Summary of Canaletto
Canaletto was a sophisticated and prolific Italian painter known primarily for his vivid topographies of Venice, Rome, and London. Much more than a formulaic guildsman, there is a unique quality to his work which can be attributed to the fact that he was able to seamlessly blend real and imagined words to beguiling effect. His 'tourist" paintings, which were much sought after by the traveling upper-classes, were meticulously prepared, with his chief concern being for compositional harmony rather than dogmatic geographic accuracy. In his later career Canaletto augmented his painting output with an important series of "real-time" etchings of such fine quality that they influenced the next generation of English landscapists. Having further cemented his early reputation while working in England, Canaletto returned to Venice where he finished his career painting more intimate cityscapes in the light and frivolous Rococo style.
- With an eye for compositional balance, and a feel for dramatic effects, Canaletto typically composed images of recognizable landmarks which he would rearranged in subtle new relationships (capriccio). His images could also be composed, in part, of imaginary architectural and scenic elements (veduta ideata).
- As an heir to the legacy of the great Renaissance masters, Canaletto was admired for his subtle blending of sunlight, shadow and cloud effects, and his play of light on architectural structures. Much of his preparation work was carried out "on location" (rather than in the studio); an artistic predilection that was considered highly unusual for that time.
- The fine detail in Canaletto's renderings of architectural structures is attributed to his use of a camera obscura which enabled his to create traceable blueprints on which to build up his finely detailed topographies.
- Canaletto produced a series of some 30 influential etchings. His drawings (on paper) were considered exceptionally skilful and sensitive, showing a total command of perspective and luminosity.
Biography of Canaletto
Only limited biographical details exist about Giovanni Antonio Canal, the artist better known as Canaletto. His parents, mother Artemisia Barbieri, and father Bernardo Canal (the mononym Canaletto simple means "Little Canal"), were members of an upper-class Venetian society which, according to art historian and Canaletto specialist, Bożena Anna Kowalczyk, included "noblemen and attadini originarii ('original citizens')." Canaletto was in fact proud of his ancestry and would later boast of depicting "the Canal family's coat of arms (a silver shield surmounted by a blue roe) into the works he was especially proud of." Indeed, in seeking to authenticate an unsigned and undated painting gifted to the University of Aberdeen (known only as "Ruins of the Temple") Art Historian John Gash, and leading Canaletto scholar Charles Beddington, were able to authenticate the painting of Roman ruins by this means. As Gash was able to explain, "Occasionally, Canaletto did sign his works but not in this example. However in the middle of the painting is a ruin which displays the coat of arms of his family. It's unlikely someone else would include that, so it acts as a kind of surrogate signature."
Important Art by Canaletto
Direct precedents for Canaletto's painting can be found in the work of the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain who made his name in Italy during the precedding (seventeenth) century. Claude is credited with turning the landscape genre into the more respectable "history painting", and, like Claude, Canaletto would dramatize his historical tableaus with a smattering of small figures. Here, ancient Roman monuments in various states of deterioration dominate the foreground of Canaletto's painting. A few stray figures are depicted in the painting including a figure sitting at the base of a building on the left side of the canvas and two men near a small pool in the center foreground. In the background, along the Tiber River, additional architectural structures are visible including the famous Trajan's Column and a barely visible dome from the Castel Sant'Angelo.
This painting is an early example of the subject matter Canaletto turned towards after deciding to give up on theatrical sceneries, though one can see those influences here in this impressive topography. Canaletto's superb mastery of perspective, a technique fostered under the Renaissance tradition of his native Italy, is also in abundant evidence. Indeed, art historian Bożena Anna Kowalczyk attributed his mastery of perspective to his time spent working in the theater: "the precise perspective ad angolo [angled], in keeping with the rules of theatrical scenography [...] governs the arrangement of the buildings in the space, as well as that of the cistern in the foreground." While Canaletto's later paintings and drawings would favor more naturalistic renderings of cityscapes, here we still see a clear foreshadowing of the vedute style for which he would become most well-known.
A series of architectural structures dominate the canvas of Canaletto's Architectural Capriccio. The largest building, occupying the right foreground of the canvas, features an arch under which one man sits while another two figures are seen passing through. The "Capriccio" of the painting's title acts to inform the spectator that the painting is in fact a fantasy; albeit a fantasy grounded in reality.
Completed early in his career, and while still in Rome, this work is an example of the veduta ideata style in which real and imaginary combinations are used to heighten the picture's sense of drama. Canaletto had used real architectural structures as the template for his painting, but, in a gesture of artistic licence, he combined the Roman architectural elements of his immediate surroundings with those belonging to his native Venice. Once more, the theatrical element of the painting reflects Canaletto's early training, yet the vivid attention to fine detail in which he renders the landscape sets the bar for the rest of his career. Indeed, in her analysis of the painting, Kowalczyk suggested that Canaletto had established "a discourse on classical and Renaissance Venetian architecture that would guide his future creations." Kowalczyk also speculated that the figure seated under the arch in the left foreground is a depiction of Canaletto himself, here engaged "in the act of measuring the buildings with a pencil." Whether or not the figure was autobiographical, the idea that the artist could be charged with the responsibility of capturing a memory of the city was an obligation that Canaletto took to heart and established his position within the pantheon of Italian masters.
This Canaletto painting features an iconic view of Venice: that of the Rialto Bridge positioned between city buildings on either side of the Grand Canal. While the bridge is visible in the left background of the canvas, the viewer's eye must first travel along the water on which floats many gondolas. The subject of the Grand Canal was a favorite for Canaletto who took up the theme shortly after his return from Rome in 1720. This particular example is one of twelve compositions of the canal observed from the same vantage point. The painting was also one of several Canaletto's acquired (through his agent Joseph Smith) by King George III of England.
Characteristic of his style, the view served almost as a facsimile of modern Venice. Here, for instance, one can see key architectural features including the Rialto Bridge, the edge of the Palazzo Civran on the left bank of the canal, the uppermost section of the San Bartolomeo's Bell Tower in the background, and the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi on the right bank. Despite his commitment to the rules of verisimilitude, however, Canaletto was not above embellishing his work through subtle geographic modifications. According to a catalogue entry from The Royal Collection Trust, "there is no one viewpoint that encompasses all these crowded buildings, and Canaletto has opened out the topography to give an impression of space. The bridge has been moved to the left to show most of its width; the short, sunlit façade of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi actually lies almost flush with the front of the Fabbriche, and Canaletto turned the Palazzo through almost 90° to create a square on the bank of the canal." By taking such liberties with "the truth," Canaletto had created a more dramatic and aesthetically pleasing cityscape.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Canaletto
- Canaletto: 1697-1768Our PickBy Bożena Anna Kowalczyk
- CanalettoOur PickBy J.G. Links
- Canaletto and the Art of VeniceOur PickBy Rosie Razzall and Lucy Whitaker
- Canaletto: Colour LibraryBy Christopher Baker
- New exhibition of Canaletto's British paintings at Compton Verney galleryBy Mark Brown / The Guardian / 13 March 2013
- Canaletto's paintings showed more than the tourist side of VeniceOur PickWashington Post / February 20, 2011
- Canaletto you believe it? Painting confirmed as hidden treasure by famous artistUniversity of Aberdeen / 28 March 2018
- Art expert discusses Canaletto's work as it goes up for auctionIn this brief video, from 2003, an expert from Sotheby's auction house discusses the appeal and potential success for a then forthcoming sale of a selection of Canaletto paintings.
- Canaletto and the Vedute Room: A Conservation ProjectOur PickThis video provides a discussion of the conservation of two major vedute paintings by Canaletto in the Wallace Collection. An in-depth look is provided of the conservation that was done by staff at the Hamilton Kerr Institute at the University of Cambridge.
- Get Creative: From Canaletto to Kenni-lettoOur PickIn this BBC Culture piece, Ken Small, an 84-year-old retiree with no artistic training, discusses his painting of a large scale replica of a Canaletto work in which he adds a few new details of his own. He also provides a look at some other famous paintings he has recreated.