Skip to main content

Episode 68

The National Gallery Podcast

John Julius Norwich on pageants and Venetian regattas. Plus witches at their incantations and the coolest stare in the National Gallery.

16 min 27 sec | June 2012

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

We start this month with the celebrations for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. On the third of June over a thousand boats will take to the River Thames to accompany the progress of Her Majesty on board a gilded royal barge. 

The tradition of processions on the Thames goes back a long way, but in the 18th century the city that excelled in staging opulent displays on the water was Venice. By way of our own celebration, Leah Kharibian spoke to renowned Venice expert, John Julius Norwich, about a pair of pictures by the greatest of all Venetian view painters, Canaletto.

Leah Kharibian: John Julius – we’re here in front of two ceremonial views of Venice painted by Canaletto in 1740 and this one is called A Regatta on the Grand Canal. Could you describe what’s going on?

John Julius Norwich: Well, certainly it’s one of the really great Regatta paintings; in fact I think it’s probably the greatest Regatta ever mounted. So great is it that I found myself very slightly wondering whether Canaletto hasn’t slightly exaggerated the splendour of these magnificent boats.

And here we are – this is the main first long stretch of the Grand Canal after the first turn. On the left you’ve got the Palazzo Balbi which was always the finishing post for the great regattas – the boats would go up to the top, under the Rialto Bridge of which you can see just a tiny, tiny little corner at the end there; so they did a turn – you’d come back and have the winning post in the middle of everything... the great centre of Venice. And Canaletto is also... well, he’s clearly having a perfectly wonderful time – this is just the sort of picture he liked best; his home-town in all its glory, with all its flags out, with all its people in their best clothes and these unbelievably ornate ships – which I say, I sometimes wonder whether they’re actually technically row-able in their present state.

Leah Kharibian: And these are really truly magnificent barges, these large barges which really tower over the smaller gondolas. Who did they belong to?

John Julius Norwich: They belonged I think principally to the guilds, to the scuole as they’re called in Venetian. The word ‘scuole’ doesn’t mean school, it means a group of people gathered together for charitable purposes, usually though not always according to their trades or their occupation.

I think the important thing to remember is that these magnificent boats were almost certainly not owned by the great families of Venice, because although all Venice loved splendour and dressing up and all this magnificent pageantry, there was always lurking behind the spectre of a cult of personality of which the Venetians were absolutely terrified; they couldn’t bear the thought of any one family getting too powerful... they’d seen what was happening all over Italy with the Viscontis, and the Sforzas, and the Gonzagas and the Medicis and they were absolutely certain that nothing of that sort was going to happen in Venice.

But of course although it was dangerous for any one family to wax too great, at the same time everything was alright, no expenditure was too much, if it was designed for the greater magnificence and the beautification of Venice herself. That was always the thing – for the good of the Republic, the more money you spent the better.

Leah Kharibian: Now talking about the honour and glory of the Republic, we have a wonderful couple of Canalettos here, because this picture has a pair, and I wonder if we could go and have a look at that. Now this is a completely different view of Venice... we’re in the Basin of Venice, the Bacino di San Marco, and we’re looking towards a craft that is beyond anything we’ve seen. The other boats had feathers and wonderful bits and pieces and decorations but this is just enormous – what is it?

John Julius Norwich: The other ones were basically pleasure craft - I mean all done up just for fun and baroque fantasy. This is serious... this is majestic... this is the Bucentaur which was the great barge belonging to the Doge which he used very seldom because it was far from sea-worthy. But he did use it every year on Ascension Day in May to go off to the boundaries of the lagoon and drop the traditional golden ring into the sea – the symbolic marriage of Venice with the sea, the Sposalizio del Mare. And there we have the Bucentaur in all its splendour and glory, waiting... this is clearly the morning of Ascension Day... waiting for the Doge to board it. And off it’s going to sail.

Leah Kharibian: It seems to have several tiers... it’s an enormous thing.

John Julius Norwich: It’s vast.... absolutely huge. Of course, it was there to impress – just looking at that it would need a vast quantity of oarsmen to get the thing moving at all. I don’t know how that was done – I don’t think anybody’s too sure. It must have been a very, very slow and cumbersome trip. It was extremely wobbly the boat – I mean nearly everybody felt ill and Doges were throwing up like anything...

Leah Kharibian:  Oh dear, oh dear... I sincerely hope the Queen doesn’t suffer that on the third of June...

John Julius Norwich: I think she’s going to be in something a lot more sea-worthy than the dear Bucentaur. But nonetheless you can see what the Venetians were prepared to do... the amount of time and energy and money they were prepared to put into these tremendous great displays of Republican power.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to John Julius Norwich. If you’d like to see Canaletto’s pictures for yourself, they’re on display in Room 38 – where you can also catch a free ten-minute talk about Venice: The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day at 4pm on Mondays throughout June.
And following the Jubilee river pageant, we’ll also be holding a special lunchtime talk. Called ‘Transforming the Thames’, it’s a journey along the river in art, featuring works by Canaletto, Turner, Monet, Sisley, Whistler and more. If you’d like to come along, it’s on Monday the fourth of June - see the website for details:

Next to a painting by the Spanish master, Zurbarán, a life-size depiction of Saint Margaret of Antioch. The artist shows her as a wonderfully self-possessed woman – who makes quite an impact on first meeting. Gill Hart – head of the Gallery’s education team - introduced us.

Gill Hart: It’s quite a stare; quite a gaze... as if in fact – I feel anyway – as if I’m being appraised; I’m being looked at rather than just being the person who’s doing the looking. Her costume does catch my eye as well. Can’t help noticing her footwear – she’s got pretty fantastic looking open-toed sandals on and is putting one of her feet forwards towards us. She’s also wearing quite a fantastic – what looks like sheepskin jerkin – over a heavy, white frilly blouse and a very wide-looking red woollen skirt.

Leah Kharibian: Now anyone who gets past that extraordinary level stare of hers, will notice that actually behind her there’s this really rather terrifying dragon...

Gill Hart: You’re absolutely right. Saint Margaret of Antioch, which is modern-day Turkey, was a very early convert to Christianity and she was disowned by her father and lusted after by the local magistrate who she refused to marry and because he was infuriated by that he imprisoned her, and while she was in prison she was visited, if you like, in her cell by the devil in the form of a dragon, and was devoured by that dragon.

Now according to one version of her story she then burst forth from the dragon... this is actually represented in a couple of other paintings in the National Gallery’s collection but in this particular painting by Zurbarán, we see her in a completely composed and elegant state having completely overcome this particular devil/dragon, who is now at her feet looking ever so slightly as if he’s been impaled on the end of her crook.

Leah Kharibian: But even if you didn’t know all this wonderful back-story, she really stands out; she’s very forward in the picture. And there’s this real darkness behind her – it’s as if she’s in a spotlight. There’s something quite theatrical about it.

Gill Hart: There’s something about the way this painting looks that suggests window dressing to me. There’s an incredibly flat smooth ironed area across the front of her red woollen skirt and there’s also something about the sheepskin vest that she’s wearing that makes me feel as if I’m standing in front of a shop window, looking at a mannequin who’s very beautifully turned out at the front, but if I was able to walk around her, I’d be able to see that the clothes were pinned onto her, for the sake of a photograph or in this case for the sake of a painting.

So there is something a little bit staged about this and it’s possible that that’s something to do with where Zurbarán may have been getting his sources or may have been influenced by. He is an artist working in Seville and there were a lot of holy day processions, a lot of dressing up and promenading on the streets and I think that this was probably a key source of inspiration and influence in the work of Zurbarán at that time and particularly the way that he depicted his single figures as Saint Margaret has been depicted.

There is this kind of feeling when you look at this painting of someone walking past you and stopping to look back – really arresting your gaze. And I get the feeling of someone who is part of a street procession or a piece of street theatre here and therefore I think it’s quite plausible that there is a connection between street-life in Seville in the early 17th century and the way that this particular female saint has been depicted.

Leah Kharibian: I like that idea of the street because there’s something about her that’s really feisty. This is no sappy female saint, is it?

Gill Hart: Definitely not – I think that’s the thing that I absolutely love about this. Many years ago when I was younger I used to walk past it and think that of all the women represented in National Gallery paintings, this is the one I would like to be like.

You wouldn’t mess with this Saint Margaret. Part of Saint Margaret’s story is that she was often associated with the princess who was rescued from the dragon by Saint George – well, she really doesn’t need his help here because she’s doing a really good job all on her own. She’s also according to some legends one of the voices that was heard by Joan of Arc – another female who completely breaks out of the stereotypical role. But I just love the fresh, clear feistiness about her – and the look on her face, the slight suggestion of indignation about that flush in her cheek and the purse in her lip. I think it’s one of the best faces on a female figure on the walls of the Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Gill Hart. And if you’d like to meet Saint Margaret, you’ll find her on display in Room 30.

Now to one of the most startling paintings in the Gallery’s collection... Salvatore Rosa’s, Witches at their Incantations. Painted at the height of the witch-hunts in Europe in the mid 17th century, the work depicts a blasted landscape, crawling with gruesome figures casting spells. We invited Dr Gus Cameron from the University of Leicester to tell us how the painting reflects its violent historical context. He began by explaining how it would originally have been viewed.

Gus Cameron: This painting was bought in 1646 by a Roman banker living in Florence called Carlo de Rossi and we know that he exhibited it as part of his collection in Rome, but he would keep it behind a curtain and at the end of a tour of his gallery, he would whisk the curtain back – probably to shock his audience perhaps... to demonstrate his daring in having such an image – but probably also to titillate them a little bit... there’s something rather salacious about this image.

Leah Kharibian: It’s a very dark and quite gruesome work when you start looking at it. What is it that we’re looking at?

Gus Cameron: Well, essentially we’re looking at a grab-bag of all the folk myths that were circulating in the mid-17th century about what witches did. You need to remember that this painting was created at the latter end of one of the most vicious witch-hunts in Europe, during which a lot of literature circulated describing witch activities... how you would identify a witch... what witches got up to... how evil they were – and that really is essentially what Rosa has boiled down for us here.

In the centre we have a group of witches with mannequins that they’re using to torture people; we have a corpulent hag sitting in the foreground squeezing organs into a mortar and pestle and grinding bones; bits of a hanged corpse are being extracted for use in potions. To the right we have love potions which were not the romantic ones that we now might imagine, but used to entrap men and on the left we have witches with live babies that have been kidnapped flying in on the backs of demons. The witch-hunts – although they’re known about – are often rather romanticised or side-lined but it’s clear that hundreds of thousands of people, mainly older women, were arrested, interrogated, tortured and often executed either by hanging or by being burned at the stake. And the truth of it was that the witch-hunts represented pretty much a genocide against particularly older women that ran in various fits and starts from the 1580s in particular to the 1640s but before that and since then too.

Leah Kharibian: Why have such a persecution of older women? I mean obviously they weren’t all getting up to real witchcraft, whatever that might be?

Gus Cameron: Europe was in a state of radical change at the time. There was the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, as part of which the figure of the Devil was massively re-invented, or for that matter, invented and became a central part of the vicious debates between the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe. And with the reinvention of the Devil came this extraordinary prosecution of women who were regarded at the time as being weak-willed, lascivious, subject to demonic possession, and therefore duped into being witches.

And the sort of image you have here is what happens at the end of that process whereby everything that’s possibly evil is attributed to older women. And this was in part used to legitimise the terrible crimes perpetrated against them... the tortures and all the rest of it in particular, but also to dispossess them of their land. This was a period during which European states were starting to consolidate and land was appropriated primarily away from women and older forms of culture into a new, more systematized patriarchal system.

Leah Kharibian: This is a picture about the genesis or the birth of capitalist society, is that the way we should look at it?

Gus Cameron: I don’t think we can blame Rosa for everything, but you can certainly say that the witch-hunts were one of the cornerstones of the repositioning of women in European society that would then play out over the next two centuries.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Gus Cameron talking about Rosa’s 'Witches at their Incantations' - on display in Room 32. That’s nearly it for this episode. If you’re thinking of visiting the Gallery, don’t forget there are only a few more days to see Turner Inspired: In the Light of Claude - our exhibition exploring the great British painter’s relationship with the 17th century master, Claude Lorrain. The show closes on the 5th of June, and tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Until next time, goodbye.