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Centuries-old Canaletto inspires London's modern royal knees-up

By Bryony Jones, CNN
updated 6:24 AM EDT, Tue June 5, 2012

  • Seven-mile-long flotilla of 1,000 boats traveled along Thames to mark queen's jubilee
  • Event followed the pattern of "theatrical" pageants of past centuries
  • Canaletto painting provided inspiration for the celebration along "Britain's royal river"

On June 3 - 5, the UK's Queen Elizabeth II marks her Diamond Jubilee year with a series of parties and pageants. CNN's Piers Morgan and Brooke Baldwin will be there to follow the festivities. Join them at the following times: June 5: 0900 (ET), 1400 (CET).

London (CNN) -- When Queen Elizabeth II took to the Thames to mark her diamond jubilee alongside tens of thousands of well-wishers, it wasn't the first time the royals have made merry by messing about on the river.

For centuries, Britain's monarchs have celebrated their biggest occasions on the water, creating scenes that have inspired generations of artists, musicians and writers.

Constitutional historian David Starkey says the Thames has long been "Britain's royal river and London's 'grandest street,' " playing host to a string of colorful regal festivities.

"The grandest royal river pageants have always been used to celebrate the coronation and inauguration," said Starkey, guest curator of the "Royal River" exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

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Handel's famed "Water Music" and his "Music for the Royal Fireworks" were both written for regal Thameside festivities in the 18th century.

And diarists Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn wrote of the spectacle they witnessed when King Charles II took part in a pageant in 1660, a year after the restoration of the monarchy.

Pepys described the scene as the king and queen journeyed downriver from Hampton Court to Whitehall "under a canopy with 10,000 barges and boats, I think, for we could see no water for them."

For Evelyn, the event was "the most magnificent triumph that ever floated on the Thames." He wrote admiringly of "the innumerable boates and vessells dress'd and adorn'd with all imaginable pomp ... the thrones, arches ... stately barges ... musiq and peals of ordnance both from ye vessels and the shore."

Now things have come full circle: The Diamond Jubilee pageant was partially inspired by the work "The Thames on Lord Mayor's Day" by 18th-century artist Canaletto.

Italian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768) -- better known as Canaletto -- painted the piece (seen above) while living in London in the 1740s and 1750s.

Canaletto was most famous for his depictions of the lavish celebrations along the canals of his native Venice, and found a similarly festive subject during his stay in Britain.

Today, the painting is part of the Lobkowicz Collection in Prague. Currently on loan to the "Royal River" exhibition to mark the jubilee, it has an intriguing history.

In the gallery's audio guide, chief curator John Somerville explains how the work was purchased from the artist by Ferdinand Philip, the sixth Prince Lobkowicz of Bohemia, while he was in London buying horses -- and carrying on a scandalous affair with the wife of the Venetian ambassador.

It was displayed in the family's homes for generations, until it was stolen by the Nazis during World War II. Hidden for years in an Austrian salt mine, it was finally returned to Prague at the end of the war, only to be confiscated again by the Communists in 1948.

Following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, the Lobkowicz family, who had long since fled to the United States, set about reclaiming the collection.

Somerville says the painting shows a time when "the Thames was the main highway, the lifeblood of the city, filled with craft of every size, making their way up and down and across the river."

And it is exactly this that the organizers of the 2012 event hoped to emulate, with "a piece of theater on the water" -- complete with music, fireworks and special effects -- not to mention 20,000 people on a 7-mile-long flotilla made up of 1,000 boats.

"What more appropriate way of celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of the queen, who will herself, at the climax of the celebrations, lead another grand royal river pageant?" Starkey asked.

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