Venetian vedute shimmer in Mexico City

The highly realistic cityscape paintings known as vedute have been touted as the 18th-century precursor to Instagram. Their purpose was to provide Grand Tourists with solid pictorial proof of their trips to Venice and other architectural hotspots of Italy. These astonishingly detailed pictures were luxury souvenirs that would later transport collectors and their friends back home to faraway places and special moments. The most expansive collection of Venetian vedute spanning three centuries I have seen anywhere outside of Venice itself is on permanent display at Museo Soumaya in Mexico City.

Museo Soumaya, named after the deceased wife of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, is the tycoon’s vanity project housing an impressive personal art collection in a shimmering amorphous building designed by architect Fernando Romero. The museum’s distinctive exterior is made of hexagonal aluminum modules that reflect daylight at different angles. The design’s intention was to similarly reflect the diversity of the collection inside of over 66,000 works, which include sculptures from Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica alongside statues by Auguste Rodin and 19th- and 20th-century Mexican art alongside an ensemble of works by European old masters.

The collection is said to mirror the personal tastes of its founder who apparently has a soft spot for Venetian vedute. Venice – with its unique topography, picturesque carnivals and regattas, and constant influx of visitors was tailor-made for the veduta genre. Their artists’ mastery of perspective, colour and light renders in meticulous detail the splendid buildings that have been reflected for centuries in the waters of the Grand Canal. Apart from Venetian cityscapes, images of religious processions and Venice’s curious festivals were especially exotic and appealing to Protestant tourists from Northern Europe who were their original target audience.

Venice itself is the natural home of some of the best vedute which are, however, spread across several museums and exhibition spaces in the city according to the period. The 18th century cityscape paintings by Canaletto and his contemporaries are dispersed mostly throughout Museo Correr and Ca’ Rezzonico’s Museo Settecento Veneziano, which also takes the genre into the 19th century with the proto-impressionist works of Ippolito Caffi. There is surprisingly little beyond the 19th century by way of cityscape painting in Venice, with only a handful of pictures at Ca’ Pesaro’s International Gallery of Modern Art.

Museo Soumaya in Mexico City does its best to demonstrate that the tradition of Venetian vedute spilled successfully into the 20th century and beyond. Its collection in Hall 5 of the futuristic building comprises over 100 Venetian cityscape paintings from 40+ artists, divided into three categories covering the Piazza San Marco, the Grand Canal and the Sestiere. In addition to the canonical works of Canaletto and Guardi, the Soumaya collection presents modern Venetian vedute by the likes of Giorgio di Chirico, Salvador Dalí or Jean Dufy. This is easily the best collection of the genre gathered under one – amorphous – roof anywhere in the world.