Canaletto’s Venice today…
A reader asked whether Venice would be the setting of one of my future novels. No, I do not believe so at this point, though you never know…
I must warn you that you won’t find in this post any of the photos I took there. Oh, I would gladly share them with you, but I forgot in Paris the thingy that allows me to download pictures from my camera to my computer, and I won’t be back there until early May. So in the meantime you will have to be content with these beautiful views of Venice by one of her (many) gifted native artists: Canaletto.
For one thing, I love Canaletto, who was active around the mid-18th century, and the city has not changed much since his time. Look at the painting above, for instance: the Palace of the Doges, the Campanile, the Piazza San Marco, the astonishing Basilica of the same name, and the bustle of boats and gondolas at the entrance to the Grand Canal.
Canaletto captured the gorgeous turquoise color of the lagoon water, which highlights so perfectly the pinks and whites of the buildings. The Palace of the Doges is now lighter in color than in the painting, just the lightest shade of pink. Of course, the vaporetti (public transportation) and other motorized watercraft that travel up and down the Canal did not exist then, but the modern impression remains much the same as in the painting.
Same thing with this other Canaletto, representing the upper reaches of the Grand Canal. These days the railway and bus stations are located close by, but otherwise the churches, palaces and houses that line the Canal look identical.
The only thing I could not find in Canaletto’s depiction of Venice was its maze of narrow streets and canals. I loved to wander aimlessly there, to find myself unexpectedly facing the gorgeous front of a baroque church on a quiet piazzetta, or simply to deadend at a bridge leading to the door of a private house. But those photos will have to wait until my return to Paris in a few weeks.
That is one of the wonders of Venice: no cars. You walk or take a boat, whether a gondola (great for a tour of the tiniest canals but far too expensive for regular travel) or the ever serviceable vaporetti. This, added to the superlatively beautiful architecture and art collections, gives the city the feel of an open-air museum.
Oh, it was not always the case. In the late Middle Ages Venice, though already beautiful, was engaged in a fierce and often successful struggle with the Turks of the Ottoman Empire over the control of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Then the routes to the Americas opened, and Venice’s trade empire lost its importance. The city entered a phase of slow and inexorable political decline. Oddly enough, this is the time when the arts flourished in the most spectacular manner, when Venise acquired its current appearance.
At last Venice lost its long-cherished independence during – you guessed it – the French Revolution. Bonaparte invaded the city in 1797, not to keep it as conquered territory, but to use as a bargaining chip in his peace negotiations with Austria. Venice soon became Austrian, then briefly French again, before becoming part of Italy.
Already in Canaletto’s time the city’s commercial and military might was only the shadow of its former power. Yet on this painting you can see in the distance the still thriving ship building facilities of the Arsenal. This area is now converted into public gardens, full of greenery in this season.
Things change, and things remain the same, as history teaches us. No better place than Venice to remember it.