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Chapter II: Early Period in Venice

One example of Canaletto’s more creative type of view painting is Grand Canal: the Rialto Bridge from the North, 1725 (fig. 1), which reveals that he combined two separate views of the Grand Canal into one painting.[1] Canaletto himself commented on this picture and identified its location in November of 1725, saying:

The Rialto Bridge seen from the side of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi which is opposite the Palace of the Camerlenghi Magistrates and other Magistrates, with other buildings nearby which look on to the vegetable market where all kinds of vegetables and fruits are delivered to be distributed to the suppliers in the city. In the middle of the Canal is painted a Peotta Nobile with figures in it and four Gondoliers going at full speed and close to it a gondola having the livery of the Emperor’s Ambassador.[2]

 

If one stands on one of the landing stages where he must have placed himself to paint this work, only the end wall of the Fabbriche Vecchie, seen here at the right of the painting (with the arches on the first story), would be visible to the right of the white Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, which is shown in the painting between the Rialto Bridge and the Fabbriche. One block away, there is another landing stage where one can see the Fabbriche Vecchie, but only the end wall of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi.[3] However, Canaletto painted the scene so that both the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi and the Fabbriche Vecchie were fully visible from the same viewpoint, which is not possible. This means that the two buildings on the right-hand side of the Grand Canal had to have been studied separately before they were combined into this scene. By looking at two modern photographs taken of the bridge from the different landing platforms (figs. 2 and 3), and comparing them to Canaletto’s preliminary sketch of the painting (fig. 4), one can clearly see how he constructed this imaginary view.[4]

Another good example of Canaletto creating a new perspective can be seen in his painting called Grand Canal: Looking North from near the Rialto Bridge, 1730 (fig. 5).[5] For this, Canaletto first made a preliminary drawing (fig. 6) in which the scene he depicts is seen at eye-level. However, when he paints it, he lifts the viewpoint so that it is seen from a higher level. This change makes it seem like the viewer must be seeing the canal from the piano nobile, or the first floor of a Venetian palazzo, perhaps with a higher-class client in mind, or it could have been made purely for aesthetic adjustments and purposes.[6] In both this and Grand Canal: the Rialto Bridge from the North, Canaletto uses similar tonalities. The facades of the sunlit buildings are painted in light tans, beiges, pinks, and grayish-whites; the gondolas are black; splashes of white are provided by bright white cloths; the canal is mainly greenish-gold and green-blue; and the cloudy skies are many tones of blue. Moreover, both paintings are similarly organized: the sky comprises about two-thirds of each painting, while the cluster of buildings and the Grand Canal make up the bottom third of the compositions.

In a painting called Venice: A Regatta on the Grand Canal (fig. 7), Canaletto depicts a regatta scene during the Festa delle Marie.[7] It appears as though he should have painted this from a boat on the canal, but he actually completed it on land. This may be an indication that Canaletto used the camera obscura, or camera ottica, a special constructed box that would project an image of the landscape onto a flat surface, thus making it easy for the artist to draw it and to increase his accuracy of depiction.[8] According to Antonio Maria Zanetti writing in a document from November of 1725, “by his example Canal taught the correct way of using the camera ottica; and how to understand the errors that occur in the picture when the artist follows too closely the lines of the perspective.”[9] In the painting, he captures a direct image of the regatta, while spectators fill the scene, pointing and gesturing toward the race. Off to the far left is the macchina, under which the winners of the races were celebrated. In a 1740 composition called A Regatta on the Grand Canal (fig. 8), Canaletto paints from almost the same standing point, but he has made several changes. The light in the second painting is much brighter, and the water is filled with more lavish boats. He has also very slightly shifted the composition upward, so that the top of the building located on the left can now be seen. In both paintings, it is clear that it is a Carnival scene because many of the spectators are wearing black capes and white masks, or bauta garb.[10] Canaletto features more of these festively dressed people in the second painting. The colors he chooses to use appear to be more muted in the second composition, but this may have to do with the darker shadows cast by the sun. Both are representations and clear examples of how Venice received its reputation as a vibrant and festive city.

One of Canaletto’s best known works is Venice: The Feast Day of Saint Roch of about 1735 (fig. 9). Here, he depicts the procession of the Doge coming out of the church of San Rocco, where the saint’s relics have been kept since 1485. On 16 August of every year, the saint’s Feast day, a celebration took place to honor St. Roch, the patron saint of plague victims. By honoring the saint, the citizens of Venice thought they could prevent an outbreak of the plague, after one had deeply devastated the population in 1576.[11] This is the first time an artist had depicted this ceremony as the main subject of a painting, but even if Canaletto saw the actual scene, this does not represent it as it happened, because Canaletto could not have seen the procession or the buildings exactly as he depicted them here. The position of the church of the Frari off to the right of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which dominates the picture, is wrong, for example, for in reality, the church stands in front of the scuola.[12] In addition, topographical studies have proved that, because of the way the buildings face in reality, the light cannot hit them the way it does in Canaletto’s painting.[13] It is as if the artist has played with the light in order to highlight the scuola, which is decorated with paintings for the festive occasion. The procession fills the bottom of the painting, anchoring the composition with its horizontal weight and movement. The figures can be identified based on the color of their clothes and type of dress. The Doge is shown in gold, and he is surrounded by his cushion-bearers, secretaries in light purple, the Cancelliere Grande in red, the Senators, the Ambassadors, the Guardiano Grande di San Rocco, and the bearer of the sword of state.[14]

The Stonemason’s Yard of about 1725 (fig. 10) is considered to be a masterpiece of Canaletto’s early career.[15] It is also one of his most unusual works, in that he has hardly altered the scene at all. Here, the Campo San Vidal is the space into which the viewer is invited, with the Grand Canal in the middle ground. The church of Santa Maria della Carità sits on the far side of the Grand Canal.[16] The picture is unlike anything previously done by Canaletto. The subject matter strays far away from what he depicted in the urban areas of Venice. Here, he chose to focus on a quiet corner of the city. Michael Levey noted that, “part of the difficulty of dating the picture is due to its uniquely high quality. It is perhaps the product of a moment of fusion between Canaletto’s early and mature styles, both of which seem present in it.”[17] He has, however, elevated the viewpoint again by creating his balcony perspective, as seen in Grand Canal: Looking North from near the Rialto Bridge (fig. 5), which allows us to look down on the scene. Otherwise, he has stayed true to the actual topography of what he observes.[18] Today, there have been several changes made to the scene, including the addition of the Accademia Bridge, alterations on the church façade, the destruction of the campanile, and the building of a pseudo-gothic palace at the left. Unfortunately, no preliminary drawings for this work are known, so scholars are unable to study whether or not he made any changes to the composition. Nor were there any painted by any of Canaletto’s contemporaries.



[1]             Tancred Borenius, “A Canaletto Curiosity,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (September 1921): 109.

[2]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 17.

[3]             Tancred Borenius, “A Canaletto Curiosity,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (September 1921): 111.

[4]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 17.

[5]             William George Constable, “Canaletto and Guardi,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (December 1921): 300.

[6]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 18.

[7]             Translated to “the feast of the Purification of the Virgin” on 2 February

[8]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 18.

[9]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 17.

[10]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 30.

[11]             J. G. Links, Canaletto (New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 1994), 62.

[12]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 38.

[13]             Edoardo Arslan, “New Findings on Canaletto,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (September 1948): 226.

[14]             J. G. Links, Canaletto (New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 1994), 62.

[15]             Oliver Millar, “Venice. Canaletto,” The Burlington Magazine (October 1982): 653.

[16]             William George Constable, Canaletto: Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962), 54.

[17]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 44.

[18]             Ibid.