My late dear Mother often said to me that the 22nd was a date that featured regularly in our family’s long history. Some of us were born on the day, others died, weddings were celebrated, and coincidental things happened that somehow had the magic number 22 attached. No surprises then that the departure date for ‘my’ grand tour, was April 22nd 2022. I left Killough shortly after 1.30am for the airport, anxious to be leaving my three sons for eight full days.
What was a Grand Tour? In the 18th century it was a cultural tour of Europe usually undertaken by men, very occasionally by women, of the upper classes, to complete their education by introducing them to classical antiquity. Italy was central to the tour and our first destination in Italy is Venice, a place I had been to before, but my focus then was on modern art at the Biennale in 2015. This time my attention would be on things of a more classical art historical nature. I was going to visit churches designed by the great Palladio, see ceilings painted by Tiepolo, among others, and look at works of art by some of the greatest old masters of all time: Tintoretto, Bassano, Veronese to name a few.
I managed to sleep for an hour on the plane, so I arrive somewhat refreshed. As we await our bus into Venice, where we will get the ‘vaporetto’ (a boat bus) down the Grand canal to our hotel, myself and some of the other participants on the trip buy our first Italian expresso. We had landed.
We reach the city by early afternoon where we all purchase a three-day pass for the Vaporetto which will bring us to various stops in the city. The day is overcast and colder than one might expect for late April, but the views of the buildings are still mesmerizing as they stand majestically overlooking the canal. The duller light of our first day changed some of the visuals of a building’s exterior, so on my return home I had to be careful to identify my phone images correctly, as I had become used to looking at images of some of these places, pictured only against dazzling blue skies.
I get my first glimpse of the 18th century museum Ca’ Rezzonico while on the boat, where I will present my paper the following day. In my mind’s eye I begin to imagine the spectacular site this Palazzo must have been in the 18th century, when lit up with lamps and torches for one of the many parties that were held when the building was owned by the Rezzonico family. More on this later.
Our first site visit of the day is the church known as il Redentore.
Designed by Andrea Palladio (1508–1580), who I discuss in more detail below, it is believed Palladio was inspired in his design of the façade for this building by the Pantheon in Rome. This makes me stop and think about what we will soon see when we reach that ancient city further South in Italy. The building also features fifteen steps leading up to the entrance, significant because of the connection to the Temple of Jerusalem. As a pilgrimage church, the building was expected to have a long nave, which was something of a challenge for Palladio, given his interest and dedication to classical architecture. The nave is the body of the church between the door and the sanctuary, which gave processions more impact on the spectators. His interpretation is a typical Venetian approach, on a classical model .
The Bolognese architect Sebastiano Serlio in Book 1V of his Regole generali d’architettura , which was published in Venice in 1537, wrote that ‘ It occurred to the ancient Romans to mix the rustic order not only with the Doric order, but also with the Ionic and Corinthian. The mixture in my opinion is very attractive to look at and represents great strength’. At Il Redentore however an uninterrupted ‘Corinthian order’ makes its way around the entire interior. These orders were, of course, originally a feature in Greek architecture and were popularised by Roman Vitruvius (80–70 BC – 15 BC) who wrote a treatise, The Ten Books of Architecture which had huge influence. According to Vitruvius, architecture is an imitation of nature. To roughly paraphrase him: ‘Just as birds and bees built their nests, so humans construct houses from natural materials that gave them shelter against the elements’. When perfecting this art of building, the Greeks, as mentioned above , had invented the architectural orders: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian . It gave them a sense of proportion and Vitruvius drew from this in his designs, as did Palladio and others who came after him. John Summerson , whose book The Classical Language of Architecture (Thames and Hudson , 1963) I am reading at the moment , sums this up well: ‘A vast amount of pretentious nonsense has been written about proportion and I have no intention in getting involved in it. The Renaissance concept of proportion is fairly simple. The purpose of proportion is to establish harmony throughout a structure – a harmony which is made comprehensible either by the conspicuous use of one or more of the orders as dominant components or else simply by the use of dimensions involving the repetition of simple ratios ….The orders provided a sort of gamut of architectural character all the way from the rough and tough to the slim and fine’. (pp 8 & 15) . I think that is a very good summation.
The Church is also famous because every year, the then Doge (the chief magistrate or leader of the Venetian Republic when it existed) and senators , walked across a specially constructed bridge from the Zattere to Giudecca where the church is situated, to attend mass. Still today this ‘Festa del Redentore’ remains an important festival in the city celebrated the third Sunday in July . In Ireland it is called a Pattern Day – a type of celebration of a local saint. This church also has some wonderful art works, my favourite perhaps being The Baptism of Christ by the Venetian Paolo Veronese (1528 – 1588). His works usually are enormous canvases, featuring many people and have allegorical, biblical, and historical themes. But he was also a good observer of the world around him. Aileen Ribeiro in her book Clothing Art : The Visual Culture of Fashion , 1600-1914 comments that ‘Veronese’s freedom in the depiction of costume .. irritated the defenders of the academic hierarchy in art’ .( pp 216) This is a theme I revisit briefly in the concluding post in this series when discussing William Hogarth’s writings from the 18th.
Our next church is San Giorgio Maggiore, a 16th-century Benedictine church on an island of the same name. Also designed by Andrea Palladio, the building shows again the architect’s cleverness in adapting a classical temple façade, to a form acceptable as a Christian Church.
As mentioned , Palladio was inspired by classical Roman architecture, but he did not imitate it completely. He chose elements and assembled them in innovative ways appropriate to the site and function of the building. This type of innovation is something, over the course of my first year studying art history, at UCD , I learnt the Venetians were good at. Palladio’s buildings were often placed on foundations raised up to make them more visible and provide a better view. His influence in architecture is well documented, not just because of his buildings, but also because he too wrote a treatise, The Four Books of Architecture, which influenced many architects who came after him, just as Vitruvius’s work had done.
We can see examples of his style of design in houses like Castletown House (above) in Celbridge here in Ireland, for example.
Back in Venice, on entering the church one is immediately struck by the spaciousness of the design and the brightness of the interior. Massive columns and a long basilica nave unfold before the eye. The basilica follows a cruciform plan.
Where better to meet one of the great master ‘s work – Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto (1518-1594) . The Church has two of his pieces : The Last Supper and The Jews in the desert . The latter shows the Jews collecting and eating the manna (a type of bread) in the desert, a gift of God to the Israelites, after they escaped Egypt, and it foreshadows the concept of the Eucharist. His works are considered Mannerist in style characterised by dramatic brushwork and his use of perspective.
We also get the opportunity to take a lift up the campanile , an Italian bell tower where some great views of the city can be seen. I am particularly struck by the view opposite us where we can see St. Mark’s Square where we will soon walk to.
By now it is approaching 6pm and most of us had little or no sleep the previous night, so we decide to head towards St. Mark’s Square to soak the atmosphere only this space can provide before finding a nice restaurant to eat.
As we enter the square the mosaics on the Basilica di San Marco glitter as the sun starts to emerge from behind the clouds. I buy myself a hat in case we get more rain or too much sun. Étienne , my youngest son, fell in love with it on my return, even wearing it to bed on one occasion, so it is now officially his!
Procuratie Nuove occupies the right side of the Piazza, designed by the architect Scamozzi (1552-1616), a student of Palladio , and was later finished by Scamozzi’s student, Longhena (1598-1682). More about Longhena later. In class this year it was explained to us that it was the architect Jacopo d’Antonio Sansovino (1486-1570) who laid the foundations to rebuild a range of buildings as the Procuratie Nuove. These were ‘ a new set of administrative apartments (not completed until the 1580s under the supervision of Vincezo Scamozzi. The Piazza was widened , and the new range was set further back in the Campanile. The piazza acquired 20m in width and the Campanile became free standing. The Doge’s Palace now becomes far more visible as one enters the square. Sansovino also succeeded in clearing the square of many of its ramshackle huts and stalls’ . (Lecture notes)
Between 1805 and 1814, Napoleon, who had proclaimed himself King of Italy, lived in the Procuratie Nuove whenever he visited Venice. It was he who, it is alleged , called the square ‘the drawing room of Europe’ given that it was visited by so many young men on their Grand Tours, the trip embarked upon, as I mentioned earlier, usually by aristocrats, to finish off their education, by giving them some experience in classical culture and architecture. Some also argue it was an excuse to party!.
Procuratie Nuove. Image: Denise Meagher
On my last visit to Venice in 2015, we sat in the famous Florian café for refreshments on our first night in the city. I will never forget the orchestra playing and the lights of the square flickering around us . It is a memory I hold vividly to this day. Café Florian dates back to 1720 and was frequented by famous people like Lord Byron, Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and many others.
This evening however we all desire some pasta and an early night’s sleep. Day one of my Grand tour is over and I already know it will be a trip of a lifetime.
We arise early on Saturday morning and return to St. Mark’s Square where we intend to visit the Doge’s Palace , then the Museo Correr. The Doge’s Palace is a building that one might overlook visiting on a trip to Venice. This was the residence of various Doges over the centuries. It would be a shame not to visit the interior because it is truly a mesmerising experience to walk through – a building that is literally wall to ceiling covered in art. We probably all know the exterior of the building from vedute (city views) by Venetian artists from the 18th century like Canaletto (1697–1768). His works were popular with the grand tourists to bring home after their tour.
In the painting above we can see the Doge’s palace exterior . The building we see today is the result of several phases of modification and rebuilding from about 1200s to the last Doge’s residency in 1797 . The façade is in Venetian Gothic style, which is really beautiful.
Several fires have ravished the building over the years, so there are only few traces remaining of the original palace but some Byzantine – Venetian architecture features can still be seen at the ground floor. One of our colleagues on the trip who is researching mosaics for her PhD talked to us about this aspect of the building.
Andrea Palladio had made a proposal to refurbish the building in a more Classical style but it was decided to respect the original Gothic design. They were correct. It became a museum in 1923 and is one of the 11 museums of importance in the city. It has great works by Titian (1488/90-1576 ) , Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Tiepolo (1696-1770) , among others .
Moving from here to the Museo Correr, another stunning building to visit, particularly the rooms that have a particular 18th Century atmosphere. This Museum boasts wonderful works of art , including some by Antonio Canova (1757–1822) the Venetian Neoclassical sculptor, famous for his marble sculptures. His work was inspired by the Baroque and the classical revival and has been characterised as having avoided the ‘melodramatics of the former, and the cold artificiality of the latter’. When in Rome Canova spent time studying and sketching the works of Michelangelo. We will meet Michelangelo through his masterpieces later.
My favourite of Canova’s pieces is The Three Graces depicting the mythological three Charities, daughters of Zeus – identified on some engravings of the statue as Euphrosyne, Aglaea and Thalia and who were said to represent, mirth (Euphrosyne), elegance (Aglaea) and youth/beauty (Thalia). I will discuss this piece again in Part 5 of this blog series. We see below another example of his work from the museum.
My own presentation was scheduled at our next museum stop – the 18th Century museum Ca’ Rezzonico. This building stands on the right bank of the Grand Canal. The site was originally occupied by two houses which belonged to the Bon family, one of Venice’s patrician clans. In 1649 the head of the family, Filippo Bon, a Procurator of the city and patron of the arts, decided to transform the two houses into a single large palazzo. He employed Baldassarre Longhena (1597-1682), the greatest proponent of Venetian Baroque, a style slowly replacing the Renaissance and Palladian architectural style. Longhena was the designer of the famous dome of the Church of Santa Maria della Salute, a Venice baroque landmark at the entrance to the Grand Canal. He was also a student of Scamozzi and Scamozzi’s own master was Andrea Palladio as mentioned earlier – so we can see how all these brilliant architects influenced each other. Sadly, the architect died before the building was finished and the owner ran out of money.
In 1750 the Bons offered the unfinished palazzo to Giambattista Rezzonico, a banker and fabric merchant from Lombardy, whose family had bought a title of Venetian nobility in 1648, following the war with Turkey , when the Venetian state funds were depleted. Rezzonico hired the most prestigious Venetian late Baroque architect Giorgio Massari (1687-1766), who designed several important buildings. At Ca’Rezzonico he finished the works Longhena had implemented with modifications to suit his later Baroque, or ‘lighter rococo’tastes. He replaced some double columns on the facade with slender pillars and eliminated a heavy plinth of columns, giving a more graceful appearance. He installed a row of small oval windows above the larger windows on the second floor, adding a rococo touch. The facade was finished between 1750 and 1752.
The Rezzonico family wielded huge power, not only in Venice, but also in Rome. There were frequent banquets at the building in this time and as I walked up the staircase to the grand ball room I imagined myself in masque and gown having arrived from a gondola and ascending the stairs, listening to the chatter and music from above.
Carlo, the younger brother of the house’s owner Giambattista , was elected Pope Clement X111 in 1758. In 1759 Aurelio Rezzonico was elected a Procurator of San Marco, and in 1762, another family member, Ludovico Rezzonico, would be elected to the same position. This gives some sense of the power the family wielded.
After the Rezzonico family’s fortune and power came to an end and the building was no longer theirs, various people rented or owned the property. The City Council purchased the building in the 1930s to showcase the large and important collection of 18th Century artwork the city had to boast. The then Supervisor of Fine Art and the Director of Museums were key players in establishing the museum in its current format. They gave the museum a particular character, as if the works were not being shown in an exhibition space but simply placed where they naturally belonged in the home of an 18th Century wealthy Venetian family.
Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo 1727-1804 Il Mondo Novo (1791) Ca’ Rezzonico
My presentation deals with the history of the building but also discusses some of the major artists at the museum which allow us to compare different trends in the Venetian painting school of the Eighteenth century. For example, the vivid, sensual, splendour of the rococo, visible in the allegorical and mythological works of Giambattista Tiepolo. But also the everyday spirit of the Venetian 18th Century society , with all its class vagaries and sensitivities is captured in the paintings of Pietro Longhi (1702-1785). The flamboyance and profligacy of city life can be seen in Longhi too and in the works by Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) at the museum. Guardi and Canaletto’s (1697-1768) veduta of Venice are somehow always in the background of our minds, as mentioned earlier , when we think about Venice, partly because the Grand tourists bought them and popularised them in Europe. Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) one of the most famous female portrait artists from this time also features at the museum and captures in her portraiture some of the period’s wonderful personalities . Giandomenico Tiepolo (1727-1804), eldest son of Gaimbattista Tiepolo directs us off the 18th Century stage with his marvellous work, including ‘Mondo Nuovo’ (1791) (above) and others , that hang in the museum.
It would be remiss of me not to mention, however, a work of art that really struck me. Lorenzo Baldissera Tiepolo’s portrait of his Mother Cecilia Guardi Tiepolo is a masterpiece. The youngest of the family he sadly died too young to progress his obvious talent for Portraiture.
My presentation over we have a final stop, a relatively unknown gem in Venice – San Pantalon with a most magnificent ceiling by Giovanni Antonio Fumiani (1645–1710), an Italian painter of the Baroque period.
Between 1684 and 1704, Fumiani decorated the ceiling of this church with what has been claimed to be the largest painting on canvas in the world. The painting depicts ‘The Martyrdom and Apotheosis of San Pantalon ‘ , an early martyr, across forty-four canvases that cover the large ceiling. My photograph above does no justice to this magnificent ceiling. Some believe Fumiani died from a fall from a San Pantalon ceiling scaffold, although other sources date his death to six years after he stopped work in the building. In any event it is a joy to see, so one to look out for if you travel to Venice.
We retire after another wonderful day for some pasta before returning to our hotel to share some wine on our last night in the wonderful city of Venice. I look forward to returning in the not-too-distant future.