Thursday 30 July 2020


I will thus have helped to make my city more known, which is as much to say to love it more.

Not far from the west end of the Piazza San Marco, in Via 22 Marzo, there was an antiquarian bookshop.  In its window were displayed a number of engravings of churches and I in Venice.  On my last day in the city, driven by an old obsession with these survivors from the past, I went in to take a closer look.

It was like something out of a Dickens novel or a setting for a second-rate film: the archetypal old bookshop in which crucial discoveries are made, or terrible, long-buried secrets revealed.  Around the walls were glass-fronted bookcases.  Within and on top of them, piled up to the ceiling, there were heavy tomes covered in a characteristic orange-brown leather, many of them cracked with age.  There were also numerous prints showing aspects of Venice, mostly of the more popular tourist sights.  The tables and chairs in the room were from a previous age, dark and heavy, with generous proportions and swelling forms.

The scene was presided over by one of those grand old Italian ladies, probably in her early sixties, who looked as if she were a contessa reduced by a tiresome quirk of history to selling off family heirlooms.  Her proud bearing informed you that whatever price you paid for a book or print, it could never be enough to recompense her ineffable condescension in selling it to you.  Her Italian was of such a cut-glass clarity that it seemed you saw rather than heard the words, as if they were chiselled in some fabulously rare marble or basalt which hung in the air before you.  Her name was Signora Liliana Forreto Cassini, presumably the widow of the original proprietor, Giocondo Cassini, whose name the shop still bore.

I asked whether she had any engravings of the Campo Santa Maria Formosa.  Her patrician features softened into a friendly smile; she seemed genuinely pleased that I wanted something off the beaten track, something which would allow her to show her stock’s depth which was otherwise lost on the tourists who, like their forebears, were often rich but indiscriminate.

She dug among tightly-packed drawers and neatly-tied folders until finally she came up with a small collection of engravings of the more obscure corners of Venice.  Among them were two copies of precisely the scene I sought: the church of Santa Maria Formosa and its square.  According to the Signora Cassini, one of the prints was an original from the eighteenth century, the other a later pull from the same plates.  I opted for the latter, which was indistinguishable from the other except for its price.

The artist’s name was not identified on the print.  I assumed it was some anonymous eighteenth century figure.  I asked the woman whether she knew anything about the draughtsman and engraver.  To my surprise she said it was after an original painting by Canaletto, engraved by Antonio Visentini.

Back in England, I began to discover more about the work.  The print of the Campo Santa Maria Formosa formed number eight in the third series of engravings first published in 1742.  There are several paintings which show very similar scenes.  One is in the collection of the Duke of Bedford, at Woburn Abbey; another is owned by the Earl of Cadogan; and a third is in a private collection in Italy.  The exact viewpoint and lighting is different in all of them, and it is the last of the three which seems to be the original of the etching.

The scene is taken from the northern end of the campo, looking straight across at the church and its campanile.  The viewpoint is about twenty feet off the ground, possibly from one of the windows of the building opposite. However, Canaletto habitually painted his scenes from positions which would have been completely inaccessible to him, for example twenty or thirty feet above the Grand Canal, so it would be an unwarranted assumption to suppose that Canaletto drew this exact scene from life.  Canaletto frequently made sketches from the ground and reconstructed the particular viewpoint he needed.  Indeed, a sketchbook in the Accademia contains five views of the campo, sketched right to left, taken from the level of the square.  There are also two drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor which show a very similar scene, but from a higher vantage point.

In the engraving it is a very spacious view, with the campo pushing the buildings to the back and sides of the picture.  The parallels with the last scene in the third series, which shows the Piazza San Marco from the west, are striking.  There is the same head-on view of the church, the same flanking buildings with exaggerated perspective which seem to channel the viewer’s eye towards the facade.  The sense of openness which the broad view of the campo produces is reinforced by the empty expanse of sky overhead: apart from a few patches of light haze, Visentini has drawn his characteristic thin straight lines across most of the sky.

To the left are the Dona and Vitturi palaces.  At the back, next to the church, is the Palazzo Malipiero-Trevisan.  Many of the palaces’ balconies bear pots of flowers.  From behind a shutter in the top corner of the building furthest to the left, a stray curtain blows in the wind.

The church roof is under repair.  There are piles of wood leaning against its eastern apse and on the well-head nearby.  Shops on the left display some of their wares outside.  From Canaletto’s annotations to his sketches, we know that the shops were those of a mattress-maker - a sample is clearly visible in the shop opening - a grocer, a fruitier, a mirror-maker (again with some oval examples evident) finishing up with a rag and bone shop the other side of a small alleyway.  In addition, under the campanile on the right, though barely visible because of its size in the engraving, is the stall of a greengrocer.  Most of these are reproduced with surprising distinctness, a testimony to Visentini’s skill as an engraver.  With its concentration on the everyday rather than the conventionally grand, the view of the Campo Santa Maria Formosa is one of Canaletto’s most intimate works.

Between these shops and across the square, people mill everywhere in what is a surprisingly busy scene - far busier than it is today.  There are 69 people in the picture, more than any of the other engravings in the series except those views of the Campo di Santi Giovanni e Paolo, and of the Piazza San Marco.  There are numerous children, and three dogs - one of Canaletto’s trademarks. People cross the campo carrying vegetables; some carry pails to draw water from the central well-head.  A man enters his house on the right, while a young woman on the left looks out from one of the palace windows, perhaps waiting for a handsome young gentleman to bow to her.

Judging by the consecutive pages in his sketchbook, it is reasonable to suppose that Canaletto planned this scene in a single day.  From details in the picture we can guess more exactly the time of year and the hour.  There is a chill in the air: people wear thick cloaks which they hold close around themselves.  Early spring perhaps.  It is mid-morning, judging by the sun, and the shops’ activity indicates a weekday.  We know that the scene was painted before 1742.  It could well have been sketched around 1735, when the first series of etchings came out; as they started to sell Canaletto may have turned his mind to a second series and begun making a few sketches.

In the foreground, in front of all the others, two figures seem to be engaged in a heated conversation.  The man behind, older and in a wig, is talking to the younger man in front who wears a tricorn hat and is wrapped in a cloak.  The latter seems a little disdainful.  The older man is Vivaldi, the younger, Goldoni.  Canaletto has caught them as they cross the square discussing the details of their collaborative opera ‘Griselda’ shortly to produced at the theatre of San Samuele during the Ascensiontide fair.

Canaletto certainly knew Vivaldi; he painted scenery for some of his earlier operas.  He probably knew Goldoni, if only by sight and reputation, since the young dramatist was the talk of Venice as Vivaldi’s comments reveal in Goldoni’s report of their first meeting.  All three knew the Campo Santa Maria Formosa: Goldoni visited the nearby Grimani palace, and Vivaldi was born and lived in the vicinity.  Canaletto clearly knew it.  All three men were in Venice in the spring of 1735.  The conjunction could have happened.

But I am alike indifferent to the scholar’s quibbles and the statistician’s probabilities.  For me, that brief moment one cold spring morning has its own reality.  The abiding facts are that Visentini’s engraving of Santa Maria Formosa hangs on my wall, that I have understood, however imperfectly, the congruent wisdoms of Vivaldi, Goldoni and Canaletto, that I have been to Venice.

When I remember the scene, I do not see the second edition of a competent representation of a little-known corner of Venice, with some conventional and anonymous figures thrown in to populate the composition.  Instead, I see a tiny shaft of light issuing on the left from a narrow alleyway between the mirror-maker’s and the rag and bone shop; the long, narrow street leads to the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, passing on the way over a small bridge set at an angle over a canal which girdles a nondescript palazzo.  I see that light leading from the alley into the campo, in which for one instant, Vivaldi, Goldoni, Canaletto and everything that lies at the end of that alley are caught up together in a unity; and that instant and unity will endure as long as the image of that scene, and these words which are a counterpoint to it, also endure.  Together, they are my memento of Venice.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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