“The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century”

Civic purpose was always important to Venetian art, and never more paradoxically so than in the settecento. The beginning of the 18th century saw Venice already, according to historian John Julius Norwich, “but a poor, pale shadow of what she had once been,” and at century’s end the Most Serene Republic no longer existed. In between, though, Venice was the site of a creative resurgence so splendid that today the darkening days of the republic are almost blotted out by the clear brilliant light of its art. No doubt this was a contemporary effect as well, and like the music, festivity, ceremony, gambling, and whoring that made Venice the pleasure capital of 18th-century Europe, art took the public mind off the inexorable political and economic decline of the state. For, as Verlaine (Tom, that is) once remarked, “When I see the glory/I ain’t got to worry.”

So that it might prove a tonic to our times as well, the National Gallery of Art and the Royal Academy of Arts in London have organized an exhaustive international survey of the glories of the period—not only paintings, but also drawings, etchings, engravings, book illustrations, pastels, and gouaches. A larger version of the show, including sculpture, ran last fall in London, but the Washington exhibition is hardly puny, including as it does 241 works by 41 artists from over 100 lenders. Impossible to absorb in a single viewing, it deserves to be revisited frequently, a gallery or two at a time, over the following months. The dedicated fan will be amply rewarded with the example of an age that knew how to go out in style, and provoked by the inevitable question: If it is true that our own culture is on the way down, oughtn’t we be having a better time?

The entrance to the show is flanked by two large views by Luca Carlevaris, both centering on the distracting spectacle of official ceremony, one commemorating a 1709 Regatta on the Grand Canal in Honor of Frederick IV of Denmark, who was apparently vacationing while his countrymen were at war with Sweden, the other illustrating The Bucintoro Departing From San Marco (1710), as the doge took the great, gaudily attired boat out to the Lido for the annual Ascension Day wedding of Venice to the sea. Inside, Sebastiano Ricci sets the tone with the resplendent, rosy, almost salmon-colored light of Bacchus and Ariadne (c. 1716). Above soars the only finished ceiling painting in the show, 1706-7’s playful and buoyant The Punishment of Love. A winged avenger tears at Cupid’s feathers with the brio of an angry schoolboy pulling pigtails.

This rebuke seems to have hastened a retreat to Washington. If Eros does have a temple here, for the next couple of months it is Gallery 60-B. The pictures gathered in this room show Venetian Rococo to be a style animated not only by a pastel palette and a silvery light, but also by a sensuality of gesture and touch, of sweet pleasure spiked with the slight sourness of pain. Even the hand of Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini’s Judith falls lightly, almost forgetfully, across the brow of the severed head of Holofernes. Violence in the same artist’s Venus and Cupid, however, is more implicit. Arrows threaten the immortals’ pneumatic flesh, but more with pricks than punctures. Likewise in Giovanni Battista Pittoni’s The Sacrifice of Polyxena, the frisson is more slap-and-tickle than S&M. The executioner clutches a knife in his fist, but his grasp on his victim is positively courtly, as if inviting her to dance—the only death this could prelude is a little one. Eros himself pops up in a canvas by Jacopo Amigoni as he guides Xenophon, who is recording The Meeting of Habrokomes and Antheia (1743-44). Tugging at his new love’s sleeve, Habrokomes holds in his other hand a sickle, but with even greater delicacy than the author does his pen. Pittoni’s Diana and Actaeon (c. 1722) is mainly an excuse for the goddess and her retinue to look fabulous. Only after some time does the eye find in the background mists the hapless Actaeon, half-turned to stag and rather bloodlessly set upon by his dogs. From the left a nymph looks to us with an expression of breathless exhilaration, swabbing her brow and shielding her eyes from the light.

Nodding in agreement, I had to sit down. But the only spot to flop was in front of Giovanni Battista Piazzetta’s The Fortune Teller, which has in fact little to do with prophecy. It’s not hard for anyone to foresee a tumble among the rustics and working girls depicted. This isn’t nearly so randy as it would seem, though. Subject matter aside, Piazzetta’s art represents a fearsome withdrawing of the dazzling light that was a prime mover of Venetian Rococo. Melancholy and introspective, and employing a Baroque chiaroscuro, his work is that of a man not entirely at home in either his heart or his time.

Piazzetta’s 1745 Idyll on the Beach is overshadowed by a darkness that gives an almost grisaille pallor to a woman who, facing away from us, continues to hold her parasol as clouds blow across the once-blue sky. Although the compact composition is filled with three women, a young man, and a cow (there is some disagreement concerning the setting, although the cow’s head would seem intrusive even in a pastoral scene), a sense of isolation prevails. This is also true of A Young Man Embracing a Girl (c. 1743), one of several têtes de caractère, finished drawings of genre subjects showing heads or half-figures, that number among Piazzetta’s greatest achievements. As the young man draws his lover close, he looks into the distance as if trying to protect her from something. Her head is turned in the same direction, but her eyes are cast down. His right arm is wrapped around her back and her right hand rests, in the foreground, on his shoulder. Her index finger extends over the top, but the three others, curled under, push away. It emerges from this network of gesture that he loves her, not necessarily more than she loves him, but more than she wants to be loved.

Such worries scarcely bothered Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, dubbed by Michael Levey “the presiding genius” of his day, “the greatest decorative painter of eighteenth-century Europe as well as its most able craftsman.” Indeed, content gets Tiepolo into trouble. His The Finding of Moses (c. 1740) is a terrific but outrageous painting. A haughty Veronese-esque princess, dressed in a magnificent golden gown, rat-dog perched on her hip, and her well-dressed band come across the infant in the rushes. The painting isn’t about the rescue of the child destined to lead the Jews, though. It’s about having the grace to be young, powerful, beautiful, statuesque, and white as porcelain, when those all about you are old, lowly, ugly, short, and black. In his opening-day lecture, National Gallery curator and exhibition organizer Andrew Robison delighted in Tiepolo’s love of contrast, but, apparently overcome by the sumptuousness of the painting, seemed untroubled by just what a despicable notion this is. One of the times I was there, Tiepolo’s Moorish dwarf, a character much like Monostatos from The Magic Flute, inspired one art lover to exclaim, “What a weird Munchkin!” It’s a comfort to know that such characterizations retain their power to move across the ages.

Tiepolo’s Martyrdom of St. Agatha (c. 1755) is displayed here as a successful venture in merging his talent for decoration with a previously underdeveloped emotive sense. And the saint does appear to suffer, though her anguish seems somehow inadequate to the discomfort of a woman who has just been presented with her breasts, like puddings, on a salver. Agatha’s relative calm comes off as less an effect of the peace that passes all understanding than of the painter’s desire not to ruffle the scene. Indeed, Tiepolo’s heart is not with her but with the bemused but stylish page in a fantastic orange coat who serves as plate bearer. Tiepolo’s fancy is given free rein with less objectionable results in numerous works on paper, among them a satirical pen-and-ink Punchinello Lying on the Ground (c. 1760). The clown is prostrated by overindulgence in gnocchi and wine, his belly cutting the air like the prow of a ship, his cap standing behind him like an obelisk, perhaps a warning to the carousers that filled Venice’s nighttime streets.

It’s easy to overlook such smaller and more unassuming works, and the crowds I saw seemed to be favoring the paintings, but in this show both major and minor figures are well represented on paper. Giovanni Battista Piranesi is here not only with his fantastic prisons, which clearly moved many a Hollywood set designer and without which Errol Flynn and Vincent Price would have been much less dramatic figures, but also with architectural fantasies and grottescos, several featuring burst tombs and reveling in the sheer ornament of coiling snakes. Pellegrini’s The Head of Pompey Presented to Caesar seems the work of a hand in ecstasy, its frenzied tracings sharpened by the tart tang of its subject. Anton Maria Zanetti, best known as a collector and commentator, is seen in his small Self-Portrait in a Mask, Drawing a Caricature as well as through a book of chiaroscuro woodcuts, most of which are after Parmigianino. Rosalba Carriera, the immensely successful portraitist, is shown via two accomplished and dissimilar pastels, a graceful and idealized Allegory of Painting (c. 1720) and 1732’s touching and real Sister Maria Caterina. There are also etchings by Canaletto, enlivened by a wavy line that seems so far from the precise brushwork of his oils and that turns all light and all substance—sky, stone, and earth—to liquid.

Canaletto’s panoramic vedute are the great popular works of the show. With features immediately recognizable to tourists of both Venice and London, where the artist spent nearly a decade, his cityscapes delight in detail while assembling it into a single unified perspective. Canaletto’s exacting but sometimes fancifully composed views are inhabited by people who retain individuality but not identity, easily permitting the fantasy of inserting oneself into the scene.

Although his early work was similar enough to that of his uncle to be confused with Canaletto’s, Bernardo Bellotto later developed a distinctly non-Venetian, Northern-influenced style. By the time he painted Dresden’s Ruins of the Church of the Holy Cross in 1765, his vision had become unrelievedly prosaic. Rubble is seen as if through the eyes of a model railroader, as a collection of individually selected pieces rather than a random heap. Bellotto’s buildings similarly strain naturalism to the point of artifice, until they become like doll houses. Bellotto is no more satisfactory as a painter of figures. In his Architectural Fantasy with a Self-Portrait as well as 1756-58’s The Fortress of Königstein, figures are spotlit but seem to radiate darkness. Faces are underpainted in black to highlight their creases, an effect achieved more simply today by painting on velvet.

An altogether more appealing view-painter is Francesco Guardi. Loose and gauzy where Canaletto is tight and crystalline, he paints unabashedly lyrical vistas that appear on the verge of dissolution. His late style features liberal use of pure-white highlights, representing either the light glinting off waves striking sparks off the surface of the water, or members of a shadowy populace, ghosts waiting to be boiled off the end of the century like fog.

In an unusual late work recording a public spectacle, The Fire at San Marcuola (1789-90), Guardi provides us with a picture oddly symbolic of painting in 18th-century Venice. The deceptively small canvas is lit with a great blaze coming from a canal near the city’s oil reserves. Observers stand out, as they rarely do in Guardi’s late work, illuminated from behind by a wall of flame. But they aren’t in any grave danger, because the city isn’t really burning—just the oil on the water.