J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours

ISBN 978-1-84976-386-8

Joseph Mallord William Turner Figures in the Piazzetta, Venice, at Night, with the Basilica and Campanile of San Marco (St Mark's) 1840

Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Figures in the Piazzetta, Venice, at Night, with the Basilica and Campanile of San Marco (St Mark’s) 1840
Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 1
Watercolour and gouache on grey-brown wove paper, 150 x 228 mm
Blind-stamped with Turner Bequest monogram towards bottom right
Stamped in black ‘CCCXVIII – 1’ bottom right
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
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
The composition has echoes of the ambitious 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),9 with its night-time revellers crowding the Piazza. Ian Warrell has linked the present work with three similar grey-brown sheets showing evening or night views from the main square, looking past the campanile down the Piazzetta towards the viewpoint here (Tate D32250, D32256, D32258; Turner Bequest CCCXIX 2, 8, 10).10
This sheet was inadvertently listed twice in Finberg’s 1909 Inventory;11 the second instance, Turner Bequest CCCXIX 11,12 was initially assigned the subsequently cancelled Tate accession number D32259. The confusion appears to have arisen owing to the work’s long circulation as part of the First Loan Collection from the Bequest, as one of the ‘few of Turner’s “brown paper” series ... considered worthy of being exhibited until comparatively recently’, as Warrell has noted.13
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.
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).
Warrell noted the grey-brown sheets as being torn into two formats: nine sheets of approximately 148 x 232 mm (Tate D32220, D32249–D32250, D32252–D32253, D32255–D32258; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 1, CCCXIX 1, 2, 4, 5, 7–10), and seven of twice the size, at about 231 x 295 mm (Tate D32223, D32226, D32228–D32229, D32231, D32233, D32242; Turner Bequest CCCXVIII 4, 7, 9, 10, 12, 14, 23).
‘Appendix: The papers used for Turner’s Venetian Watercolours’ (1840, section 11) in Warrell 2003, p.259; see also sections 9 and 10.
Blank; inscribed by Turner in ink ‘7’ top left. For the artist’s various annotations to his 1840 Venice sheets, see the overall Introduction to the tour.

Matthew Imms
September 2018

How to cite

Matthew Imms, ‘Figures in the Piazzetta, Venice, at Night, with the Basilica and Campanile of San Marco (St Mark’s) 1840 by Joseph Mallord William Turner’, catalogue entry, September 2018, in David Blayney Brown (ed.), J.M.W. Turner: Sketchbooks, Drawings and Watercolours, Tate Research Publication, December 2019, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/jmw-turner/joseph-mallord-william-turner-figures-in-the-piazzetta-venice-at-night-with-the-basilica-r1197043, accessed 25 February 2021.