Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Atrium of the Basilica of San Marco (St Mark’s), Venice, Looking North


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Chalk, gouache and watercolour on paper
Support: 243 × 304 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 22

Catalogue entry

The Turner scholar C.F. Bell annotated Finberg’s 1909 Inventory entry (‘Street scene (?)’): ‘Canal with gondolas and lofty bridges’.1 These readings interpret the centralised, richly coloured but loosely articulated composition as a narrow exterior space, which appears full of figures. Andrew Wilton thought it might show ‘some place of entertainment connected with the theatre’ (see under Tate D32237; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 18) or a Venetian ‘firework display’ like that seen in Tate D32229 (CCCXVIII 10),2 reflecting the variety of subjects and often nocturnal situations Turner depicted using the brown and grey papers associated with his 1840 visit for strong chiaroscuro effects.
Close examination appears to reveal arches rather than the sky at the top centre, and by comparison with pencil studies in the 1833 Venice sketchbook (Tate D32026, D32028–D32029; Turner Bequest CCCXIV 51a, 52a–53) Ian Warrell has convincingly identified the setting as the atrium or narthex which runs inside the west (entrance) front of the Basilica of San Marco (St Mark’s).3 The Zen Chapel (see Tate D32227; CCCXVIII 8) stands at its southern end, and the view here appears to be north from outside the chapel, along the passage where glittering light is reflected from the mosaics of the domes and vaults. There is a suggestion of the central Arch of Paradise on the right, while the alternating pale and dark verticals in the foreground evoke a congregation or procession up the steps leading through to the nave. Other colour studies of the interior of St Mark’s on similar mid-toned papers are Tate D32226, D32252, and perhaps D32231 (respectively CCCXVIII 7, CCCXIX 4, and CCCXVIII 12).
Robert Upstone has compared Turner’s handling here and in another St Mark’s interior (Tate D32226; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 7) with that of the 1895–6 painting Interior of St Mark’s, Venice by Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942; Tate N05314),4 although as discussed in the Introduction to this subsection they are not recorded as having been exhibited by then, and any resemblance is likely fortuitous.
Undated MS note by Bell (died 1966) in copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1027.
Wilton 1974, p.157; see also Wilton 1975, p.144.
See Warrell 2003, p.125.
Robert Upstone, ‘Interior of St Mark’s, Venice 1895–6 by Walter Richard Sickert’, catalogue entry, May 2009, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt and Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012, accessed 3 November 2017,
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 9) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also see also Peter Bower, Turner’s Later Papers: A Study of the Manufacture, Selection and Use of his Drawing Papers 1820–1851, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1999, p.111 under no.64; and Warrell 2003, p.259, sections 10 and 11, for other likely Italian (possibly Fabriano) brown papers.
Ibid., section 9.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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