With 36 million tourist visits each year, there is a strong chance you have been to Venice. What compels people to Venice year after year? Well, it is likely the same reason that it has been one of the most innovative art capitals in Europe for centuries: its atmosphere.
It floats on 119 islands in the Adriatic: it is a crossroads of trade where a variety of cultures meet, and it is a place where time feels as if it is fixed. This autumn City Lit will explore the atmosphere of Venice with a season devoted to its art and culture.
Why Venice, why now? Here are a few reasons. . .
The Venice Biennale is back
For those not familiar, the Venice Biennale is one of the most important international art exhibitions (often referred to as the Olympics of the art world) and it is back this year after a pandemic hiatus.
Begun in 1895 as an Italian national art exhibition, the Biennale began including international artists in 1907 and continued to grow until 1942 when it was interrupted by war. It resumed in 1948, in the wake of cultural devastation.
As part of their campaign of annihilation, Fascists intentionally destroyed modern art in an attempt to destroy the memory of the artists who created it. The 1948 Biennale's aim was to reclaim the history of modern art, declaring the significance of its ideas and artists; it saw its mission as one of recapitulation and healing.
The most iconic display came from the American art collector Peggy Guggenheim who had saved hundreds of modern works from the hands of the Nazis.
From 1939 to 1941 Guggenheim pledged to buy ‘an artwork a day’. It was the first time this collection had been seen in Europe. The exhibition of Guggenheim’s collection helped to begin the restoration of modern art’s history. The collection remained in Venice and is one of the most visited museums in the city today.
For our contemporary moment, that is filled with so much violence and destruction, the 2022 Biennale offers constructive and critical conversations about our bodies, war and climate change.
Sonia Boyce, the British artist who represented Great Britain this year, won the Golden Lion (top prize) for her sound installation Feeling Her Way.
Boyce filled each room in the Great Britain Pavilion with the vocal improvisations of different women; the fragments of deeply different performances create a chorus. It is all about being heard, together. The work is an immersive, moving interpretation of the place of individuality in a community.
Venetian light: Distinctive geography, distinctive art
Venice's geography made its art distinct. It’s atmosphere is the result of its position on the Adriatic Sea.
The tempests and heavy damp air; the jade-coloured water and dusky, earth-toned buildings: these things made Venetian painters such innovative colourists.
The haze of this heavy atmosphere diffuses its light, which shows up in the textured, sensuous paintings of early modern Venice. Coupled with the light was the distinctive elegance of Venetian society.
Coupled with the light was the distinctive elegance of Venetian society. The wealth created by the city's international maritime trade made Venice feel like the most sophisticated city in Europe. For a succession of centuries Venice was the model of civility attracting artists from around the continent, most notably Dürer and Turner.
Rosalba Carriera was one of the most successful artists of 18th century Europe. She used blue paper as the ground for her sumptuous pastels (oil crayon). This blue paper, called carta azzurra, was created from textile rags to which colourant like indigo or woad was added to homogenise the colour.
It originated in Venice out of the artistic desire to replicate the cool tones that lay the foundation of Venetian light. Carta azzurra was the preferred drawing surface for Venetian artists from the 16th century onwards for this reason.
Here we can see how the blue ground (the surface of paper that helps artist build tone and light variation) as it peaks through from underneath the pastel.
Related:Museum Stories - Sarah Jaffray shares some, perhaps, lesser-known facts about how museum collections shape our access to art and its history
In the 19th century, artists like JMW Turner and John Singer Sargent cultivated the atmosphere of Venice in their works. By this time Venice had started to become the crowded tourist capital it is now. Rebellious, Sargent made a point of drawing anti-tourist perspectives. At first glance this street scene (see below) from around 1882 seems to focus on the figures. However, let your eyes settle and the light of Venice becomes the focus. Here, it catches rough irregularities of the walls that run along the back and side of the composition.
Britain has been inextricably linked with Venetian politics and power for centuries, a history too lengthy for this blog. But for the purposes of example, you’ll likely recognise Shakespeare’s Othello or Merchant of Venice where the politics of race are at play because Venice represented, in the minds of many early modern Europeans, an international crossroads. There was also the writer John Milton, best known for his Paradise Lost, whose Ready and easy way to establish a free commonwealth (1660), argued that Venice’s oligarchy should be the model of a new English government at the start of the Stuart Restoration.
In terms of art, British Consul Joseph Smith, an official responsible for trade relations, was one of the greatest art patrons and collectors of the 18th century. Smith settled in Venice in 1700. His art collection and home became an essential stop on the ‘Grand Tour’. The Grand Tour took well-to-do British men (and sometimes women) throughout Italy as a way of raising their sophistication levels by studying the refined cultures of the classical past in Rome, the Renaissance in Florence and modern elegance in Venice.
Smith started an influential book press (Pasquali Press) and the books he collected and printed were sold to George III in 1762. They now make up a majority of the ‘King’s Library’ at the British Library.
Smith was also the main influence behind the popular vedute artworks of the 18th century.
The best-known artist he patronized was the painter Canaletto. Canaletto’s vedute (views) of Venice were a sensation with British tourists on the Grand Tour, which is why there are so many Canaletto paintings in British collections today. This work from the National Gallery's collection, Venice:Feast Day of St Roch (c. 1735), is a good example.
A religious procession leaves the San Rocco church (at far right). In the foreground, there is a pickpocket disguised as a beggar; at left, women hang tatty fabric out their windows; in the background, artists actively sell their work to the public. What we see in this painting and in others by Canaletto is that the ruling class are secondary to the hustle and bustle of the city - there is restlessness in La Serenissima (The Most Serene Republic, Venice’s nickname). Tourists loved to revisit their journeys to Venice by discussing the intricacies at play in Canaletto’s ‘souvenirs.’
The exchanges of Venice and Britain truly shaped the history of British art and culture.
So much more
And there is so much more, from music to language, theatre to textiles, literature to politics. So much more than we can offer, but we hope it piques your curiosity. Venice, like so many cultural capitals, feels like a tick-list destination, but it is a real city with a contemporary life and a rich history.
City Lit’s Venice season hopes to flesh out the valuable history of this geography. In doing so, we hope that our learners may get to know this destination from a variety of angles. But, more importantly, giving close focus to any place can, perhaps, encourage us to discover the intricacies of any place we choose to explore.
Sarah Jaffray is an art historian, educator and curator who is currently Art History coordinator for City Lit. In addition to teaching at City Lit, Sarah is also a lecturer for University of Arts London.