The Arrival of the French Ambassador

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Canaletto, The Arrival of the French Ambassador, 1735

Here comes the ambassador, arriving in an ornate Venetian gondola. Rowing up the San Marco Canal, landing right in front of Palazzo Ducale, the political heart of Venice, the French ambassador meets Venetian Renaissance. Coming out of the playful, sumptuous French rococo, I wonder what the ambassador thinks when he sees the imposing Renaissance architecture and the works of the old masters. Only a century ago, the haughty Italian genius Bernini arrived in Paris with a condescending manner to show the French what art looked like. I wonder if the French still look at their Southern neighbors with awe and admiration. Even the reception scene is depicted as one of magnificence and splendor, Venice is past its most glorious days. Perhaps the French have already won the race, at least in terms of the flamboyance of upperclass life. If what Watteau paints is the case, the Italians are far out of their league.

While the French nobels are catching ladies' shoes, the pragmatic Englishmen are putting their flags all over the world under the guidance of the Enlightenment. Ironically, the rising British seem to have more interest in Italy than the French do. For a long time, the British felt that Italy and Venice are places they have to visit in their lifetime. So the wealthy young men of England would take the "Grand Tour" to Italy to round off their education, and bring back townscape paintings as souvenirs. Noblemen hang these paintings on the walls of their living rooms, and say to their friends, "Look, this is where it all started." Just like their predecessors did in Renaissance, the people of 18th century take another huge step towards the re-born of arts and science. Sapere aude - Dare to know. Having the courage to use your own intelligence and leaving men's self-caused immaturity become the motto of Enlightenment. While the pioneers of 18th century search their way towards enlightenment, it seems that Italy has always remained in their hearts, as the sanctum of arts and science, the birthplace of humanity after long nights of medieval age, and where it all begins.

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