Object Image

Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day

Looking across the basin of San Marco, this vast view captures the scale and splendour of a ceremony taking place along the waterfront. Boats carrying spectators and animated gondoliers surround the gold and red state barge or Bucintoro, its upper deck crowded with figures. Every year on Ascension Day, the Bucintoro was rowed out onto the lagoon where the doge (the head of the Venetian state) cast a blessed ring into the water to symbolise the marriage of Venice and the sea.

A large crowd gathers along the quay; more spectators spill onto the balconies of the Doge's Palace to the right and peer out from the bell tower of San Marco beyond. Canaletto conjured up this eager audience with great precision, in places using careful dots of paint to create the swarm of people. A hazy light illuminates the facades of the buildings and casts beautiful, soft reflections on the water.

This pair of paintings - A Regatta on the Grand Canal and The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day - captures two of the most popular annual festivals in eighteenth-century Venice: the gondola races and the Wedding of the Sea ceremony. Both fell into decline during the late eighteenth century but were revived in 1965 and are still enjoyed today.

Both events celebrate the history of the Venetian Republic. The regatta commemorates a naval victory against the forces of Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia) around the year 1000; the Wedding of the Sea relates to a peace treaty of 1178 between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy, witnessed by the Doge (elected head) of Venice. He received a blessed ring from the Pope.

The paintings were made around 1740, when Canaletto produced his most commercially successful works. They were designed to appeal to wealthy foreign visitors as a reminder of Venice's outstanding beauty and unique entertainments.

Credit: Bequeathed by Lord Revelstoke, 1929

c. 1740
Oil on canvas
121.9 x 182.8cm
Image and text © The National Gallery, London, 2024

Where you'll find this

National Gallery