Canaletto, Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day, about 1740, National Gallery, London.
Yesterday was Ascension Day, and in Venice that always used to be one of the great days of the year. The celebration, known in the Venetian dialect as the Festa della Sensa, was associated with two historical events. On 9 May in the year 1000 the Venetians defeated the Slavic pirates who were threatening the Dalmatian coast, thus allowing the Venetians to begin their domination of the Adriatic Sea. The second took place in 1177, when the Doge welcomed both Pope and Holy Roman Emperor, who signed a treaty ending years of dispute between the two powers. In gratitude the Pope gave the Doge a ring he had blessed as a reward, a sign of Venice’s dominion over the sea. This was commemorated every year during the Festa della Sensa, which was also known as the Sposalizio del Mare – or ‘Marriage of the Sea’. The Doge was rowed out into the Venetian lagoon, where he threw a ring overboard, symbolically marrying the sea to La Serenissima – ‘The Most Serene Republic’, as Venice was known. The two were interdependent – Venice relied on the sea for its defence, for its trade, for its food, and the sea needed Venice… well… to defend it from everyone else, I suppose. I’m not sure that anyone had actually ever asked the sea if it wanted to marry Venice, but given that the relationship contained within it the age-old assumption that marriage is equivalent to domination, it seems unlikely. All that aside, this is what the Festa looked like around the year 1740.
This is surely Venice as we see it now – or, at least, Canaletto’s great skill was always to capture Venice in a way that makes us think that this is how we see it now, although, in all probability, it never looked quite like this even when he painted it. But the wonderful thing is, most of these buildings are still there, and still look the same. Even the campanile, or bell tower, of San Marco looks the same, and that fell down at the beginning of the 20th Century. They rebuilt it, though, as a replica of the original. During the ceremony, the Doge would leave his palace on foot, and walk the relatively short distance to the Molo, or quay. He would progress to the State Barge, or Bucintoro, which is that great, gold galleon next to the quay in the middle of the painting. OK, I know it’s not a galleon, but I like alliteration (you might have noticed). When Enobarbus described Cleopatra’s vessel, he could have been describing the Bucintoro:
The barge she sat in, like a burnish'd throne, Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold…
Nobody is entirely clear where the name bucintoro (the ‘c’ is pronounced as in ‘butcher’) comes from, but a burcio was a traditional vessel used on the Venetian lagoon, and oro means gold. It could have been that. the English translation is ‘Bucentaur’, but I’ve never known it used in print. Canaletto paints the bucintoro with the dazzling shorthand of his mature style, using two tones of ochre, a darker one for the ground, and a lighter for the carved decoration – which is elaborate: there are figures all the way along. Towards the prow there are angels blowing trumpets, and, atop a vast shell, two figures carry a sword and a wreath, both in some way representing Venice: the figure with the sword is almost certainly Justice, one of the chief virtues Venice claimed. Remembering that Portia’s speech starting ‘the quality of Mercy is not strained’ occurs in a courtroom in Venice, I do wonder if Shakespeare ever got there… it has been suggested. To get to the bucintoro the Doge would have passed between the two columns which are visible behind the prow, the one on the right topped with the winged lion of St Mark, since 829 the main patron saint of Venice, and that on the left the earlier patron, that saint who killed a dragon, what was his name? Oh yes! Of course, St Theodore. And if you’ve never heard of St Theodore, you aren’t the only one. The theory is they sent people off to Alexandria to bring back the remains of St Mark, because a better-known saint would bring in more pilgrims. For which, read tourists. It seems to have worked. Behind the barge is the Biblioteca Marciana – the library of St Mark’s – and to the left of that, slightly set back, but also built out of stone, the Mint.
The Doge’s Palace is, of course, one of the most famous buildings in Venice. It started life as a defensive castle more or less at the mouth of the Grand Canal, its chapel dedicated to St Mark. The present façade dates to the 15thCentury. The arcade at the bottom is called the broglio, and you might hang around there to chat to your friends, or even to plot. If you did, in the broglio, that would be an imbroglio – one the many words we owe to Venice. The bridge on the right crosses the little canal, or rio, which goes under the Bridge of Sighs – people sighing because it leads to the prison, the plain, bulky, and impenetrable building on the far right of the painting. And to the left of the Palace, just next to the far end of the broglio, you can just see the temporary wooden structure erected for spectators eager to see the Doge leaving the Palace (the door is around the corner there, opposite the base of the campanile) and heading to the Bucintoro.
On the far right of this detail is the column topped by the statue of St Theodore. Just above him and to the left is a rather large chimney: that is the chimney of the Mint, where the furnace would melt the metal for the coin of the republic to be struck. The Italian word for Mint is ‘Zecca’, a word which comes from the Arabic ‘sicca’, meaning the die used to strike a coin, or even the coin itself. Being on the sea, the trade with ‘the East’ was always hugely important for Venice, and much of their dialect – and, for that matter, Italian as a whole – reflects this. They made some very small coins there, and, as you may know from tortellini, Italian diminutives use the ending ‘-ino’. So a very small coin, from the Zecca, was called a Zecchino – which is where we get the word ‘sequin’. Beyond the Mint is a red brick building which, however many times you have been to Venice, you will not remember. It is the grain store, and you won’t remember it because it spoilt Napoleon’s view from the apartments on St Mark’s Square across the lagoon – so he had it knocked down. There is now a fairly non-descript garden in its place. For now, let us leave it there, and imagine what it would be like to approach Venice from the sea. The first building you would pick out would inevitably be the Doge’s Palace, its grand, imposing bulk getting more solid the further up it goes, almost as if it was itself floating on the waves. It is the source of power. To the right is the prison – so if you, as a visitor, do wrong, that is where you would end up. Would that be true Justice – which was, as we’ve said, one of Venice’s favourite Virtues? Well, yes, because on the other side of the Palace is the Library – so the Justice of the ruling class is based on the knowledge held in the Library. Next to that, is the Mint – they are a wealthy state – and then the grain store – they are also a well-fed state. And not only that, they are watched over by St Mark, who rests just behind the Palace in the Basilica which developed from the small castle chapel. So as you approach you see a powerful, just, and knowledgeable state, wealthy, well-fed, and strong, ready to punish any threat to its stability. You’d be on your guard when you stepped off your boat.
Just to the left of the mouth of the Grand Canal we see the wonderful Church of Santa Maria della Salute – St Mary of Good Health – built at the request of a grateful public to thank the Virgin Mary for saving them from the plague of 1630-31. However it took 50 years to build, partly because in the 17th Century, Venice was not especially wealthy. Its heyday had long gone, starting with the Fall of Constantinople, over which it had had a tight hold, in 1453. By the 16th Century the Portuguese had the most important trade routes, only to be pipped at the post by the Spanish. By the 17th Century it was the Dutch, and the British in the 18th… By the time this view was painted Venice had no real trade, but, as it was a merchant city to its very core, it had to sell.
So it sold itself. And the great ceremonies which had held society together for centuries became the great tourist attractions, and Canaletto painted them for the Grand Tourists to take back home with them. There are more views of Venice by Canaletto in one room of the National Gallery in London than you will find in all of the public collections in Venice put together. He even painted the tourists themselves – look at the boat in the bottom left: just under the yellow parasol a tour guide is pointing out the main features of the city to his attentive clients. That could have been me! And if you think tourism is bad now (well, not just now, of course) then look at this.
All across the pavements of the Molo, and in the arcade above the broglio – every dot a different face, every dash another hat. I love this detail: if you were to get in even closer, you would think it was the work of an abstract artist of the 1950s – it has both a wonderful sense of freedom, and an unnerving precision. And if you think tourists are bad now – well – back then they had no fear.