The recent, exciting discovery of these previously unknown and unpublished works by Richter is of major importance to the study of eighteenth century Italian vedute painting. These important works have not been seen since they last hung, unattributed, on the walls of one of Florence Vanderbilt, Mrs. Hamilton Twombly's opulent mansions at Florham Park, New Jersey or the Vanderbilt Mansion at 684 5th Avenue. They have remained in the collection of a descendant of the family ever since.
This large and elegantly atmospheric canvas by Richter represents a scene of gondolas and commercial vessels on the Venetian lagoon before a classical church. In the foreground, the red-capped gondolier ferries three women in elegant gowns and a male passenger past a larger boat with an elaborately decorated canopy. This is a burchiello, a Venetian passenger vessel whose occupant, a white-wigged gentleman, peers out from beneath the canopy at the vibrantly-dressed young women nearby. Meanwhile, in the middle and backgrounds, commercial ships are engaged in transporting stacks of building materials to the end of a pier. As in Richter's other Venetian scenes, the composition conveys a sense of quiet activity more akin to Guardi's Venetian vedute than to Canaletto's energetic and animated scenes of life along the canals. Richter's signature inclusion of a down-to-earth detail is in this instance irreverently represented by a male figure, his back turned toward the viewer, relieving himself against the stone wall to the right of the canvas.
This painting is of particular historical interest because it depicts a site in Venice that does not exist today as it did when it was immortalized by Richter in the settecento. The subject is San Biagio, at the west end of the Giudecca, with the church of Santi Biagio e Cataldo along the shore of the canal at right. This three-nave church was founded in the tenth century and consecrated in 1188. In 1222, Giuliana dei Conti di Collalto founded a monastery to be annexed to the existing church, which was later rededicated after its complete renovation in 1589. The architectural project was supervised by Michele Sanmicheli, who maintained the preexisting planimetric scheme with the foundations of the left nave laid along the Giudecca canal, while the monastery was moved onto the site where the church had previously stood. There is an engraving by Luca Carlevarijs featuring The Palazzo Vendramin on the Giudecca (no. 101 of the set 'Le fabriche, e Vedute di Venetia' of which the first edition was published in 1703) that reveals in the background the church of San Biagio, identifiable by its three naves and by the small dome at the crossing of the transept next to the bell tower.
Construction work began once again in 1706 with a renovation project that preserved the original three-naved structure, completed by Giorgio Massari between 1731 and 1733. On 30 April 1800, Pope Pius VII visited the monastery of Santi Biagio e Cataldo, but in 1810 the church was forced to close, and the complex was transferred from State property to private hands in 1846. The bell tower was demolished in 1872 and in 1882 the last of the ruins were cleared to make room for new construction.
The church visible in the background seems likely to be Santi Cosma e Damiano, which in reality stood further from San Biagio than it appears in the painting. It features a single nave and a simple façade, triangular in shape, divided into three parts and with a round opening (a nineteenth-century addition) at the center. To the left is a bell tower, the upper part of which was also renovated in the nineteenth century. The church was closed in 1810, but still stands in the present day.
Richter often included the same figure in several compositions, and we can identify the woman in the foreground gondola with her back turned towards the viewer in other vedute as well. She appears in the artist's Il canale della Giudecca (60 x 80 cm., private collection) in the central gondola, and again in Richter's Veduta di San Giorgio Maggiore, now in the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, where the young woman in the pink skirt closest to the gondolier, at the center of the canvas, is identical to the figure in the present painting.
Johan Anton Richter was born in Stockholm, but left his native city to travel to Italy and was known to be active in Venice by 1717 during the later years of Luca Carlevarijs' (1663-1730) career. In fact, it is possible that he even spent time working in Carlevarijs' studio as an apprentice; he appears as such in the 1722 inventory of the Florentine collector Francesco Gaburri. Like Carlevarijs, Richter's Venetian views are often populated by large-scale, animated foreground figures which are generally more individualized than those of other Venetian View painters. Giuseppe Fiocco held that it was Richter rather than Carlevarijs who exerted a significant influence on the young Canaletto, a view that has not found subsequent favor. Still, W.G. Constable stresses the historical importance of Richter's Venetian capricci (in addition to the work of Carlevarijs) as precursors of those of Canaletto, arguing that he was 'one of the first painters in Venice, if not the first' to have made the capriccio proper a regular part of his production.
Christie's holds the record for a work by Richter sold at auction, for his Bacino di San Marco, Venice, with elegant figures making music in a gondola (Christie's New York, 10 January 1990, lot 81), which fetched $429,000.
We are grateful to Professor Dario Succi for his assistance in the cataloguing of this and the following three lots. According to Succi, all four paintings by Richter can be dated to circa 1738-44, during the period when he was most strongly influenced by Michele Marieschi, as is particularly evident in the luminosity and in the rendering of the building facades through the use of layered transparent glazes.