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

La Vigilia di Santa Marta

c. 1760
Oil on canvas, 119 x 187 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

This night view — one of two Canaletto is known to have made — represents the Feast of Saint Martha, a popular festival celebrated every year on the eve of the saints feastday (29 July) in the poor fishing neighbourhood around the church by the same name, situated on the extreme southwestern point of the city on the Canale della Giudecca. What made the festival unique was that here, for one evening of gorging and dancing, the strict distinction between the nobility, the burghers and the poor fisher-folk was suspended.

From the bank between the water and the houses the view is toward the west, where the church of Santa Marta closes off the buildings. To the left of the church the silhouette of the island of San Giorgo in Alga appears on the horizon, in the left corner is a house on another small island. Fishing boats decorated with balloons sail about, while tents and windscreens for the many musicians and cooks are spread over the grounds. A gondoliers assistant and his lady dance the furlana to the accompaniment of violin, guitar and tamborine, while a distinguished- looking foreigner is cajoled into dancing by a woman of the working class.

The multitude of diverse visual elements has been neatly arranged by Canaletto along two crossing diagonals, with the church at the point of intersection. The artist chose a somewhat elevated vantage point, making it possible to survey a wide variety of individual scenes at the same time. It is not clear whether such a point of view was indeed possible on the spot. What is certain is that Canaletto first drew the various parts separately on several sheets; of these, two have survived with fragments of the houses in the background, which the artist must have sketched from different spots. With the help of these he built up the composition, according to a scheme identical to that of the diplomatic receptions painted on various different occasions. The painting is something of a humorous commentary on this: the people's festival supplants the public one, just as the moon does the sun.

Canaletto painted the canvas for the merchant Sigismund Streit, who was originally from Berlin. Streit had made his fortune in Venice after settling there as a young man in 1705. When he retired from business in 1750, he devoted himself to study and to the accumulation of a modest collection of paintings. Part of his painting collection has been preserved, including four canvases by Canaletto among them the Vigilia di Santa Marta and the Vigilia di San Pietro, another night view.