Joseph Mallord William Turner

Figures in the Piazzetta, Venice, at Night, with the Basilica and Campanile of San Marco (St Mark’s)


Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and bodycolour on paper
Support: 150 × 228 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 1

Catalogue entry

From the south end of the Piazzetta, the view in this night scene is north-north-west towards the Torre dell’Orologio at the centre, flanked by the Libreria Sansoviniana and the campanile of San Marco (St Mark’s) on the left, and the domed Basilica beyond the Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) on the right. It is a deliberately ‘pictorial’, atmospheric treatment of a scene very familiar to Turner, with various incidental inaccuracies compared with his detailed pencil records over the years, such as Tate D14399 (Turner Bequest CLXXV 45) in the 1819 Milan to Venice sketchbook. Andrew Wilton has suggested a connection with a looser pencil sketch from much the same angle in the 1840 Venice and Botzen book (Tate D31814; Turner Bequest CCCXIII 12a),1 and remarked on the ‘theatrical quality of the composition and the lighting’, comparable with the dramatic contemporary watercolour Lightning in the Piazzetta (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh).2
The present scene is, as Ian Warrell has put it, ‘given an unfamiliar air of fantasy by the transforming qualities of moonlight’3 from behind the viewer, illuminating a crowd towards the left, including one or two in strongly marked red costumes and flecks of other bright colours among the blue shadows, perhaps in Wilton’s view ‘consciously recalling the Venetian views of Canaletto or Guardi’4 and ‘enlivened in a ghostly manner through chiaroscuro contrasts’ as Inge Herold observed.5 Compare the bright touches here and there in some of the shadowy figure scenes and interiors in a parallel Venice subsection of this catalogue.
Lindsay Stainton has further suggested that Turner shows a ‘procession of figures apparently dressed in the red Senatorial robes of pre-Revolutionary Venice’, contrasted with the reality of the silhouette of the lone Austrian sentry by the striped sentry box and cannon below the palace on the right.6 With reference to Lord Byron’s poetry, which did so much to shape his generation’s attitude to the city, David Blayney Brown has remarked that this was ‘doubtless done no more than observe contemporary fact ... but the inevitable contrast between the city’s past and its debased present makes this a thoroughly Byronic image.’7 The box is shown again in a contemporary colour study of the palace and Piazzetta from the Bacino (Tate D32180; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 1).8
See Wilton 1975, p.134.
Ibid.; Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.463 no.1352, reproduced.
Warrell 2008, p.62.
Wilton 1975, p.134.
Herold 1997, p.85.
Stainton 1985, p.45; see also Warrell 2003, p.126.
Brown 1992, p.127.
See Warrell 2003, p.119.
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984, pp.215–17 no.365, pl.369 (colour).
See Warrell 2003, pp.125–6.
See Finberg 1930, pp.175, 176, and Warrell 1991, p.41.
Finberg 1909, II, p.1029, as ‘St. Mark’s’.
Warrell 2003, p.131; see ibid., p.264 note 8.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 11) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also sections 9 and 10.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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