1922–1923Oil on canvas49.5 × 80 cmArt Museum of Estonia

Konrad Mägi arrived in Venice in late June 1922, probably by train from Bologna – as indicated by entries in his sketchpad recording the times of the day and night train. In Venice he probably stayed at the Albergo Cavalletto right behind Piazza San Marco (the hotel opened in 1308). He was in Venice for a brief time, only a month, but produced many sketches and painted nine known paintings based on them. It is possible he painted some of them while there, although a few weeks before departure, he wrote on a postcard that “unfortunately I do not have anything finished”.

Venice had a conflicting reputation in the early 1920s. In his manifesto from 1910, the futurist Filippo Tommaso Marinetti attacked the city calling for the historical city to be torn down and the ruins pushed into the canals to make way for the new. Yet the Fascists had already become quite active by that time. They saw Venice as one of the core historical cities in Italy and envisioned a future built on rediscovery of Venetian heritage.

The city was also becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination. Already in the 18th and 19th centuries, the city had become a favourite place for lovers of luxury. In the 1920s, the number of tourists soared, turning into an important income source for Venice. Still, there was debate as to whether mass tourism should be preferred or whether Venice should cater to an elite clientele.

For his part, Konrad Mägi reports from Venice that it “is one of the most divine cities”. Yet no written information is extant about Konrad Mägi’s interests in Venice. Similarly to his pattern in other big cities, there is no record of Mägi having developed an immediate rapport with or even taking much interest in contemporary art. In summer 1922, though, Venice hosted its art biennale, which was visited by nearly 400,000 people and where a Modigliani retrospective and exhibition of African sculpture caused a scandal. Mägi’s work does not contain traces of the influence of either and it is unclear whether he even visited the biennale, yet the Italian title of the director of the Venice Biennale is written in one of his sketchpads.

This painting probably depicts a view from Giudecca Island or nearby. The central tower should be St. Mark’s Campanile. In Venice, he repeatedly painted a strip of the city in the distance, densely filled in with buildings, with a large empty expanse of water in the foreground dotted with sailboats and gondolas.

Like a number of other phenomena that appears in his work during the Italian period, this “concept of bareness” is relatively unprecedented for Mägi. Earlier on, he filled in landscapes, unpopulated by humans, with nuances, which made his works seem very finished, refined. Mägi is more reticent when it comes to big expanses of water; the water is an even blue tone and colour nuances come in only in the depiction of the narrow strip of the city where the houses are close together. This type of composition brings a totally different rhythm into Mägi’s paintings than seen previously: although similarly to southern Estonian landscapes, the works are structured as horizontal bands, the way the colour tones are distributed on the surface of the painting are different; they are more muted and not as decorative.