Published: April 12, 2011
Regarded by many for centuries as the most beautiful city in the world, Venice has long been a magnet for all manner of visitors, including great artists, many native Italians.
Occupying one of the most remarkable sites in the world, Venice rises from a cluster of islands in the middle of a lagoon, making it easier to defend, and boasts a historically busy harbor. Bisected by the Grand Canal and many side canals, it traditionally relied on gondolas rather than horses and buggies for transportation. There were 10,000 gondolas in Sixteenth Century Venice.
According to Eric Denker, National Gallery curator and Venice authority, the city measures 2 by 3 miles, has 450 bridges, and the 2½-mile Grand Canal remains its main thoroughfare. One is mindful of writer Robert Benchley’s telegram to New Yorker editor Harold Ross: “Streets full of water. Please advise.”
Among the most important artists depicting the city’s wonders early on were Italian vedute or view painters, who sought to convey the dazzling splendor of the place in colorful, panoramic tours de force. Church by church, piazza by piazza and stone by stone, these artists captured sites that are still recognizable today. Many view painters responded to views in their own way; others replicated scenes painted by the most successful among them.
The glorious works created by Eighteenth Century Italian painters are documented in one of this year’s most beautiful exhibitions, “Venice: Canaletto and His Rivals.” On view at the National Gallery of Art through May 30, it features 20 paintings by Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto, and 33 works by his contemporaries and competitors. The exhibition is guest-curated by David Beddington, a regarded Canaletto authority.
The first dated Venetian view painter was a Dutchman, Gaspar van Vittel (called Gaspare Vanvitelli; 1652/3‱736), whose “The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco,” 1697, offers a tranquil view of a ship-filled bay looking toward the Doge’s Palace and the city’s skyline. In keeping with Dutch cityscape traditions, Vanvitelli recorded what he observed with skill and accuracy, except for taking the artistic liberty of showing three spires of the Basilica of San Marco when only one can be seen from this perspective.
The Dutch painter’s work stimulated Italian artist Luca Carlevarijs (1663‱730), who painted “The Molo from the Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day” in 1710. His perspective is similar to Vanvitelli’s, but Carlevarijs focused on the pomp and activity of the scene in a larger, closer-up depiction. By painting a major festival day, Carlevarijs responded to the desires of foreign patrons, who wanted colorful scenes and who dictated the course of Venetian view painting for decades.
In addition to establishing standard compositions for festivals, Carlevarijs led the way in portraying the greeting of foreign dignitaries, regattas and gondola races on the Grand Canal. He painted the city’s most popular subject, “The Piazza San Marco, looking East,” circa 1710‱5, albeit it in an off-kilter image that shrank the church and cut off the campanile in order to concentrate on the crowds in the foreground. Carlevarijs was more interested in Venice as figurative spectacle than as architectural wonder; its landmark buildings serve as theatrical backdrops to his colorful depictions of the local populace.
The next level in Venetian view painting was ushered in by Canaletto (1697‱768), a native son trained in theatrical scenery painting, who began to create dark, panoramic canvases that by 1723 included his first masterwork of Piazza San Marco. Full-scaled and accurate in its architectural features, it contrasts with Carlevarijs’s earlier version with its friezelike row of people and drastically altered buildings.
Not finding many buyers for these gloomy images, Canaletto soon adapted his work to appeal to foreigners, especially British visitors, due largely to his association with Joseph Smith, an English merchant banker and later British consul, who became his patron and agent. The painter chose more recognizable, sun-filled sites, and employed smaller formats that were easier for tourists to transport.
In part to mask the decline of the Venetian Republic, visiting dignitaries were received with great fanfare. Comparisons between Carlevarijs’s 1707 depiction of the ceremonial reception for the British ambassador at the Doge’s Palace and Canaletto’s circa 1727 portrayal of the same scene with the arrival of the French ambassador are telling. As curator Beddington delineates them, Canaletto unified “all the various elements into a convincing whole. The&⁛numerous and well-articulated] figures are integrated into the scene rather than being spread across the foreground. Each one is imbued with vibrancy and movement, while in Carlevarijs’s painting all seems comparatively static and ‘staged.'”
Moreover, notes Beddington, by adopting a lower and more distant perspective, Canaletto was “able to give a far more convincing impression of the solid bulk of &†[the unique Doge’s Palace], which &†appropriately dominates its surroundings.” Little wonder that when he hit his stride, Canaletto eclipsed Carlevarijs.
The brightening of Canaletto’s palette and the focusing of his subjects is epitomized by paintings of the Grand Canal, circa 1729, and the Piazza San Marco, circa 1731, by which time he had come to dominate the foreign market. Such evocative scenes were snapped up by members of the British aristocracy for display on their country estates.
Although Canaletto’s pictures appear to be precise renderings of Venetian topography, he actually took liberties with scale and arrangements of buildings and piazzas †modifying size, mass and space †to achieve compositional balance and effect. He routinely created oils that showed a scene from several different vantage points, and moved and enlarged buildings, flagpoles and other elements for aesthetic purposes. His aim was to appeal to tourists’ memories of the city rather than to achieve photographic accuracy. Canaletto’s followers and rivals became equally adept at enhancing their paintings for aesthetic †and marketing †purposes.
One of the highlights of the exhibition, “The Entrance to the Grand Canal, looking West, with Santa Maria della Salute,” circa 1729, epitomizes the new thrust of Canaletto’s art. In the 1730s, the painter was at his peak, as was his market. With Smith acting as his agent, Canaletto received the two largest commissions of his career †24 canvases for the Duke of Bedford and 20 for the Duke of Marlborough.
Sometimes Canaletto depicted familiar settings from unprecedented angles, as in “The Riva degli Schiavoni, looking West,” circa 1735″6. “The painter here,” says Beddington, “is at his most placid, the calm atmosphere, light tonality and warm sunlight far removed from his style of the mid-1720s.” He notes the precision of the brushwork, the “wealth of detail, far more in fact than the eye would assimilate before the view itself,” carefully depicted ripples in the water and clouds in the sky, and “heightened emphasis on [the] solidity” of buildings. It is, in a word, a masterfully balanced composition that represents “a convincing impression of a captured moment.”
The achievements of Canaletto and his colleagues are often attributed to their use of the camera obscura, a wooden box with a hole and lens through which an image of objects is projected onto a sheet of paper. The images could be used in organizing compositions with photographic accuracy. Several camera obscuras are on display.
The camera obscura was less helpful for compositions depicting unattainable viewpoints, such as above the Grand Canal or high above the bay, as in Canaletto’s superb, panoramic “The Bacino di San Marco.” Nor did it help much for views in which Canaletto sought not photographic accuracy, but deliberately distorted views for visual effect. Thus, in “The Piazza San Marco, looking South and West,” the campanile has been significantly truncated to fit into the picture frame and other buildings have been reduced or otherwise distorted for aesthetic purposes.
For a time in the late 1730s Canaletto’s warm sunshine was replaced by cool wintry light, which abetted masterful panoramic views of great translucence and precision, like the image of the Bay of San Marco referred to earlier. It documented more detail than the eye could possibly see.
Many talented Venetian painters tried to compete with Canaletto, but few attained his degree of appealing composition and masterful brushwork and fewer threatened his domination of the field. One real challenger was the short-lived but innovative Michele Marieschi (1710‱743), whose thick, bravura brushwork, animated water, attention to detail and panoramic compositions amounted to bright, vivid variants of Canaletto’s style. Indeed, the younger artist’s “The Bacino di San Marco,” circa 1739‴0, looks like a conscious emulation of Canaletto’s masterpiece of the same title.
Beddington suggests that Marieschi’s view of the entrance to the Grand Canal with Santa Maria della Salute flanked to the right is superior to Canaletto’s view of the same setting. The younger artist’s deft foreshortenings here and distortions there “result in a composition which makes a Canaletto painting of the same subject &†seem comparatively staid,” he says.
Marieschi’s fondness for unexpected vantage points, such as views of the Rialto Bridge, made his works stand out, and he charged less than half what Canaletto received for canvases. The older artist may have been relieved when his young competitor died at the age of 32.
Canaletto, a bachelor, took his precocious nephew, Bernardo Bellotto (1722‱780), into his studio, where the talented youngster was soon imitating his uncle’s style with considerable success, as seen in their respective depictions of Ascension Day in the bay. Indeed, Bellotto sometimes signed his uncle’s name, and even when he did not, his works were often sold as Canalettos.
Bellotto eventually painted larger canvases in which strongly delineated structures dominated, and his uncle’s warm sunshine was replaced by a discernibly cooler light.
Bellotto’s “The Campo Santa Maria Formosa” emphasized the monumentality of structures and the impact of dramatic shadows. These qualities contrast with Canaletto’s more conventional depiction of the same scene a decade earlier.
In the 1740s, the market for Venetian view paintings declined as the War of Austrian Succession moved into Italy. Bellotto decamped for Dresden, never to return. In 1746, Canaletto left for nine productive years in England, where he was already famous.
Back in Venice during the last decade of his life, Canaletto faced a new rival, Francesco Guardi (1712‱793), a Venetian native who outlived him by 25 years and, says Beddington, provided “a glorious last chapter in the history of Venetian view painting.” Originally a figure painter, Guardi steeped himself in Canaletto’s style and compositions, and took up view painting in his 40s. While he replicated some of the older painter’s compositions, Guardi was more concerned with expressing mood over recording topography, utilizing hazy light and flickering brushwork.
At his best, Guardi was awfully good, arguably better than Canaletto on occasion. His edge over Canaletto is apparent in their respective depictions of Grand Canal regattas, painted more than 40 years apart. As Beddington puts it, “The older painter’s solid buildings and precisely drawn, richly colored figures have been replaced by a vision filtered through a haze of summer sunshine, every detail animated by the uniquely feathery flicks of Guardi’s brush and the figures in a fully rococo sensibility.”
Guardi’s emphasis on light and atmosphere gives a poetic feel to his version of “The Torre di Malghera.” Canaletto’s contrasting version of the same abandoned medieval tower, executed some 15 years earlier, looks hard and topographical.
Four years after Guardi’s death in 1793, the 1,000-year-old Venetian Republic surrendered to Napoleon’s army. With Europe embroiled in conflict and unrest, discouraging travel on the Continent, the era of the Grand Tour †and of Venetian view painting †came to a close.
The illustrated catalog, with text by Beddington and helpful explanations of sites and terms by National Gallery curator Amanda Bradley, sells for $50 hardcover and $35 softcover.
The National Gallery is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, www.nga.gov or 202-737-4215.
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