Museum Home Past Exhibitions Light and Water

May 17–August 21, 2005 at the Getty Center

Campo S. Polo / Guardi
View of Campo San Polo, Francesco Guardi, about 1790
video Video: Curator Julian Brooks introduces the exhibition.

In the 18th century, Venetian artists interpreted the light and colorful Rococo style with creativity and energy. Their extraordinary drawings evoke the unusual light of the "floating city."

This exhibition presents city views, caricatures, history scenes, portraits, and playful fantasies by the most successful artists of 18th-century Venice. While some were preparatory sketches for paintings, many were intended as highly finished works of art in their own right.

Drawings by these artists were widely collected not only by Venetians, but also by the many tourists who came to Venice to see its wonders and enjoy its festivals, such as the famous carnevale (carnival).

Views and Visions

Surrounded by water, and with canals as streets, Venice presented a theatrical setting for its palaces, piazzas, and churches. Artists captured these sights with their distinctive light and made fantasy views inspired by them.

The sketch above shows San Polo, the second largest square in Venice. The artist, Francesco Guardi, exaggerated the depth of the space to heighten the drama. He used thin washes for the clouds, filling the scene with sunlight and moving shadow.

Flight into Egypt / Tiepolo
Flight into Egypt, Giambattista Tiepolo, about 1725–1735
audio Listen to a discussion of this image.

Historical and Biblical Narratives

Venetian artists were particularly known for the creative way in which they told dramatic stories through their drawings. Theatrical arrangements of figures and novel, imaginative approaches to storytelling combined to make their drawings highly collectible.

Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Tiepolo's Flight into Egypt tells the story of the escape of the Holy Family from Herod's soldiers. The family is usually represented traveling with a donkey, but Tiepolo reinterpreted the scene, instead featuring a typically Venetian boat. Working spontaneously with brown wash, he constructed the entire scene from patches of shadow.

A Seated Man Playing a Guitar, Pietro Antonio Novelli, about 1760
learn_more See a close-up of the man's face.

Characters and Caricatures

Caricatures, in which human characteristics are exaggerated for comic or tragic effect, were particularly popular in Venice.

This drawing, probably a design for a print, shows a well-dressed man serenading his beloved outside her window. The inscription in a Venetian dialect reads, "to relieve the beloved of her longing, he sings while scratching the guitar."

The words smara and chittara also had vulgar meanings in the slang of the period, giving the inscription a bawdy tone.

Muse / Carriera
A Muse, Rosalba Carriera, about 1725

Heads and Portraits

Artists drew portraits and studies of heads both in preparation for later paintings and as finished works of art in their own right. Some were portraits of distinct individuals, while other were imaginary or idealized characters.

Rosalba Carriera, one of the few female artists in 18th-century Venice, became internationally famous for her exquisite pastel portraits. In this drawing she used velvety blends of pastel colors to render the ivory skin, flushed cheek, and wavy hair of a classical muse. The darkened background emphasizes the setting of the head in space.

Punchinellos Approaching Woman / Tiepolo
Punchinellos Approaching a Woman, Giambattista Tiepolo, late 1730s
learn_more See a close-up of the woman's face.

Performance and Imagination

Improvised comedy sketches by traveling commedia dell'arte troupes were popular in 18th-century Venice. From their stock of characters comes Punchinello, a figure with a hunchback and a beaklike mask who is brave, humorous, lazy, bawdy, and proud. He and his band of friends in similar costume, also called punchinellos, became a regular feature in drawings by Giambattista Tiepolo and those of his son Domenico.

Punchinellos accost a drunken woman in this drawing. One approaches from the side, a second lifts her skirt from behind, and two more lurk in the background. The woman's beaklike nose and hat comically echo the hats and masks of the punchinellos.

Warwick Castle / Canaletto
Warwick Castle, Canaletto, about 1748

Venetian Artists Abroad

Many Venetian artists won prestigious commissions abroad and, responding to their growing fame, moved to work outside Italy. This helped to spread the decorative and colorful Venetian style of painting across Europe.

Canaletto's views of Venice became so famous with English visitors to the city that in 1746 the artist moved to London. This drawing is a study for a painting of Warwick Castle made for an English buyer. It reflects a delight in details of local life, such as the huntsman with a rifle and dog, and the wood stacked against the castle walls.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Center, Museum, East Pavilion.