Early Modern Times – depth in Venice

Early Modern Times - depth in Venice

Dear readers,

Welcome to the 150th issue of Early Modern Times! Let’s celebrate with an armchair trip to Venice. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich UK has just opened the exhibit ‘Canaletto’s Venice Revisited‘, featuring all 24 views of Venice commissioned from the artist Canaletto in the 1730s. They are in the same style and genre as his 1726-27 San Geremia and the Entrance to the Cannaregio, depicted above. What was the state of Venice by the time he painted these views? Why are these realistic yet idealised depictions considered helpful for determining sea-level rises since the 18th century, such that they reveal the depth in Venice?

Venice was a major power in the Mediterranean by the late middle ages. It broke from the Byzantine Empire in the 9th century, and established its maritime empire by suppressing piracy and profiting from trade with lands to the east. This republic, governed by elected Doges and powerful families, dominated parts of the Mediterranean by the 15th century, ruling several nearby towns and the island of Cyprus. By the Renaissance, it was commonly praised as in Moderata Fonte’s The Worth of Women (1599), in which the narrator declares, ‘Venice exceeds all other ancient and modern cities in nobility and dignity, so that it may in all justice be called the Metropolis of the universe’. The respect this powerful and cultured city-state expected from foreigners might be summed up in the slogan, be nice to Venice!

Although Venice and other European powers were victorious over Ottoman naval forces at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, Venetian power was in decline over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Venice lost ground (or rather, water) to rising composite monarchies with oceanic empires, including Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Britain, which circumvented the trading routes used by the Italian city-states. It was also surrounded by formidable territorial powers, including the Habsburg empire to the north and Ottoman empire to the east. This city of canals was drifting into a trough.

Despite its relative decline as a maritime power, Venice continued to be admired for its cultural achievements and bustling city-life during the life of Canaletto (1697-1768). He was born Giovanni Antonio Canal and nicknamed Canaletto (‘little canal’) in reference to his artist father. He specialised in theatrical scenes, as reflected in his views of Venice, which belong to the genre of veduta or ‘view paintings’. Venice was still a bustling commercial city with a vibrant arts scene, as we’d say today. It was a major stop in the Grand Tour of well-to-do young Englishmen in Europe, sent to imbibe classical learning but often more interested in imbibing booze, gambling, and carousing. These Grand Tourists wanted souvenirs of their time in Venice, which was an easy market for Canaletto, including the 24 views featured in the exhibition. Although he was often considered a mere ‘commercial’ painter by his death in 1768, Canaletto’s paintings came to be regarded as iconic views of his hometown. They are not just Ve-nice pictures but capture the life of the city: his patrons couldn’t complain that he Canalet-you down; or if they failed to appreciate his work, they were Venetian blind.

What was the secret of Canaletto’s artistry? Among other things, he employed a camera obscura, an ancestor of the modern camera, to project images of the city on glass (which you can learn much more about from Dr. Justina Spencer in her eye-opening course EMSP/HSTC 3350 Art, Optics, and Technologies of Illusion). He manipulated the perspective and landmarks in the cityscape in order to form ideal vistas, but at the same time rendered extremely accurate and realistic details with the use of the camera obscura. Thus, as Dario Camuffo argued in 2001, in the painting above you can see the blue-green discoloration left by algae just above the water-line, which indicates the tide level at the time alongside minutely rendered steps, bricks, and walls. These details have provided accurate measurements that can be compared with modern photographs to determine the sea-level rise in Venice from the 18th to 21st centuries, while factoring in changes in building foundations and subsidence. Thus, in the fight against global heating, it is arguably less effective to attempt cloud seeding by firing rockets into the sky than to carry out more careful scientific measurements of sea-level rises and limit emissions accordingly. In other words, to riff on The Godfather movie, leave the gun, take the Canaletto.

Do check out the student exhibition for EMSP 2415: The Art of Global Encounters in the Early Modern Period featured in the Link at King’s, and this recent promo video for Dr. Parisa Zahiremami‘s exciting new course, EMSP 3640: Cross-Cultural Encounters with the Islamic World in Early Modern Art and Literature!

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Early Modern Canalettone-deaf Studies Program

Page Break