Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Venice in the Eighteenth Century

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Painters in Eighteenth-Century Venice
La Serenissima, the most serene maritime republic of Venice, was among the great trading powers of medieval and Renaissance Europe and, by the late twelfth century, a major economic force on the Italian peninsula. The city proper had been built upon a network of small islands lying in the swamp at the northern end of the Adriatic Sea. After 1400, the Venetian republic gradually occupied much of the plain of the Po River, including Vicenza, Padua, Verona, and Ravenna. Venice's mercantile power gradually declined, however, as other states established wide-ranging trade routes. In the eighteenth century, her political dominion waned until the defiant republic was an anachronism. Invaded by Napoleonic forces in 1797, the once proud, independent Venetian city-state collapsed and the city never recovered its former eminence.


While her political status steadily declined, Venice became—and has remained—a preeminent tourist destination.

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The Role of Venice in Eighteenth-Century Europe
While her political status steadily declined, Venice became—and has remained—a preeminent tourist destination. The city's architecture (1988.162), which is inflected by its geographic position and by the particular conditions of a maritime environment, and the wealth and richness of its painting, sculpture, and decoration (06.1335.1a-d) attracted ever larger numbers of visitors. Special fairs were held to interest buyers in the books, glass, lace, and all manner of other locally manufactured and imported goods that were offered for sale. Many foreigners stopped in Venice on their so-called Grand Tour (international travel intended to enhance the education of prominent young adult males [2002.22]), particularly for the Carnival season and for the great Ascension Day festival. In addition to the fine arts, music, and theater, gambling (1997.117.5), and other less salubrious entertainments were readily available.

The Development of Venetian Painting
As early as the tenth century, Venice had established commercial links with Constantinople, and Venetian painting therefore emerged from the traditions of Byzantium (29.158.746). Wall painting and fresco were introduced from the mainland in the last third of the fourteenth century. The distinct local Venetian school emphasized the particular properties of colored light and atmosphere (08.183.1): Venetian colore as opposed to Florentine disegno, or properties of line and design. The guild system in Venice was strong, and family partnerships were a common form of business association among artists and artisans, safeguarding local practices.

Probably because of the unusual beauty and uniqueness of the city, as well as visitors' desire to secure a memento, view painting—real and imaginary—developed as a uniquely important genre in the hands of Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto (39.142), and, in the succeeding generation, Francesco Guardi. Canaletto was known for the precision and apparent accuracy of his cityscapes (1988.162) while Guardi was a master of the imaginary view (53.225.3). Bellotto carried the tradition to the northern European cities of Dresden, Munich, and Warsaw (1991.306). Although portraiture was less important in eighteenth-century Venice, Rosalba Carriera was internationally renowned as a practitioner in pastel (2002.22). Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and his son Domenico painted history (65.183.2), mythology, and genre (1980.67), while Longhi was exclusively a genre painter (14.32.1, 14.32.2). Both Tiepolos were also masters of interior decoration on the grandest possible scale. It is worth noting that Bellotto was not the only Venetian artist who was popular abroad: for example, Sebastiano Ricci (1981.186) and Canaletto (1975.1.297) flourished in England, and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo in Würzburg (1977.1.3) and Madrid.

Katharine Baetjer
Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art