All that glitters.

Eighteenth-century Venetian art.

By Henk van Os

Money, and lots of it – and then you're as important as only monarchs and ministers were in bygone days. There's a lot of 'new' money around today, and those who have it want to show it off. All you have to do is ask the architects of luxurious villas, or the designer of unimaginably expensive cars and yachts. In an age like ours, flaunting its nouveaux riches, there's a very strong tendency to believe that art, too, depends entirely on money. The more people with money, the more patrons and the more customers for expensive articles like works of art. And the greater the competition, the higher the standards. It's something quite new in Art History to see how it's simply taken for granted that wealth will gild itself with art. Where there is great art, there must be great prosperity. Those who can give expensive commissions have become almost as important as the artists themselves. This is something both Marxists and capitalists agree upon.

But it's not so simple. The great Dutch historian, Johan Huizinga (1872-1945) repeatedly pointed out that the most beautiful art was also made in cultures that were toppling into the grave. After all, the most magnificent blossoms bloom on dunghills. Politically impoverished, economically collapsed, bereft of power, declining on all sides – and despite all this, or perhaps precisely at such a moment, just look how vibrantly and spectacularly artists will disguise the fact that all is coming to a close. This is the fascination of 18th-century Venetian art. During the 17th century, when Venice still played an active part on the European stage, there was scarcely any art worth mentioning being produced in the city of Saint Mark. The most important painters, Johann Liss and Carl Loth, were imported from the north. Then at the beginning of the 18th century, suddenly Sebastiano Ricci appears and breathes new life into the history-painting genre of the 16th-century artist Paolo Veronese. There follow Giovanni Antonio Pelligrini and Giambattista Piazzetta and a whole quiverfull of talented artists producing altarpieces or biblical and mythological scenes. The greatest of these is Giambattista Tiepolo, who could turn a palace into a heavenly dwelling with his wondrous frescoes, and whose church altarpieces inspired divine visions. As well as painters of history pieces there were painters of cityscapes, such as Antonio Canaletto and Francesco Guardi. In the background, churches and palaces resounded with newly-composed music by sons of Venice – such as Tommaso Albinoni, Gabriele Marcello and Antonio Vivaldi. Venice revived – thanks to its painters and musicians, and the arts flourished profusely s.

We can suggest various reasons why at that particular moment the climate in the watery city was so favourable for a cultural revival. Two are of special importance for the visual arts. First, Venice was the earliest European city to externalize itself as a tourist centre. For this, we may thank the development of pictures representing the Venetian cityscape. In the 18th century it was impossible for a young man of rank to make the Grand Tour unless, on his return home, he could recount his adventures in St Mark's Square.

Visiting Venice was a must. It was also requisite to bear back, tucked among your treasures, a painting or print showing a view of the remarkable city on the lagoon, made by one of the so-called vedute artists such as Canaletto.

The history of the Venetian cityscape (or vedute) is an excellent example of the phenomenon that cultural sociologists like to term gesunkenes Kulturgut . The earliest example is by Luca Carlevarijs . . He would paint particular occasions, such as the arrival and reception of an important ambassador or a royal visitor. What could be more attractive than when Carlevarijs immortalized the colourful event for the eminent visitor, setting it against a spectacular Venetian backdrop. Carlevarijs only painted for an elite, and each work was a one-off. In the main, his paintings are souvenirs for elegant gentlemen, made as memory-joggers and also to impress friends with their stories.

Antonio Canaletto was discovered in 1725 by two Englishmen in Venice, one being the gentleman-art dealer Owen McSwiney, the other a merchant, Joseph Smith. The art dealer invited him to come to England where he would find plenty of employment painting the interiors of country houses with imaginary landscapes. This was being done by artists all over Europe – they were engaged in producing ultra-expensive wallpaper. But Smith had a different idea. He asked Canaletto to paint views of Venice. During the 1730s the painter had a resounding success with these cityscapes. Most of the buyers were wealthy tourists. Canaletto was in such demand that a large studio was created where cityscapes, large and small, were produced by the dozen. After all, a city that externalizes itself and becomes dependent on the 'oohs' and 'aahs' of tourists needs to have a lot of picture postcards made. That was Canaletto's job.

Within no time at all, Canaletto's studio became part of the tourist industry – thanks to Joseph Smith. It's almost as if Smith had taken to heart some words from a novel by the Dutch writer Simon Vestdijk (1898-1971) [from De leeuw en zijn huid (The lion and his skin)]: 'Drive the impoverished Venetians and the wealthy English together and then stand in between.' Smith published a book of prints of Canaletto's cityscapes and this undoubtedly boosted sales. If you couldn't afford a painting, you could always buy a print showing one of his city views s. 00, . In around 1740 wars were being fought in various places throughout Europe, which impeded travel. The Venetian tourist industry suffered and Canaletto's paintings lost their allure; the studio grew shabby and in 1766 the artist set off for England where he would paint interiors on his clients' country estates.

The most gifted artist working with Canaletto was his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto. Like his uncle, he left Venice to seek his fortune elsewhere. Between 1744 and 1745 he stayed in Turin where he painted on commission for Charles Emmanuel III, king of Sardinia and duke of Savoy. From 1747 to 1758 he worked in Dresden for August III, king of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Magnificent cityscapes arose beneath his brush. Meticulously detailed but without pedantic particulars. His pictures emanate a wondrous sense of rest, partly because all he painted has a kind of unity – which it gains from his unique use of light .. His love of travel was greatly curbed by the war situation in Europe; thus in 1758 he left Dresden. When he returned towards the end of that particular war, the city was in ruins. In an impressive painting done in 1765 he has recorded those ruins. Unfortunately, there were no patrons left in Dresden; so in 1758 he set off for Vienna where he worked for the empress Maria Theresa, and then from 1767 until his death in 1780, for King August Poniatovski Stanislav II in Warsaw.

When the war situation stymied the sale of pictures to foreign buyers, Bernardo's uncle – before leaving for England – created a number of fascinating fantasies representing the lagoon and elements of the city; these paintings were termed 'capriccios'. Two of these can be seen today in the Hermitage s.00, . We assume that these painted improvisations were intended for the Venetians themselves, who were more interested in the playful ingenuity of their city painter than in his realistic representation. The capriccio, with all its light-hearted elements, belongs to a city that relishes concealment, that survives on the gloss and glamour of the outward. No one could depict more subtly his city's caprices than Francesco Guardi. His Venice dissolves into a delicate grey, lightened here and there with bright stabs of colour.

Guardi was the painter for the Venetians themselves. This also explains why he was only discovered outside Venice to be a great painter when, about a century and a half later, Impressionism introduced a new awareness of atmospheric painting. For Guardi, everything must have been light-hearted, nothing heavy or serious. He was anything but a toiling artist. It's as if all he did was effortless. Take, for instance, a sketch he made for an altarpiece, actually no more than a brilliant suggestion. The scene emerges through strong movements of the pencil. What Guardi demonstrates here is termed sprezzatura: one might call it the technique of free brushstroke, effortless virtuosity, associated for many with a particular lifestyle.

There are also capriccios which are very different from those of Canaletto and Guardi. Some are architectural fragments, which artists construct into weather-beaten murky mazes. Giambattista Piranesi was working as an artist in Rome at the time; his pictures, more than anyone else's, illustrate this architectural juggling, making shivering enchantments with shadowy shapes for those who wished to nourish their dark imaginings. Also working in Venice was Giuseppe Bernardino Bisson. With great ingenuity he brought buildings out of a distant past, combining them in a romantic, suggestive world s. 00, . At that time archaeology was all the rage and as so often with a new discipline, the interest in it was fed by a longing to discover miraculous worlds, to be seen here in the enchantment of a tiny gleam of light in an immense darkness.

Venetian vedute painters left for other countries when their own city ceased to offer sufficient employment. But not only the painters of cityscapes packed their bags. History painters too, fanned out across Europe and with them the architects, the plasterers and other skilled decorators. This is the second reason for the great flight of 18th-century Venetian art. When the foreigners stopped coming to Venice, her artists went in search of the foreigners. Thus Venice became the first city to produce a truly European art. Venetians were to be found in St Petersburg, decorating splendid palaces for Catharine the Great. Indeed, the architect of the Hermitage, Carlo Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, made no bones about how much he had learned in Venice. It's no exaggeration to claim that Catherine and her court developed a Venetian taste.

The Venetian Francesco Casanova, brother of the more famous seducer Giacomo, was one of Catharine's favourite painters. His work has recently been brought to the public attention by Irina Artemieva, curator of Venetian Paintings at the Hermitage. One work by him in the collection there depicts a battle, very much in the style of Philips Wouwerman, but painted with a more powerful and vivid brushstroke. It is an eloquent reminder of the fact that war was once one of the greatest sources of inspiration for art . Among the oldest possessions of this museum are a considerable number of 18th-century Venetian paintings. For instance, there is a design drawing by Bartolomeo Tarsia for a painting that has been lost, intended to decorate one of the ceilings in Peterhof . .

The greatest Venetian artist to find employment outside his city was Giambattista Tiepolos. German princes and Spanish kings regarded him as the artistic genius of the eighteenth century. What Joseph Smith was for Canaletto, that was Count Francesco Algarotti for Tiepolo. Smith lodged in Venice and negotiated with wealthy tourists to purchase paintings of the vedute by his protégé. Count Algarotti went travelling. He was the perfect courtier, an elegant conversationalist, a man of wit, ambition and flair. He managed to pull in the most sensational commissions for Tiepolo, to paint the decorations in royal palaces.

The Hermitage possesses a unique example of Algarotti's arbitrations. The representation was an idea of Algarotti's, intended to ingratiate his painter with Count Heinrich Brühl, the powerful minister of August III. At the left of the painting, beside the enthroned emperor, is the figure of Maecenas, wealthy patron of the arts, presenting the personifications of the Fine Arts to the emperor Augustus in Rome. First comes Painting, with brush and palette. She also has a mask as attribute, which can be seen lying on one of the steps leading up to the throne. Behind her comes Sculpture, bearing a marble bust, followed by Architecture, with a pair of compasses. Then follows Music with a trumpet, leading the blind Homer, who represents Poetry. The throne on which Augustus sits is flanked by images of Minerva and Apollo. Workmen can be seen in the background, busy completing an immense loggia. Through the archway on the left is a view of the palace of Count Brühl.

The message of this painting is patent. Furthermore, Algarotti wrote a letter clarifying his intentions: 'Brühl, you are a perfect Maecenas and your counsels will turn the court of the New Augustus into a blossoming bed of culture. Dresden will become a new Rome.' What he also wished to imply was: 'But then I must be the architect and Tiepolo the artist.' But unfortunately, Algarotti's plans fizzled into nothing – although we do have to thank him for this magnificent painting as well as another work depicting Flora (now in the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco). In any case, he did at least manage to arouse an interest for Venetian history painters in the city of Dresden. And although not for August III, Tiepolo did leave a German palace with an example of one of the pinnacles of European painting. In the Residenz in Würzberg his wall painting adds allure to the monumental architecture, entirely as he had wanted. He has transformed an earthly house into a celestial dwelling place, conveying a dizzying illusion of airy life and light.

But as for psychological profundity – don't expect it from Tiepolo. He is, however, capable of orchestrating the most complicated scenario and forging it into a decorative unity as if this were child's play. The adjective 'decorative' is quite often used in Dutch with a negative connotation when speaking of a painting, in the sense, 'Oh, it's only a decorative picture'. But in the Venice of the 18th century unabashed decoration, painterly skill that creates joy for the eye, was one of the major artistic challenges facing any artist.

In the exhibition there is a design drawing for a painted ceiling, by Giuseppe Valeriano. This shows very clearly how ornamentation and figural composition is conceived as one decorative whole. There is also an oil sketch – known as a bozzetto – by Giambattista Tiepolo's son Giandomenico. Such sketches would often be shown to the commissioner of a work to convince him or her of the decorative quality of the composition .. This sketch is an example of brilliant illusionism. But Giambattista was a creative wizard. There is a small painting by him in the Hermitage which displays all his exceptional qualities. The painting shows the Annunciation. This scene – the meeting between the angel and the woman chosen to be God's mother – was reproduced countless times, an inspiration for many stimulating theological and psychological representations. Not so here. Giambattista's work concerns the dynamics of the angel appearing to Mary, whose attitude and gesture capture as it were the angel's movement. A cloud thickens into the angel's form, the woman emerges out of colours.

There was also a genre painter at work in 18th-century Venice. His name is Pietro Longhi. Whenever I see a painting by him, I am forced to recall what Michael Levey said of him in his book Painting in XVIII Century Venice. That work was a real eye-opener for me regarding the cultural-historical dimension of 18th-century Venetian painting. Indeed, it is one of the best studies about art that I know of. Levey compares Longhi's tableaux showing daily life with other genre paintings and observes that Longhi never really seems to take sides with his figures. True, something is happening in his pictures but no one appears particularly interested. It's just happening. Thus an alienating emptiness dominates his work. And this emptiness, according to Levey, is part of a culture in which it is dangerous to be really involved. Art produces a grandiose décor for a society on the verge of disintegration, with a corrupt government chiefly held together by the power of the secret police. Painting is not the only thing to wear a mask. But the quality of the décor is such that we can forget everything else; we abandon ourselves to bathe in visual ecstasy.

Venice managed to keep one great artist: Giambattista Piazzetta .His work is characterized by the meticulous silky softness of his modelé and colouring that suggests it has absorbed the light. Further, he could let his figures float upon the clouds and never lose themselves in a coloured mist. Tangibly present, his figures retain their plastic lines. His colouring too is deeper, with beautiful tones of black, grey and red. In a drawing of a woman's head, attributed to him, you see how close to the viewer he brings a face, partly by having it fill the page, and also with his meticulous shaping and shading. Looking at his work you feel a connection with the 17th-century Venetian painters and with a tradition that ultimately leads back to Caravaggio.

One of the works by Piazzetta in the exhibition is a drawing illustrating a scene from Ludovico Ariosto's work Orlando Furioso . . The drawing illustrates the masterly manner in which Piazzetta makes use of the white of the drawing paper. With his modelé he brings relief into that white and the figures gain a marvellous sensuality. Compare this with drawings by Tiepolo s. In these the white of the paper is also given a highly explicit significance by the virtuosic manner in which the figures are drawn by pen. But Tiepolo makes a kind of colour patchwork from the white. He is interested in the power of persuasion that a suggestion may have, while what Piazzetta wants to do is give life to the plastic reality of his figural compositions on paper. In certain German states there was considerable demand for Piazzetta. But he stayed in his native city and was appointed the first director of the Academy of Fine Arts there. But in the end, he paid the price for becoming a fixture. No more commissions arrived. He died in poverty in 1754. His successor as academy director was Tiepolo, now a famous artist in whose idiom a whole generation of history painters went to work. Towards the end of his life as a painter, Tiepolo achieved a powerful dramatic atmosphere in his religious works. He died in Spain in 1770.

Henk van Os, Saint Petersburg, 10 June 2004 (translated from the Dutch by Wendie Shaffer)

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