By the 18th century, Italy had become a popular tourist destination for wealthy Europeans and Americans, a must see for those looking to expand their knowledge, culture and education. Because there was so much to be seen, foreigners would often end up spending years there, moving from city to city while following an established itinerary. This educational voyage was known as the Grand Tour.
Many tourists, especially the British, would then return home with scenic views of Venice (vedute) painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. For the longest time, it had been believed that Canaletto’s meticulous rendering of architecture and his high volume of work were proof that he was using a camera obscura, a darkened chamber that projected an inverted image of the subject which the artist could then trace. Recently, this myth was debunked with the help of infrared technology and now we can appreciate his vedute and skill with fresh eyes.
It’s no wonder that the Italian returned time and time again to paint Piazza San Marco, Venice’s main square and a timeless, magnetic attraction for tourists, with its Saint Mark’s Basilica providing a striking backdrop. Although his attention to detail was exquisite, Canaletto often took some small liberties by altering the panorama to better fit his composition, in this case increasing the size of the flagstaffs and reducing the number of windows in the bell tower.
What’s most captivating about this painting is the fact that the Italian artist masterfully blends in the sense of permanence and stability induced by history and architecture with the mundane of everyday life. Once you zoom in, you will get a glimpse of the noblemen and magistrates of Venice walking among merchants, stray dogs and beggars (mostly small children), with women poking their heads out of the windows of the Procuratie Vecchie, the building to the left. The scene conveys the breadth of 18th century Venice life.