This is a chapter excerpt from Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes, by David Bomford and Gabriele Finaldi. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
The purpose of assigning this chapter to read is to provide the class with a quick biography of Canaletto’s life, so that the presentation can be centered around how his artistic style and unique use of perspective was translated into some of his most influential works. This will be important to read in order to gain a better understanding of how his career came into fruition.
“Canaletto and Venice”
The only certain likeness of Canaletto appears on the frontispiece of a book of engravings after his views of Venice published in 1735 (shown below). Underneath the portrait is an inscription which affirms the ancient Venetian citizenship of his family: Antonius Canale. Orginie Civis Venetus. While he was not a patrician and could play no part in the government of the state, his social status gave him certain privileges, such as the right to bear arms. He was very proud of his Venetian origins and, even today, the names of Canaletto and Venice, the city of his birth, are inextricably linked.
Antonio Visentini after a drawing by Piazzetta, Portrait of Canaletto. Engraving, detail. Frontispiece from the Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum, Venice, 1735.
In the sixteenth century Venice had indeed been a great maritime power, its empire extending from the terraferma, a substantial portion of northern Italy, along the Adriatic coastline opposite the Italian peninsula and embracing Crete, Corfu and Cyprus. Centuries of mercantile trade had brought the city enormous prosperity and the stability of its elected oligarchic government had fostered the development of sophisticated social and institutional structures, as well as the patronage of fine ecclesiastical and secular buildings, many of them decorated with vast canvases by Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto.
By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, the Venetian state was in decline. With most of its empire lost, the city became the stage for a burgeoning tourist industry. Large numbers of wealthy foreign visitors flocked to the Venetian lagoon to admire the incomparable views and participate in the seemingly endless succession of carnivals, regattas, festivals and public ceremonies, and to patronize the seven theatres, two hundred cafés and restaurants, and the numerous casinos and brothels that the city had to offer. It was the Grand Tourists from northern Europe, rather than the Venetians, who acquired Canaletto’s view paintings to remind them of the majestic and ethereal beauty of the city.
Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, was born near the Rialto Bridge in October 1697. He was trained by his father, Bernardo, a painter of theatrical scenery. They were working together in Rome from before 1720, the year in which their names appear on a printed libretto for having designed the scenery for a Scarlatti opera. Canaletto began to establish his reputation as a painter of Venetian vedute (views) in the early 1720s. He sold some of these works at open-air exhibitions, but he soon began receiving significant commissions, such as the one from the wealthy Lucchese merchant Stefano Conti in 1725.
In 1726 he came into contact with Owen McSwiney, an Irish entrepreneur who had fled from creditors in London and settled in Italy. Canaletto was persuaded by him to participate, along with several other artists, in a project for a series of allegorical tomb paintings for the second Duke of Richmond. In addition Canaletto painted some small views of Venice on copper for the Duke and thus began a veritable love affair between British collectors and the artist. The affair was nurtured over a period of nearly thirty years by an English merchant called Joseph Smith (c. 1675-1770) who had settled in Venice in the early years of the eighteenth century and in 1744 was appointed British Consul. Smith acted both as patron and agent to the artist, securing for him major commissions like the series of twenty-four pictures ordered by the fourth Duke of Bedford in the mid-1730s (all of which are still at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire) and the twenty-one pictures made for George Grenville at about the same time and now dispersed (the so-called Harvey series). A steady stream of Grand Tourists from the British Isles ensured that Canaletto was very busy throughout the 1730s and from this period onwards some measure of studio participation in many of his works is apparent.
Smith himself owned a large group of paintings and drawings by Canaletto which in 1762 he sold to King George III. Today, the Royal Collection as the largest and finest collection anywhere of works by him, comprising fifty autograph paintings and 143 drawings. In 1735 Smith promoted the publication of a book of fourteen engravings of views of the Grand Canal, the Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum, executed by Antonio Visentini after the paintings by Canaletto in his collection. This served as a vehicle for publicising the artist’s work and proved so successful that in 1742 a new edition appeared with twenty-four more engraved views. In the early 1740s Canaletto also made a group of etchings, mostly of capricci (imaginary or capricious scenes) based on Venetian or Veneto views.
With the outbreak of the War of Austrian Succession in 1740 the flow of tourists to Venice was dramatically reduced and Canaletto decided that if his patrons could not come to him, he would go to them. In 1746, therefore, he settled in London where he stayed for a period of about ten years, making one lengthy visit to Venice in 1751 and possibly another in 1753. The engraver and antiquary George Vertue recorded his arrival in his notebook:
Latter end of May  came to London from Venice the Famous Painter of Views Canalletti of Venice the multitude of his works done abroad for noblemen and Gentlemen has procured a great reputation and his great merit and excellence in that way, he is much esteemed and no doubt but that his Views and works he doth here will give the same satisfaction – tho’ many persons already have so many of his paintings.
Despite the rumour that circulated briefly in London in 1749 that he was not the real Canaletto from Venice but an imposter, the artist received important commissions from, among others, the Duke of Richmond, who had already had some of his early views of Venice, Sir Hugh Smithson, later the first Duke of Northumberland, who commissioned views of the nearly constructed Westminster Bridge, and Lord Brooke, who invited the artist to Warwick Castle where he painted several delightful works. Some of his most interesting and unusual English paintings were made in 1754 for the wealthy writer and collector Sir Thomas Hollis, who had met Consul Smith in Venice. Canaletto’s influence on view painting in England was considerable, particularly on watercolour painters.
In 1755 or 1756 Canaletto returned definitively to Venice. By this time his nephew and most brilliant pupil, Bernardo Bellotto (1721-80), had been working at Dresden as court painter to the Elector Augustus II of Saxony for more than eight years with great success and was soon to move on to Vienna, Munich and Warsaw. Francesco Guardi (1712-93), also a native of Venice, was beginning to establish himself as a successful vedutista in these years – although, contrary to popular legend, he seems never to have been Canaletto’s pupil. His style is very distinctive and quite different from Canaletto’s, although there are some intriguing similarities with the latter’s works of the 1720s.
Canaletto’s later works, including some produced in his English period, became somewhat formulaic in execution, nevertheless the late Venetian views are often highly original in conception and design and he made bold use of dramatic perspectives. He was elected to the Venetian Academy only in 1763, a delay that was almost certainly due to the low status accorded to view painters. His reception piece, which is signed and dated 1765, was a large architectural capriccio in which he demonstrated his perspectival skill and his artistic ingenuity, qualities that the Academicians had no difficulty in admiring. He died in April 1768.