Piazza San Marco, Venice

By Neal Hovelmeier

Oil on canvas, 1734, by Canaletto (1697 – 1768)

Global pandemics permitting, you happen to be in Italy, seeing the sights, indulging in homemade pasta and authentic gelato. It’s costing you a fortune. Crowds throng the piazzas, you queue for everything and tourist charges are exploitative, but it’s the price you pay for modern consumerism. Naturally you want to see it all: the Colosseum and the Trevi in Rome, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, the statue of David in Florence, and, of course, the canals and gondolas of Venice. You have no particular regard for any of these landmarks, but somehow you have jumped on the tourist bandwagon and cannot seem to get off. You have an iPhone and you snap away: it’s human nature to want to record an impression of the places you have visited, the memories you associate with them, mementos of those few exceptions to the commonplace banality of everyday life.

Because it’s 2020, you can take thousands of instantaneous images by pointing a device at a panorama and pressing a single button. As we’ve become increasingly inward looking people – self-centred rather than selfless – most of us invert the image-taking device (it’s not a proper camera, not really) on ourselves making us the subject of every shot with just a smattering of some historic touchstone lurking unfocused and disregarded in the background. The ‘Selfie’ makes narcissists of us all, so instead of appreciating the uniqueness of our surroundings, we study the images of ourselves longingly as if in a refractive lake, deploying techno-gimmicks to ‘photo-shop’ ourselves into a more presentable version of reality, commensurate with the pressures of modern fashion and style. All the time we are falling more helplessly in love with our own image and so after pressing a couple more buttons you’ve brazenly posted a selection of these reproductions on your Facebook page and Instagram account. And, because it’s 2020 and we have regressed semantically back into Pharaonic times, you become excited when your friends (who are not really your friends) react to this vain status-signalling by appending infantile symbology in the form of primitive hieroglyphics popularly called emoji’s.

Ah, the modern world. But was it any different three or four centuries ago? The Grand Tour of Europe became such a popular pastime of the monied classes that it was practically considered an essential rite of passage for young men just out of school or university. Somehow they had to discharge youth’s desire for excess, so best do it out of sight in a foreign land where scandal could be contained. For the aristocracy, the notion of a semi-nomadic existence fulfilled an increasing expectation to signal wealth via the acquisition of material possessions. Gone was the stark pragmatism defined by the temporality of the Medieval age where your castle or manor house risked being sacked and torched by one waring faction or the next. Instead an age of permanence, refinement and splendour cemented your claim to a fixed seat at the higher dinner tables in the land: the more you owned and displayed, the more established you were, the less easy it became to extinguish you.

Hence the landed gentry travelled principally to acquire a body of art and collectables on the cheap from dime a dozen artists and artisans in order to clutter up the corridors and drawing rooms of their grand stately homes. In the absence of a camera, what better way to denote your status than by displaying a view of a grand scene you can personally claim to have frequented? Preceding both the photo and the postcard, paintings of landscapes therefore primarily served as the pedometers of the time: they marked your passage across lands, the further away the more prized and exotic. Your presence in these parts, by virtue of the wealth that transported and accompanied you there, became a de facto way of laying claim to faraway territories, to satiate that innate conquering sensibility. You no longer needed an army to invade a foreign culture; money itself served as an ample agent of subjugation. Of course in principle, anyone can own a landscape of a place they have never been to, but that in itself is an admission of how we covet the faraway precipices of an imagination we would sooner replace by an experience of the actual and the physical.

How is lining the walls of your grand home with status signals of where you have travelled any different to posting pics of that special holiday on Instagram? How is having your portrait flatteringly painted and hung in the grand entrance hall any different to photo-shopped selfie culture? Undoubtedly affordable technology coupled with the portability of the readymade device has radically democratised our human propensity for show and tell. We are all players now in the game of spatial coloniality and the commodification of the self. But in the same way such mass proliferation has also made the collectable image almost entirely redundant, not to mention valueless. Being no longer the preserve of the wealthy means that no worth is attached to the end product; attempting to fix value to a self-made image is akin to saying that we ought to charge for the air we breathe. Captured transience, once possibly the very epitome of scientific fascination, is paradoxically now a mere sign of our relative indifference to achievement. If any value at all is attached to mass reproduction of the lived-experience, it now resides in the most elitist domain yet known to man: there in the clutches of celebrity culture.

Enter Canaletto. To see Piazza San Marco in a gallery is to be both delighted and dismayed. In fact, the experience is tinged with a sense of alarm. You look on what is an arresting scene of classical Venice, vivid and detailed, and you are gratified to register in it a sense of artistry and aesthetic quality – it’s undoubtedly a thing of great beauty – and yet you cannot help but force yourself to the realisation that your perception of it in these terms is false and disingenuous. A larger truth lies in accepting how corroded our sense of taste has actually become over time; that there has been a comparative decline in our ability to stabilise aesthetic standards.

Piazza San Marco was commissioned from Canaletto for a few ducats by the Duke of Leeds to commemorate his visit to Venice in 1734. It was not worth very much, nor meant to be valued more than a fancy print or postcard of St Mark’s Square. Today we would snap that photo or buy the postcard for a Euro and either act would take minimum effort in order to see the transfer of desire into possession. And herein lies the rub: so obsessed are we with procuring that instant image that we have surrendered notions of aesthetic quality. Such a painting would have taken Canaletto himself a great deal more time and effort and yet it would still have been little more than an object, a signifier of sorts, at its purest a prompt for memory. The fact that we value it so highly today as a ‘collectable’ is itself a lamentation on the depravations artistic standards have suffered in the age of the mass produced artefact: we would not do so if attention to detail, and such artistry, were now not so rare.

In a manner of speaking, the painting constitutes a kind of ‘anti-art’ or art intentionally stripped of its artistic constituency. Canaletto produced scene after scene of Venice, knowing he had a ready market. As such, evidence the totally stripped sense of personality from the scene: the huddled groups of Venetians on the square are obviously generic, typified, almost stock figures. They are ‘cut and paste’ depictions: their attitudes and attire stylised to the point of cliché. In addition, there is a sense of the clinical about the surface of the piazza: it has undoubtedly been sanitised and cleansed for a more genteel set of eyes. This was photo-shopping by design and demand. There is something ostentatiously romanticised about the Byzantine architecture of the Basilica too: the imposing bell tower standing pronounced as an overt biblical symbol. The trapezoidal shape of St Mark’s square has been carefully moderated and the perspective clearly sharpened to accentuate the decorative aspect of the ornamental marble pattern we see in the stone pavement. Despite the intention of the piece as a product of sentimentality, we yet marvel at its razor-sharp draughtsmanship and its glowing veneered sheen. It is undoubtedly beautiful to us now, even if it represented all the cynicism attendant with social mobility for its day we have now come to despise in our own.

Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.

Neal Hovelmeier is a Zimbabwean novelist, academic and educator. He is a Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. He holds a PhD in the humanities from the University of the Witwatersrand. For more of his writing visit www.nealhovelmeier.com

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