(b. 1697, Venezia, d. 1768, Venezia)

Piazza San Marco

Oil on canvas, 141,5 x 204,5 cm
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Piazza San Marco, looking toward the basilica of the same name, is undoubtedly the most popular and most frequently illustrated Venetian cityscape. San Marco is the main church of the city and the Piazza its central open space, on which the chief government buildings are located: on the left of the painting the Procuratie Vecchie and on the right the Procuratie Nuove, with the adjacent Campanile, the bell-tower of the basilica.

The exhibited canvas is one of Canaletto's earliest town views, but even in this youthful work his mastery of topography is manifest — all the more so since it involves in this case a most conventional scene, with an uncommonly modest figuration. Like his predecessors, Canaletto chose a central, fairly high point of view, as if the spectator were looking with him through the small hole of a peep-box. However, since the obviously accentuated gutters on the square are parallel to one another whereas the two Procuratie are not, there is a tension to the perspective that breaks the classic peep-box construction. The same can be said of the powerful vertical lines of the Campanile, which fastens, as it were, the entire composition securely on to the upper edge of the canvas. In the best baroque tradition, moreover, Canaletto manipulates the shadows in order to achieve a sense of depth and to arrange the composition, consciously omitting the shadow normally cast by the Campanile at this time of day.

From all this it is clear that Canaletto was trained in stage decoration in the tradition of baroque perspective painting. Nonetheless, the open construction, the loose but powerful handling of the brush and the warm colours make it clear that he was also inspired by the 'natural' stage decoration and paintings of Marco Ricci, which were considered the height of modernity at the time.

The painting is part of a series of four vedute, the earliest known vedute by Canaletto's hand. (Now two are in the Thyssen collection and two in the Museo del Settecento in Venice). Most likely the series was painted for a local patron, to decorate the walls of a portego, or central hall, in a palazzo.

This hypothesis is supported not only by the large size of the four canvases, the broad plan of their compositions and the rather loose brushwork, but also by the combination of the chosen subjects. The identity of the patron is not known.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 12 minutes):
Benedetto Marcello: Oboe concerto in D minor