 1722 by the architect Stefano Conti and executed with the help of the outstanding sculptor of the day, Antonio Corradini (1668-1752). The upper deck was used by the High Admiral and it was here that the Doge, the Signoria and foreign Ambassadors took their places: the invisible oarsmen were on the lower deck. The Bucintoro was brought from the Arsenale to the Molo about eight days before Ascension Day (see M. Levey, National Gallery Catalogues, The Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Italian Schools, London, 1971, pp. 33 and 35, note 5). On the morning of Ascension Day, mass was celebrated by the Doge's chaplain in the Capella di Collegio and the Doge, with the Signoria, then processed through the Piazzetta to the Molo and boarded the Bucintoro which was rowed to the Entrance to the Lido, the Porto del Lido, accompanied by a host of smaller vessels. There, the ring was blessed by the Patriarch of Venice and then consigned to the sea by the Doge. The procession of boats then continued to S. Nicolò del Lido where mass was held, before returning to the Molo.
An immediate precedent for Canaletto's depictions of the Ascension Day celebrations was Luca Carlevarijs's large (134.7 x 250.3 cm.) canvas dated 1710 in the J.P. Getty Museum, Los Angeles, which is described as showing the departure of the Bucintoro -- which is drawn up in front of the eastern bays of the façade of the Doge's Palace and the bridge to the east of this, its prow to the east -- but as the lighting of the architecture demonstrates viewed in the afternoon. Earlier still, and also shown by afternoon light is a large panorama by Joseph Heinz II in a private collection. In this the Bucintoro is already in motion, shown a few moments after it left the pontoon aligned on the central bay of the Doge's Palace: Heinz shows a blue and white canopy that emerges from the Porta della Carta, crosses to the centre of the Piazzetta and turns to run to the Molo, turning again just behind the column of Saint Mark to run parallel to the front of the palace itself, opposite the centre of which it turns again to end at the quay, where a temporary pier was placed.
Constable states that in the Champalimaud picture the Bucintoro is 'alongside the Molo probably, but not certainly after the ceremony ... has been completed.' (1966, p. 338). In this connection, it should be noted that Constable - followed by subsequent authorities - would seem to have been confused in his reading of Canaletto's very remarkable sequence of pictures of the Bucintoro at the Molo. Of those he catalogues as showing the Bucintoro preparing to leave the Molo, the canvasses at Woburn, the National Gallery and Castle Howard (Constable, nos. 332-4, the last, as Charles Beddington points out, by Bellotto ) are shown with the Bucintoro facing the east drawn up at the Molo in front of the Piazzetta, but lit from the west and thus in afternoon light, although in the case of the National Gallery picture, the Doge's procession is perhaps seen emerging from the Ducal Palace; while the pictures at Windsor, in the Crespi Collection, Milan, in the Bowes Museum and at Dulwich (Constable, nos. 335-7 and 339), considered to show the return of the Bucintoro, are lit from the east and thus in morning light, although in each case the Bucintoro is drawn up in front of the east end of the Doge's Palace and the Prigioni, its prow facing the west. The ex-Gideon picture (Constable, no. 340, originally owned by Sir Robert Walpole), lit from the west, is correctly described as showing the return: the prow faces east, and the Bucintoro is drawn up at the Molo, the most prominent of the smaller vessels follow it, but many are already moored. Of the pictures described merely as the Bucintoro at the Molo, the Buccleuch-Agnelli example (Constable, no. 341) is lit from the east, and the closely related Holkham picture (Constable, no. 342) from the west, as is the Philadelphia example, datable 1745-6 (Constable, no. 344). In all four pictures the prow faces the west: in three the Bucintoro is drawn up in front of the east end of the Doge's Palace and the Prigioni, and in the Holkham picture it is directly in front of the palace. The Windsor picture was engraved by Antonio Visentini with the title 'Bucentaurus et Nundinae Venetae in die Ascensionis' (Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum, I, 1735, XIV), that is without any statement as to which moment was depicted.
Canaletto chose varying viewpoints for his pictures of the Bucintoro at the Molo. It is instructive to see how the Lovelace picture relates to earlier works from a similar angle. The earliest of these is the picture at Woburn (Constable, no. 332), which belongs to the series associated with documents of 1733-36 supplied to John Russell, 4th Duke of Bedford (1710-1771) (F. Russell, 'The Pictures of John, 4th Duke of Bedford', Apollo, June 1988, p. 406): in this, horizontal, composition the field extends very slightly on the left and more significantly on the right. In the related work in the National Gallery, London (Constable, no. 333), the space between the Ducal Palace and the Prisons implies a viewpoint marginally to the left of the Woburn canvas: datable after the election of Doge Alvise Pisani in 1735, this is from a group almost certainly commissioned by Thomas Osborne, 4th Duke of Leeds (1713-1789) who was in Venice in 1734: in this the field is reduced on the right to show only seven bays of the Prison -- as in the Lovelace picture. In this it agrees with the drawing in the Royal Collection at Windsor (Constable, no. 643), which has been held to relate to the picture at Castle Howard (Constable, no. 334) supplied to Henry Howard, 4th Earl of Carlisle (1694-1758), although this differs from it in making the Campanile marginally narrower and in the arrangement of the numerous boats. The ex-Gideon picture (Constable, no. 340) shows only four and a half bays of the Prisons. In all those pictures the arrangement of the boats differs. The grouping of these on the left of the Lovelace picture echoes that of the ex-Gideon canvas, but there is no precise correspondence. The Lovelace picture is Canaletto's only vertical treatment of the subject although he did, at an earlier date, supply a square canvas, measuring 42 inches by 42 inches, for Thomas Coke, 1st Earl of Leicester (1697- 1759) as an overmantel for Holkham, where it was set in a frame devised by William Kent: the Molo is viewed from the Bacino, the Ducal Palace is shown almost parallel with the painted palace and the Campanile, its east side in shadow, is the dominant feature of the composition. The notably taller and larger Lovelace picture presented a different challenge. The Fondamenta of the Riva degli Schiavone was, as it were, hijacked at an exaggerated angle to set off the principal figures whom the artist describes with such determined bravura. These figures, the two Venetians in white masques, the elegant patrician on the left, have a vital role in the composition, as does the prow of the gondola in the foreground. Canaletto took an equal interest in other figures: the man in oriental costume holding an umbrella over the two ladies on the boat in the middle distance to the right; the brilliantly liveried gondoliers; and the rowers, again in costume, on the boat in the distance on the left.
Canaletto's decision to move the Fondamenta of the Riva for compositional purposes is the less surprising as the picture was, until its sale in 1937, a component of a series of seven, of which the others were all to a greater or lesser extent capricci. As was demonstrated so effectively in the 1988 exhibition Canaletto at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, for which these were reassembled, the other pictures are stylistically homogenous: one, the Capriccio, a Sluice on a River with a Reminiscence of St Catherine's Chapel, Guildford (formerly identified as Eton College Chapel), now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (Constable, no. 475), is signed with trompe l'oeil initials 'A. C.' and dated 1754 on the keystone of the arch beside the sluice. That canvas, possibly intended as an overmantle, measures 32 1/8 by 48½ inches and was perhaps intended to hang en suite with the two upright capricci, now at Washington (figs. 3 and 4 and Constable, nos. 473 and 474), which measure 52 x 42 inches: these also incorporate references to England, and specifically Box Hill, a few miles south east of Ockham. The other horizontal canvas, The Island of San Michele with Venice in the distance (fig. 5 and Constable, no. 367), is, at 29½ by 48½ inches, both lower and wider than the capriccio with the sluice. It also must have been an overmantle, or conceivably an overdoor. The two other capricci (figs. 6 and 7 and Constable, nos. 478 and 504) which measure 59¼ by 53 1/8 inches, and are thus significantly larger than the Washington pair, were perhaps intended for the same room, as is suggested by their mixture of Venetian and Roman elements and indeed by the consistency of their skies. The present canvas is almost identical in dimension with the two larger capricci and it is therefore possible that it was also intended for the same room. The stylistic consistency of all seven canvasses can only imply that these were painted at the same moment and thus that they date from 1754, although it might be argued that the date on the Boston capriccio represented the completion of the commission that had begun somewhat earlier.
Before their sale in 1937, the seven pictures by Canaletto had been at Whitwell Hatch to which they were transferred from Ockham Park, Surrey (fig. 1). Built in the 1620s for Henry Weston the house was extensively remodelled to designs of 1727-9 by Nicholas Hawksmoor, most scholarly of English baroque architects, and was indeed his last major domestic commission. His patron Peter King - son of an Exeter grocer and salter who was the nephew, through his mother, of the philosopher John Locke - had purchased the estate in 1710. King's immensely successful legal career led to his appointment as Lord Chancellor and elevation as Baron King in 1725. Unlike his predecessor, the 1st Earl of Macclesfield, who was prosecuted for financial impropriety, King did not make a huge fortune when in office, accepting an annual allowance of £1,200 in lieu of any profits from legal appointments: and his restraint in this respect may explain why Hawksmoor's first, rather ambitious, scheme for Ockham was abandoned. Drawings published by Laurence Whistler ('Ockham Park, Surrey', Country Life, 29 December 1950, pp. 2218-21, pls. 7, 10 and 11) establish that Hawksmoor produced a revised scheme in 1728, recasing the core of the original house, as a ground plan (op. cit., pl. 8) of the main floor demonstrates. The low Hall was evidently treated with some sublety and there were four other rooms of some size on the main floor, all of which had to be created within the constraints of the earlier fabric, as well as a staircase rising round a central well. King held the Chancellorship until 1733 and died less than a year later, to be succeeded in turn by no fewer than four of his sons: John, 2nd Lord King, who died without issue in 1740; Peter, 3rd Lord King, who died unmarried in 1754; William, 4th Lord King, also unmarried, who died in 1767; and Thomas, 5th Baron King (1712-1779) who 'was a partner in a Dutch mercantile house' (The Complete Peerage, VII, p. 277), and had at Delft on 17 August 1734 married Catherine (d. 1784) -- '(a large fortune)' (idem) -- daughter of John Troye, a member of the Sovereign Council of Brabant, by whom he had two sons, the elder of whom, Peter, would succeed as 6th Baron. After the 1st Baron's death in 1734, the King Chapel was added to the parish church at Ockham: in this an ambitious monument by Rysbrack to the Lord Chancellor was installed. There is no evidence of further patronage on the part of the 2nd Lord King, although his bank account for the period 1735-9 survives (Hoare's Bank: we are indebted to Lucy Wood for a transcript). The 3rd and 4th Lords also seem to have left little trace, although the latter maintained an account at Hoare's in 1739-40. Constable records the 'family tradition' that the Canalettos 'were acquired with money brought into the family by the [5th Lord King's] wife' (Constable, 1962, I, p. 146). Whether the pictures were commissioned for Ockham or for a London house (as tentatively suggested by F. Russell, review, Country Life, 14 October 1993, p. 64) must for the moment remain an open question.
The 13 July 1937 sale catalogue establishes that the seven Canalettos formed part of a considerably larger group of views and landscapes. The earliest in date were lots 82 and 83, the upright canvasses by Bernardo Bellotto of the Porta San Spirito and the Arch of Titus, both at Rome, sold most recently in Christie's London by the Executor of Manon, Countess of Lovelace, 12 December 1993, lot 60 and a third Roman view, the Piazza of San Giovanni Laterano, lot 128 (Constable, 1962, no. 400), attributed to Canaletto in 1937 but also in fact by Bellotto. All probably date from 1742-4 and could well have been ordered to hang en suite. Rome was also represented by at least four pictures by Giovanni Paolo Panini or in his manner, lot 106, which either corresponds with, or was a pendant to, a capriccio dependent on a prototype of 1751 in the Harrach collection, sold Christie's London, 12 December 1993, lot 107, an upright Roman capriccio and a larger capriccio, not offered in 1937 but sold in 1993, lot 61. In addition to the present canvas and the view of San Michele, the collection included three Venetian views given to Canaletto (lots 84-6). There were three small landscapes (lots 119-121) by Canaletto's Venetian contemporary, Francesco Zuccarelli, and two larger canvasses by him, with two reduced versions of one of these, the 'Idyllic landscape with a village festival ... watched by the Lord of the Manor' (lots 122-4), a fact that strongly suggests that the larger picture was a specific commission.
There were also four Vernets, a small coastal scene (lot 117), an Italian landscape of 1749 (lot 116) and a larger pair, respectively of 1767 and 1770 (lots 114-5). With the latter, sold Christie's London, 12 December 1992, lot 55, there is at last clear evidence. The earlier picture was ordered by Lecouteux, the Parisian banker 'pour un Mr. Anglois' (C. Lagrange, Joseph Vernet et la Peinture au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, 1864, pp. 346 and 365, commande no. 228, reçu no. 136), while the pendant was ordered on 19 June 1768 by Lecouteux 'de la part de milord Kins anglois' and paid for in 4 April 1770 (op. cit., pp. 348 and 366, commande no. 237, reçu no. 148). The pictures by Bellotto, Panini, Canaletto, Zuccarelli and Vernet must, taken together, have made a dominant impression in a collection that, a Steen apart, did not contain any serious old masters: and the pattern of this inheritance makes the acquisition of a pair of Neapolitan views of 1802 by Hackert (1937 sale, lot 98) seem almost predictable. These may have been bought by Peter, 7th Lord King, who made a tour of northern Italy in 1796, thus following in the footsteps of his eponymous father, the future 6th Lord King, who went on the Grand Tour in 1769-70 -- travelling at least for part of the tour with a serious connoisseur, Thomas Mansel Talbot. His tour may perhaps be regarded as the realisation of an aspiration to travel on the part of his father, 5th Lord King, whose eldest brother had made the Grand Tour in 1727-8, but who himself, as a younger son, cannot have been in a financial position to do so at the appropriate age.
In modern terminology thus, it can be argued that from the 5th Lord King's perspective the pictures sold in 1937 represented a 'virtual' Grand Tour. What cannot be ascertained is how these were arranged, whether in London or at Ockham which was extensively remodelled in an Italianate style in the early nineteenth century and demolished after a fire in 1949. Nonetheless it is clear that the canvasses painted for Lord King constituted the most ambitious decorative project of Canaletto's London years. The Bucintoro at the Molo, moreover, with its sustained brilliance of colour, establishes a touchstone for the recognition of the Venetian views the artist painted in London.
The Bucintoro at the Molo
By Charles Beddington
That this painting has been more or less overlooked in the Canaletto literature only demonstrates the deficiencies of the abundant writings on the artist. This oversight stems from Professor W. G. Constable's monograph of 1962, still the standard work on the subject; there the painting is described and illustrated (loc. cit.), but in the discussion of the Lovelace paintings (I, pp. 146-7, and II, under no. 367) they are described as a set of six rather than seven, this picture, clearly the centrepiece of the decorative scheme, not being mentioned. These entries remained unaltered in J. G. Links' revised editions of 1976 and 1989, and in his Supplement of 1998; indeed, the painting receives no mention in Links' Canaletto: The Complete Paintings, London, 1981. Since then the set has consistently been described as consisting of six rather than seven paintings, for instance when they were 'reunited' in the great Canaletto exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1989-90 (as 'The Lovelace Capriccios', even though another component of the set, The Island of San Michele with Venice in the Distance is also a view, albeit with imaginary elements), and even more recently by Annalia Delneri in the catalogue of the exhibition da canaletto a zuccarelli: il paesaggio Veneto del Settecento, Villa Manin, Passariano, 2003, p. 103. Thus Constable makes no suggestion as to the painting's date, while Lionello Puppi, loc. cit., considers it stylistically divergent from the other Lovelace paintings and tentatively dates it to 1746 'on the eve of the master's departure for England'; in this he is followed by André Corboz, loc. cit. There can be no question, however, that the painting is stylistically entirely consistent with the other components of the set and thus must be dated in or around 1754, towards the end of Canaletto's period in England. Even the figure in Chinese costume - a surprising apparition in a Venetian view - relates it to similar examples in one of the Lovelace vedute ideate in Washington and in other English period capricci, executed for patrons for whom chinoiserie almost certainly held a particular significance. It should now take its rightful place as by far the most impressive Italian view executed by Canaletto during his years in England, where he worked from May 1746 until 1755, but for one fairly brief return visit to Venice in 1750-1.
Essential to the success of any view painter was the ability to recreate in paint even quite intricate details of a subject at some remove from it. Since view paintings were never executed en plein air at this date, this would at least constitute a nearby studio, but view painters often prided themselves on their ability to produce convincing renditions of their subjects at considerable distances from them. Thus, earlier in the century, Gaspare Vanvitelli proudly inscribed a pair of views of Venice as having been painted in Rome (sold Christie's London, 9 July 2003, lot 113) and two views of the Neapolitan Darsena as having been executed in Rome (G. Briganti, Gaspar van Wittel, ed. L. Laureati and L. Trezzani, Milan, 1996, pp. 264-5, nos. 357 and 362). Canaletto's contemporary Antonio Joli painted a view of Rome in Madrid and a view of Venice in London, as his inscriptions attest (M. Manzelli, Antonio Joli: opera pittorica, Venice, 1999, p. 90, no. R.2, and p. 101, no. V.9). In the latter part of his career Canaletto demonstrates a particularly finely tuned ability to conjure from a graphic source a view he had sometimes not seen for decades. There can be no question that the basis for this painting was the drawing in the Royal Collection cited above, which he must have taken to England before delivering it, after his return to Venice, to Joseph Smith, who sold it to King George III in 1762.
Apart from the King-Lovelace Island of San Michele with Venice in the Distance, this painting is the only view of Venice certainly painted by Canaletto in England. Its light tonality, generally fairly pale colouration although with bright local colour, and presumed use of a pale grey ground, are entirely consistent with his approach to many views of England and with capricci executed for London houses. Little has been done, however, to establish how many other Italian views date from his English sojourn. In this respect this painting is an essential point of reference, constituting a veritable encyclopaedia of the painter's manner of painting near and distant buildings, and large and smaller figures, during his years in London, the only period of his career spent outside Italy. Similar stylistic traits, quite distinct from those of his earlier or later work in Italy, are found in a group of Venetian views, all but one measuring approximately 47 x 77 cm., which must also date from the English period, although their greater precision indicates an earlier moment within it. Mostly in pairs, these include two views of San Giorgio Maggiore (Constable, op. cit., no. 301, and J. G. Links, A Supplement to W.G. Constable's Canaletto: Giovanni Antonio Canal 1697-1768, London, 1998, no. 301**) and four of the Redentore (Constable, op. cit. nos. 317-18, ibid., ed. 1976, no. 318*, measuring 22 3/4 x 36 1/4 in., 57.8 x 91.4 cm., and Links, op. cit., no. 318***). There is also one view of the Prisons (Constable, op. cit., no. 84), which, like the view of the Redentore, his no. 318, was formerly in the Neave Collection, for which it may have been painted. Two pairs of recently rediscovered paintings are rather closer in handling to this painting, The Piazza San Marco and The Entrance to the Grand Canal looking East (Links, op. cit., nos. 8* and 171*) and the oval SS. Giovanni e Paolo and The Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Piazzetta (ibid. nos. 146* and 308*). The Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Piazzetta in the first pair and The Entrance to the Grand Canal looking East in the second are both variants of large and important canvasses in a set of four painted for William Holbech of Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire (Constable, op. cit., nos. 128 and 173, the former in the National Gallery of Victoria); although the family tradition that two of the set of four were painted in England has often been discounted, this should now be reconsidered.
A few of Canaletto's English period views of Italian subjects outside Venice are significantly darker in tone, most notably the Dolo on the Brenta offered in these Rooms, 6 July 1990, lot 74, and The Piazza del Campidoglio and the Cordonata, Rome, sold Christie's London, 8 December 1989, lot 117 (ibid., nos. 377 and 396), which are known to have been painted in London, according to inscriptions on the reverse in 1754 and 1755 respectively. Others, however, share the characteristics of the views of Venice cited above, notably The Arch of Constantine, Rome, in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (ibid., no. 383) and a pair of views of The Piazza Navona and The Piazza del Quirinale, Rome, with a Neave provenance (ibid., nos. 394 and 401). Especially close in style to the King-Lovelace pictures, and this painting in particular in its large foreground figures, is a large view of The Roman Forum with the Basilica of Maxentius (ibid., no. 380; exhibited Rome, Palazzo Giustiniani, Canaletto: Il trionfo della veduta, 12 March - 19 June 2005, no. 69, illustrated in colour). A small variant of that, with a pendant of The Colosseum, in the Galleria Borghese, Rome (for which they were purchased in London in 1908; Constable, op. cit., under no. 380, and no. 388) also seem to this writer to be autograph works by Canaletto datable to the English period. While Canaletto is often accused of making London look too much like Venice, these paintings show that, conversely, he developed a distinctive English style for the majority of the Italian views which he painted in England.
The loan of this painting has been requested for the exhibition Canaletto in England: a Venetian artist abroad 1746-1755 to be shown at the Yale Center for British Art 19 October - 31 December 2006 and at the Dulwich Picture Gallery 24 January - 15 April 2007.
THE BUCINTORO AT THE MOLO, VENICE, ON ASCENSION DAY
Oil on canvas
GIOVANNI ANTONIO CANAL, IL CANALETTO
59 7/8 x 54 1/8 in. (152.1 x 137.5 cm.)
W.G. Constable, Canaletto: Giovanni Antonio Canal 1697-1768, Oxford, 1962 (and subsequent editions revised by J. G. Links), I, pl. 65; II, no. 343.
L. Puppi, L'opera completa del Canaletto, Milan, 1968, p. 112, no. 256, illustrated.
A. Corboz, Canaletto: Una Venezia immaginaria, Milan, 1985, I, p. 106, fig. 110 (detail); II, p. 664, no. P 364, illustrated.
Probably commissioned by the Hon. Thomas King, later 5th Baron King (1712-1779), and by descent at Ockham Park, Surrey, through his great grandson,
William, 8th Lord King and 1st Earl of Lovelace (1805-1893) to the latter's grandson,
Peter, 4th Earl of Lovelace (1905-1964) by whom moved to Whitwell Hatch, Haslemere (by 1926); Sotheby's, London, 13 July 1937, lot 135 (£2,100 to Spalding).
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's London, 12 December 1973, lot 9.