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  • Miles Hedley

CANALETTO’S VENICE REVISITED at the National Maritime Museum

Updated: May 24, 2022

Canaletto’s paintings of Venice are among the most famous and instantly recognisable images in all art. So how do you present them in a new light to ensure that familiarity breeds not contempt but contentment? Light, it transpires, is the key.

A fabulous exhibition now on at the National Maritime Museum called Canaletto’s Venice Revisited breathes new life into these oh-so-familiar scenes with some of the best chiaroscuro lighting I have seen in any gallery. The 24 pictures on show, beginning with the epic A Regatta On The Grand Canal, are illuminated by soft spotlights in otherwise darkened rooms so that their gorgeous inner glow shines forth, giving them an unparalleled intensity and sense of drama.

The paintings are on loan from Woburn Abbey and were commissioned by the 4th Duke of Bedford 300 years ago. They would stand alone in any venue thanks to their self-evident brilliance. Yet NMM curator Katherine Gazzard has actually enhanced the experience of seeing them not only with great lighting but with a series of animated screens pointing out some of the secrets of Canaletto’s techniques – how a mere blob of colour creates a gondolier or the repeated use of boats emerging from the frame gives a scene a sense of motion. Most fascinating of all, she shows how modern-day environmental scientists compare the painted tidemarks of 18th century Venice with those of today to calculate the extent to which sea levels are rising and La Serenissima is sinking.

Ironically, of course, these paintings and scores of others Canaletto produced were specifically for tourism, a trade that is today causing the city untold damage. And the exhibition does not shy away from that. The final rooms are devoted to the deleterious effects of giant cruise ships and the growing number of homes being given over to holiday accommodation that has led to the native population of Venice collapsing from 175,000 in the 1950s to only 50,000 today.

Moments after discovering this you turn into another room and are confronted with The Grand Canal, Ascension Day: The Embarkation Of The Doge Of Venice For The Ceremony Of The Marriage Of The Adriatic (top), one of the most monumental and breathtaking cityscapes ever painted. It’s a stunning contrast to the depressing statistics and perfectly captures the very real dilemma at the heart of the Venetian experience.

I love everything about this exhibition – the glorious paintings, the perfect lighting, the informative captions, the political integrity. I urge you to see it. And afterwards, go next door to the Queen’s House and to have a look at Canaletto’s painting of Greenwich. It’s magnificent.

Canaletto’s Venice Revisited runs until 25 September. For tickets and/or further information, go to

Picture ©️From The Woburn Collection

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