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Venetian sunset: 18th century

In the last century of Venice's independence the city's painters recover the esteem enjoyed by their predecessors in the 16th century. This is true in particular of the last great artist to work in fresco.

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo is born in Venice in 1696. The major influence on his life is Veronese, whose example he follows in tackling detailed and complex historical scenes. In keeping with the Rococo spirit of the age, and with fresco as his preferred medium, Tiepolo brings to these pictorial pageants a light palette and a visible deftness of touch - and in doing so provides some of the most exhilarating images in the whole of 18th-century art.

Tiepolo first finds his characteristic style in the frescoes which he paints in 1726-8 for the archbishop's palace in Udine. In Venice his greatest surviving series is that of Antony and Cleopatra in the Palazzo Labia. But Tiepolo's outstanding achievement is his decoration of the prince-bishop's palace (the Residenz) at Würzburg.

The building, designed by Balthasar Neumann and completed in 1744, is on the cusp between baroque and rococo. The great staircase and the central hall present Tiepolo with difficult and challenging surfaces which he fills, between 1751 and 1753, with superb scenes. They celebrate, with a very Venetian flourish, the glories of Germany's imperial past.

Tiepolo spends his last years on a similarly patriotic task in another country - providing a ceiling on the theme of The Triumph of Spain for the throne room of the royal palace in Madrid. Meanwhile, in the prosperous 18th century and the heyday of the Grand Tour, rich tourists are flocking to Venice. It is they who promote the final chapter of Venetian painting.

Canaletto is born in Venice in 1697. In 1720 he begins to specialize in views of the city, and two years later wins his first commission from an English visitor. Thereafter the English become his chief patrons, partly thanks to the encouragement of Joseph Smith (the British consul in Venice and a keen collector of Canaletto).

Canaletto lives in England from 1746 to 1755, painting views of the Thames in London and of his aristocratic patrons' country seats. His practice of painting large topographical views is continued by his nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, who leaves Venice in 1747 and thereafter works mainly in Dresden and Vienna.

In Venice, from about 1760, the demand of the tourists for views is met at a simpler and cheaper level by Francesco Guardi. His small canvases, more vague and informal than Canaletto's topographical studies, are notable for the ease and delicacy with which Venice's watery landscape is suggested.

Neoclassicism: 18th - 19th century

Ever since the Renaissance, successive generations of artists and architects have turned to classical models for inspiration. Even at the height of baroque (the least classical of styles in mood or line) contemporary grandees are often depicted in togas. Military heroes, however foolish they may look, strutt in the stiff ribbed kilt of the Roman legionary.

During the 18th century a quest for classical authenticity is undertaken with new academic vigour. There are several reasons. Archaeological sites such as Pompeii are being excavated. And interest is shifting from the Roman part of the classical heritage to the Greek.

Ancient Greek sites in southern Italy (in particular Paestum) and in Sicily begin to be studied in the 1740s. In 1755 Johann Joachim Winckelmann, a German archaeologist and a key figure in the Greek Revival, publishes a work on Greek painting and sculpture in which he argues that the art of Greece provides the best example of ideal beauty.

The avant-garde greets this notion with enthusiasm. Over the next century Greek themes increasingly pervade the decorative arts. Greek porticos and colonnades grace public buildings. Greek refinement becomes the ideal for neoclassical sculptors and painters.

Rome is the centre of neoclassical sculpture. The Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova arrives to set up his studio in 1782. He is soon producing beautifully modelled nudes in the Greek style - such as Theseus with the minotaur, now in the Victoria and Albert museum, or Perseus with the head of Medusa in the Vatican. The flesh is modelled with a slightly chilly perfection, more noticeable in female figures (such as the famous Graces done for Woburn Abbey, in which three languid ladies share a sentimental moment).

In 1802 Canova is invited by Napoleon to visit Paris, beginning an extraordinary relationship with the Bonaparte dynasty.

The neoclassical ideal is now so powerful that Napoleon is willing to be sculpted by Canova, larger than life and naked, in the role of Mars the god of war. It is one of the pleasant ironies of history that this 11-foot-high marble nude with the face of Napoleon is presented to the duke of Wellington after the battle of Waterloo, and stands now at the bottom of the stairs in Apsley House.

The Bonaparte link results also in one of the most famous of all neoclassical statues. Canova sculpts the emperor's sister, Pauline Borghese, reclining naked to the waist on a chaise longue. Just as her brother is Mars, she is posing as Venus - holding in delicate fingers the apple which she has been awarded for her beauty in the judgement of Paris.

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