In this canvas of around 1755, Canaletto depicts the courtyard of the Doge's Palace from underneath the Arco Foscari, looking straight towards the majestic Scala dei Giganti. The courtyard was rebuilt by Antonio Rizzo (c. 1440-c. 1499) after a fire in 1483, which damaged large parts of the palace. Rizzo's design was an imaginative combination of Venetian Gothic with numerous Classical borrowings, such as floral swags and decorative roundels. The courtyard was an important gathering place for the citizens of the Republic and was also the backdrop for state ceremonials. It was thus with a sense of theatre in mind that Rizzo designed the Scala dei Giganti, which dominates the central space. It was here that the newly-elected Doge was inaugurated, and it also served as the main entrance to the Palace. A small prison was located underneath the ornate staircase allowing the Doge to symbolically tread on traitors to the State as he entered the Palace. The Staircase is dramatically surmounted by two large statues of Mars and Neptune by Jacopo Sansovino (1486-1570); a constant reminder of Venice's power, built on military and naval might.
Canaletto has here captured the scene with sunlight streaming into the courtyard, catching the blue and white awnings and bathing the staircase in light. The architectural setting is enlivened by numerous figures, among them clerics and patricians going about their business, while two gentlemen peruse the scene from one of the open windows above. The viewpoint from under the Arco Foscari creates a natural arched frame for the composition.
Canaletto's first treatment of this view was the very much larger canvas, measuring 68½ x 53¾ in. at Alnwick (Links, op. cit., 1998, p. 81, notes 'unobtainable') and implies a viewpoint somewhat further through the arch. This picture belongs to the series painted for Sir Hugh Smythson, later 1st Duke of Northumberland (Constable, no. 80), which are referred to in a letter of 1741 from his mother-in-law, Lady Hereford to her friend, Lady Pomfret. Canaletto's study for the picture is at Weimar (Links, op. cit., 1998, no. 561**, pl. 239). The idea of the Alnwick picture was in turn taken up in a drawing, evidently of the artist's early Venetian period, by Canaletto's nephew, Bellotto, now at Darmstadt (Darmstadt, Kupferstich Kabinett A.E.2179), which in turn was adapted for a number of capricci with the staircase as the main feature of an idealised courtyard, seen through an arch (see Kozakiewicz, op. cit., nos. 307-9).
It is not difficult to see why Canaletto's dramatically framed composition appealed to his nephew, whose preoccupation with similar effects is evident in numerous compositions of the early 1740s. Constable records a version of the Alnwick picture, with different figures, but does not claim that this is autograph. The present picture is a brilliant reprise of the Alnwick design, somewhat closer to reality in viewpoint. As Kozakiewicz argued on the evidence of the pendant (see below), this picture dates from 1755 or later, after the artist's final return from England. Underappreciated in the past, the brilliance of Canaletto's small late works, loose, even pointilliste in execution, yet masterly in their architectural understanding reflects, in part, the fact that he could no longer rely on a large studio: the best account of his technique of the period is that of Sir Michael Levey (exhibition catalogue, Canaletto, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1989-90, 'Canaletto as artist of the urban scene', pp. 17-29).
This picture and its pendant, Interior of S. Marco (Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts, Constable, op. cit., no. 79), were formerly in the collection of John Carpenter-Garnier, Hampshire. The pictures were probably purchased by his ancestor, Dr. George Garnier (1703-1763), of Rookesbury Park, Hampshire, physician to the Duke of Cumberland and apothecary-general to the army (1753-63), who was awarded an honorary doctorate from Padua University in 1745. He visited Venice in the same year and maintained contact with the city through his sister, Mary, wife of John Truesdale, who resided there. The paintings remained at Rookesbury until they were sold in these Rooms as consecutive lots in 1895.