The Sea Invisible


Approach to Venice (1844)

Ruskin said about this painting that it was “the most perfectly beautiful piece of color of all that I have seen produced by human hands, by any means, or at any period.” It is Approach to Venice, by J. M. W. Turner, the British painter from the nineteenth century who so gloriously captured colors and light in washes of paint, decades before the Impressionists came on the scene. Turner visited Venice three times and inspired the later painters Whistler and Monet with his dreamy vistas of the city and her boats.

This particular painting, part of the “Painting Set Free” exhibit at the De Young Museum in San Francisco right now, captured my attention when I saw it this weekend. Look closely and you’ll see clusters of gondolas and other boats as they depart from the mainland and head toward the mirage that is Venice.

It mirrors an opening scene from the forthcoming book Ascension, set in eighteenth century Venice. My friend Gregory Dowling, the author, shared the manuscript with me as it goes to print. The book opens with the protagonist meeting British travelers in Fusina to load their bags aboard gondolas and guide them to Venice. Just like in Turner’s painting. I can’t tell you more about the book since it is not yet published, but I will heartily urge you to get it! Gregory expertly brings the city to life down to every detail (which I can’t tell you about-airrgh!).

At the De Young, they posted these lines from “Italy” by Samuel Rogers (1828):

The path lies o’er the sea invisible,

And from the land we went

As to a floating city, steering in,

And gliding up her streets as in a dream

So smoothly, silently.

The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa

The Dogana, San Giorgio, Citella, from the Steps of the Europa

This painting was also part of the exhibit. Turner wrote Citella for the church more often known as Le Zitelle. He often stayed at the Hotel Europa on the Grand Canal.

So then I contacted Gregory to make sure it was okay to blog about his forthcoming book. Get this–it turns out that he wrote his opening scene with inspiration from a Turner painting, just not the one that I had connected with! Gregory was inspired by Venice from Fusina, shown here:

Venice from Fusina

Venice from Fusina

Turner’s foreground image is much crisper here than in Approach to Venice. You can actually make out the porters, gondoliers, and travelers, though Venice in the background is still a dreamy, floating city.

Gregory also informed me that Ascension is now available, a bit ahead of schedule. The official publishing date is September 17, but Amazon is already delivering orders. I supposed that means that I could tell you more about it after all, but I decided not to. I highly recommend it, and then you can mix Turner’s scene with Gregory’s creation in your head for a lovely new Venice cocktail.

Amazon page for Ascension:

(Images from:  and, and


About seductivevenice

Teacher, writer, traveler, dancer, reader, photographer, gardener.
This entry was posted in Gondolas, Venice, Writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Sea Invisible

  1. Nancy Schwalen says:

    Turner is one of my favorites and these are fabulous. Thank you for sharing them.

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