Canaletto, The Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking West, with Santa Maria della Salute (about 1729)

Selling out La Serenissima: has Venice been lost to the ad men?

Forget rising sea levels, say the critics, Venice is drowning in a wave of insensitive advertising. Alastair Smart investigates.

There have been positive reviews across the board for The National Gallery’s autumn exhibition, Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals. In the light of recent clashes over La Serenissima’s upkeep, it’s turning out to be an unexpectedly timely show too.

Via 50 or so vedute ('views'), we’re offered a tour of 18th-century Venice by Canaletto and his fellow view-painters. Canaletto’s scenes are certainly the best known – how many first-time visitors to the Doge’s Palace or Santa Maria della Salute have experienced déjà vu because of them? Yet, in truth, he concealed a great deal about his home city.

Canaletto’s chocolate-box vistas were as much a product of commercial acuity as artistic. His principal clients were English ‘milordi’ - wealthy aristocrats now flocking to Venice on the Grand Tour - and Canaletto created vedute that reflected their predilections rather than reality.

He painted them sleek, picture-postcard souvenirs: the Grand Canal’s calm green waters swelling slightly, the palazzi and churches exuding a proud, sun-drenched grandeur. The contrast with the much less idealised scenes of Francesco Guardi - 15 years Canaletto's junior - is stark. Guardi’s Venice is one of decline and fall, of shimmering sensations, of stone melting into water, air and near-abstraction. It’s his vedute, rather than Canaletto’s, that came closest to capturing the instability of contemporary Venice.

By the late-18th century, La Serenissima, the once-great maritime empire, had long been on the wane, reduced to regattas, carnivals and other spectacle to disguise her lost political clout. In 1797 the 1000-year republic would capitulate to Napoleon without a fight, and the Romantic poets who arrived soon afterwards found endless wonder and tragic nobility in its demise from magnificence.

As Byron put it, ‘In Venice, Tasso’s echoes are no more; And silent rows the songless gondolier; Her palaces crumbling to the shore.’ It was feared the great city that had risen majestically from the waves might soon sink into them again.

Indeed, that fear persists today. Despite its longevity, the floating city still has the air of the temporary and improbable about it – it always seems to be in peril, always on the verge of disappearing into the lagoon.

To counter the threat of rising water-levels and flood damage, the Venetian authorities have invested in a billion-dollar set of mobile flood-gates, due for completion by 2014. Meanwhile, the new mayor, Giorgio Orsini, has also permitted a glut of advertising over the scaffolding of historic sites under restoration. This has been a controversial move, to say the least, prompting a group of art-world heavyweights (including Norman Foster, Neil MacGregor, MOMA director Glenn Lowry and the Victoria & Albert’s Mark Jones) to send Orsoni an open letter of protest last month.

‘These huge adverts,’ they wrote, ‘hit you in the eye and ruin your experience of one of the most beautiful creations of humankind. … Imagine the disappointment that 17.5 million visitors to Venice this year will feel. They come to this iconic city with an image of it in their mind’s eye, and instead they see its famous views grotesquely defaced.’

Orsoni pulled few punches in his reply, arguing that ads for Coca-Cola, Swatch, Bulgari et al are necessary evils - in the face of severe government cuts, how else to fund the restoration of Venice’s crumbling edifices? He also mocked the ‘stupidity and incompetence of [the] museum directors' before landing what in context of slashed arts-funding in the UK was perhaps the lustiest blow of all: ‘These days public money is tight, and I’d be very happy to accept donations if [my critics] are willing to give them.’

The mayor can’t see why the city shouldn’t make money from the awnings over scaffolding erected for restoration work – with or without ads, the scaffolding will still disrupt views of St Mark’s Square, the Doge’s Palace and Bridge of Sighs. Orsoni claims he is not ‘some savage with a ring through his nose’ and only has Venice’s best interests at heart. Yet his opponents cite an Italian law forbidding adverts that ‘damage the appearance, decorum and people’s enjoyment’ of Venice’s historic public buildings.

So who’s right? Well, it’s rather hard to say. One can’t help but admire Orsoni’s spiky turn of phrase, but one still instinctively sides with MacGregor, Foster and co. La Serenissima’s aesthetic integrity must surely be preserved at the expense of rampant commercialisation. A city as historical and fragile as Venice will always be in need of repair, so does that mean it is always to be blanketed in ads too? (And if so, is it even worth saving?)

On the other hand, though, there does seem something strangely fitting about the take-over of Venice by the world’s leading brands. Long before it became a tourist hub and floating museum, the city was, in Peter Ackroyd’s phrase, ‘the market of the world’. Lacking agricultural land on which to grow the crops to feed itself, by the 14th century Venice had become a trading city par excellence, attracting ‘cinnamon from the Indies, carpets from Alexandria, sugars from Cyprus’ and much else besides. Everything became a commodity, and it was only on the back of the wealth commerce created that Venice became a centre of artistic excellence. It was only via mercantile capitalism that Palladio, Monteverdi et al truly flourished – so today’s jewellery and watch adverts, however ghastly a sight, are hardly inconsistent with the city’s history.

In the way they literally cover things up, you might even say the awnings are rather appropriate, in the city that gave us the bauta, moretta and masked ball. Though the heavily draped city of today is unrecognisable from the heavily idealised one of Canaletto, in both cases the real Venice is obscured from view.

Alastair Smart is the Arts Editor for The Sunday Telegraph


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