Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Church of Santo Stefano, Venice, from the Rio del Santissimo


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Gouache, graphite and watercolour on paper
Support: 278 × 191 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXVII 32

Catalogue entry

Although its core subject has long been recognised, this sunlit view of the church of San Stefano is a far from straightforward representation, supposedly looking north-north-east along the Rio del Santissimo to the apsidal east end of the large church, under which the canal passes via a tunnel. The prospect is extremely restricted in reality, down a narrow, canyon-like space between rather nondescript canalfront buildings.
Turner made a quick pencil sketch of the scene in the 1840 Rotterdam to Venice sketchbook (Tate D32441; Turner Bequest CCCXX 91) during an excursion through the back alleys within the south-western loop of the Grand Canal; in the 1970s the connection was established by Andrew Wilton, who inferred that the present study and others of Venice on grey paper must derive from the 1840 visit rather that the 1833 tour, as sometimes thought,1 the sketchbook’s date having long been established.2 See this tour’s Introduction for an overview of the dating of the many separate sheets now associated with it.
The artist made few drawings of such relatively out-of-the-way Venetian subjects,3 but the Rotterdam to Venice sketch is one evidently became the germ of an idea, its alignments suggesting his viewpoint as likely the Ponte San Maurizio linking the narrow Calle del Piovan with the Calle dello Spezier to its west, rather than a boat on the narrow canal itself. The upright pencil sketch focuses on the church, with the roofline of the apse curving down to the right and only a sliver of the segmental tiled roof visible from below, flanked by loose hints of chimneys, windows and an archway. The bridge itself (the only one between the church and the Grand Canal, behind the viewpoint) appears to be represented, but so summarily that it may be no more than a diagrammatic reminder to Turner of where he stood, reinforced by his written note: ‘Ponte Maurizio’.
In mentioning the link to the present work, Lindsay Stainton observed that its ‘degree of elaboration tends to suggest that this sheet was not drawn on the spot, but executed from memory’.4 Indeed, the whole subject has been opened out, with afternoon sunlight illuminating a spacious setting centred on the bridge near the foreground, with striped awnings and strokes of bright blue and ochre suggesting people towards the bottom left and right; the right-hand side in particular has been expanded to suggest a broad quay or the entrance to a piazza, perhaps as an evocation of the capacious Campo Santo Stefano, only a steps away along the Calle dello Spezier. Meanwhile, the diagonal form at the bottom left might hint at another bridge in the immediate foreground, as an imaginary viewpoint for this semi-imaginary scene.
See Wilton 1974, pp.155, 156, 158; see also Wilton 1975, p.135, Stainton 1985, p.53, and Warrell 2003, pp.126, 263 note 19.
See Finberg 1930, p.121.
See Warrell 2003, p.126.
Stainton 1985, p.53; see also Warrell 1993, p.308, and 1994, p.224.
See Warrell 2003, p.126.
Cook and Wedderburn 1904, p.384.
MS note by Finberg dated 26 August 1925 in interleaved copy of Finberg 1909, Prints and Drawings Room, Tate Britain, II, p.1025.
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 8) in Warrell 2003, p.259.
Andrew Wilton, J.M.W. Turner: His Life and Work, Fribourg 1979, p.464 no.1367, reproduced.
Not in ibid.; Warrell 2003, fig.233 (colour).
Warrell 2003, p.259.
Wilton 1979, p.423 no.1037, reproduced.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

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