To an eighteenth-century English gentleman, a trip to Italy added an essential finish to his education. As Samuel Johnson famously put it, "A man who has not been in Italy" -- as Johnson had not-- "is always conscious of an inferiority."
Italy's most exotic jewel was Venice, with its spectacular palaces and churches, brilliant light, and shimmering water, a city of the imagination that seemed to rise from the Adriatic like a mirage. Here well-heeled English and other Northern European travelers came to be surprised, delighted, and catered to by one of the most voluptuous tourist industries in history -- an exciting round of cafés, theater, gaming and other free-wheeling entertainments.
In response to this inrush of tourists, Venetian artists created a new genre: the Venetian veduta, or "view," which could be taken home as a souvenir and shown to admiring friends. These paintings, which showed such fabled sights as the Grand Canal, the Rialto Bridge or the Doge's palace, were eagerly snapped up by visitors, a lively commerce that created a good living for many young artists.
The view-painters, or vedutisti, as they were called, were barely noticed by the Venetians themselves; the eighteenth-century portraitist Alessandro Longhi, who published a compendium of the lives of contemporary Venetian painters in 1762 -- when the finest vedutisti were famous throughout Europe -- does not mention a single one.
Eighteenth-century Venetian views can be divided into two essential categories: the strictly topographical picture, which carefully records the appearance of a particular place; and the capriccio, in which the artist's imagination might bring together various unrelated but actual sites or invent new ones altogether. An example of the first type is The Grand Canal, an oil on canvas view of Venice's central waterway by an artist from the school of the mid-century view-painter Bernardo Bellotto, showing not only the city's splendid architecture, but the energetic activity of its people (Lot 116). Expansive vistas of this kind were bought by the most prosperous travelers, and shipped home to grace the rooms of fashionable townhouses and grand country estates. A charming small watercolor, The Piazzetta San Marco Looking Toward San Giorgio Maggiore by Giacomo Guardi (Lot 122) presents another iconic Venetian sight, but in a size and technique aimed at a more modest buyer.
An example of the capriccio is Figures in a Venetian Arcade, by an artist working in a bravura technique similar to that of Francesco Guardi (Lot 104). Here the scene is in the Venetian manner, its staging defined by the city's architecture and its forms described by rapid brushwork, but the location is deliberately unspecific. It is the Venetian style, of life and art, that is celebrated by this breezy evocation of the city's streets.
Thanks to the enthusiasm of Northern European visitors, the sights of Venice became well-known throughout Europe; and the artists who painted the first Venetian views created a genre that is still loved by visitors to that enchanted city today.