the last: day 5 of 5: travelling to Europe in the 18th century (Venice)

Michele Marieschi, Venice: The Piazza San Marco from the Torre dell’Orologio, courtesy of Sotheby’s

As the summer vacations are on us, I thought it interesting to look back at what travelling to Europe – and in particular Paris, RomeNaples and Venice – meant to the 18th century traveller and an experience mostly reserved for the elite.  Like we do now, these travelers brought back “souvenirs” the likes of which we still see and collect today.  On our last day we head on to Venice – La Serenissima – to see what sort of mementos were coveted by the Grand Tourist.

Antonio Canal called Canaletto, Venice: A view of the church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo; Venice: The Entrance to the Grand Canal, courtesy of Sotheby’s

By the end of the 17th century, the once mighty maritime empire of Venice had fallen on hard times.  The Ottoman Turks had largely scooped up their Mediterranean colonies and trade with the Far East, long the lifeblood of the city, had all but dried up.  Although still wealthy, Venetian merchants had lost their advantage and their warehouses no longer overflowed with luxuries from Asia.  Luckily for Venice, peace with the Turks came in 1718 and the next 80 years saw an era of peace and renewed prosperity as the city returned its focus to economic, social and cultural development.  Armies of artisans built or remodeled palazzos just in time to be rented by the throngs of British aristos now arriving to enjoy the leisure pursuits offered by this new playground of the rich.  And really, could those enchanting canals ever lose their romantic appeal?  This was the Venice that welcomed the 18th century Grand Tourist.

Francesco Albotto, Venice: A view of the Molo, courtesy of Sotheby’s

Much like it is today, Venice was the highlight of every grand tourist in the 1700s. There was (and still is) no city that compares – anywhere.  Most grand tourists tried to be in Venice for Carnival, the days preceding the more austere period of Lent where they immersed themselves in masked balls, opera, gambling, womanizing until dawn and of course, studying art!  So with these good times, it was natural the visitor would want to take something away to remember.

Francesco Guardi, The Ridotto in Venice, courtesy of Sotheby’s

One of the most sought after mementos was a Venetian painting on canvas – city views (vedute), architectural caprices, landscapes, genre scenes, and caricatures.  The most sought after and famous vedutista was Antonio Canal, called Canaletto (1697-1768).  Others like Luca Carlevaris (1663-1730), Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780), Michele Marieschi (1710-1743) and Franceso Guardi (1712-1793) also produced works for the tourist.

Bernardo Bellotto, Venice: Piazza San Marco, courtesy of Sotheby’s

Venetian nobles and aristocrats who were still a bit down on their luck also saw the opportunity to bring in some cash for their collections as their palazzos and churches were depositories of fabulous art, which could be bought for the right price.  In effect, buying art was one of the chief reasons for visiting Venice.  The British Consul there was known to be a matchmaker between his fellow countrymen and the local community in “finding homes” for some of the great art of the city-state, so a stop to visit Consul Smith was almost an obligatory part of any blue-blood’s visit to Venice.

Michele Marieschi, Venice: View of Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo, courtesy of Sotheby’s

With their tour of the Continent now finished, the young aristos returned home with cases of art and treasures that to this day still fill the country houses of England.  Many a family has been saved from ruin by selling a Canaletto or Batoni to pay for a new roof or to settle inheritance taxes.  It’s interesting to think that the fruits of one generation’s travels abroad helped descendants hundreds of years in the future.  I hope this will inspire all you lucky travellers this summer to come home with a painting or object that you love.

richard rabel
principal
richard rabel: interiors + art
interior design and art advising
new york city

I invite you to look back at this weeks other Grand Tour destinations of Paris, Rome(Fine Art), Rome (Decorative Art), and Naples.