WE British have never been very good at enjoying ourselves. Perhaps that's why, traditionally, we escape to Venice at the drop of a hat. Stiff upper lip puritanism may also account for the fact that the ambitious blockbuster exhibition at London's Royal Academy till December 14, The Glory of Venice 1700-1800, is being fashionably disparaged, even slagged off.
Don't listen to them. The Glory of Venice is a joy; an unmissible, if indulgent, experience. Savour this panoply of exquisite, beautiful pictures by a galaxy of genius: a constellation comprising Tiepolo, Canaletto, Guardi, Canova and Piranesi, among others. If you have a single romantic bone in your body, you will love this show.
Nearly 300 magical Venetian paintings, drawings and prints, both sacred and profane, conjure up visions of beauty, luxury, intrigue and architectural magnificence. For centuries, this beguiling city attracted visitors to its piazzas, palaces, canals and lagoons for seasonal spectacles, lavish regattas, colourful carnivals — plus masked balls that must have made the swinging sixties look like a moderator's tea party.
Nowadays we capture its picturesque corners on camera. In the eighteenth century, Canaletto and Guardi busily recorded its radiant views on canvas; Tiepolo and Piazzetta superbly decorated churches and palaces; while Longi caught the life of the leisured class who thronged the coffee houses (Florian's opened in 1720), the operas and 130 gambling casinos or frequented the endless round of festivals, pageants and carnivals which so delighted the hearts of the Venetians and where the anonymity of the mask led — not surprisingly — to a degree of promiscuity.
For La Serenissima, That Most Serene State, was not only, according to Byron, the Sea-Sodom, but a floating stage, an open air theatre of a magnificence and vitality seldom surpassed. It was prosperous and peaceful till 1797 when Napoleon marched into the city and burned the Doge's state barge, (the Bucintoro, seen in many pictures here); yet the legendary grandeur and splendour of Venice did survive. The city we know now is topographically not that different from eighteenth century Venice — even if not so cheap. "There is no question, a man can live better in Venice for £100 a year than in London for £500," wrote a British visitor in 1787.
These Venetian artists drew on inspiration from their sixteenth century predecessors Titian, Tintoretto, Bellini, Giorgione and Veronese to produce stunning, seductive decoration for church and palace. The star here is Tiepolo, the greatest painter of the century, represented by 40 works. He is a profoundly serious, but not a solemn, artist. The Academy's huge main gallery is devoted to a rococo display of his pyrotechnical magnificence where Scotland's Finding of Moses of 1740, on loan from Edinburgh, is certainly the knockout picture. It's the most important Tiepolo in Britain, and here, alongside loans from America, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Spain, it still shines.
A biblical story told in high Renaissance fashion, the scene being turned into a marvellous costume ball halfway between fantasy and reality, it was probably painted for a reception room of a Venetian palace. It shows a young girl amazed by the appearance of the beautiful princess and her train who have come to view the crying baby. Pharaoh's daughter, dressed in a sixteenth century Venetian yellow silk gown, is juxtaposed with an old nurse in big lace collar. Servants, guards, page, court dwarf, halberdier and dog are captured in swift, confident, lively, feathery brushstrokes.
With his instinctive gift for draughtsmanship and colour, his boldness and speed of execution, a master in every medium from fresco to caricature and etching, and able and willing to tackle god and godesses, saints and sinners (St James of Compostela on his white charger; Rinaldo and Armida in her enchanted garden), Tiepolo was quickly a success.
Piazzetta, hardly known in the UK, is a revelation; a fecund draughtsman and forceful, profound painter, "a colossus bestriding the artistic scene, acknowledged as great by his fellows." This contemporary of Tiepolo confers an emotional intensity in his oils of St Francis in Ecstasy or St James Led to Martyrdom, to create large scale majestic mythological and religious pictures.
Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) was a remarkable artist, feted in Italy and Paris, and receiver of many important pastel portrait commissions from European royalty. Many of the artists worked together; many were related. Rosalba's sister married Pelligrini; Guardi's sister married Tiepolo and Bellotto was Canaletto's nephew.
While Canaletto is well known partly because he came to London for nine years from 1745 and because he has so many pictures in the Queen's collection (four on loan here among 20 works including Regatta on the Grand Canal 1733), Bellotto is less famous, unless you know Warsaw. No mere acolyte of his uncle, Bellotto's range of style and subject is infinitely broader. Summoned to Dresden and Poland by their kings, he also painted Vienna and Munich. As Polish court painter for 12 years, he did 26 passionate, animated views of Warsaw for its castle where you can see them now. These were used as models for the reconstruction of Warsaw after the war.
While Bellotto searched for truth, many Venetians adored the imaginary and fanciful, which developed into a charming speciality, a style of idyll called a 'caprice' where romantic peasants cavort amid decaying ruins. Guardi excelled here, but Piranesi gave his imginary architecture a menacing touch.
Amid the many celebrated here, Canova, he of the £7.6m Three Graces controversy, is the Venetian stonemason who left for Rome, reacting against frivolity with cool neo-classicism. As Browning would have it: "And what of Venice and her people ...when the kissing had to stop." By 1800, a glorious hedonistic age had ended.