Translating a vision

It would not be easy to dream up a single place more exactly suited to the mature vision of the English painter, Turner, than Venice. This city which is a distillation of magnificent architecture; of wide, still stretches of water; of expanses of sky; a port, busy with shipping in the middle of the 19th-century, and a magical tourist-mecca was, even then, filled with exotic memorials to a splendid, richly artistic past. He could bring to Venice the special amalgamations of his art, his sense of sublime scale and radiant atmospherics.

If ever there was a painter of misty perspectives, it was Turner. Even the echoing interiors of English cathedrals, in his paintings of them, had in their higher reaches vanished into the remoteness of insubstantial vapors.

Here in Venice were the outward facades of buildings, domes, porticoes, towers which could be made to dissolve not only upwards into the aerial space of the sky - and not just away into the infinitely distant, quivering dazzle of sunset or sunrise - but also, at their foundations, into water, into the deep and luminous liquidity of their own reflections.

The fact is, of course, that since Turner, Venice has never looked the same: it did not have this character until he painted it. Before him, the most painterly imaginations to bear on the ''ocean's nursling'', (as Shelley poetically described the city,) were those of Canaletto and Guardi. Characteristically, when (in 1833) Turner painted his first finished oil painting of Venice (over thirteen years after his first visit) he included in it not only the bridge of sighs, the ducal palace and custom house, but also Canaletto himself, painting away at a picture in a gilt frame.

This was scarcely a realistic touch, and presumably it must be read as either a tribute to or a signalled awareness of the stamp previously put on Venice by the popular 18th century artist. Always surfacing in Turner's art was an intriguing need to absorb into it his admiration for the work of earlier masters; at times this became a deliberate competitiveness with them. Claude Lorraine is the famous example of this. Turner went out of his way to surpass him. But he also, after his first trip to Italy, painted a view of Rome which included in the foreground the high Renaissance artist Raphael. And his development of the ''Marine Painting'' stems quite consciously out of the heroic sea pieces of 17th-century Dutch art. This was, in Turner's case, much more than the natural influence of predecessors. It was a stimulus which amounted to direct personal challenge.

His Venetian pictures, however, very soon moved beyond any connection with Canaletto's somewhat over-meticulous and automatic style. He expanded his interest, as the Metropolitan Museum's painting indicates, into such phenomena as the astonishing gold of the dawning sun as it rises into an immense sky, the glow and glory of fine buildings caught in this light, the silhouetted rigging of the fishing vessels, the meeting of the night's stillness with the wakening activity of the morning. This image of Venice, and its wide waterways between receding lines of architecture, is like a revitalization - in the recognizable context of an actual place - of Claude Lorraine's great, imaginary, classical paintings of sea-ports, shimmering in the radiance of a central, facing sun. It is Claude, not Canaletto, who is the real forefather of Turner's Venice: a Venice transformed into a blazing dream.

Turner was in the habit of quoting (or sometimes deliberately misquoting or rewriting) snatches of verse when he exhibited his paintings, and some of the words he attached to his Venetian subjects have caused art historians to believe that he saw the city as not only alive with past wonders and present beauty, but at the same time somehow doomed: as an image, in fact, of his own mingled tranquillity and pessimism. But in this painting (which was first exhibited in 1835 under the title of ''Venice from the Porche of the Madonna Della Salute'') there is little enough hint of any such ruinous prognostication.

It must have been painted shortly after Turner's second visit to Venice (1833 ). It was engraved twice. It may not yet reveal the freedom and luminosity he achieved in his later paintings of the city (in the 1840's) but it certainly points in their direction.

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