By the 18th century, Venice was in decline. But when it transformed itself from treasure house to pleasure house, the world came flocking. John Julius Norwich looks at the paintings the visitors took home

There is a curious phenomenon, one that we see again and again in the history of European art, whereby one country or city explodes with a sudden genius, raising it to an incomparably higher artistic plane than that of any of its neighbors. This brilliance continues perhaps for a hundred years or so, after which, often quite suddenly, it fades. The Angel passes on, and shortly afterwards touches another community with his wing, causing it to blaze in its turn. In the 15th century he was over Flanders, in the 16th over Venice, in the 17th over Holland. (Isn't it extraordinary that most of us find it hard to name a single Dutch painter of the 16th or 18th centuries? Whereas of the 17th we can think of a dozen or more off the top of our heads.)

At the dawn of the 18th, wonder of wonders, the Angel returned to Venice. It was just as well, because for more than 200 years Venetian painters seem, quite unaccountably, to have taken their miraculous city for granted. We have to go back to Gentile Bellini and Carpaccio to get any idea of it, and even they used it only as a backdrop to what were essentially narrative paintings. But at this time there seems to have been a general awakening to a wonderful and exciting truth: that they, the Venetians, were living in the most beautiful city in the world. And they settled down to celebrate it.

Thanks to these view-painters, the vedutisti, we know more about the architecture and general layout of 18th century Venice than we do of any other European city; and as we look at their work we are instantly struck by how astonishingly little it has changed. Their contemporaries, returning today to London or Paris, would find themselves in a different world; the Venetians, on the other hand, would feel completely at home, picking their way unhesitatingly through every calle, across every canal. The reason, it need hardly be said, is the water. Venice's boundaries are fixed. She has no suburbs. Her canals may occasionally be filled in – as happened all too often during the Austrian occupation – but their courses cannot be changed. Most important of all, her unique environment has spared her the greatest municipal curse of the 20th century – the motor car.

It seems hard to believe, but 40 years ago there was a serious proposal to convert the Grand Canal into a six-lane highway – in which case St Mark's Square would have become the world's most beautiful car park. Today, thank God, nobody thinks any more along those lines, though the 21st century has come up with a curse of its own – the 5,000-passenger cruise ship.

But to return to the vedutisti: it has often been pointed out that their Venice was a city in decline. No longer did she hold the gorgeous East in fee; no longer did her Doge proudly claim the title of Lord of a Quarter and Half a Quarter of the Roman Empire; no longer was she mistress even of the Mediterranean – the Turks, who had captured Constantinople in 1453 and who by now occupied every one of her former commercial colonies, had seen to that. Those days were long gone when her presence was felt as far away as China; when her tremendous Arsenal was able to turn out a fully rigged ship in 24 hours. The opening up of the New World, which in the 16th century had brought untold wealth to Spain, Portugal and England, had completely passed by Venice. The Mediterranean itself was fast becoming little more than a backwater; and – although nobody knew it – her once-great Republic was within a very few decades of its death throes.

Deprived of any visible means of support, Venice was in a serious quandary. How was she going to survive? Then, in perhaps 1680 or thereabouts, somebody had a brainwave. One would love to know just what happened. Did some senator suddenly leap to his feet and shout "Eureka!"? Did the idea take shape only slowly, in the course of long and agonized debates? The Republic's voluminous archives, all still carefully preserved in Venice, give no indication that I have been able to find, but the suddenness of the change that took place in the city's whole way of life strongly suggests that it was the result of a deliberate decision. "We must simply transform ourselves," said somebody. "If we can no longer be the Treasure-house of Europe, why don't we become the Pleasure-house?"

And so Venice did. Her timing could hardly have been better, for the end of the 17th century saw the beginnings of the Grand Tour. It was the age when tourism might be said to have been invented. Wealthy young milords from all over the Continent, accompanied by their tutors and valets, flocked to Italy. As beneficiaries of a good, sound classical education, they headed first for Rome; but their return journey led them inexorably to Venice, which was the bit that they had been looking forward to all along. Nor were they disappointed. Here the gambling was the most smoothly organized, the stakes the highest to be found anywhere; here the courtesans were the loveliest and the most elegant, catering for every taste, able to satisfy the most fastidious and exacting of clients. For those visitors of more intellectual proclivities there were books, pictures and sculptures to be bought, churches and palaces to be wondered at – to say nothing of the music and opera for which Venice was famous throughout the civilized world.

In all branches of the arts the foremost collector and connoisseur was an Englishman, Joseph Smith. He had settled in Venice in 1700, and remained one of its most distinguished foreign residents until his death, at the age of 88, 70 years later. In 1744 he was appointed British Consul, in which capacity he would inevitably be visited by all his compatriots doing their Grand Tour, soon after their arrival. By this time he had become the chief agent and go-between for most of the leading Venetian painters, including Canaletto; and he soon made himself indispensable to artists and patrons alike. Most of the Grand Tourists returned home with the happiest of memories, a couple of Canalettos and a mild dose of the clap. It is largely thanks to Smith that virtually all the master's best work is in England. Venice possesses scarcely a single canvas – but there, the Venetians had only to look out of the window.

None of the three paintings in this sale is by Canaletto, but one look at them shows their quality; all three painters were at the top of their game. Cimaroli's view of the piazza in all its glory, seen through a slightly wide-angle lens, shows it with just the right number of people – unlike today when it is like Harrods two days before Christmas. The same is true of Carlevarijs' piazzetta, with the winged lion about to take off from his pedestal and the domes of the Salute misty in the background. Finally, we have Zanin's Scuola di S. Marco, surely the loveliest hospital in the world, the canal on its left leading directly, and most conveniently, to the cemetery island of S. Michele, a few hundred yards away across the Lagoon. Can I have all three, please?

John Julius Norwich is one of the world's most respected authorities on Venice.

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