The Feast Day of St Roch
Oil on canvas, 147,5 x 199,5 cm
National Gallery, London
The painting depicts the scene when the doge, accompanied by the senators, visits the church and Scuola di San Rocco on the occasion of the feastday of the Saint.
The church of San Rocco at the right has housed the body of St Roch since 1485. In 1576 there was a very severe outbreak of the plague in Venice, and it was thought that his intercession prevented an even greater calamity, so from that year onwards his Feast day, 16 August, was celebrated by the Republic. Canaletto here depicts one aspect of the festivities - a procession of resplendent dignitaries emerging from the church after they have attended Mass.
The Scuola di San Rocco dominates the centre of the composition; its exterior is decorated with garlands and paintings, as was the custom on this occasion. Canaletto and his artist nephew Bellotto are recorded as having sold some of their works at one of these exhibitions. Many of the figures walking before it and beneath the awning can be identified because of their distinctive and colourful clothes. They are, from left to right: Secretaries, who wear mauve; the Doge's chair- and cushion-bearers; the Cancelliere Grande who wears scarlet; the Doge himself in gold and ermine; the Guardiano Grande di San Rocco; the bearer of the sword of state; the Senators; and finally the Ambassadors. A number of them carry nosegays, which were presented as reminders of the plague; they were carried during outbreaks of the disease because it was believed that their scent helped prevent its spread.
Canaletto shows an expansive view of this scene which could not, in fact, be observed, because the church of the Frari impinges too far on the near side of the square.