Venice in Ten Artworks

This summer, Venice’s Biennale situates the city at the nexus of artistic innovation—a status it has long been familiar with. In the late 1400s, Venice saw the rise of a vibrant and influential art scene, coalescing in the Venetian School, a loose grouping of artists based in the city whose distinctive style emphasized bold light, emotion, and rich color (running in contrast to the coolly restrained Classicism practiced in most of Italy during the Renaissance). The School, which reached its height with painters like Titian and Tintoretto, would influence some of the most important artists of the following centuries, like Peter Paul Rubens and Diego Velázquez.

In the 18th century, Venice would become the epicenter of vedute, a style of incredibly popular and sought-after “view paintings”; the masters of this genre, like Canaletto and Guardi, would sell their scenes of Venice’s legendary architecture and canals throughout Europe. The city has continued to capture the imagination of artists ever since—look no further than Whistler’s famed etchings of Venice’s canals, or Monet’s Impressionist visions of its famous cathedrals.

1. Giovanni Bellini, San Zaccaria Altarpiece, Sacra Conversazione, 1505

One of the major forerunners of the Venetian School, Bellini was known for his adept realism and color-handling, as well as for tutoring Venetian masters Titian and Giorgione. This painting adorns the altar at the Church of San Zaccaria in Venice.

2. Titian, Venus of Urbino, 1538

Arguably the most important painter of the Venetian School, Titian was incredibly versatile, equally skilled at landscapes, religious and mythological scenes, and portraits—like this famously erotic vision of the goddess of love.

3. Tintoretto, The Miracle of St. Mark Freeing a Slave, 1548

Tintoretto (whose name means “little dyer” after his father’s profession) rarely left Venice in his lifetime, prolifically producing altarpieces and canvases throughout the High Renaissance.

4. Veronese, The Wedding at Cana, 1562-63

Another Renaissance master based in Venice, Veronese would influence generations of important Venetian painters, including Tiepolo. The massive Wedding at Cana (measuring ~ 22 by 32 feet), perhaps his most famous work, is on display at the Louvre.

5. Canaletto, Canal of San Marco with the Piazza San Marco, 1730s

Probably the best known vedute ever produced, Canaletto’s scenes of Venice were collected throughout Europe, many of them sold to Englishmen taking their “Grand Tours” of Europe.

6. Francesco Guardi, Capriccio with Bridges Over a Canal

The spirited brushwork and sparkling canals in Guardi’s vedute are viewed by many to have influenced the Impressionists a century later.

7. James Abbott McNeill Whistler,The Two Doorways, 1880

In 1879 Whistler was sent to Italy on a commission to produce 12 etchings of Venice; he would end up staying for 14 months, producing some of the most studied prints in art history.

8. Maurice Prendergast, The Piazza San Marco, 1898

The American Post-Impressionist Prendergast traveled to Venice in 1898, producing a large number of inventive watercolors—some of his best known works today.

9. Claude Monet, The Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice, 1908

Though less famed than his Impressionist paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, Monet painted several views of Venice’s iconic San Giorgio Maggiore in 1908.

10. Cai Guo-Qiang, Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot, 1995

In 1995, Cai Guo-Qiang sailed from China to Venice, mooring his junk boat at a Venetian Palazzo and inviting visitors to board and self-medicate using traditional Chinese medicines—suggesting the one thing that famed Venetian explorer Marco Polo forgot to bring back from his travels.