Cities prosper and cities decline. Sometimes they rise, at other times they sink. Prior to Napoleon’s invasion in 1797, Venice had long established an economically minded Republican government that encouraged business, art and culture. The Venetians installed their first Doge as the leader of their young autonomous state in 697. At its height the Republic of Venice, known as the Seranissima or ‘the most serene’, divided its power amongst members of the Inner Circle which included the Doge, six Ducal Councilors, and three Inquisitors who were responsible for law and order. After all, the city also produced one of the great ruffians in European history.
It was here that Giacomo Casanova was born, arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment in the east wing of the Doge’s Palace from where he managed to escape and flee to Paris. Wealth in Venice was amassed primarily from local industry, maritime trade and banking. Main industries included textiles and agriculture. Shipbuilding provided commercial vessels and a naval fleet that controlled the seaways. Venice rapidly became a centre for art and printing. From Titian to Tintoretto, the city was home to renowned Renaissance painters and laid claim to the celebrated architects Jacobo Sansovino and Andrea Palladio. Aldus Manutius was the founder of a veritable dynasty of great printer-publishers, and organizer of the famous Aldine Press producing the first printed editions of many of the Greek and Latin classics. Roughly fourteen to fifteen percent of all printing of the fifteenth century came from this city alone. Venice ruled the world. The city was visited by dignitaries and art lovers from far and wide, frequented by young gentlemen making their Grand Tour, its monuments painted by the great masters, and its splendour praised by the European literary elite.
The Riva degli Schiavoni is a promenade that sits on the waterfront at St Mark’s Basin between the Doge’s Palace and the Arsenale. It was originally built in the ninth century from dredged silt and was named for the Slavic men who brought cargo to Venice from across the Adriatic Sea. The market stalls that crowd the area probably had their start in the fifteenth century, when Slavs and Greeks would line the promenade to sell their meat and dried fish near the wharf.
Situated along the Riva degli Schiavoni is the Church of Santa Maria della Visitazione, known to locals as La Pietà. It was the home church of Antonio Vivaldi, who composed and performed some of his best works here. A walk along the Riva degli Schiavoni provides views of the island of San Giorgio Maggiore, located to the south, strewn with Palladian architecture that dominates the skyline.
The Canal family, whose Venice lineage is traceable from the mid-sixteenth century, were ‘cittadini originari’, a class immediately below the patrician. Its most famous son was Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. His first dated work is a large ‘Capriccio of Classical Ruins and a Pyramid’ (1723), which already surpasses anything in this genre produced by his contemporaries.
It shows an imaginary landscape (capriccio means ‘fancy’) with arched Roman ruins supported by Corinthian columns, through which a church with a campanile can be seen while small figures are digging around. Futher back a pyramid and Roman statue are depicted. From the start architecture and architectural elements played a dominant part in his paintings. Just like his predecessor Luca Carlevarijs, the first of the great Venetian view painters, Canaletto realized that the demand for views of Venice among foreign visitors to the city offered a great commercial potential. Throughout his career, however, in creating his urban panoramas he took the liberty of including distortions in order to ‘improve’ reality for pictorial effect. He also developed the additional skill of depicting ceremonial events and festivals. From the late 1720s to the early 1750s Canaletto’s fortunes were bound up with the figure of Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice. The latter was one of the foremost collectors in the city who, over three decades, acquired fifty paintings by the artist, which he housed in his palace on the Grand Canal. They were eventually sold en bloc to George III in 1762, along with 142 of the artist’s superb drawings. By 1730, Smith was acting as an agent in the sale of Canaletto’s work to English collectors which resulted in a constant flow of commissions throughout the decade which marks the peak of Canaletto’s career.
His masterpiece, however, ‘The Riva degli Schiavoni’ was painted for retired German diplomat Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg, a resident in Venice. With the constant demand for Canaletto’s work came a need to delegate various tasks to assistants. One of those, in the late 1730s and early 1740s, was his nephew Bernardo Bellotto, the only artist to rival him as the greatest Italian view painter of the eighteenth century. The outbreak of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1741 restricted travel to Venice. As a consequence, the number of commissions for paintings of Venetian views diminished. In May 1746 Canaletto moved to London. There he was to remain for ten years as a resident at no. 16 Silver Street (now: Beak Street). Although his English paintings vary in quality, he soon found himself as busy as he had been in the 1730s.
Canaletto’s nephew Bernardo Bellotto was famous for his views of European cities such as Vienna, Turin, and Warsaw. From 1747 to 1758 he stayed in Dresden, following an invitation from King August III of Poland where he created paintings of the city and its surroundings. His paintings of Dresden show the overall picture of the city, the Zwinger, the principal squares and the two most important churches, the Kreuzkirche and the Frauenkirche. Today these paintings preserve a memory of Dresden’s former urban beauty which was devastated by relentless bombing towards the end of World War II.
Francesco Guardi was, after Canaletto, the main painter of views of Venice in the eighteenthth century. He recorded both the architecture of the city and the celebrations of its inhabitants in interior and exterior scenes. Guardi soon developed his own style, taking pleasure in rendering the vibrant Venetian atmosphere. His ‘impressionistic’ approach also found expression in small-scale imaginary scenes or capricci of which he was particularly fond. However, during the early 1760s Guardi turned from painting capricci or vedute ideate to producing vedute dai luoghi or vedute estate. What caused this change in focus? It was a classic case of creative rivalry. By the middle of the century the great Venetian masters had either died or left the city in pursuit of their fortune. Marieschi (one of Francesco’s teachers) had died at the beginning of 1744, Canaletto had been in England since 1746, and Bellotto had moved to Dresden in 1747.
Francesco may have sensed instinctively that he no longer had to suffer the presence of great rivals, and that this popular Venetian subject-matter was there for him to continue and develop. In fact, he took the genre a step further. The criteria for producing a veduta esatta were entirely different from those applying to a capriccio, the very name of which carried a licence for imaginative treatment. His eventual success in merging the two genres and introducing an admixture of ‘capricious’ freedom into the depiction of specific localities was one of his great achievements and would have an impact on the future development of the cityscape.
Venice’s days of glory did not last. In February 1789, Paolo Renier died and was succeeded by Lodovico Manin as Doge of Venice (number 118 in the sequence), the last person to hold this powerful office. A weak figure in a time of decline, the latter was unable to resist the threat of a French occupation and was forced to abdicate by Napoleon Bonaparte. The presence of the French lasted but a few months. The signing of the Treaty of Campo Formio on 17 October 1797 transferred Venice into Austrian hands. In the short time available to him, Napoleon – the Godfather of Art Robbery – confiscated many of the city’s art treasures from panel pieces by Veronese inside the Doge’s Palace to the infamous four bronze horses from antiquity that had crowned the Basilica of St Mark’s since the thirteenth century. By disassembling her remaining naval fleet, Napoleon left Venice in a defenseless position. In 1815 the Congress of Vienna decreed Venice to Austrian control, where she would remain until unification with the rest of the Italian peninsula. When Mark Twain visited Venice in 1867, he wrote about a city that once was ‘haughty, invincible, magnificent’, but had fallen into destitution. Her glory departed, she slumbered among her stagnant lagoons, forlorn and forgotten by the world. Venice’s former reputation had quickly dissolved.
Early photography preserved images of the old inner cities of Paris or Glasgow before many of those areas were flattened and modernized. In Venice’s more recent history photography has played a different role. It offered the city an opportunity to transform itself and regain some of her former attraction. Venice of course had a tradition of using cameras and lenses as tools for artistic production. Vedute painters such as Canaletto and Guardi used a camera obscura which allowed them to create ‘photographic drawings’ in assistance to their paintings. On 7 January 1839 Louis Daguerre introduced his daguerreotype in Paris. As the first machine-produced image that was comparable to functioning of the human eye this was a transformative moment for the arts. Its success was phenomenal.
The first known daguerreotype taken in Venice was by the English philologist and mathematician Alexander John Ellis in 1841. At the age of twenty-six, Ellis decided to undertake an ambitious publishing project entitled Italy Daguerreotyped, for which he took a large quantity of landscapes and architectural views. His choice of subjects traded on associations with the Grand Tour and the Enlightenment concern with classical civilisation. The focus of the Ellis collection is on topographical views in the tradition of vedute, a repertoire of locations well-known from previous illustrations. Ellis undertook the project with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. As well as Rome, he visited Pompeii, Pozzuoli, Paestum, Naples, Pisa, Florence and Venice (where he made sixteen daguerreotypes) between April and July 1841. Dur¬ing this period he took 137 daguerreotypes but the book itself was never produced most likely because of the cost involved.
The most famous collector and user of the daguerreotype in Venice was John Ruskin. His extensive study on Venetian art and architecture eventually led to the writing of The Stones of Venice. British interest in photographing Venice remained vibrant throughout the century. James Craig Annan was the son of the early documentary photographer Thomas Annan (who published his Photographs of the Old Closes and Streets of Glasgow in 1878). He apprenticed in his father’s photographic printing business. The firm specialized in the carbon process, and after James learned photogravure directly from its Czech inventor Karel Klic in 1883, the firm became expert in that process as well. When his father died in 1887, Annan continued to run the family business. By about 1890 he began to follow his own creative interests in the medium which was particularly drawn to photography’s ability to render mood and atmosphere.
His 1894 ‘Riva Schiavoni’ is an excellent example of his work. The dynamic disintegration of form verging on the abstract is reminiscent of the paintings of James MacNeill Whistler – one of Annan’s favourite artists. In the meantime, local exponents of photography in Venice had established their studios on the Riva degle Schiavoni and the Piazza San Marco. Carlo Ponti was the first to open a commercial business in Venice. Competition came from Carlo Naya, the most famous architectural photographer of the city. After the invention of the camera it was feared by artists that photography would push painting aside. It was interpreted as a ‘battle’ for supremacy. However, when it came to photographing imposing buildings such as the Doge’s Palace in Venice, compositional elements and formal devices were borrowed from traditional vedute painters. Facades for example were depicted at angles rather than from a frontal vantage point, therefore heightening the building’s monumentality. Many photographers included groups of figures to emphasize scale.
Photography contributed to a renewed interest in the visual splendour of Venice. The intellectual passion for this and other Italian cities had a different cause. What Thomas Carlyle called the ‘Age of Machinery’ (1829) – later termed the ‘Industrial Revolution’ – had fundamentally changed the pace and purpose of European life. In a relatively short time, the social pattern of behaviour shown by countless generations went up in smoke. By the 1850s trains moved a mile a minute, gaslights illuminated the shops and streets, newspapers were printed on fast-production rotary presses spreading international news and local gossip. Soon after anaesthesia was employed in operating rooms, while epidemic diseases were controlled by inoculation. By the middle of the century, the industrial processes of coal mining, iron manufacturing and steam application had reached most of Western Europe. The continent was covered with railways which in turn increased iron production and encouraged further industrialization. Europe became the workshop of the world. Practical invention and mass production were key to commercial success. They were set in the new social environment of the factory that employed thousands of workers performing specialized mechanical functions. Social critics held industrialism responsible for the perceived degradation and joylessness of life. The machine was considered a curse and a tyrant.
In 1848, as revolutions swept continental Europe and a movement for social reform known as Chartism unsettled England, in a time of industrialism and urbanization, of newspapers and expanding means of communication, seven rebellious young artists formed a secret society which they named the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Disenchanted with contemporary academic painting, the Brotherhood were inspired by late medieval and early Renaissance art up to the time of Raphael. This art was characterized by minute description of detail and by subject matter of a noble, religious or moralizing nature. Late medieval ideals in mid-nineteenth century England – this is historicity at it most absurd, a total retreat into the past. To many artists and intellectuals of the nineteenth century the Middle Ages offered an asylum in which to hide from the rapidly and relentlessly changing present. Another symptom of European intellectual flight from the here and now during the late 1900s and early twentieth century was the cult of the Renaissance. The veneration of this period, and of Italy’ past in particular, by such thinkers as Gobineau, Nietzsche, Taine, Jacob Burckhardt, John Addington Symonds and others – a phenomenon for which Franz Ferdinand Baumgarten in 1917 coined the ugly word ‘Renaissancismus’ – was associated with an intense contempt for the present. While being swept headlong into an uncertain future, men sought escape and counterbalance in the past. Venice, Florence, Rome or Naples offered intervals of respite and relief.
The railway was a product of the first industrial revolution which was built on iron, coal and steam. It was the iconic technology of the Victorian age. Modernity was a steam engine, modern man a railway buff. The Victorians identified economic expansion and social progress with achievements in engineering. The railway was a penetrating expression of the triumph of technology. Mobility was used as an effective term for describing social relationships as well as geographical ones. By train and steamboat a massive voluntary migration took place, with millions of Europeans moving from countryside to city, or from country to country, either for work or pleasure. One of the consequences was that the tourist industry became increasingly democratized. Technological innovation allowed for cheaper and faster travel. In 1839, a first segment of Italian railroad was laid stretching the short distance from Naples to Portici. Seven years later the railway had reached Venice with the construction of the bridge that connects the island to the mainland. The paradox is that the critics of mechanization in Northern Europe escaped to the South by means of train or steamboat, the iconic symbols of industrial endeavour.
The studios and photographers of Venice adhered to the demands of a growing tourist industry. Their city views were the modern version of the vedute that an earlier generation of painters had flocked to visitors. Advances in the photographic process provided a golden opportunity for renewed commercial success. Venice started to prosper again. Artists and authors joined the ever increasing number of tourists. Charles Dickens visited Venice in 1844 and published his Pictures of Italy. Novelists continued to write about the allure of the city during the second half of the century, notably Henry James in his Italian Hours and Mark Twain in Innocence Abroad. But Venice was above all a city for pencil and brush. Turner made several trips from 1819 to 1840, capturing the sublimity of the Venetian light.
James Abbott McNeill Whistler worked in Venice and Maurice Prendergast created numerous watercolour paintings in which he has left us a sense of the staggering influx of tourists into the city’s squares and promenades. Born in Florence in 1856 of American parents, John Singer Sargent was a popular and sought-after society painter. But he led a double life. Throughout the years he was paid for producing portraits, he painted hundreds of landscapes and views that were not intended for public view. In Venice he found both a spiritual home and a challenge to his creative powers. Sargent first painted the city in the early 1880s. In this, his ‘first period’, the artist concentrated on street scenes and interiors, depicting Venetians going about their daily business. Between 1898 and 1913, his ‘second period’, he visited the city almost every year. Artistically, his focus shifted to canal and architectural views. The artist had laboured hard at acquiring the delicate skill of depicting water by making extensive use of watercolour and applying techniques he had learned from the Impressionists. His ‘Riva degli Schiavoni’, dating from around 1904, is an excellent example of his later work. The influx of many foreign artists reawakened the traditional Venetian awareness of the commercial value of art .When the Venice Biennale was founded in 1895 one of its main goals was to establish a new market for contemporary art. Producing art and making money does not necessarily exclude one another. There is capital in culture.