Though Canaletto’s drawings and paintings are often very accurate renderings of specific locations – frequently, one would assume, at the request of one of the artist’s illustrious noble patrons – images like these of actual historical events are relatively rare in his work. Yet he clearly relished the opportunities offered by the subjects of this series of depictions of ceremonies and pageants, such a fundamental element in the Venetian spirit, and the compositions that he produced for this series are among his most original and inventive. In this work, the third in the series, we see the Doge being crowned at the top of the Scala dei Giganti, the grand, ceremonial staircase that forms the focus of the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace. Or rather, we see what is clearly a hugely important ceremony going on, and somewhere in the middle of it we know the Doge, and this important moment, are to be found. Yet in fact, it is not the Doge himself and his coronation that is the subject here, it is Venice, her life and her people. As Peter Kerber so aptly wrote in the catalogue of the recently opened Getty Museum exhibition on depictions of historical moments in the 18th century, ‘The Doge is but a tiny figure…: the true protagonist of this and the other depictions in the series is the Serene Republic, embodied by its rituals and traditions.’3
Drawing, perhaps, on what he had learned early in life from his theatrical scene-designer father, Canaletto has here conceived and constructed his composition so as to maximise in every possible way the impact and drama of his scene. Both in scale and in compositional complexity, this is one of the most ambitious of all the artist’s drawings. Although the imposing façade of the building that forms the background of the entire sheet could potentially have made the composition seem flat, Canaletto has used every imaginable device to counteract this: the great staircase, flanked at the top by Sansovino’s giant statues of Mars and Neptune from which it gets its name, Scala dei Giganti, is set subtly off centre and at a slight angle, to highlight the recession; the depth of the scene is further emphasised by the dramatic shadows cast by the wing of the building to the left; the façade itself is broken up by a remarkable array of windows and shutters, open and closed, on various levels, and by a plethora of other architectural details; and, perhaps most importantly of all, the whole scene is populated with a massive crowd of onlookers, brilliantly rendered with minimalist penstrokes and vibrant highlights, whose motion the artist has hardly managed to arrest. You can almost hear the hubbub of excited conversation. On the roof of the building to the left, figures crane perilously forward to catch a glimpse of the action while below in the courtyard the guards, their rifles and hats emphasised with deft touches of darker ink wash, resolutely try to hold back the throng. Everything in this wonderfully rich image speaks of an essentially Venetian wit and lightness of being, from the brilliance of the architecture and the lighting to the animation of the endlessly varied, and mostly masked figures, who seem about to step onto the stage for a popular theatre production (perhaps together with the actors portrayed in Canaletto’s sheet of figures studies, which is lot 48 below).
The exact origin and chronology of this joy-filled series of drawings is unclear, but they surely originate from a major commission, seemingly the last such instruction that Canaletto received. The compositions exist in the form of drawings by Canaletto, prints by Giovanni Battista Brustoloni which credit the designs to Canaletto (fig. 1), and paintings by Guardi, as well as through various other painted and drawn copies. This has given rise, over the years, to much discussion of which set of images came first, and whether there were originally also paintings of these subjects by Canaletto, but the consensus is now that the initial commission was for Canaletto to produce drawings that would then be engraved by Brustoloni, and that subsequently, probably around 1775, Guardi was asked to make a series of paintings, now in the collections of the Louvre, based on these prints.4 Eight of the prints were announced for sale (though not yet actually printed) by the publisher, Lodovico Furlanetto, in March 1766, and four months later, in July, he obtained permission to extend the series to twelve plates.5 There is no way of knowing exactly how much earlier than this the drawings were made, but one of them, The Doge attends the Giovedi Grasso Festival in the Piazzetta, now in Washington6, includes the arms of the Doge Alvise Mocenigo IV, who was elected in 1763, so it seems reasonable to assume that the drawings were all made some time between then and 1766, and in the case of those compositions that show events specific to the election of the Doge, rather than annual festivities, that they were based on Canaletto’s first hand observation of the festivities following the election of 1763.
Though the full series of the Feste Ducali prints consists of twelve compositions, drawings by Canaletto are only known for ten of them. These ten sheets were discovered in a bookseller’s in Venice (very probably the premises of the publisher Furlanetto himself), by Sir Richard Colt Hoare sometime between 1787 and 1789, when the dealer Giovanni Maria Sasso described them to Sir Abraham Hume, noting that they were as fine as any paintings.7 Hoare proudly took the ten drawings back to Stourhead, in Wiltshire, where for the next century or so they were apparently hung, as a set, over a fireplace in the library. (If this is indeed true, the library must have been kept very dark, as the drawings remain even today in outstandingly good, fresh condition.) In 1883, much of the contents of Stourhead were dispersed at auction, and the Canalettos were included in that sale, but this drawing and one other8 were bought back by a family member, thereby remaining in the hands of the Hoare family until sold to the present owner a few years ago. The drawing has therefore only changed hands three times since its creation and has not been seen on the auction market since 1883.
Although the series of drawings to which this work belongs was executed very late in Canaletto’s career (no dated work is known from after 17669, and he died only two years later), they are none the less all full of the vibrant, optimistic energy of the artist’s drawings from much earlier periods, yet given an added resonance by the historical subject-matter that ostensibly provides the focus for each scene. As already mentioned, although Canaletto did occasionally depict real historical events, as in the splendid painting of around 1735, The Doge Visiting the Church and Scuola di San Rocco, in the National Gallery, London10, the vast majority of his paintings and drawings, even the most specifically topographical, are not linked to any particular moment. Indeed, the narrative content in this series of the festivals of the Doges is unparalleled in any other project undertaken by the artist, but the application of his extraordinary pictorial skills to this somewhat unfamiliar type of composition simply serves to add yet more layers of potential excitement and satisfaction for the viewer. All the visual riches of more typical masterpieces such as the Capriccio: Terrace and Loggia of a Palace on the Lagoon, in the Royal Collection (currently starring in the canaletto exhibition at the Queen's Gallery, London11) are also abundantly present in the drawing now under discussion, but here they are interacting in a wonderful way with another, entirely different, realm of content and expression.
It is hard to imagine a more total expression of the essence of Canaletto’s genius as a draughtsman than this extraordinary drawing, which – both literally and figuratively – transports us to the very heart of 18th-century Venice, in all its glory, wit and mystery. That it was loved and cherished for so long by one of the greatest families of English cognoscenti is the final piece in the jigsaw of elements that together make this by far the most important drawing by Canaletto to have come to the market in recent decades, and one of the most illuminating and enlightening, as well as one of the most visually exciting and satisfying, that he ever made.
1. Constable/Links, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 525-32, nos. 630-639
2. Constable/Links nos. 636 & 637; sale, London, Sotheby's, 11 December 1974, lots 10 & 11
3. Eyewitness Views. Making History in Eighteenth-Century Europe, exh. cat., Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum/Minneapolis Institute of Art/Cleveland Museum of Art, 2017-18, p. 15
4. The twelve paintings by Guardi are all in the collections of the Louvre, but three of them are on deposit in museums elsewhere (in Brussels, Grenoble and Nantes).
5. Constable/Links, op. cit., pp. 525-6, citing earlier sources
6. Constable/Links no. 636
7. Constable/Links, op. cit., p. 527
8. Constable/Links no. 630
9. The latest known dated drawing is a view of the interior of St. Mark's, Venice, now in the Hamburg Kunsthalle; Constable/Links no. 558
10. Inv. no. NG937
11. Constable/Links no. 821; Rosie Razzall and Lucy Whitaker, Canaletto & the Art of Venice, exh. cat., London, The Queen's Gallery, 2017, no. 138
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