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Canaletto began his career as a theatrical scene painter, like his father, in the Baroque tradition. Influenced by Giovanni Panini, he is specialised in vedute (views) of Venice, his birth place. Strong contrast between light and shadow is typical of this artist. Furthermore, if some of those views are purely topographical, others include festivals or ceremonial subjects. He also published, thanks to John Smith, his agent, a series of etchings of Cappricci. His main purchasers were British aristocracy because his views reminded them of their Grand Tour. In his paintings geometrical perspective and colours are structuring. Canaletto spent ten years in England. John Smith sold Canaletto’s works to George III, creating the major part of the Royal Canaletto Collection. His greatest works influenced landscape painting in the nineteenth century.



Publié par
Date de parution 15 septembre 2015
Nombre de lectures 2
EAN13 9781783106981
Langue English
Poids de l'ouvrage 3 Mo

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Text: after Octave Uzanne
Translation: Barbara Cochran

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© Parkstone Press International, New York, USA
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ISBN: 978-1-78310-698-1
Octave Uzanne


Alfred de Musset (1810-1857)
Venice during the Eighteenth Century
Venetian Society
Il Carnavale
The Nobility
Theatrical Arts, Poetry and Painting
Canaletto: His Talent and Training
His Origins and Youth
His Beginnings and Rome
His Return to Venice
His Trips to London
Canaletto: Portraitist of the Serenissima
Canaletto as Painter and Engraver
The Subjects of his Paintings
His Talent as an Engraver
Canaletto’s Legacy
Bellotto, Nephew and Disciple
Colombini, Marieschi, Vinsentini, Guardi and Longhi
List of Illustrations
1. Venice: the Piazzetta towards San Giorgio Maggiore , c. 1724.
Oil on canvas, 173 x 134.3 cm .
The Royal Collection, London.

Alfred de Musset (1810-1857)


In Venice the Red,
No boat moves.
There is no fisher on the waters,
No lantern to be seen.

Alone, sitting on the strand,
On top of the serene horizon,
The great lion raises
Its bronze paw.

All around, in groups,
Are ships and rowboats.
Like herons
Resting in circles,

They sleep on top of smoky water
And cross,
With their flags, through the mist,
Caught up in light whirlwinds.

The fading moon
Hides its face that passes away
Against a starry,
Half-veiled cloud.

Then, the Saint Croix abbess
Pulls her cloak,
With the large folds,
Down over her surplice.
And then there are ancient palaces,
Solemn porticoes,
And the knight’s
White staircases,

The bridges and streets,
The mournful statues,
And the gulf moves,
Rippling under the wind.

All is quiet,
Save the guards with long halberds
Who watch
Through the arsenal’s crenellations.

Ah! More than one waits
In the moonlight.
Some young dandy
Keeps his ears open.

More than one who adorns herself
For the ball being prepared
Sets down a black mask
In front of the mirror.

On top of her bed, embalmed,
The rapturous Vanina
Is still embracing her lover,
As she drops off to sleep;

And mad Narcissa,
At the back of her gondola
Forgets herself
As she indulges in a feast that lasts till morning.

And who, in Italy,
Does not have a touch of madness?
Who does not save
Their most beautiful days for love?

Let’s leave behind the old clock
At the old doge’s palace,
As they count out the long-lasting boredom
Of his nights.

Instead, my beauty,
Let’s count all those many kisses,
Given…or forgiven
On your restive mouth.

Instead, let’s count your charms
And the sweet tears
That, in our eyes,
Sensuality has cost!
2. The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice , c. 1730.
Oil on canvas, 49.5 x 72.5 cm .
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
Venice during the Eighteenth Century

3. The Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge, Venice , c. 1730.
Oil on canvas, 49.5 x 72.5 cm .
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Venetian Society

The famous city of Venice holds a special kind of influence over enthusiasts who are passionate about eighteenth century art. Indeed, one is at a loss to imagine a more marvellous setting for such a sensual society, always ready to enjoy life, and not worried about tomorrow. What more dignified atmosphere could so assuredly attract poets and painters? What a theme for the writer whose pen is akin to the colourist’s brush and the goldsmith’s chisel? Seduced by the beauty of this tableau and the lively allure of its characters, Théophile Gautier thought long and hard about how to describe and put new life into the city of Doges with a narrative that would trace the local mores of this exuberant and frivolous population. This novel was often pondered in the master’s imagination, but was never written. However, we do find elements of the novel scattered throughout the memoirs of his contemporaries, and we find the same framework in the paintings of Canaletto. With equal interest, one can consult the memoirs of the most informed witnesses, such as Goldoni, Gozzi and Casanova, or, better yet, those by travellers with a trained eye and nimble tongue like Charles de Brosses and François Joachim de Pierre de Bernis.

In a light and at times teasing tone, the correspondence of de Brosses offered the most appealing portrait of Italy to eighteenth century society. Departing with several other gentlemen in the spring of 1739, Charles de Brosses, a spirited yet serious man, was determined to make these ten months serve both for pleasure and instruction. At the time, he was thirty years old and had been an adviser since the age of twenty-one. He was gifted with a mental acuity quite rare in young men, adding to his vast knowledge great perceptiveness and extremely sound judgement, to which his letters bear witness. Before occupying the office of principal magistrate, he found Venice so seductive that he thought about asking for the position of ambassador to the Venetian Republic. However, this observation post, located in southern Europe, being rather difficult to obtain, he revoked his candidature and the Abbot of Bernis filled the post fifteen years later.

A good judge of character, and rather difficult to please for this reason, Bernis, during his short mission, knew how to gain recognition for his style of governing, his personal aptitudes and his character. Thus, his memory lived on long after his departure. Having had several disputes with Venice, Pope Benedict XIV turned to him to mediate. Immediately receiving the approval of the opposing party, the future cardinal was able to settle the disagreement between Rome and Venice, satisfying both sides. No doubt, the success of his intervention contributed to his earning the red hat. The dispatches sent by Bernis during his ambassadorship were quite thorough and filled with very fine remarks written in excellent French, pleasing Louis XV. Judging his representative capable of more important services, the king called him back to France in 1757.
4. The Canale di Santa Chiara looking North towards the Lagoon , c. 1723-1724.
Oil on canvas, 46.7 x 77.9 cm .
The Royal Collection, London.

Before addressing Giovanni Antonio Canaletto’s life and his work, it behoves us to draw a portrait of his birthplace and contemporaries. This is particularly important because at that time, perhaps more than at any other, art, literature and entertainment shared a joint development. Could one truly understand the origin and progression of the master’s talent, his intellectual habits and work methods, without first understanding the society of which he was a member?

Taking an initial glance at Venice’s history, one cannot but be filled with wonder by the powerful energy and the expansive force of its people, enclosed as they are within such narrow limits. The city was thus stimulated by the most ardent patriotism; the prosperity and existence of each being inextricably linked to the interests of the city. Yet nothing is more modest than the origins of this small village of boatmen, nothing more desolate than the sands on which the first bands of fugitives settled. Nevertheless, nothing can match the heights reached by this Republic capable of launching a fleet of five hundred ships into the Bosporus, of navigating three thousand vessels together, and of developing, with the most diverse elements, an original artistic tradition. In this way, Venice assured its standing among the great kingdoms of Europe. With need for neither barriers nor fortifications, being well protected from warships by its shallow lagoons, the city could not be overtaken by outside forces. With a footing in the Middle East and Cyprus, the city continued its crusade along the Mediterranean coastline in Morea and on the island of Candia. Venetian soldiers never lagged in the war against the infidel. At Lepanto, for example, Venice furnished half of the Christian fleet.

Nevertheless, although the military spirit, which quickly died out in the neighbouring principalities, survived over a longer period in Venice, the city’s prestige started to diminish. Geographical discoveries brought a fatal blow to its commerce and the Portuguese soon inherited all the traffic headed for Asia. Politics, carried out by a jealous oligarchy that flattered the Epicurean tendencies of the people, finally got the better of the city’s bellicose behaviour and wish for power.

Of this government steeped in prestige, luxury and a terrible threat of torture, today we are familiar with its infernal police and secret dungeons, all the exterior workings that supplied the Romantic period with the subjects for so many plays and paintings. We know about the Council of Ten, whose masked judges met only at night, the room from which the accused departed only to disappear forever, and “the leads”, the prison under the Doges’ Palace from which Casanova managed to escape in an act of prodigious will. What hasn’t been said about the three state inquisitors and their irrevocable sentences, about the boat with the red lantern light that would stop under the Bridge of Sighs before floating past Giudecca towards the Orfano canal, where deep waters enshrouded their victims and their secrets, where fishermen were prohibited from casting their nets? A row of wooden stilts indicated the waters where the boat would stop. Still today, one of the posts supports, with a lamp lit by gondoliers, the tiny chapel that received the last prayer of these supplicants.

In the eighteenth century, a new political atmosphere was definitively set in place. Venice’s prestigious history was over and the careers of great artists and great patriots were forever ended. In vain did Francesco Morosini, [1] for his prowess in Morea and on Candia Island, earn the nickname “Peloponnesiac”. In vain did the old Marshal Schulembourg, who served twenty-eight years as General of the Republican Armies, merit the honour of an equestrian statue in Corfu Square. The lion of Saint Mark drew in its claws and the Queen of the Adriatic dozed off into a voluptuous nonchalance that only the bells of a masquerade could trouble. Moreover, the leaders kept up a system of perpetual amusement for the population. They thought this the most prudent method of guarding against intrigues, as this was the surest way to divert people’s minds from unsettling preoccupations. For Venetians, who were naturally drawn to lavishness and superficial appearances, and who were located somewhere between unlimited freedom, as far as pleasure was concerned, and an absolute prohibition against discussing the actions of those in power, constant celebrations and the most rowdy of pleasures became a necessity. In this Cytherean court, which had never produced a Watteau, there was an overabundance of gaiety and the decadence was, at least, as sweet and bright as an evening on the banks of the lagoons.
5. Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Molo, Venice , 1742-1744.
Oil on canvas, 114.5 x 153.5 cm .
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
6. The Grand Canal, from the Foscari Palace , c. 1735.
Oil on canvas, 57.2 x 92.7 cm .
Private Collection.
7. The Grand Canal: looking South-east from the Campo Santa Sophia to the Rialto Bridge , c. 1756.
Oil on canvas, 119 x 185 cm .
Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin.
8. The Grand Canal from the Fondamenta della Croce , c. 1734.
Pencil and dark ink, 26.9 x 37.6 cm .
The Royal Collection, London.

Il Carnavale

Over a period of six months, the carnival attracted throngs of close to thirty thousand foreigners to Venice. Its theme: down with serious matters, long live freedom and folly! Yokels and patricians alike seemed to be overtaken by the same vertiginous activities, consumed by parades of people dressed up as astrologers, doctors, lawyers and gondoliers. Among the clowns, who wore huge cone-shaped hats, the most nimble of the bunch advanced on their hands, others danced about while playing barrel organs and the whole group whirled about to the sound of lively music. The people, free to loudly express their condemnation or approval, followed each group with shouts, catcalls, applause and jeers. At Saint Mark’s Square, the major neighbourhood for masks, one wandered about without advancing through the dense crowd. The seven theatres reserved for the carnival proving to be inadequate for the festivities, harlequins performed their tomfoolery in the open air and comedic improvisers amused spectators with their buffoonery. At the smaller intersections, feats of strength and sleight of hand were organized. At the end of the carnival, there remained nothing but a few scattered passers-by appropriately armed with axes and cutlasses to defend themselves against the bulls that were led through the streets, fighting in certain places.

On Fat Thursday, the butchers’ festival, a bull was beheaded with a single blow of the sword, a barbaric amusement established to commemorate an old victory over the Patriarch of Aquileia. The latter, accompanied by twelve clergymen captured at the same time, was to be beheaded in Saint Mark’s Square, but, for some reason, this public execution did not take place, and twelve pigs and a bull were substituted for the condemned in order to appease the public. That same Thursday, the doge watched the Strengths of Hercules, [2] a game consisting of the construction of a human pyramid with a base of eight men locked arm in arm and capped with a child. In addition, an acrobat equipped with wings glided down a rope stretched between the top of the bell tower and the Doges’ Palace balcony. Taking this aerial route, he arrived in front of the doge, offered him compliments and flowers, and then showered poetry and sonnets upon the crowd, enjoyed even by the least literate. A war of fists was another gift of lively amusement for the spectators. In this bizarre jousting match, two sides advanced atop a narrow bridge with no parapet, namely the Saint Barnabas bridge, and each forced his way through, knocking his adversaries into the water. Seeing the fighters fall like grapes into the water, the spectators beat their hands together as wildly as possible.

The whole of Venice was consumed in this rejoicing, in the enthusiasm of the crowd, in this emulation of which paintings and engravings give us a rather sketchy idea, in the joyful stamping of feet and cheering for the conqueror, in the freedom reigning sovereign over the city, encouraged by the incognito mask that, for the moment, suppressed all decorum and social inequality! The mask was a constant custom in Venetian mores. A mask was required to enter the gaming rooms, or ridotti , densely crowded with men and women. It was not unusual to see costumed nobles walk into the Doges’ Palace, removing their domino in the Grand Council’s antechamber. No one considered it scandalous to run into masked visitors in convent reception rooms or at gala dinners where the doge would bestow purple robes on the magistrates. Once promised in marriage, a young noblewoman might conceal her features under a velvet hood, and no one would see her face uncovered except for her fiancé and those privileged people to whom this rare favour was accorded.
9. The Grand Canal in the Vicinity of Santa Maria della Carita , 1726.
Oil on canvas, 90 x 132 cm .
Private Collection.

Though these young women lived like prisoners inside palaces with barred windows, somewhat like Oriental women, occupying themselves with embroidery and making the marvellous lace on which Venice prided itself, they were suddenly emancipated through marriage and never again knew such crippling restraints on their freedom to be alluring. Those whose behaviour remained irreproachable drew from their devotion a self-restraint imposed neither by a family-oriented mindset nor the opinion of a libertine society. Since marriage was considered a formality importing little gravity, this forgetting of all duty led naturally to an abandonment of family life. They would spend the entire day out in the open air. Casinos served as a rendezvous point. There was something for the ladies, as well as for their husbands. Their children were like pretty dolls, dressed in rich outfits and prepared with good manners. As for the adolescents, they shocked travellers with the rowdiness that Venetians found amusing.

Discipline having lost its authority in schools, total capriciousness reigned in education. That of the writer Goldoni can serve as an example. In Rimini, bored with philosophical subtleties and passionate about ancient clowns and the theatre, he found a troupe of comedians made up almost entirely of his own countrymen. Under the pretext of going to Chioggia to kiss and greet his mother, he boarded their gondola and embarked on their journey. After that jaunt, having received a scholarship to a theological school in Pavia, he took up wearing the cloth with other worldly and stylish young abbots. But instead of applying himself to canon or civil law, he concentrated on fencing and the pleasurable arts, that is to say, all the games of society that a perfect gentleman could not ignore. Nevertheless, this life of extravagance did not prevent him, when in Chioggia, from composing a sermon that conferred on him a reputation for eloquence.

As far as convents were concerned, the cloister did not prove to be an adequate barrier between the recluses and the outside world. One of Longhi’s most interesting canvases at the Correr Museum is precisely a representation of a visit by patricians to a nunnery. The impression is entirely profane. Through the barred windows, the nuns and boarders appear to lend a self-satisfied ear to the sounds from outside. For the amusement of this attractive company, whose cuffs and garments bear typically Venetian floral embroidery, a small stage has been set up in a corner, while a beggar asks alms from a group of noble lords.
10. Capriccio: the Rialto Bridge and the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore , c. 1750.
Oil on canvas, 167.6 x 114.3 cm .
The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh.
11. The Rialto Bridge from the South-west , c. 1740-1745.
Pencil and ink, 26.6 x 36.7 cm .
The Royal Collection, London.
12. The Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge, looking from the South , c. 1727.
Oil on copperplate, 45.5 x 62.5 cm .
Private Collection.
13. Molo and Riva degli Schiavoni , c. 1727.
Oil on copperplate, 43 x 58.5 cm .
Private Collection.

Hardly interested in mysticism, the Venetians loved the ecstasy of religious ceremonies, the processions dazzling with priestly ornamentations, the golden dais, the unfurled banners, the doge and the patriarch, the throng of clergymen, and the six companies from the Scuole Grande . [3] For them, religion was equivalent to patriotism. Hadn’t Saint Mark’s body, which was spirited away from Alexandria, become a holy relic, a kind of Palladium? Just as the people shouted, “Siamo Venzian! e poi cristiani” (Venetian first, then Christian!), the clergy itself did not always kindly receive instructions from the Holy See. Moreover, men of the cloth had been overtaken by mistrust for the government. From the moment that a man enjoyed any benefit from the Church, be it a diploma or priesthood, he was immediately excluded from any public office and debarred from any positions he could have held. Likewise, every minister of the Republic was prohibited from appealing to the pope for a red hat, or for any prelacy.

The Inquisition still existed in Venice during the eighteenth century, but the Roman legal representatives never resembled the sinister delegates of Philip II in Spain. Moreover, three lay nobles, designated by the Senate, who had the power to annul any sentence handed down by the Holy Office, were assistants to ecclesiastical advisers. More fearsome in name than in act, this tribunal limited itself to a right to censorship only in relation to literary and artistic works. It was under this authority that Veronese was summoned to explain the presence of useless characters and improper details in his religious paintings. He used the following defence: “All of us painters are something akin to madmen and poets, acting according to the fancy and whims of our imaginations”. For his nominal “sentence”, he was forced to incorporate certain changes to the vast compositions he had painted for the refectory of the convent of Saint John and Saint Paul. One can easily foresee just how much this law of censure had become illusory during Canaletto’s time.

Trade relations brought Jews, Greeks, Muslims, and, later, Reformists, into the Piazza. The majority of European nations had a neighbourhood and a consul in Venice. For example, Jews and Greeks were stationed north of the city. However, while the Venetians wisely employed a freedom of belief in their hospitality, they rejected any doctrines. Thus, neither Luther nor Calvin counted a single one of Saint Mark’s children among their new followers. However, certain Epicurean theories, which had newly been brought to light through Cesare Cremonini’s brilliant commentaries, found more credit with them. This famous interpreter of the philosophers of Antiquity at Padua University had no fear of teaching that the soul was transmissible like the body, and thus was not immortal. Many nobles, having accepted this materialist and atheistic system, applied its conclusions to their lives. In this way, a veritable paganism was introduced not only into minds, but also into mores. This total absence of scruples had already appeared two centuries before in the influence that Aretino enjoyed. Was not his insolent pretence of posing as the arbiter of destinies tolerated? Showered with pensions and gold chains from nobles, he lived like a great lord among his contemporaries who flattered him and shuddered to see his stairs sullied by the feet of visitors who came to hear and admire him.
14. The Bucintoro returning to the Molo .
Oil on canvas. The Bowes Museum,
Barnard Castle.
15. A Regatta on the Grand Canal , c. 1733-1734.
Oil on canvas, 77.2 x 125.7 cm .
The Royal Collection, London.

The Nobility

These patricians, however, jealously guarded the secret to their nobility, the oldest in all of Europe. Certain families could still boastfully count among their ancestors those who had elected the first doge in the seventh century. One of his successors, Gradenigo, attained a truly revolutionary success for the aristocracy by abolishing, in 1297, the custom of annually renewing the Grand Council. He then declared as irremovable all those who had been a part of the Council for four years and granted the male descendents the right to sit in the same role as their fathers. This was the origin of the famous libro d’oro , [4] in which the names of permanently noble families appeared. Failure to register meant the forfeit of nobility. Plebeians and foreigners could likewise be registered after they proved, through their actions, their allegiance to the State. Following the Chioggia War (1378-1381), thirty families in the nation were given noble status in this way. The registry was then reopened in 1775 to remedy the impoverishment of an entire caste, adding commoners who had the most assets.

However, this oligarchy was rather mismanaged by the government, whose behaviour caused fewer problems for the general population. The doge himself was closely watched. The example of his predecessors, many of whom had died a violent death, and the tragic stories about the Foscaris and the Marino Falieros, even more so than the shape of the corno ducal , which was quite similar to a Phyrgian cap, reminded him that he was nothing more than the Republic’s first subject. Always fearful of conspiracies, the government intervened in the private affairs of the nobles, prohibiting any involvement with representatives of foreign powers. This way it could prevent large fortunes from accumulating within the same household. Was not a patrician executed for having done nothing more than going on a mission without telling anyone about it? Was not one of the Pisanis, in the middle of the eighteenth century, who had inherited 150,000 ducats, forced to give up the man she had chosen for marriage because he was too wealthy and to give her hand to a suitor with no fortune? Likewise, the patricians, who were forever being thwarted by sumptuary laws, were not permitted to wear, except on holidays and carnival days, any gems or colourful outfits after their novitiate, that is to say, after the first two years of their marriage.

Noble pride, and an awareness of its vitality, which had made the nation so powerful during the “grand age”, no longer survived. Mores, as they weakened, became imbued with sentimentality and people delighted in taking part in petty intrigues or issues of etiquette. To use only the third person was considered polite and the art of bowing was very complicated: one had to make them very low even though one might not be aware of whether or not “a good half foot of one’s wig was dragging on the ground”. And what’s more, lords had been seen punishing passers-by who had not shown them enough respect by pushing them into the lagoons. The most humble way of submitting a request was to go to Broglio, where high-ranking citizens gathered every day, and kiss the sleeve of one’s protector. Whenever a patrician was promoted, there were never-ending compliments and congratulations that seemed almost comical. Charles de Brosses, witnessing the election of a general for the galleys, was amused by the prostrations of the new official and the maternal kisses lavished upon him as he exited the Grand Council: “They rang the bell so that they could be heard in the middle of the square”. The practices of courtesy at this time were truly exquisite, even on the part of the courtesans, and the general character had become quite peaceable. De Brosses affirmed that “Venetian blood is so sweet that, despite the ease given by masks, the allures of the night, the narrow streets and especially the bridges without guard rails, from which one can push an unsuspecting man into the sea without worry, there are less than four such accidents each year, even those arrive only amongst foreigners”.
16. The Bacino looking West on Ascension Day , c. 1734.
Pencil and dark ink, 27 x 37.5 cm .
The Royal Collection, London.
17. The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day , c. 1733-1734.
Oil on canvas, 76.8 x 125.4 cm .
The Royal Collection, London.

Nobles lived in places like the Grimani, Pesaro, Vendramin, Loredano and Pisani palaces, which, for the most part, were situated along the Grand Canal. These splendid dwellings where true treasures of art had often been accumulated were often no less impractical than they were sumptuous. At the Labais Palace, the lady of the house showed Charles de Brosses four pieces of jewellery made with emeralds, sapphires, pearls and diamonds that were truly of royal luxury, but with which she could not adorn herself. The Foscari Palace, from which there was a unique view, and which sheltered Henry III, was famous for its magnificence. It contained two hundred luxuriously furnished rooms that were decorated with priceless paintings. On the other hand, de Brosses found there neither any corner “nor any armchair where one can sit down and chat, because of the fragility of the sculptures”. Moreover, many of these impressive and ornamented exteriors served to hide veritable miseries, such as when the entire Gozzi family occupied the house together. While his father was paralyzed, Gaspard, the oldest of the children, with a pensive and misdirected character, remained lost in his literary endeavours. Neglecting his household responsibilities, he left all power in this domain to his wife, the famous Luisa Bergalli, who depleted the family fortune and nearly caused them to sell the palace. Upon the death of their grandfather, and after six years of discussion among his children, it was necessary to take a loan in order to give him a decent funeral. For many, negligence went hand in hand with levity: some fled stressful matters by travelling, others lived shamelessly at the expense of café owners, and still others were completely idle, spending most of the day in bed. It was not easy for foreigners to penetrate palaces and be welcome at events hosted by patricians, who preferred to discuss their conspiracies and intrigues free from the presence of outsiders. The adviser de Brosses related the following: “My good nobles are all coming to the café this evening, where they will talk with us in the spirit of good friendship. But for us to enter their homes, that’s another matter. As far as that’s concerned, there are not all that many homes that host gatherings in Venice, and these gatherings are neither numerous nor entertaining for foreigners. One cannot even turn to the refuge of a game of cards, for one must be a wizard to understand their cards, which have neither the same name nor the same pictures as ours. The Venetians, in spite of all their prosperity and palaces, will not even serve a roast chicken to their guests. I went several times for conversation to the home of a procuress named Foscarini, a very friendly woman with an immensely rich mansion. Despite the luxury, around three o’clock, which would be eleven o’clock at night in France, twenty valets brought in, on a large silver platter, an enormous pumpkin that they call a watermelon cut into quarters, a detestable alimentation if there ever were one. A pile of silver plates came along with it. Each of us pounced on a piece, afterwards washed it down with a small cup of coffee and finally returned home at midnight for dinner, with a clear head and a hollow stomach”.

That is what Venetians, whom the inhabitants of Florence describe as grossolani (uncouth), were like. As far as our traveller was concerned, he appreciated the Canary and Burgundy wines of Marshal Schulembourg and the feasts where ambassadors pampered him, especially one from Naples, “the most frank of fools one could ever see, a really honest man, unaffected and good company”. In effect, the members of the diplomatic corps were very glad that they were allowed to enjoy themselves with foreigners because their office prohibited any access to patricians.

Nevertheless, with these people, whose defects and bizarre manners suggest a cultural decline, a taste for the arts and curiosity about intellectual matters continued to live on. It seems indeed that, as a last privilege, nations that have achieved an elevated felicity conserve, even in moments of agony, a small ray of their brilliant imaginations, saving their vicious decrepitude at least from ridicule and shame.
18. Carnival. Oil on canvas.
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.
19. The Return of the Bucintoro, on the Day of the Ascension.
Aldo Crespi Collection, Milan.
20. The Molo, looking towards the West , c. 1727.
Oil on copperplate, 43 x 58.5 cm .
Private Collection.

Theatrical Arts, Poetry and Painting

The fame of Venetian critics, men of letters and poets extended well beyond the lagoons. The Viennese court looked to them for its poeta Cesareo , more than once. The University of Padua turned to Gaspard Gozzi when they needed a general revision of its constitutions and a new studies plan. With the exception of Metastasio, considered the greatest lyricist of his time, all the poets cherished by Italy, including Apostolo Zeno, Chiari, Goldoni and both of the Gozzis, were all Venetian subjects, by either birth or adoption. The use of verse was therefore constant; indeed every public ceremony or family event provided an excuse to write several stanzes , which made up a large part of each of these authors’ works.

Meetings between the finest minds of the time were set up to reform taste, maintain the purity of Italian style and defend national spirit. One such academy was degli Animosi , established in 1691, whose founder Apostolo Zeno [5] was no less famous for his dramatic works than for his erudition. Its members were the Magliabecchis, the Salvinis and the Redis. There was also the Granelleschi company, less serious but no less active, formed under the auspices of the Gozzi brothers, of whom Gaspard, the fervent elder brother, drew his inspiration from Dante and Petrarch, while the younger Charles, who had a more aggressive personality, preferred to focus on the comic aspect of things. They were surrounded by the splendid amateurs, Joseph and Daniel Farsetti, the latter of whom, a bailiff for the Order of Malta, turned out some very elegant verses, the Abbot Natale Lastesio, one of the most knowledgeable savants of his time, Forcellini and the two patricians, Crotta and Balbi, all of whom made up an elite group in which each member distinguished himself by a liveliness of spirit and a depth of knowledge. At their meetings, these unique academicians only approached their work after they had exhausted every extravagant thought. To get more out of their group, they brought in an absurdly pretentious person named Secchellari. They sent a delegation to him after which they promoted him to the position of president of their group. It was precisely out of this mixture of buffoonery and serious work that a national character surfaced, whose epigrams, subdued and cynical, never lost their place. In reality the heavy-handed joking around did not stop this group from passionately defending the Venetian literary tradition, nor from gaining attention by the accuracy of its critiques, at times marked by malice or violence. Very conscious of his own elegance and style, Charles Gozzi relentlessly fought against Chiari’s [6] and Goldoni’s successes. Reproaching the latter for having ruined Italian theatre and for his harshly unrefined use of language, he made him the object of a biting satire entitled La Tartane , filled with references to recent events. This defence, published in 1757, scathingly ridiculed other playwrights and may have contributed to Goldoni’s departure for France.
21. Reception of the French Ambassador in Venice , c. 1740.
Oil on canvas, 181 x 259.5 cm .
The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Although similar academies were open to only a small circle of men of letters, there was a general passion for theatre. Important houses had private stages; thus one could see Goldoni’s grandfather staging plays and operas at a country house six leagues from Venice. Likewise, Gozzi’s father put on plays in his palace in which his children of both sexes appeared, who were fortunately endowed with talent. On the other hand, there were also many improvised, open-air theatres, operated almost continuously. To build two stages into a wall, some boards were the only expenses. Sometimes the platform was roofed with a lightweight cover. A single, painted canvas served as the scenery. Its dimensions closely resembled those of marionette theatres. Before a curious crowd, Canaletto, Marieschi and Tiepolo mimed in these makeshift theatres constructed near bell towers or other public places.

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