(Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris, 25 February-25 June 2017)
The Venetians went down dancing. As their commercial and military power ebbed away in the 18th century, they became famous for something else: their carnival. Visitors were drawn by the lure of the masquerade: by the temptation of anonymity, liberty and decadence. But Venice didn’t just come alive at that period between Christmas and the onset of sober, joy-killing Lent. On the contrary, there were festivals all year round: regattas to welcome distinguished visitors; state ceremonies staged like fabulous plays; and the theatre itself, finding its most sumptuous form in Venetian operas. This small-scale exhibition in an equally bijou museum focuses in on Venice en fête, a phrase for which there is, perhaps tellingly, no English equivalent. With the Royal Collection‘s Canaletto show looming on the horizon, like the Bucintoro hoving into view, I thought this would be an excellent way to whet my appetite.
Things kick off with an appetiser: a room of merriment of various kinds. Drawings and small paintings sit happily together, and I was pleased to see one of Giandomenico Tiepolo’s Scenes of everyday life. This, titled La Malvasia, takes us into the courtyard of a wineshop where one of the patrons is so giddily tipsy that he’s performing a little dance for the master of the house, who looks on with an unreadable expression. Is he pointing to a barrel, to offer the dancing man more wine? Or is he encouraging him to get out of his tavern and stop lowering the tone? Opposite hang a pair of little scenes by Pietro Longhi, which show the Venetians in a more civilised mood: in the Accademia’s Concert (1741), for example, a group of elegant violinists play a trio while a priest and monk play at cards in the background. Such is life in the Serenissima: even the men of God enjoy a bit of fun! But the clouds are already gathering: on the far wall hangs a large drawing by Giacomo Guardi. It shows a Tree of Liberty set up in the Piazza San Marco on 4 June 1797, with which the Napoleonic French troops sought to prove that they’d emancipated the city. In fact, they had set it on its final, irrevocable decline.
But, while the sun still shone, it was brilliant. The second, very small room focuses on theatre and opera in Venice and, at the far end, I spotted the picture that had especially drawn me. The Cognacq-Jay have included a small portrait of Farinelli from the Musée Carnavalet, painted around 1740 by his friend Jacopo Amigoni. Farinelli is in his mid-thirties, the prime of life, and for once he has a slight touch of self-importance in that smile, the faintest hint that he realises how unbelievably famous he is. A pearl drop hangs discreetly from one earlobe and Amigoni paints him swathed in scarlet. Nearby is a print showing the spectacular interior of the theatre of San Samuele, and a slightly sunk drawing by Canaletto from the V&A, showing the kind of entertainment that ordinary people enjoyed – no flamboyant opera singers here, but a makeshift commedia dell’ arte stage in the Piazza San Marco.
Venice had always been acutely aware of the impact of visual display, and the third room of the exhibition explores this under the title ‘Power as Spectacle’. That power could have many different sources, of course. The city’s own power could be broadcast to foreigners through its sumptuous entertainments, such as those mounted in January 1782 to welcome the Russian ‘counts of the North’, namely the Tsarevich Paul and his wife, Maria Feodorovna. The theatre of San Benedetto is transformed into a vast dining room, with a table spanning the stage and attended by scores of well-dressed guests; the Piazza San Marco becomes a bull ring. And Venice could play her part even when the royals weren’t there to be entertained: there’s a fabulous painting by Giovanni Battista Cimaroli, showing the temporary monuments built by the French ambassador to celebrate the wedding of the Dauphin Louis and Maria Teresa of Spain in 1745. Never one to do things by halves, the ambassador built a tower in the centre of the canal, bearing the arms of France, with a terrace where musicians played to entertain the nobles whose gondolas brought them past. The mind boggles at how much it must have cost.
Power was no less visual or impressive when it was political. Two paintings by Francesco Guardi, one from Grenoble and one from Brussels, show the newly-elected Doge Alvise IV Mocenigo being presented to his people. At first he’s inside San Marco but then moves out into the Piazza in a kind of pulpit carried along by a band of men. At either side, men with sticks keep the populace back (or beat them back, perhaps, though it’s hardly rowdy). The Doges could certainly put on a good show, but that didn’t ultimately save them – though their taste for spectacle persisted under their French successors. Three stunning Giuseppe Borsato paintings from Versailles (surely freshly cleaned, as the blue skies are amazingly fresh) show festivals that accompanied Napoleon’s one and only visit to the city in 1807. The spectacle has become overblown, bloated on self-importance. Vast triumphal arches rise from the Grand Canal; the Emperor and his suite travel in gondolas so weighted with gold and plumes that it’s a wonder they don’t sink. Venice had begun its transformation into a stage set.
But we close on a high, with the Carnival itself. In this final room there are more Longhis, tempting us in to the pleasures of a masked ball or a ridotto, where ladies hide their faces with the strange circular mask known as la muta – because, to keep it on, the lady had to clench a peg between her teeth. In a double-page spread from an album, we can admire a gondola in the form of a (rather terrifying) dolphin, designed for a regatta in honour of the visiting Edward Augustus, Duke of York (the younger brother of George III). And, most beautiful of all, there are two gondola (or, technically, bissona) designs by Francesco Guardi, lent by the V&A. Guardi is mostly known as a painter of Venetian landscapes, and rightly so, but he also drew a handful of these airy, fanciful gondolas, whose contours seem to shimmer and melt as if they’re reflections, too slender to be substantial. One of the gondolas is crewed by Chinese figures, in a nod to the 18th-century taste for the exotic; the other features the figure of Fame at its prow, her trumpet raised to her lips. They give a further taste of how marvellous, how inventive and how elegant the Venetian imagination could be.
This is a small show, but it’s a pleasing introduction to the Venetian flair for entertainment. The show at the Royal Collection will probably be broader in scope, but I know that it’s going to feature some similar themes. Do stop by if you’re in Paris, especially because the Cognacq-Jay itself is such a sweet little museum. And, if you have time, you might even be able to make it upstairs (as I wasn’t able to), where my leaflet tells me there are costumes to be tried on…