Italian Art in Birmingham

March 2014

There are some wonderful Italian pictures in the Barber Institute at the University of Birmingham, a short train journey from New Street Station. Most brilliant perhaps are a St John by Simone Martini, and a busy nativity by Jacopo Bassano (including his trade-mark piebald dog). But on a recent trip, what caught my eye was a huge painting of Venice in the Birmingham Art Gallery. Not Canaletto, obviously: too mistily imprecise, the wrong palette and scale. But who? Someone called Luca Carlevaris (1663–1730). Canaletto may even have been his pupil. The title of the painting was intriguing: The Arrival of the Earl of Manchester in Venice. A big crowd is shown on the Riva in front of the Doge’s Palace, looking down towards the Grand Canal and La Salute (from a slightly improbably high position); lots of chaps in wigs; lots of women in masks. So which one is the Earl? It must be that impressive fellow with the frock coat, for whom the crowd has parted a little. Good heavens! What is that dog doing? It seems the Earl (Charles Montagu, Fourth Earl, later Duke of Manchester) visited Venice as ambassador twice, in 1697 when he failed to obtain the release of some British sailors, and in 1707 when he was sent to negotiate with the Venetians about the Grand Alliance. After both visits he returned to England having achieved nothing, as the Venetians ‘had been unwilling to negotiate substantively’ according to the DNB. But at least his visit is recorded, if not immortalised in this entertaining painting.