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Transcript of 'View of the Piazza San Giovanni e Paolo' podcast

The majority of the paintings that are in the Lady Lever Art Gallery are substantial pictures that have ended up here in a gallery and began life, in many cases, in fact I'd go so far as to say the majority of cases, began life being exhibited at the Royal Academy or some other major exhibiting institution with substantial rooms.

This picture is one of a number of pictures by James Holland of Venice; you can see others over there, other views of St Mark's Square, another view of St Mark's Square, over there a view of the Rialto Bridge. This particular view is probably the best of these Vienna pictures. But they are all small, they're all domestic-size pictures, they're all pictures one could have at home if you like.

And they have had to be grouped up, rather than hung on their own on the large wall spaces that are here at the Lady Lever. There is a sense in which the majority of pictures in the Lady Lever Art Gallery were painted for extremely prosperous people, but these ones were painted for a sort of prosperous, middle-class clientele. They're different in that respect.

And they very much reflect the difference that Venice, the subject of the pictures meant for patrons of pictures, patrons of artists.

Holland, who painted this picture, is not an artist of any great merit, let's be quite clear. He is a fairly derivative artist. He's not somebody if you're studying art history you'd spend a lot of time on. He was an extremely prolific artist. He started life as a china painter, a decorative painter, and he eventually found his niche with views like this of Venice, which sold very well indeed.

Just to set the context, this picture was painted in 1848, it's a view of a square in Venice, it's a view of a square in Venice that is the second most important square in Venice. It's actually a very small space, compared with the most important square in Venice, the Piazza San Marco. It's a square which as you can see has in the background a church, the church of St Giovanno e Paulo, St John and St Paul, a statue on a plinth here, some shops over here, you can still get very nice ice-cream in the shops over here, a cup of coffee.

And what you can't see over to the left here is the religious fraternity building - a beautiful marble building of the scuole - which translates very badly into English as the school, the school of San Marco the religious fraternity of San Marco, which is now the main entrance into the civic hospital in Venice.

So, it's actually a very busy space, particularly at visiting times, this square.

In front, here, is a canal. We're in fact seeing the view from the edge of the canal.

The picture was painted in 1848 and that's a very significant year as I shall say later. Four years before this picture was painted Venice had finally been connected to the mainland of Italy with a railway connection. They built across the lagoon and brought a railway right into the centre of Venice.

Ruskin, who is the great critic and writer about all sorts of things, but one associates him particularly with Venice, his famous stones of Venice. Ruskin has spent an enormous amount of time in this church that you can see in the picture, up ladders, drawing windows and drawing tombs and generally complaining about the degeneracy that had come over Venetian art.

Ruskin said that this railway connection to Venice was hideous. It was so hideous that it resembled the docks in Liverpool. What he was thinking of, of course, was the new docks, the new Albert docks, the Jesse Hartley docks. And, in fact, they do look a little bit like that, they are very, very well built indeed.

But 1844 meant that people could come to Venice by railway and they could more or less get from England to Venice by railway.

Now, 10 years before, getting to Venice was part of the Grand Tour, was part of that exercise in education and indulgence that the English aristocracy imposed on their children, where they went with coaches and servants and the whole paraphernalia to Italy on a trip that might last anything up to a year and a half. And it was extremely expensive.

But what happened with that railway connection was that Venice if you like no longer was something associated with the Grand Tour, it became something associated with a much more middle class thing - Cook's tours, it became possible to go on holiday to Venice.

And Holland was one of the artists who to middle-class people they were prosperous, they weren't poor, but to middle-class people Holland was somebody who provided these small-scale pictures which people brought back with them.

So, they are pictures that are made for an audience, they are pictures that are made for a tourist audience and I think most importantly for an audience with expectations. People anticipate what they are going to see - highlights, show me the highlights.

And their expectations of what they are going to see were very much shaped by what they'd heard and what they'd read. Now this picture was painted in 1848, yet if we look at the various figures in the picture, if we look at the priest here, these women who are gathered here in the corner round an altar, these individuals that are lying down beside a market stall, these various figures in the background, particularly this man in the black coat with his three-cornered hat - they are not 19th century people are they? They're not, they are in 18th century costume and, in fact, some of the other costume looks vaguely 17th or even 16th century.

And this is important because what Holland was doing, is painting a Venice that had already ceased to exist. In 1848, Venice was no longer an independent country. It had died, it had gone in 1797, with the invasion of Venice by Napoleon and it kicked around as a country as a city-state between French and Austrian control for a while until it eventually became part of Austria. It became what it was when this picture was painted the richest province of the Austrian empire - Venice and the Veneto. But the Venice that's painted is populated with people from the past, it's a sort of, one hesitates to use the word, Disneyland of Venice, but it's a Venice that's already of fantasy rather than reality and I'll expand a little on this later.

When you go to Venice, or when you think about Venice, you can't not be conscious of one of the great view painters of Venice - the 18th century artist Canaletto, Canaletto was 18th century Grand Tourists' idea of a great artist. Most of the great views of Venice that were made by Canaletto are in British collections.

British aristocrats bought them for their collections and brought them home. Lesser mortals could buy engraved prints of the same subject. These are usually about this big, about 3 foot by 2. I'm going to show you some reproductions on a much smaller scale but this is really what everybody brought back from Venice, were prints that looked like this one as you can see of the square of San Giovanni e Paulo.

Now, what I'm suggesting is that audiences had expectations based upon key views and artists weren't stupid, were they? They fitted in with what the expectations were, even a very, very great artist who was contemporary with Holland and who was in a totally different league to Holland, Turner, when he painted Venetian subjects, he painted views that registered in people's minds on the basis of those images of Canaletto, for example that image over there looking across the lagoon to St Mark's Square to the Doge's Palace is an image that Canaletto made famous in various pictures.

So, we see Holland then as a middle-ranking figure, painting pictures that to some extent were selected for him. What were the other expectations of the potential purchasers of this picture? I want first of all to show you something. This is a very small map, a reproduction of what was the most famous piece of printing that was done in 1500. It's the great map, the great plan of Venice by Jacopo de Barbari. The real size of this print in various bits of paper is about 10 foot tall, by fourteen foot long.

It's a big, big picture. It's a triumphant piece of printing, of wood-block printing. It's fantastically useful now because it's a bird's-eye view, have you thought about how difficult that must have been to do, no balloons! But it's a conjectural bird's-eye view of Venice and it's immensely useful now for getting an idea of exactly what places looked like in 1500 and there are very few books on Venice that don't reproduce a bit, or part, or all of this map.

Now, I want you to hold that end of the map for me, because I just want to show you where we are. Here is St Mark's Square, this big square here. And, if we look over in this direction, we've got San Giovanni e Paulo. Do you see there the statue? And you see there the facade of the hospital and there's the side of the church. So that's what we're looking at.

Okay.

It was the second most important square in Venice. The Venetians had always had a great suspicion about kings and a great suspicion about over-centralised authority and the rule of individuals. They went to enormous lengths to ensure that when they chose their Doge, their leader, his powers were fantastically limited. At the end of his reign he actually wrote down a record of what he thought he'd done and then another load of people wrote down a record of what they thought he'd done wrong.

And then the next Doge would take that into account. So, it's fantastically circumscribed. And if you look at the election process for a Doge, it starts off with go out into the piazza and get the first you meet to come in and draw a ball out of a box, then choose 30 people, those 30 people, choose 10 people, those 10 people will choose 40 people, those 40 people will choose 30 people, those 30 will choose 10 people, they will then, by lot, draw another group of 40 people and then they'll choose the person.

So they took enormous trouble to keep their republic very much in the control of the hundred families, 2000 men approximately who ruled it. But Venice was famous for being in the 16th, 17th, 18th century a republic. they didn't like the cult of the individual.

During the 15th century Venice had to fight various wars on the mainland of Italy. Previously they'd fought wars at a distance, across the seas, but there were various wars that had to be fought and they didn't have a standing army. So they did what most people did they bought one or rather they got some mercenaries in and they got somebody who was a good leader.

The man on this statue, his surname is Colleoni, he was one of these mercenary generals who worked for the Venetian republic. It was a very dodgy and tricky thing to employ a mercenary because at any point they might change sides. But Colleoni didn't, he was from Bergamo, which you can now fly to from Liverpool airport and so therefore you can go and see his chapel in Bergamo Cathedral, but Colleoni when he died left his fortune to Venice.

And it was an enormous amount of money. And Venice was actually having a bad time, they were fighting a war with the Turks and they wanted the money. the only problem was he left to them on one condition, that they put up a statue to him in front of St Mark's.

Now nobody got a statue, there are lots of statues now in Venice but if you look at them you'll see they're mostly to do with funeral monuments on the sides of churches or they're 19th century statues. But they really weren't prepared to put up a statue to a military figure in the main civic space of San Marco, Doges didn't get that sort of statue.

So they thought about it and decided that they would use the best artist - they got Verocchio from Florence - you couldn't do much better than that and it would be made of bronze and it would go in front of the scuole of San Marco, which is just over here to the side, go in front of the fraternity of Saint Mark, rather than the Piazza San Marco.

And that was how they got round that little problem.

People looking at pictures of Italy had expectations and artists as I say conformed to those expectations. What did people think, what did tourists think of Italians?

What did 18th century British tourists think of Italians?

When one reads 19th century tourists or writers, writing about Italy, they write about Italians very much as though they are not to be trusted with their own country. If the prejudice survives I think it's interesting, but essentially the idea about Italians were that they were lazy, the were priest-ridden, they weren't British, they were Roman Catholic, they were superstitious. Despite the fact that Ruskin was going into this church and doing all that work on these monuments and these measurements he was incredibly critical about the way in which the Italians looked after this stuff.

And he was always thinking about the possibility of some of this art being brought back to England. There is one particular altarpiece by Giovanni Bellini in a church near here which he wrote to his father and said 'we could get this you know for the price of one good Turner', the famous Bellini altarpiece in San Zachariah, that's what he was talking about.

So, that's the prejudice. At it's nicest, it's picturesque isn't it. At it's basest, it's racist isn't it?

In picturesque form we see it in this picture here. We see this man asleep with 3 or 4 pumpkins not making much effort to sell them. Or in this little group of women here, gathered around an outside altar, praying devoutly, carrying candles, somebody over here selling religious trinkets.

Now I was in Venice last week and I was here last Tuesday and that altar isn't there, it doesn't exist, which I think is interesting because what it means is that it's been added as a sort of picturesque focal point for something that has been said about typical behaviour by superstitious Italians, we've got to show them praying, on their knees, some people selling stuff and they'll be lying down doing it.

The person getting this picture is getting what they're prejudices want, if you like. It's all part of the deal. It refers to art that's gone, it refers to a Venice that's gone in the past and it reinforces certain prejudices.

What was it really like in 1848, here? This square existed, people lived in these houses, people went to church, people went to Mass. What was it really like? It's a very famous space, it's a very famous church. It was the church where all the Doges of Venice for 500 years had their requiem mass. they were brought here from the canal, walked across here through the door into this great big Dominican church and their final religious service was said - the Requiem Mass. And then they were either buried here, 25 Doges buried here, or then taken to their local parish church or monastery that they were attached to, or convent or whatever where they wanted to be buried.

So it had great spiritual significance. But what was it like living around here, what sort of a neighbourhood was it?

One of the things that happened in 1848 in this square were bread riots. 1848 is one of those dates like 1066 that should ring bells - 1848 is the year of revolutions in Europe. In Paris, in Vienna and in Venice. Venice threw off the yoke of Austria for just over a year and became a republic again. The Venetians blew up part of that railway bridge that I was telling you about and dug in to defend themselves and ultimately they fought over the whole area of northern Italy that is part of the Veneto, but ultimately they were confined to the city of Venice itself and they experienced in 1848, particularly summer and autumn, the sort of privations that you associate with any siege - hunger, use of inferior grain for bread, high prices and so on.  Starvation, cholera, etc..

One of the things that was characteristic of the year 1848 which was when this picture was painted and if it is a summer picture for 1848, was there were no tourists in Venice, there were no more tourists in Venice than you'd expect to get in Baghdad.

Venice was off-limits and it wasn't until 1849, with the return of the Austrians to control, that Venice again became a place that people can go to for their holidays.

But none of that, of course, is there, is it? None of that is in the picture, and none of that is what people wanted in their picture, anymore than people want pictures of refugees above their fireplaces, they're much, much happier with pictures of sunsets going down over elephants drinking water in Africa.

So that's what we're dealing with in this picture. Something that is very much conforming to the rather clichéd expectations of the audience and the rather clichéd expectations of an artist about what his audience wanted.

It's only really towards the end of the 19th century that we find photographers and we find artists painting other parts of Venice, but even then it does tend to be rather that they change from panoramic big views, big scene views, to small scene views and it becomes another kind of picturesqueness. Whole successions of artists - Monet, Manet, Whistler, Sickert painted Venetian subjects later on in the 19th century and it's almost as though the city just doesn't make them record reality - Death in Venice by Thomas Mann is getting toward something that is a bit more disturbing, isn't it? But there's not a lot about art in relation to Venice that has much to do with the more painful side of life.

Now what I wasn't able to do before this talk today was to find out when Lever bought this. Whether in fact this was one of the pictures that is part of his early collecting or simply part of his late collecting. I suspect it came as a job-lot with a lot of other pictures which he bought at various times, he tended to buy in big groups and he tended to be advised on what he was going to buy.

So, we're looking today then at something fairly minor that probably has more interest in the end about what it tells us about people at the time who were buying art and their relationship with Venice that it does about great art in the 19th century.