This notable canvas is one of a sequence of views of the Molo from the Bacino, showing the greatest religious and secular monuments of Venice, by Canaletto, and dates from the period in the 1730s when he was at the height of his powers. It was evidently supplied to Edward Howard, 9th Duke of Norfolk, one of the major British artistic patrons of the day, who later gave the painter a notable commission for three architectural capricci during his sojourn in England.
This view is taken from a point more or less opposite the Campanile, which is seen frontally, and thus shows the key buildings at the heart of Venice in a slightly diagonal perspective. On the left are the five easternmost bays of the Zecca, and the sophisticated three-bay south front of Jacopo Sansovino's Libreria, below the Campanile; to the right is the Piazzetta, with the Columns of Saint Theodore and Saint Mark, and beyond the east end of the Piazza di San Marco with the Torre dell' Orologio, with the south front of the Basilica di San Marco; the west and south façades of the Doge's Palace are shown, the former in shade; beyond are the Prigioni, designed by Antonio da Ponte, three lesser buildings on the Riva degli Schiavoni, the substantial Palazzo Dandolo (now the Albergo Danieli) and two houses to the east of this.
The composition and its place in Canaletto's Oeuvre
Given the historical and topographic significance of the buildings shown here, it is not surprising that this composition and variants of it were in considerable demand, not least in England, where Venice's status as an aristocratic republic gave pictures a particular political resonance at the time. Constable and Links accepted ten pictures of the subject (Constable, nos. 101-9, including 105*, a reduction of this example, for which see below) as autograph: in addition the same view served for five autograph variants of the Bucintoro returning to the Molo on Ascension Day (nos. 335-9).
No subject treated by Canaletto has exerted a longer spell on artists: the Campanile, Piazzetta and Doge's Palace are seen from viewpoints somewhat further to the east in works by Giorgione and Sebastiano del Piombo (respectively the Tallard Madonna, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, and the Death of Adonis, Florence, Uffizi) and in seventeenth-century pictures by Heinz and others. Vanvitelli's frontal view of the Molo, of which the earliest dated version is of 1697, was so popular that at least eleven variants, painted over a period of at least twenty years, are known. Carlevarijs also selected a frontal viewpoint for his several treatments of the theme. Canaletto by contrast understood that a slightly oblique view would be compositionally more satisfactory, but it seems likely that his selection of the viewpoint, or rather of a number of very similar viewpoints, was determined by the need to give due prominence to the Bucintoro in the Ascension Day pictures, the earliest of which predate the Molo views in which a large galley is moored in front of the Doge's Palace.
It is fascinating to observe how Canaletto modulates his compositions in subtle ways. It is easiest perhaps to appreciate this by considering the relationship of the Campanile to the three arcaded bays of the south end of the Libreria in the pictures in question. In the ex-Matarazzo picture now in the Abello Collection, Madrid (Constable, no. 105) which is dated 1733-1734 by Bozena Kowalczyk (exhibition catalogue, Canaletto: Il trionfo della veduta, Turin, 2006, no. 23), the right side of the Campanile is just to the right of the obelisk at the left corner of the Libreria: in that at Woburn, datable towards the mid-1730s, the Campanile is moved to the right, so that the obelisk overlies its centre. In this, the Norfolk picture, the Campanile is shifted a little to the right, the obelisk now overlying the right side of the leftmost of the four blind arches that give movement to the Campanile: this is also the case with the Ascension Day pictures in the Royal Collection and that of Aldo Crespi, datable 1729-1731 (nos. 335 and 336), and, surely significantly in chronological terms, with the preparatory drawing at Windsor (no. 572). In the Moscow Bucintoro (no. 338) there is a very marginal shift to the right. In the Dulwich Bucintoro (no. 339), dated to the artist's final years, the Campanile is moved yet further to the right, its right side aligned more or less on the centre of the middle bay of the Libreria. Canaletto understood that corresponding adjustments were necessary in the relationship of other monuments, most obviously the columns in the Piazzetta, and no doubt used the camera lucida to clarify these.
The subtlety of such adjustments is of course paralleled in the way the artist used boats and figures to enliven his compositions: and it is of course in the differences in the boats rather than topographical alterations that the distinctions between Canaletto's treatments of the subject are most obvious. In some instances the relationship of boats may help to clarify the relative chronology of the variants. Thus the Abello picture (no. 105) has similar boats at either side, but the stance of the boatman in front on the left is more erect, and there are fewer passengers on the sandolo behind this. What is more telling is that the line from the bowsprit of the barge on the right is not being pulled by the man in the small craft seen in the Norfolk picture: the reduced scale of the Abello picture meant that there was too little room, and the boat was therefore suppressed and replaced by a boat of similar size set considerably further back: the likelihood is therefore, as Constable's numbering implied, that the Norfolk canvas is the earlier of the two. This might imply a date in the early 1730s, which indeed is justifiable on stylistic grounds. Similar boats at either side frame the composition of the Woburn picture (no. 101), which forms part of the series for which there are payments of 1732 and 1736. The two boats on the left side of the Cadogan picture (no. 103), behind which the prow of a second gondola is introduced, correspond closely but with differing figures with those in the Norfolk and Abello pictures: and the Cadogan canvas would indeed appear to be of the same period as this, the Norfolk, picture. The two boats also appear in the corresponding positions, but with additional vessels behind, in the earlier Moscow Bucintoro (no. 338): the prominent boatman with the oar in the larger vessel corresponds with his counterpart in this, the Norfolk, picture, but the standing gondolier in the sandolo faces to the right rather than to the left, as in this and the Abello canvasses. As Constable commented, the vessels in question appear in this and other variants to be in danger of colliding, and the strained pose of the prominent boatman in the Norfolk picture surely implies that he is striving to avoid this. The observation of the figures is, as always with the artist, acute. The boatman pulls back on his oar, while the sailor on the bowsprit opposite balances against it while paying out the rope: Canaletto's control is beautifully shown in the way he achieved the man's drapery, the area in semi-shade being realised when he had almost used up the paint on his brush.
While some of the Bucintoro pictures are of considerable size - the Crespi picture (no. 336), measuring 182 by 259 centimetres, and that at Moscow 187 by 259 centimetres (nos. 336 and 338) - those that do not celebrate the festival are of more modest format: indeed only one of those accepted by Constable is larger than the Norfolk picture, the canvas measuring 85 by 134.5 centimetres sold by Stephen, 2nd Lord Holland at Christie's on 30 November 1775, lot 32 and now at San Diego (Constable, no. 109), which is regarded by Charles Beddington as a Bellottesque studio production. The provenance of the San Diego picture illuminates the patterns of interlocking patronage that underlay the demand for pictures by, or which could pass as by, Canaletto. The picture is likely to have been acquired by the vendor's father, Henry Fox, 1st Lord Holland, a brilliant if controversial politician. Fox was the (admittedly long-estranged) son-in-law of a key patron of the artist, the 2nd Duke of Richmond, while his mother-in-law was a niece of the 2nd Lord Cadogan who owned the sparkling variant of the composition (no. 103) so closely related to this, the Norfolk, picture. The Duke of Richmond's Goodwood in Sussex was less than ten miles from the Duke of Norfolk's Arundel. The picture at Woburn (no. 101), originally placed at Bedford House in London, is a component of the remarkable series painted for the 4th Duke of Bedford, who, like the Duke of Norfolk and Lords Cadogan and Holland, was of impeccable Whig allegiance.
The composition of the Norfolk picture is followed in a reduced canvas accepted as autograph by Links (no. 105 a), which Charles Beddington believes to be a later copy. Constable knew 'an apparent replica' auctioned with the 'L. de M. collection' in Paris from a 'poor reproduction'.
Edward Howard, 9th Duke of Norfolk (1686-1777) succeeded his elder brother in 1732 as representative of the greatest Roman Catholic family in England. He inherited considerable estates at Arundel in Sussex, at Worksop in Nottinghamshire and elsewhere, as well as much of the town of Sheffield and substantial property in London. Like other members of his family he was very conscious of the antiquity of his line; and he must also have been aware of the stature of his great-great-grandfather, Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel (1585-1646), 'father of virtu in England', who was the outstanding non-royal collector of his century. The 9th Duke only inherited a very small part of his collection, but he and his wife were both interested in the arts, and he was a major architectural patron. Norfolk House, St. James's Square, built to the design of Matthew Brettingham in a properly Palladian style, was an ambitious statement, but the Norfolks quickly recognised its limitations. James Paine substantially altered the house between 1756 and 1769: the Torinese architect, Giovanni Battista Borra, was responsible for the decoration of some of the main interiors, including the Music Room, which survives in truncated form in the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Drawing Room, in which the Canaletto capricci are recorded in 1775. This picture is not listed in the Norfolk House inventory (information from Dr. John Martin Robinson), but may have been kept at the duke's Nottinghamshire seat, Worksop Manor. The house he inherited there was destroyed by fire in 1761. Paine was promptly called in and work was begun on a palatial successor in 1763 but abandoned in 1768. The three capricci (Constable, nos. 505-7) which the duke acquired are perhaps the finest pictures of the type painted by Canaletto in his London years. Most of the key patrons of this period, the Dukes of Richmond and Northumberland as well as Lords Warwick and Fitzwilliam, already owned Venetian views by the artist, and as the provenance of this notable canvas suggests, this was very probably also the case with the 9th Duke of Norfolk.
The compiler is indebted to Charles Beddington for his comments on this entry and views on related pictures, and to Bozena Anna Kowalczyk and to Dr. John Martin Robinson.