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Joseph Smith

18th-century British consul, collector and patron of Canaletto

Smith's residence,Palazzo Smith Mangilli Valmarana

Joseph Smith (1682–1770) moved to Venice in 1700 to take up a position with a merchant banking firm, then lived in the city for the rest of his life, serving as Consul from 1744-60, and again in 1766. He spoke fluent Italian, ran the Pasquali Press, one of the city's top publishing houses, adored music (he married soprano Catherine Tofts, who helped introduce Italian opera to London, in 1705), but most of all made his mark as a connoisseur, art collector and go-between in Venice for British visitors.

Smith bought a medieval palazzo on the Grand Canal. He had Antonio Visentini remodel it to 18th century taste and filled with an extraordinary trove of art, that become one of the main sights on the Grand Tour. Robert Adam and James Boswell were among his guests.

The Venetians adored him; Goldoni dedicated a play, Il filosofo inglese, to him. The British weren't as keen: he was, after all, a self-made man, and his 'vain' Italianized airs didn't go down very well.

An early patron of Canaletto, Smith helped to shape his style to appeal to British tastes. For a quarter of a century, he acted as an agent between the painter and the Grand Tourists who snapped up his works. He became a patron of Marco Ricci's lush landscapes, and commissioned etchings and architectural capriccios of villas in England from Antonio Visentini and Francesco Zuccarelli.

Smith greatly enriched the Royal Collection when he sold all of his paintings (including 53 of the best Canalettos, which he had kept for himself) and his library to King George III in 1762, for £22,000. Then he immediately began collecting again. Two years later, at age 82, he even remarried.

He died in Venice and was buried in the Protestant cemetery by San Nicolò al Lido; his tombstone, rescued when the cemetery was destroyed, is in the Anglican church of St George.

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Image by Vaghestelledellorsa, Paolo Steffan, Creative Commo