Friday, April 24, 2015

Venice, Through the Eyes of an Englishman

J.M.W. Turner’s Venice, from the Porch by Madonna della Salute, is one of his many depictions of the city. He spent surprisingly little time in Venice, however, and painted the city from his studio in London. Without being a full time resident, Turner was able to hold Venice in his mind as a city of paradise. Venice was Turner’s Atlantis. This is evident through the enchanted landscapes he creates; the vibrant colors, sparkling water, and heavenly light streaming through the clouds. Coming from Turner, the focus is on the idyllic qualities the city has. When viewing depictions of Venice by native Venetians, however, the focus shifts. Canaletto paints similar scenery as that of Turner, but his paintings are more focused on the culture of Venice than the grandeur. Traditional Venetian life is shown plainly, and the composition of his paintings has a more naturalistic quality. Vittore Carpaccio and Gentile Bellini’s focus is on depicting events. The religiosity of the culture is highlighted in Bellini’s painting. Carpaccio’s painting reflects the culture’s value placed on the narrative. Venice is a beautiful place no matter what context it is shown in, and Canaletto, Carpaccio, and Belinni’s paintings all reflect that. The difference is that Turner was not held down by the cultural influences that come with living in a place when it came to painting Venice, and so he was able to focus on the raw beauty and elegance of the city.

Turner, Joseph William Mallord, Venice, from the Porch of Madonna della Salute, 1835

Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 99.31
With this majestic portrayal of a Venetian canal, Turner is drawing attention to the elegance of Venice. The vivid colors mix and contrast with the brilliant light in the sky, expressing Turner’s idyllic view of the city. The linear quality of the architecture brings contrasts with the freer brushstrokes of the sky, water, and people. This conveys the elegant beauty that Turner sees and is trying to portray. The overloaded ships carrying rich colored fabric lends to the richness of the painting, and highlights the beauty of the Venetians everyday job of loading and unloading cargo.

Canaletto, Venice: Santa Maria della Salute, 1740

Oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 59.83
Compared with Turner’s painting of the Santa Maria della Salute, Canaletto takes a more naturalistic approach, choosing to focus on the reality of life in Venice. The composition is not a blend of, sky, architecture, and water, but each of these features is separate, painted with clear, linear perspective. Without the lighting Turner has in his paintings, the viewer can see the church, boats, and citizens as they are on a regular day. Through the naturalistic portrayal of the Santa Maria della Salute, the importance of this church to the culture can be understood.

Canaletto, A Regatta on the Grand Canal, 1740

Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London
One of two paintings in a group called Two Venetian Ceremonial Scenes; this painting is a depiction of an annual carnival regatta in Venice. Typical costumes worn during this carnival are shown, as well as activities, such as the one-oared light gondola race. This is authentic Venetian culture, and something that Canaletto saw and experienced yearly as a citizen of Venice. His desire in his portrayal of the city is in showing the culture and traditions.

Canaletto, Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day, 1740

Oil on canvas, National Gallery, London
One of two paintings in a group called Two Venetian Ceremonial Scenes, this painting gives a view of the entrance to the Grand Canal, the Doge’s palace, and the Santa Maria della Salute. An annual event, the Wedding of the Sea, is about to take place. This event includes the Doge dropping a gold ring into the sea, which symbolizes the marriage of Venice to the sea. Canaletto chooses to depict this, along with A Regatta on the Grand Canal, to document the events of the time period in Venice. His focus is on the activities that define Venetian culture.

Carpaccio, Vittore, Meeting of the Betrothed Couple and the Departure of the Pilgrims, 1495

Tempera  on canvas, Gallerie dell' Accademia, Venice
In 1488, the Lordean family, noble Venetian’s who later became Doges of Venice, commissioned Carpaccio to paint a series for a confraternity the family belonged to. There are nine paintings in the series, each one telling a part of the legendary tale of St. Ursula. Venice in this painting is simply used as a stage to tell a narrative, and it is not painted to highlight Venice as a landscape, but for decoration and entertainment of the confraternity.

Bellini, Gentile, Miracle of the Cross at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, 1500

Tempera on canvas, Gallerie dell' Accademia, Venice
Bellini was requested by the Confronternity of the Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista in Venice to paint one of nine canvasses, portraying the legend of the Miracles of the Holy Cross. Each painting was to depict one of the miracles performed by the fragment of wood said to be from the cross of Christ. This painting is displaying the event of the cross miraculously coming up from the water as the procession bearing the fragment of wood past by. According to legend, this took place at the very famous site in Venice, the Bridge of San Lorenzo. Nevertheless, the focus of this painting is not to draw attention to this site. It is to represent a culture of Venetians who considered this legend to be an important part of their faith. 

Turner, Joseph William Mallord, The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa, 1842

Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London UK
The bright light that dominates this painting is one of the tools Turner uses to convey his view on Venice. It is easy to imagine Venice as the city of paradise when looking at the glistening water and the white buildings. There are no cultural events taking place, but instead the focus is on the structural beauty of Venice. Through his brushwork, he is conveying his fascination with the grand combination of the white churches, reflective water, and radiant clouds.

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