The Grand Tour, Venetian Painting, and a View of the Piazza San Marco

The Grand Tour, Venetian Painting, and a View of the Piazza San Marco

05/15/2024     General, Old Master Paintings, General Paintings

NEW YORK, NY -- By the beginning of the 18th century, Venice, once a rich and powerful state with an extensive empire in the eastern Mediterranean, had gone into serious decline. Most of the city’s maritime possessions had been seized by the Turks, and the old trade routes to the East had been replaced by the Atlantic sea lanes of the Spanish empire. As a result, Venice was no longer an important economic power.

The city was, however, a matchless attraction for travelers. Not only did it enjoy a uniquely beautiful setting, it easily rivaled every other capital in Europe as a center of culture. Venice’s magnificent palaces and churches were packed with extraordinary paintings and sculpture. There was also a lively contemporary arts scene, including brilliant painters, musicians, writers, and a vibrant theatre. These cultural riches made Venice one of the premier destinations on the Grand Tour, a journey through Continental Europe that had become an essential part of the education of any young gentleman from north of the Alps who could afford it.

To these well-to-do visitors Venice not only offered an unparalleled cultural education, it was also a first-rate place to have fun. There were festivals, street fairs, concerts, plays, and lavish supper parties, where well-heeled foreigners were warmly welcomed. These events offered good food and wine, congenial company, and very often, gambling. The city abounded in small casinos; even the theaters set up tables for games of chance during intermissions. At many of these events it was common for the guests to wear masks, a Venetian custom that allowed people of different social classes to mingle freely, even with companions that in other circumstances they might have avoided. All of these free-wheeling diversions made high-end tourism the center of Venice’s economic life for the next two centuries.

The arrival of large numbers of wealthy tourists brought a new energy to Venetian art, as many of these travelers bought paintings to take home as souvenirs. Especially popular was the Venetian veduta, or “view,” usually of an exceptionally picturesque corner of the city. The Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal, and the Rialto Bridge were popular subjects, but one could also visit an artist’s studio and commission a portrayal of some other favorite sight. One might also buy a capriccio, a view of an imaginary location featuring Venetian-style buildings in a landscape.

Interest in Venetian vedute was enthusiastically promoted by one of the greatest collectors of Italian art in the 18th century, Joseph Smith, who was the British consul in Venice from 1744 to 1760. Smith assembled a large collection of paintings and drawings, along with books, coins, and engraved gems, which George III purchased from him in 1762, and which were later to form the basis of both the Royal Collection and the British Library. Consul Smith was also an important patron of contemporary Venetian artists, including the best known of the view painters, Canaletto, to whose studio Smith steered many a young British aristocrat. It is largely owing to Smith that the great houses of Britain today feature so many fine works by this artist.

Canaletto was not the only painter whose pictures of the city were popular. The vedute of a number of his younger contemporaries were also highly sought-after. Among these younger artists was one whose paintings were first recognized in the 20th century as the work of a single hand, but whose name remained unidentified for some time. This anonymous artist became known as the Master of the Langmatt Foundation Views, after a series of thirteen Venetian vedute by him that belong to the Langmatt Foundation in Baden, Switzerland. These pictures are distinguished by a slight distortion of perspective, which enlarges the foreground; and a palette of cool and neutral colors.

Based on certain details in the buildings represented, the Langmatt pictures have been dated to 1743-1744. Early in the 1990s their anonymous creator was identified by the art historian Dario Succi as Apollonio Domenichini, a documented member of the Fraglia de’ Pittori, the Venetian painter’s guild. Professor Succi based his deduction on mentions in the correspondence of the 18th-century Venetian antique dealer Giovanni Maria Sasso with one of his English clients. The theory that the Langmatt Master and Apollonio Domenichini are the same artist is now accepted by most historians of 18th-century Venetian art.

Doyle's May 21 auction of Old Master & 19th Century Paintings & Drawings features an imposing View of the Piazza San Marco attributed by Professor Succi to this important artist. In a letter about the painting written on September 30, 1996 to a previous owner, Succi noted:

“This impressive painting . . . can be dated with certainty on the basis of its technical and chromatic characteristics [to] around 1740. It can be attributed in my opinion to Apollonio Domenichini (Venice 1715-post 1757), . . . whose name is inscribed in the registers of the Corporation of Venetian Painters for 1757.”

Here we can see the great square spread out before the Basilica of St. Mark, flanked by Renaissance arcades on either side — a magnificent space that Napoleon would later call “The Drawing Room of Europe.” Here and there groups of figures gather to stroll and talk, while in the distance a performance of street theater has attracted a crowd.

One notable feature of the scene is the number of people wearing traditional Venetian masks, a custom that was taken up by a number of foreign visitors as well. Some of the strollers in this scene are surely Grand Tour visitors. The masks seen here are the two most commonly worn in 18th-century Venice: the angular, white bauta, attached to a long, black hood, which could conceal most of the body; and the seductive, black velvet moretta, worn by ladies to cover only the face. Today we tend to think of masks as ornamental clothing to be worn in the evening, but in this painting we find ourselves watching gentlemen and ladies conversing informally in their masks in full daylight. Thus the painting gives us yet another intriguing glimpse into the life of that most fascinating of cities, 18th-century Venice.

Old Master & 19th Century Paintings, Drawings & Prints

Auction Tuesday, May 21, 2024 at 10am
Exhibition May 18 - 20

A highlight of the May 21 auction is A View of the Piazza San Marco, Looking East toward the Basilica attributed to Apollonio Domenichini (The Master of the Langmatt Foundation Views).



Elaine Banks Stainton

Elaine Banks Stainton

Senior Specialist, Paintings & Drawings