Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), Venice, at Night, with the Basilica, Campanile and Piazzetta, and San Giorgio Maggiore in the Distance


Not on display

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Watercolour and bodycolour on paper
Support: 149 × 227 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CCCXIX 2

Catalogue entry

The view is south-south-east down the Piazzetta from the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square), with the Basilica and Palazzo Ducale (Doge’s Palace) to the left and the lower stages of the campanile in front of the Libreria Sansoviniana to the right. The distant columns on the Molo waterfront frame the church of San Giorgio Maggiore on its island across the Bacino.
This is a simplified, pictorial composition, focusing on the effects of light and shade to evoke a night scene with strong blue shadows, apparently cast by the moonlight suggested by the brightness of the quay and left-hand column. The darkness is also mitigated by artificial light here and there, particularly that in the booth towards the lower right, around which a crowd has gathered. This incident recalls the puppet show in the Piazza in the large oil painting Juliet and her Nurse, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1836 (private collection; engraved in 1842 as ‘St Mark’s Place, Venice’: Tate impression T05188).1
Compare two variants (Tate D32256, D32258; Turner Bequest CCCXIX 8, 10), and a night scene ‘of festivity’2 from the far end of the Piazzetta (D32220; CCCXVIII 1). Lindsay Stainton has called them ‘reminiscent of the compositions of the famous Venetian view painters, notably Canaletto and Guardi’,3 while Ian Warrell has described D32256, D32258 and the present work, with ‘progressively more intense blues’, as seeming ‘to chart the shift from evening into night, making manifest how the Piazza vibrated with the animation of fickle crowds, oscillating between brightly illuminated puppet shows and the surrounding cafés’,4 all ‘given an unfamiliar air of fantasy by the transforming qualities of moonlight’.5
Four contemporary pencil studies with white highlights on a folded sheet of buff-grey paper also show similar views (Tate D32192–D32195; Turner Bequest CCCCVIII 13a–d).
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 Stainton 1985, p.45, Lyles 1992, p.67, and Warrell 2003, p.125.
Finberg 1930, p.93.
Stainton 1985, p.45; see also Warrell 2003, p.125, and fig.24 (a comparable Canaletto etching).
Warrell 2003, p.125.
Warrell 2008, p.62.
Technical notes:
This is one of numerous 1840 Venice works Ian Warrell has noted as being on ‘Grey-brown paper produced by an unknown maker (possibly ... a batch made at Fabriano [Italy])’;1 for numerous red-brown Fabriano sheets used for similar subjects, see for example under Tate D32224 (Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 5).
‘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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