Summer/Fall 2008





The Views of the Vedutisti - Piazza San Marco Seen Through Its Painters

by Liana Bellon



Every year, the fourteen million tourists who visit Venice gravitate towards the Piazza San Marco. Enthralled by the beauty of the Basilica di San Marco, the Campanile, and the surrounding architecture, they read from their guidebooks, write postcards, take photographs and are unaware that some of the most significant and, at times, unsavoury details in the history of Venice’s Piazza do not make their way into most guidebooks and travel literature.


 We most likely have been part of this tourist mass, dangling our feet in the water along the Piazzetta, admiring the twin columns topped with sculptures of St. Theodore and the Lion of St. Mark, oblivious to the fact that during the Renaissance political dissenters and those suspected of being gay were hung from those very columns.


An anecdote has Casanova, one of Venice’s most charismatic citizens and chroniclers, asserting that “Nowhere are we freer than in Venice.” His contemporary, Voltaire, the prominent French writer and philosopher, is said to have quipped “Only if you are a mute.” In fact, Casanova was famously imprisoned in the Palazzo Ducale for expressing his atheistic views; he also famously escaped.


Accenti FEATURE   The Views of the Vedutisti Piazza San Marco Seen Through Its Painters Liana Bellon

Francesco Guardi, Piazza San Marco, Courtesy of the National Gallery, London


Tourists admiring the detailed rows of porticoes that make the Palazzo Ducale appear to float above such delicate tracery comment on how light and airy and magical the square is, without knowing that for centuries locals urinated in and around the arcaded walkways of the Palazzo simply because, until Napoleon took control of Venice, there were no laws against public urination.


Our tendency to focus solely on Venice’s unique beauty continues when we come across paintings of the city. Both in Venice and in countless museums in Europe and North America we admire eighteenth-century paintings of Venice by Antonio Canaletto, the city’s main vedutista, or view painter, for their almost photographic details. Most art historians study his paintings for their formal qualities, for their use of colour, light, and perspective. Neither the connoisseurs not the casual museum visitors seem to focus on the fact that both the Piazza and paintings of the Piazza are part of the political history of eighteenth-century Venice.


As a tourist culture, we are often more interested in notions of a watery, mysterious, labyrinthine Venice, a Venice influenced, whether we realize it or not, by the poetry of the nineteenth-century Romantics, such as Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, who revelled in the idea of Venice as a beautiful ruin, as a once glorious city that was now forever past its prime. However, images of Venice, especially eighteenth-century view paintings, such as the ones reproduced here, can be said to “speak” of the changing tides in the history of the Venetian Republic, and in calling attention to the political, they remind us that Venice was and still is a living city.


During the last decade of the eighteenth century, Venice experienced a period of political and social turmoil. A republic for over one thousand years, the city popularly referred to as La Serenissma, the most serene, was conquered in 1797 by the Napoleonic army.


The disintegration of the Venetian Republic affected the daily lives of citizens and captured the public imagination of Europe. Conceding defeat without a battle, Venice lost its status as an independent city-state and Venetians lived through a period in which the physical and symbolic spaces of their city altered because of political factors.


 For centuries Venice was seen as having cultural cachet and importance as a city belonging to all of Europe. Venice was a Venus, rising from the sea, and also a model of political independence. By the decadent eighteenth century, Venice was the party of Europe because of its courtesans, who were a tradition dating back to the Renaissance, and its carnival, which went on virtually all year for foreigners of leisure.


With the end of the Republic in 1797, the cultural significance of the Piazza San Marco changed. Venetians and foreigners, seduced and comforted by the Piazza’s timelessness, were wary of Napoleon’s early nineteenth-century changes to Venice’s urban plan, which included the tearing down of a church in the square to make room for a ballroom and, near the Piazza, the establishment of public gardens which contrasted with Venice’s tradition of private, and often secret, green spaces. Napoleon also limited the often-violent rituals associated with carnival that had taken place in the square. The Carnevale, whose central space for over six hundred years was the Piazza, dwindled and died, and was only resurrected in 1979.


The changes to the Piazza San Marco were seen by Venetians as an attack on their civic identity. As a result, collective acts of dissent were organized immediately following the French occupation of Venice. One of the most significant moments of rebellion took place in the Piazza and was motivated by changes to the square.


On June 3, 1797, the French military placed a Tree of Liberty, with a revolutionary cap, in the square; flanking the tree were two statues symbolizing Equality and Fraternity and burning on a pyre in the square was the insignia of Doge Ludovico Manin, Venice’s last magistrate. Venetians, despite the threat of punishment for expressing dissent, gathered in the square and began to sing “Albero senza vesta/Berretta senza testa/Libertà che non resta/Quattro minchioni che fanno festa.” The lines declare that the tree is naked, the cap is headless, liberty will not last, and, as a reference to the tree, the sculptures, and Napoleon himself, four dense men are having a party.


 Since the Piazza San Marco had always been a space that symbolized independence, the late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century political changes were met with an anxiety about what the space would now represent. The symbolic meaning of the Piazza was in the process of being redefined.


Images often participate in the work of re-imagining a public space. However, the artists and engravers of Venice did not depict the key historical moment, such as the moment Napoleonic troops entered the Piazza or the destruction of certain architectural aspects of the square. They also did not appropriate particular images, such as French revolutionary symbols. Instead, the creation of city views became stagnant.


Giacomo Guardi, the son of the better-known view painter Francesco Guardi, continued the tradition of supplying view scenes for tourists well into the nineteenth century, but these have often been derided as being poor imitations of earlier works. The innovative work of Venice’s view painters, of the vedutisti as they were called, such as Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, ends with the end of the Republic. Both Canaletto and Guardi’s paintings, created in the decades before the fall of the Republic, suggest how Venetians reacted to the gradual decline of their city, a city that had, until the eighteenth century, been a political and economic force for most of its thousand-year history.


Venice was seen as being in decline since the beginning of the eighteenth century. Its so-called decline was associated with its decadence and its status as a city of vice, pleasure, and corruption. Inspired by the theatricality of his native city, Canaletto painted luminous views of Venice in the mid 1700s for Consul Joseph Smith, his main patron, who displayed them for his foreign guests and Venetian friends in his palazzo on the Grand Canal.


Canaletto’s vedute show his ability to preserve details of eighteenth-century Venice while also manipulating perspective for greater visual effect. His views of Venice have influenced the way we see the city. They were popular not only with the wealthy tourists who could afford them, but also with Grand Tourists of more modest means who purchased Antonio Visentini’s engravings of the paintings. Since the eighteenth century witnessed the growing popularity of the Grand Tour, as a rite of passage for young, wealthy British and European men and women, an entire generation of travellers, and of future travellers who saw Canaletto’s images back home, carried with them the idea of Venice as conceived by a particular painter.


Of the almost three hundred images of Venice Canaletto produced, sixty focus exclusively on Piazza San Marco. Canaletto presents the city as existing beyond time. Despite the depiction of contemporary dress, the scene is akin to a stage set and captures the oft-described theatrical atmosphere of Venice and of a glorious past. We could suggest that anxieties about the Republic’s political future are replaced by the slickness of the image that seems sealed against time.


Of course, this smooth, slick texture can also be seen as masking precisely those political anxieties, and the action of masking is appropriate for a city given over to mask-wearing. Canaletto removes the viewer from the particular historical moment and in fact promotes a feeling of emptiness, a feeling reinforced by the wide square depicted as virtually empty. In fact, emptiness is taken up as a positive, as an escape from the realities of the moment. Canaletto encourages our minds to wander across the wide space of the Piazza and leave the historical moment, with its uncertainties, behind. The theatrical quality of Canaletto’s scene also keeps the viewer distanced from the scene. We are never part of the scene depicted; we are always outsiders, audience members rather than actors.


Perhaps as a sign of how important the Piazza is as the city’s central symbolic space, Canaletto began his career painting views of the Piazza for tourists, and after years of painting other scenes, including landscapes and fanciful capricci in London, returned to his first subject, the Piazza, which he painted for his patrons and sketched for himself.


After completing one of his meticulous sketches, he proudly and endearingly wrote “Anni 68, 1766, senza occhiali,” which translates as “68 years old, without spectacles.” Canaletto’s impulse to record both his age and the fact that he sketched the scene without his glasses suggests that he wanted “to leave that scratch on the wall of oblivion that someone a hundred or a thousand years later will read,” as William Faulkner has written about the impulse to create and chronicle. Canaletto urges us to remember that his contribution adds to the square as a site of collective memory.


After Canaletto died, Francesco Guardi, whose last name, appropriately, translates as the imperative command “Look,” was the main vedutista working in Venice. Unlike Canaletto’s paintings, his, produced later, do not attempt to curb anxieties about what was widely considered to be the last days of the Republic. Guardi’s tumultuous style and busy brushwork suggest movement and change. His Piazza San Marco from 1780 presents half the square in shadows and includes blurred outlines and figures that quite literally blend into each other.


Guardi presents the Piazza as a space that will gradually be covered completely by shade and, while we could suggest the painting merely depicts a particular time of day, encroaching darkness rarely has positive connotations. The sky contributes to the painting’s sense of foreboding, since it is both atmospheric and also evocative of the waves of the sea. While the almost 800 year-old ritual of the Sensa, the Doge’s yearly marriage to the sea, was meant to be a prayer for another year of beneficent waters, Guardi’s painting suggests that the elements are conspiring against Venice.


Unlike Canaletto’s painting, Guardi’s creates a sense of movement and tumultuousness that does not distance the viewer, but in fact makes us feel as though we are part of the scene. We are made to feel as though we are one of the inhabitants of Venice who, while accustomed to the island’s changeability, are now caught in the shadows of a declining Republic, under a sky that, in its sea-like qualities, seems to overpower us. In Guardi’s paintings, the environments seem stronger than the blurred and blending figures. The Piazza San Marco, the long-standing space that symbolizes Venice, is being encroached upon in this image by both the shadows and the seascape in the sky and, even in depicting such a relatively wide space, Guardi evokes a sense of claustrophobia.


Not surprisingly, Guardi is creating this image when the Republic’s fortunes have very clearly ebbed and when economic realities threaten the collapse of what was once the world’s sea power. While Canaletto’s style attempts to mask political anxieties, Guardi’s does the opposite. Significantly, Guardi’s images were not nearly as popular as Canaletto’s. Guardi’s few British patrons in Venice did not want visual reminders, no matter how subtle, of political and economic realities. The British patrons of Venetian view scenes wanted paintings that acted as documents not of any anxieties but of the precision and detail of the square and its architecture.


Ironically, Guardi, the view painter who famously stated “I simply work for my bread,” is, ultimately, the only Venetian artist of the period who can be seen as evoking, rather than masking, the socio-political uneasiness of the period, albeit enigmatically through metaphorical brushstrokes. While Guardi certainly could not have predicted the end of the Republic, and in fact died five years before Venice conceded defeat, he chose to evoke an atmosphere of anxiety rather than a sense of innocence in his paintings. In fact, Guardi reacts against the ideal atmosphere that Canaletto attempts to preserve.


The paintings produced by Canaletto and Guardi are the visual records of the period leading up to a moment of political change. Even before the defeat of the Republic, these images, many of which were reproduced in engravings, were seen as idealized and theatrical images of a glorious past, as in the case of Canaletto, or, as in the case of Guardi, as proto-Romantic images of a mysterious city. Both painters could be seen as commenting on a period of turmoil and political change. However, Canaletto’s images seek to preserve the status quo, even as they depict timelessness, and Guardi’s seek to acknowledge socio-political realities even as they depict an almost otherworldly atmosphere.


While often considered to be simply beautiful depictions of a serene city, Canaletto and Guardi’s vedute are a comment on the political instability of La Serenissma. They emphasize, quite powerfully, the ability of a social space such as Venice’s singular Piazza to become an iconic and symbolic space through representation.



Liana Bellon teaches in the Department of English at Dawson College. Her father was born in the Veneto, near Bassano del Grappa, and her mother came to Montreal from Campobasso. She is working on a doctoral dissertation that explores images of Venice over a period of 300 years. She can be reached at


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