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An exhibition of Venetian paintings inspired by myth and history explores the legacy of the Floating City



La Serenissima: Eighteenth-century Venetian Art from North American Collections
Opens Thursday
On display though Jan. 2, 2011
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch
$12 adults, $10 seniors, students
and children 6-18

When living in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, one might assume that art would be derived by simply gazing out a window. But Hardy George, chief curator at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, said the artists of 18th-century Venice preferred to cast their eyes beyond the city limits.

"A lot of it is religious art, very dramatic and theatrical," he said. "The Venetians were not interested in view painting. It was considered an art form for tourists, and that is also who bought it. That's why, if today, you want to see the great view paintings, you go to London, because the English cornered the market."

Back then, Venice was considered a critical part of the Grand Tour, a traditional trek through Europe undertaken by the wealthy. George said tourists would purchase paintings along the way as a reminder of what they'd seen. Venetian artists interested in obtaining their dollars swallowed their pride and painted what was outside their doorstep.

"They've been compared to postcards, but that isn't a particularly good comparison, because these are really expensive paintings," George said. "The people who traveled then were the aristocracy, and they could afford to buy these paintings."

Sixty-five of them are included in "La Serenissima," opening Thursday at OKCMOA, including works by Bernardo Bellotto, Antonio Canaletto, Luca Carlevarijs, Francesco Guardi, Sebastiano Ricci, Pietro Longhi, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo and Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo.

George's interest in Venice goes back to his own tour through the region. He worked as a photographer and assistant to a researcher studying late Baroque architecture, including the homes of the wealthy in Italy's Floating City.

"The 18th century was really Venice's high point. When everything else was changing around them, they resisted change," George said. "You have the French Revolution. Italy is occupied by the French in the 1790s and then given over to the Austrians for participating in the war against the French. It never really regained its position of importance, either politically or artistically."

Although Venice is no longer a major center of the art world, it retains a legacy as unique as the city itself, which often allowed artists to set their sights on mythology, spirituality and decadence. George said it is the latter that became most synonymous with Venetian art.

"Scholarship has shown that they were also a spiritual culture," he said. "We associate religion with puritanical culture, and it is hard for us to see how courtesans, religion, carnival and sumptuousness can all go together, but it does, and that is part of Venice." "?Charles Martin

above Francesco Guardi's "Regatta at the Rialto Bridge"


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