Canaletto: Painting Venice at the Holburne Museum, Bath
Venice: a city of beautiful buildings and deep reflections, of commerce, festivals and sight-seeing. The Venice of Canaletto (1697-1768) is instantly recognisable today; although the costumes and types of boats have changed, the bustle and buildings have, for the most part, remained remarkably similar. Canaletto’s unique and groundbreaking style was born from Venice’s architecture and culture, while (in the UK at least) the version of Venice that exists in the collective imagination is still inspired by Canaletto’s images of the city. Artist and place are inextricable.
This summer, the Holburne Museum in Bath is showing what is arguably the most important set of paintings of Venice by the great master. The 23 paintings were created over the course of nine years, when Canaletto was at the height of his career. They constitute the largest set of his paintings and, unusually, the group has remained together throughout the intervening centuries.
The paintings are usually kept at Woburn Abbey, the historic home of the Dukes of Bedford, where they have been hung since they arrived from Canaletto’s studio in the 1730s. This is the first time they have been loaned out in 70 years. Whereas they are usually hung in their original position, high up on the walls of the dining room at Woburn, the Holburne offers a unique opportunity to examine them at eye level. These works both demand and reward close looking, unfolding familiar scenes into a wealth of detail, from the perfectly captured lines of an architectural façade to a pair of little dogs playing in a square.
The majority of the works depict the Grand Canal; by pinpointing the location of each view on a map, the curatorial team established that the set captures almost the entirety of the famous thoroughfare. The exhibition therefore reads like a gondola tour through the city, from the dock at Piazza San Marco to where the train station now stands, via the iconic Rialto bridge. In a year when foreign travel seems likely to be off the cards, Canaletto: Painting Venice makes for a surprisingly satisfying substitute.
Canaletto: Painting Venice is at the Holburne Museum, Bath from 17th May until 5th September 2021. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.