The Grand Canal in Venice with Santa Maria della Salute

Ippolito Caffi

(Belluno, 1809 - Battle of Lissa, 1866)
Oil on canvas 47 x 60.9 cm (18.5 x 24 in.) Signed 'CAFFI' lower right Circa 1842

The imposing dome of Santa Maria della Salute emerges from a purplish fog that is gradually lifting, dissolving in the early morning sunshine as the sun timidly casts its first rays on the buildings and waters of the Grand Canal. The warm light of dawn spreads out, chasing away the dark, while a clear and limpid blue sky begins to form in the distance. The first rays of the sun strike the canal with its host of boats and figures and the water embraces them, allowing itself to be pierced by them and reflecting them as it changes its colour from murky grey into a sharp, bright green. This is the scene depicted in The Grand Canal in Venice with Santa Maria della Salute, a hitherto unpublished painting.

The careful distribution of color coupled with the masterly handling of shadow and backlight in the foreground enhance the luminosity of the background and draw the eye into the early light of dawn and into those wonderful reflections on the water. And it is that same sharp yet timid light that strikes the mast of a crewless ship from the side, revealing its Moorish windows, warming the colored stone of the warm yellow and pink palazzi, lending substance to the bluish sun blinds on their façades and, last but not least, surprising the city's early-risers. A gondolier crosses the Grand Canal in the distance, while men seem to be moving about on a group of boats that appear to have been tied together, laden with goods, and elegant gentlemen sporting top hats and holding walking sticks are waiting for someone or something on the quayside.

This picture is among the works that Caffi painted between 1840 and 1850, in which he explores the "repertoire of most varied subjects: fog in cities, eclipses, snowfalls, fireworks, and festivities by night and by day" (Pittaluga 1971, p.47) that served to present a different approach to the Venetian veduta. In this work, the composition and structure of the scene plunge us without hesitation into the cycle of paintings closest to ours in terms both of its theme and of its artistic character, namely the series of Views of the Grand Canal in the snow which are unanimously held to rank amongst his masterpieces and in which Caffi alone has succeeded in the masterly rendering in paint of a sense of intense participation in the natural event, of attention to atmosphere, of the modulation of light, of the sense of silence, and of the suspended mood that envelops the scene and the figures depicted.

Numerous versions are known of his Views of the Grand Canal in the snow (see the bibliography below), but we shall only mention here that they were painted throughout the 1840s, thus revealing the extent to which Caffi felt at home with his subject matter and that the first series can identified as the one dated 1841 and now in the Museo di Belluno. It is very difficult to establish the exact chronological sequence of our versions, but we should stress that even though the perspective of the composition may appear to be the same in the various versions, the thing that changes, apart from the positions of the boats and the figures, is the way in which the scenes are lit, and also the "viewpoint", which draws in or moves out like a camera zooming in on, or away from, its subject. And the aspect that is characteristic of the Belluno painting is precisely this smoky, foggy sky in movement, this attention on the "close-up" approach to the scene's composition and to the daily life being played out in it.

The atmosphere, the perspective, the position of the boats and the figures, the privileged viewpoint and the church of Santa Maria della Salute in the background, closing the scene with the panache of a stage set, all suggest that this previously unpublished work belongs precisely to this period, allowing us to argue with a fair degree of conviction that the painting may be close in date to that in Belluno, thus falling somewhere between 1842 and 1845.

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Antonacci Lapiccirella Fine Art

"Old Master Paintings; Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Paintings; Sculpture from 1700"

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