Like Canaletto before him, and Monet after him, J M W Turner (1775-1851) was intrigued and beguiled by Venice – the magical play of light and water, glimmering reflections of wedding cake palaces in the water of the canals and the lagoon, the crumbling majesty of the buildings, the backstreets and alleys, away from the Grand Canal, where ordinary Venetians go about their business and where on any given morning you might spot a gondola delivering fruit and veg or collecting refuse. Venice is curiously suspended in time: overrun today with tourists, many of whom spill from the skyscraper-like cruise ships which call in for a day before ploughing onwards across the Adriatic or south into the Med, despite the bustling crowds, Venice remains almost immutable – yet also desperately fragile.
Venice is mesmerising – a place which exerts a strange and powerful pull on the senses, and sensibilities – once visited, never forgotten. For artists, writers and musicians alike, it’s been on the map of the European grand cultural tour for centuries and for Turner, who first visited the city in 1819, he would have already been familiar with it through Canaletto’s exquisitely exacting images and the writings of Lord Byron.
The adventurous visitor to Venice knows to eschew the likes of Baedeker or the Lonely Planet Guide, or indeed Lord Byron (who happened to be out of town when Turner first arrived), and to strike out to explore the city independently. Turner sketched extensively, filling his notebooks as he wended his way along the serpentine Grand Canal and around the grand civic buildings of the Piazza San Marco – the gilded Basilica of St Mark’s and its Campanile, the coral-coloured Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs – and onwards to the Guidecca, the Fondamente Nuova and the Dorsoduro district, and many other landmarks and panoramas. In addition to observations of the city’s architecture, he sought out the works of Venetian artists such as Titian, Veronese and, above all, Tintoretto. The influence of these artists, together with Canaletto, is evident in Turner’s more formalised depictions of Venice, but surely his greatest works are the impressionistic paintings and sketches which beautifully capture the distinctive light and ambiance of the floating city with an intense inventiveness and keen imagination.
Turner was drawn to the unique atmosphere of Venice, its beauty tinged with an almost funereal melancholy. His paintings of Venice capture the city’s grandeur and fragility, its daily life and its festivals and ceremonies (such as the annual ceremony of the Doge Marrying the Sea, in which the crowded fondamente of San Marco, becomes a blur of blues and crimson in Turner’s hand – he was an impressionistic long before the term was even coined). Given his output, it’s remarkable that Turner only visited Venice three times, notching up just four weeks, yet the influence of the city on his artistic imagination was profoundly affecting, and his paintings of Venice put him at the forefront of a generation of artists who were similarly drawn to Venice’s extraordinary charms: in Turner’s paintings there are resonances of Whistler’s Nocturnes and Monet’s late paintings of the city.
‘Venice With Turner’ (Tate Publishing) is a generous selection of Turner’s paintings, watercolours and sketches of Venice, chosen and introduced by Ian Warrell, a former curator at the Tate and an authority on the life and work of Turner. In it, we travel around Venice with Turner as he captures the myriad sights of the lagoon city. The formal paintings are splendid, grand evocations of Venice’s architecture and vistas, but it is the watercolours and drawings which really capture Venice’s extraordinary shifting light – from the stillness of the lagoon in the early morning (San Giorgio Maggiore – Early Morning, 1819), the haze of mist over St Mark’s Square, golden late-afternoon sunshine or the moonlight illuminating the icing-white dome of Santa Maria della Salute. For the armchair traveller or the Venice-o-phile, these paintings are evocative souvenirs – you can almost hear the water lapping against the gently bobbing gondolas, moored at the fondamente.
This elegantly-produced book includes the finest of Turner’s paintings and studies of Venice, to guide you on your next visit or awaken special memories of trips past.
Tate Publishing, 128pp, 100 colour illustrations, hardback. £25