The exhibit celebrates the Italian influence on American culture, including it’s architecture. The central rotunda of the Capitol Building is based on the Pantheon in Rome, Powell said in his speech. (Photo: Elena Schneider/Medill News Service)

WASHINGTON — Gondolas are docked at the National Gallery of Art Tuesday as the museum’s newest exhibit, “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals,” opens, offering a glimpse into 18th-century Italian canals and palaces.

“With view paintings, as with so many things, there’s a world of difference between great and the merely good,” guest curator Charles Beddington said in his speech to press and critics at a preview. “And a remarkably high percentage of paintings in this show are great.”

The exhibit opens to the public on Sunday and will feature Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto,” along with 30 of his best-known rivals, including Michele Marieschi, Francesco Guardi and Bernardo Bellotto. This will also be the only opportunity for a U.S. audience to see the show before it returns to Europe.

Through 20 of his major paintings, the exhibit aims to offer a variety of Venetian views to its audience, according to Earl A. Powell, director of the National Gallery.

Canaletto started as a theater set painter before devoting most of his work to capturing the architecture, spirit and daily life of Venice. His work was popular among English tourists who would ship his paintings back to England, Beddington said.

“The city of Venice inspired a competitive school of view painters,” Powell said.

The exhibit is also part of a wider celebration of Italian culture this year to honor the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, Italian ambassador Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata said.

“This program truly makes 2011 the year of Italian culture in the United States,” the ambassador said. “This was explicitly mentioned by President (Barack) Obama in his Columbus Day proclamation, when he recalled, last October, that the 150th anniversary is part of the incalculable contribution of Italian-Americans in making this country so great.”

The exhibit is one of five that open this winter, but it is the only show to focus on a single city.

The show will run through May 30.