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Friday, December 9, 2022

Canaletto’s Venice Revisited at the National Maritime Museum review: picture postcards of a city at risk

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T

he building works at Woburn Abbey may be tiresome for the inmates, but they’ve been useful for the rest of us, enabling the Duke of Bedford’s private art collection to go on tour. The National Maritime Museum has got most of that collection in the Queen’s House; now, downstairs in the main museum we have the marvellous group of 24 Canalettos painted for Lord John Russell, then the future Duke of Bedford, in 1731, perhaps the lucky painter’s largest ever commission.

Normally they hang in the Dining Room at Woburn – even with smaller canvases stacked three high, it must be quite a space – and before that in London, in Bedford House. They are, essentially, very much glorified picture postcards, images of the Venice that Lord John visited on the Grand Tour; on rainy days at Woburn the Duke could look at the lovely blue skies of Venice and remember his youth.

There is an obvious and necessary sameness to Canaletto – the punters, including Lord John, wanted images of the canals (the artist’s name means “little canal”) and squares, St Mark’s and the regatta, and that’s exactly what they got, though an improved version. But it’s not quite true that once you’ve seen one Canaletto you’ve seen them all; the eye may first register the buildings but there’s lots of human interest: dogs, oarsmen, ladies shopping, gentlemen showing off – all Venetian life. The two showstopping pieces that bookend the show, A Regatta on the Grand Canal and The Grand Canal, Ascension Day: The embarkation of the Doge of Venice for the Ceremony of the Marriage of the Adriatic, are terrifically theatrical; no surprise that Canaletto started his career as a stage set designer.

It’s not just the superyachts – big ships have been coming in and dwarfing Venice for decades

/ National Maritime Museum, London

Still, to ensure that the show doesn’t become just a succession of squares and canals, there’s commentary on the detail of the pictures and what they tell us about the condition of Venice then and now. We learn that the funny wide-topped chimneys served a practical purpose – retaining sparks which might have caused fires in wooden structures. The wells in Canaletto’s squares – they too had a function, providing the locals with rainwater; blocked up, the displaced rain has added to rising water levels.

There’s lots about climate change and its impact on rising sea levels, if that’s your bag; even worse is the effect of mass tourism on the city, morally and physically. The construction of the railway station destroyed much of an historic quarter. The show ends with images of demonstrations by the No Grandi Novi – no big ships – movement, which campaigned successfully against cruise ships; it notes the flood defence system built in 2003 may have actually damaged ecosystems and aggravated flooding.

The pictures are both uplifting and melancholy, registering both the grandeur of the city and the decline of Venice from one of the great powers and trading states of Europe to the destination of choice for Lord John Russell and his kind. And after him, us. Poor Venice.

National Maritime Museum, April 1 to September 25; rmg.co.uk

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