Palazzo Ducale and the Piazza di San Marco

Keywords: PalazzoDucalePiazzaSanMarco

Work Overview

Palazzo Ducale and the Piazza di San Marco
c. 1755
Oil on canvas, 51 x 83 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

This view of the Wharf and the Riva degli Schiavoni taken from the Docks of San Marco, which from the Zecca and the Libreria Vecchia embraces the Ducal Palace and the Prisons as far as the Palazzo Dandolo (now the Albergo Danieli), is one which Canaletto repeated many times. Today we know of more than ten autograph versions, the most important of which are those showing the departure or arrival of the Bucintaur in the foreground instead of the ordinary plying of boats, as here.

It is highly likely that for this composition Canaletto used the "optical camera", an instrument which facilitated the control of perspective in such a wide and "unnatural" field of vision. The stamp of naturalness is produced in any case by the immediacy of the boatmen's movements and by the temporary balance created by the boats crossing.

The view is taken from the Bacino, directly in front of the Zecca. On the left are the Zecca and Libreria with the excessively slender Campanile behind. Beyond the Piazzetta, with both columns correctly placed, are seen the Torre dell’Orologio and the south flank of San Marco with only the western dome visible. Next is the Palazzo Ducale, drawn in exaggerated two-point perspective, and to the right, rapidly diminishing in size, the Prigioni and indications of the Palazzo Dandolo. Canaletto narrowed and heightened most of the buildings - especially the Palazzo Ducale, which should be much wider - to squeeze a panoramic view into a normally proportioned composition. 

In front of the Palazzo Ducale are moored the Doge’s galleon, the fusta, covered with a striped awning, and the Bucintoro: the scene depicted is thus the Ascension Day celebration. It is likely that Canaletto here recorded the ceremony of 26 May 1729, the first Sensa at which the new gilded Bucintoro appeared. Although it had been used for the ceremony the previous year, the allegorical sculptures decorating the new Bucintoro had not then been gilded, and the excitement generated by the spectacle of 1729 must explain why Canaletto was commissioned to produce at least three large paintings of the scene soon thereafter: for the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor (a pair to a painting of The Reception of Conte Giuseppe Bolagnos at the Palazzo Ducale on 29 May 1729); for the French ambassador (Pushkin Museum, Moscow); and reputedly for Louis XV (Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle). 

In all of these paintings the perspectival effects of the Palazzo Ducale are reduced, and the Doge’s galleon is greatly foreshortened to lessen its visual impact and thus give more prominence to the Bucintoro. The foreground boats are much larger, with incidental detail such as an imminent collision between two gondolas, and it is clear that in this drawing Canaletto simply jotted in a few boats without any thought of their final effect. A few years later Canaletto painted the scene again for Joseph Smith, flattening the perspective a little further and playing down the drama of the foreground boats.