The festival of the Bucintoro was the subject of extensive commentaries by travellers and visitors who witnessed it. It was depicted over the course of the years by artists such as Leandro Bassano, Gabriel Bella, Francesco Guardi and Canaletto. The Bucintoro was the official galley of the Doge of Venice, which Canaletto here depicts moored between gondolas and other boats beside the Piazzetta. This large vessel, decorated in red and gold, was a symbol of the Serenissima and was used to entertain illustrious guests during the ceremony of the city’s symbolic marriage to the sea on Ascension Day. On that day the Doge, accompanied by the city’s authorities, sailed out on the Bucintoro to the Lido where the patriarch of San Pietro awaited him to bless a ring that the Doge then threw into the sea, symbolising the marriage of the city of Venice to the Adriatic. The sailors on this large vessel were workers at the Arsenale, commanded by three admirals. Once the ceremony was over, including the accompanying mass, a large banquet took place at the Doge’s palace. The last Bucintoro was destroyed by the Napoleonic troops in 1798 and broken up in 1824. The example depicted here was the last to be made in the Arsenale, and was designed by Stefano Conti and decorated by the sculptor Antonio Corradini. It had a lion, symbol of the city, on the prow, and a figure of Justice. The ceremony of Ascension Day, with its various different phases, is recorded in a number of prints and paintings, including the present one. It brought together the entire city, led by the Doge who, dressed in gold brocade with an ermine cape and his distinctive hat, set out to sea followed by a procession of boats bearing local officials, ambassadors and the papal nuncio.
Of the various stages of the ceremony, the moment selected here by Canaletto corresponds to the return of the ship to the quayside at San Marco. The red and gold Bucintoro offered the artist a pretext to depict a panoramic view of the city. Constructed along a pronounced diagonal line running from the right foreground into the left background, it starts on the right with the façade of the Doge’s palace, the bell-tower visible behind, and part of the Riva degli Schiavone. On the other side of the Bucintoro in the left corner we see the Biblioteca Marciana, the Zecca (Mint) and the grain stores. They are followed by more buildings that continue to the Grand Canal with the great bulk of the Salute with its large, decorative volutes.
The canvas has been related to another at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire. There are various differences between the two such as the extent of the view, which in the Woburn version continues slightly beyond the prison on the far left, and the position and number of boats along the quayside. In addition, the Woburn canvas depicts the moment when the Bucintoro leaves the quayside. Constable considered the present canvas to be a possibly autograph version of a view whose prototype is in a private UK collection. The present work contains all the elements that made Canaletto such a celebrated view painter, including the warm, brilliant light and atmosphere, the large area of sky with its gentle clouds and the pleasing, bright colouring, all based on a rigorous draughtsmanship.
Within Canaletto’s this subject and composition were popular and in demand from the artist’s clients, to judge from the number of known versions which total almost a dozen, including original works and studio versions. Constable was the first to include the present canvas in a monograph on Canaletto and grouped it with three others in private collections due to its particular characteristics.
The Bucintoro was in various private collections in the UK. It was probably in the collection of Henry Reveley of Bryn, north Wales, then in that of Hugh John Reveley and a Mrs A. L. Snapper. Auctioned in 1961, it remained on the market with Agnew’s and entered the Thyssen-Bornesmiza collection in 1962.