|Rio dei Mendicanti|
Antonio Canaletto’s painting of this area shows it as it was in 1724 – a poor, crowded place with pennants of dyed cloth drying on racks on the roofs. ‘Mendicanti’ means ‘beggars’ in Italian. One of the city’s poorhouses was on this canal, and it doubled as a famous musical academy for young orphan girls. It was such during the late eighteenth century. the time that my new children’s novel, The Fate in the Box, is set.
My young heroine, Amneris, wakes every dawn to the lovely sound of the singing orphans’ hymns floating across the water to her home in the Calle Berlendis where she and her family eke out a humble living embroidering silk and fashioning parasols for the noblemen and women of Venice.
Here is my photograph of the same scene, taken last summer. The pennants are gone but the Rio dei Mendicanti is still remarkably similar, at least in terms of the external architectural elevations. The changes are all internal. The Mendicanti has long since been taken over by the Ospedale Civile, possibly the most beautiful place to be sick in the world. It is possible to wander around the ground floor, from tree-filled cloister to tree-filled cloister, listening to the songs of birds that have replaced the musical orphans. The church of San Lazzaro is ‘incastrata’ inside, and it is always worth pushing at its formidable door in case it’s unlocked.
Another secret of the hospital is the green space which, I’m fairly sure, once enclosed the stables where Venetian noblemen kept their horses. The surrounding accommodation looks more suitable for horses than for nuns, and the well might well have served the animals, given its great circumference. Now it is occupied by a colony of well loved cats.
So – everything stays the same in Venice, and nothing stays the same. But something that has changed quite grievously is the number of paintings by Canaletto that can still be seen in his native city. Extraordinarily enough, given the artist’s vast output, only two remain in the city. The rest are to be found in collections around the world, with many in England.
There is an English reason for this too. Canaletto’s agent, for a considerable period, was Joseph Smith, who served as the British consul in Venice between 1744 and 1760. Even before his official tour of duty, Smith, a friend of Casanova’s, brokered the sale of paintings to British Grand Tourists. He organized Canaletto’s sojourn in London from 1746 – 55. Smith also acquired a large number of Canaletto’s works himself, eventually selling his entire collection to George III. They can still be seen in the Royal Collection at Windsor. Four others are at Castle Howard; there is a fine group in the Wallace Collection and another in the National Gallery.
Although his reputation declined after his London sojourn, the market in Canaletto’s works never ceased to thrive. His paintings have ended up in the Hermitage, the Louvre, the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid, and in museums in New York, Washington, Harvard, Indianapolis, Yale, Houston, Fort Worth, Melbourne, Cardiff and Ottawa.
Apart from the Rio dei Mendicanti, the only other painting that has remained in the artist’s birthplace is Venice, Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi toward the Rialto (1720–1723), also at Ca’ Rezzonico.
Am I the only one who finds it rather sad that Canaletto should be so poor represented in the city whose image he did more than any other painter to create and refine for the Grand Tourists of Europe? Canaletto created a Venice full of energy and joy. His canals are crowded with regattas, working boats and real Venetians. Later artists – and writers – have often preferred to show the city in a state of picturesque decline, projecting misery upon her to serve their own ‘poetical’ purposes. But I love Canaletto, because he showed the city at work and play, self-conscious of her beauty and outrageously nonchalant about her wonders too. This is the Venice I prefer to write about, and plan to keep celebrating in my books as long as I possibly can.
Other stops on Michelle's Blog Tour include The History Girls, Bookwitch, ABBA, the Courtauldian and Writers in Italy.
The Fate in the Box is published May 2 by Orion Children’s Book
Michelle Lovric’s website
New website pages for the book are here.