Here is a rough draft of what I’d like my paper to be. I already know that I would like to put in a few drawings that coincide with some of the paintings (include how people who would be buying these pictures would realize their quirkiness; event as central, not the geography, of his drawings – The “Giovedi Grasso” Festival before the Ducal Palace in Venice, 1763/1766), and include Canaletto’s work methods. I am also currently on the quest of finding more photograph representations of the scenes he depicted, to better examine and compare the similarities and differences. I am going to find a way to put those details in later tonight – I just wanted to post this as a tentative draft to get some ideas out there. A full bibliography can be found on my blog page.
When I have a more finalized draft, I will include the images, correlating to their “Figure” numbers.
Also, please bear in mind that I am currently editing this!
Canaletto’s Perspectives of Venice
Giovanni Antonio Canal, born October 28, 1697, played a large role in depicting Venetian lifestyles and cityscapes through his use of light, color, and detail in his eighteenth-century paintings and drawings. Better known as Canaletto, he was the son of a theatrical scenery painter, Bernardo Canal, from whom he adopted the name, meaning, “little canal.” Canaletto worked under his father as a teenager, and in 1720, they traveled together to Rome, where he was exposed to the art of famous view painter Giovanni Paolo Pannini. Upon arrival in Venice, he began working on his own scenes of the city. Canaletto became one of the first Venetian vedutisti, or view painters, following the groundbreaking example of Luca Carlevarijs (1663-1730). He worked with patrons, such as Stefano Conti, and several Englishmen, including Owen McSwiney, the Duke of Richmond and British Consul to the Venetian Republic Joseph Smith, who sold his collection to King George III, and who helped jumpstart Canaletto’s career. Canaletto is most notably recognized for his creative interpretations of his native city, otherwise known as capricci. When he was painting particular views, he frequently made changes, adding or omitting buildings, altering proportions, or creating shadows that did not exist; he even adjusted the size and shape of the Grand Canal. He thus remodeled the actual cityscape in his paintings and created a new reality, but the postcard-like quality of his views persuades the spectator that they were painted as seen.
One example of Canaletto’s creative view painting is Grand Canal: the Rialto Bridge from the North (Fig. 1), which reveals that he combined two separate views into one painting. If one stands on one of the landing stages where Canaletto must have placed himself to paint this work, only the end wall of the Fabbriche, seen at the right of the painting, would be visible to the right of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, shown to the left of the Fabbriche Vecchie. One block away, there is another landing stage where one can see the Fabbriche Vecchie, but only the sidewall of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi. However, Canaletto sketched the scene so that both the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi and Fabbriche Vecchie were visible from one viewpoint, which is not possible. This means that the right-hand-side of the Grand Canal was completed separately and combined into one view. Canaletto commented on this picture 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.
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 (Fig. 2). Here, he has made a preliminary drawing (Fig. 3) in which the scene he depicts is at eye-level. However, when he paints it, he has raised the focus so that it is at a higher level. This could either be perceived as seeing the canal from the piano nobile, or the first floor of a Venetian (Italian?) building, for a higher-class client, or it could have been purely for aesthetic adjustments and purposes. Canaletto uses similar tonalities with this painting, as he did in Grand Canal: the Rialto Bridge from the North. The sky in both paintings comprises about two-thirds of the painting, while the cluster of buildings and the Grand Canal make up the bottom third of the composition.
In a painting called Venice: A Regatta on the Grand Canal (Fig. 4), Canaletto depicts a regatta scene during the Festa delle Marie. It appears as though he should be painting this from a boat on the canal, but he has actually completed it on land. This may be an indication of Canaletto using the camera obscura, or camera ottica, which would project an image of the landscape onto a flat surface, in order to increase accuracy. According to Antonio Maria Zanetti, “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.” 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. 5), Canaletto paints from almost the same standing point, but 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 shifted the composition slightly 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. He features more of these festively dressed people in the second painting. The colors he chose to use also appear to be less dimly lit in the second composition, but this may have to do with the shadows cast by the sun. Both are representations and clear examples of how Venice received its reputation in being a vibrant and festive city.
One of Canaletto’s most well known works is Venice: The Feast Day of Saint Roch (Fig. 6). Here, he depicts the procession of the Doge out of the church of San Rocco where the saint’s relics have been kept since 1485. On 16 August of every year, otherwise known as Feast day, a celebration takes place to honor the saint, and was also thought to prevent the outbreak of another plague, after one had deeply devastated the population in 1576. This is the first time an artist had depicted this ceremony as the main subject of the picture. Canaletto has played with special positioning in this painting, because there is no conceivable way that, based upon where he wants the viewer to think he was standing when painting this, the entire scene laid out would be represented. He also set back the positioning of the church of the Frari off to the right in relation to the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, which dominates the picture, when in reality, the church stands in front of it.  The way the light hits the buildings is also not possible, because of the way buildings around them are positioned. It is as if he has played with the light in order to highlight the scuola, which is decorated for the festive occasion. The procession acts as the bottom foundation of the painting, anchoring the composition with a horizontal weight. 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, Cancelliere Grande, the Senators, the Ambassadors, the Guardiano Grande di San Rocco, and the bearer of the sword and state.
The Stonemason’s Yard (Fig. 7) is considered to be a masterpiece of Canaletto’s early career. It is ironically one of his most unusual works, in that he has hardly altered the scene at all. In it, the Campo San Vidal is the space in which the viewer is invited, with the Grand Canal resting behind it. The church of Santa Maria della Carita sits on the far side of the piece. 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.” He has, however, elevated the scene again by creating his balcony perspective, as seen in Figure 2. Otherwise, he has stayed true to what he observes. Although he did not largely modify anything in this picture, he did later paint the church and other small buildings in separate works with obstructed perspectives. Today, there have been several changes made to the area, including the addition of the Accademia Bridge, alterations on the church façade, and the destruction of the campanile. Unfortunately, Canaletto made no known preliminary drawings for this particular work, so scholars are unable to study whether or not he did make any slight changes to the composition.
In the early 1740s, Canaletto was commissioned by Joseph Smith to create a series of five paintings of Roman architecture. It is uncertain as to whether Canaletto journeyed back to Rome for these sketches, or if he used ones that he had made in 1720 with his father. Smith also had an extensive collection of prints of Roman views, so Canaletto may have used those as inspiration, as well. In his painting called Rome: the Arch of Constantine (Fig. 8), he depicts the famous monument, so that the viewer is seeing the south face, but he has displayed the decorum that would only be seen on the north side of the arch. The curch of San Pietro and the Colosseum are both shown through the arch. A cluster of figures makes up the foreground, which perhaps could represent students on their Grand Tour. Off to the left is a figure that could represent Canaletto himself. The artist is featured with a ruler, book, and could either be making observations or writing something down. The fact that Canaletto chose to sign and date this work in the same text as seen on the Roman arch shows that he was asserting ownership over the work and wanted to receive full credit for it.
Another painting in this series, titled, Rome: Ruins of the Forum, looking towards the Capitol (Fig. 9), represents the site of the ancient public forum, which was the political center many centuries earlier. More Grand Tourists occupy the space, as they all appear to be admiring the newly excavated, and highly imposing structures of the remains of the temple of Castor and Pollox. The columns jolt this composition upwards above all other buildings. The Temple of Saturn and the Palazzo Senatorio are also featured in this work, adding to the upward thrust of the composition. Although all of the historical sites are accurately represented, Canaletto still added his own flair. Some of the houses off to the left are entirely made up, and the chimneys that adorn their roofs look very Venetian. It is as if he were adding the horizontal lines of the houses to balance out the strong verticalities of the other elements in this picture. This piece is unique because Canaletto combines the two worlds into one, calculated composition. This may be one of the first examples of a capricci, meaning that he began to not only play with proportion and space, but how he also blended architecture of multiple cities into one cohesive piece. He signed and dated this work in the same way that he did in Rome: the Arch of Constantine (Fig. 8).
In a 1740s depiction of the Grand Canal, Canaletto took several more steps in portraying a highly unique painting. Capriccio: the Grand Canal, with an Imaginary Rialto Bridge and Other Buildings (Fig. 10) is a painting in which Canaletto has taken full liberty in almost entirely reconstructing the bridge and all surrounding buildings. He had already made a template for the Rialto Bridge, based on a photograph he had taken (Fig. 11). The photograph helps reveal his thought process behind the work and his inspiration for what to include and what to completely make up. To begin, there is a quay to the right of the scene, which in the painting was moved to the left. Unidentifiable buildings fill the painting, and the Rialto Bridge itself has been reworked. The structures on top of the bridge in the picture have been shaved down, and a flattened dome has replaced the center structure. The balcony areas on the bridge have also been modified, as Canaletto played with their height and width. It appears that he took Andrea Palladio’s Palazzo della Ragione in Vicenzia and placed it to the right of the bridge, and therefore created his own playful interpretation of the scene.
Because of the War of Austrian Succession, Canaletto traveled to his patrons in London in the spring of 1746, where he stayed off and on for about ten years. When he first arrived, he painted mostly scenes of the Westminster Bridge. For the Duke of Northumberland, he painted London: seen through an Arch of Westminster Bridge (Fig. 12), who was also overseeing the project of constructing the new bridge at the time. This striking composition is highlighted by the dynamic relationship between curvilinear and horizontal lines. The structure of the semi-circular bridge frames the view of London, which is highlighted by the overwhelmingly large yellowish-blue sky. Instead of using his traditional bright blue hues to depict the sky, he has chosen colors that represent dusk. The bridge is positioned at an angle, so that it creates depth and does not act as a barrier between the viewer and the Thames. It is placed slightly off-center, so that more of the bridge to the left is included in the piece. A bucket hanging toward the right helps to balance this out and add more linear interest. Through the bridge, the viewer can see the top of the church of Saint Clement Danes in the center, Saint Paul’s Cathedral toward the right, and the Water Tower and York Water Gate at the left. This painting served as an certainly inspired English artists with its boldness and special qualities.
In 1747, Canaletto painted London: Whitehall and the Privy Garden from Richmond House (Fig. 13) for the Duke of Richmond. The Duke is shown here with one of his servants in the lower right-hand corner, claiming patronage to the work. This picture has become one of the most highly acclaimed paintings that Canaletto completed while in England. The composition itself is highly geometric. It is clear that his artistic style in London was beginning to evolve with rational undertones and crisp lines. The perspective that he chose to paint this from creates a convenient line, on which the buildings rest in an orderly fashion. Everything is directed toward the center plane, as if he were trying to create order out of the mass of buildings and people making their way through the space. Each person and building are exquisitely finished, with even the most minute detail present. This, along with the bright blue sky covering the upper half of the work, remain characteristic of Canaletto.
Thomas Hollis commissioned Canaletto to paint Old Walton Bridge (Fig. 14). He paints the bridge off to the right of the picture in bright white against the overcast cloud hovering overhead. He is painting the river so that it is seen upstream, and a boat passing through has its mast lowered so that it may pass under the bridge. A man seated resembles the artist in Rome: the Arch of Constantine (Fig. 8), which must be Canaletto himself, again. Thomas Hollis is depicted with his friend Thomas Brand, his Italian servant Francescso Giovannini, and Hollis’ pet dog Malta. They, along with several other figures, clutter the foreground, and many more are seen across the river, as well. Samuel Dicker, a Member of Parliament, paid for the bridge in 1747 and his house can be seen across the bridge in the painting. The composition overall continues Canaletto’s desire for geometric harmony. The solidity of the bridge is balanced out by the details on the left, including geese in the river, the boat passing through, and a cluster of treas. The sky is vividly represented and composes about half of the picture, still representative of the artist.
Questioning what is real and what is imagined in Canaletto’s artworks was characteristic of his style. It was not until his representation of Capriccio: River Landscape with a Ruin and Reminiscences of England (Fig. 15) and its companion Capriccio: River Landscape with a Column, a Ruined Roman Arch, and Reminiscences of England (Fig. 16), however, that he truly assimilated two worlds into one. In the first painting, the landscaping is traditionally English, while the buildings and architecture are Italian. More easily seen in the second painting, which was most likely commissioned by Lord King of Surrey, along with the first painting, Canaletto creates a space that combines Italian and English references. They were both later sold to the Earl of Lovelance in 1937, giving them the title of “Lovelance Canalettos.” It was also said that the second painting was completed and then advertised in a newspaper of an exhibition in his London home for publicity and to prove he was the real Canaletto. In Venice at the time, his nephew Bellotto was using Caneletto’s name. Because of the juxtaposition of two worlds, the painting attracted a huge amount of attention, and for good reason. In the foreground, there is a tall Corinthian column, featured with a saint on the top. In the middle ground toward the left, there is a triumphal arch that could have been inspired by any number of architectural pieces in Rome. Also in the middle ground and more toward the right, pictured behind the column, is a bridge that is comparable to Westminster Bridge. It is clearly of English style, but is combined with Italian monuments surrounding it. Based on observation, it appears that the background is split by the two worlds. On the left-hand side, the vegetation, greenery, and hilly landscape resemble a scene that can be found in England. Off to the right, even further back in the composition, the cityscape appears to be Italian-inspired, with a prominent dome protruding upward. Trees on either side delicately frame the painting, and the sky, moving from a peachy tone to bright blue in the upper right-hand corner, marks this as Canaletto’s own creation.
Canaletto traveled back to Venice in 1751, then again in 1753, and finally in 1755 for good. By the time he returned, his nephew Bellotto was making a name for himself, and Francesco Guardi was gaining popularity as a view painter, too. It is therefore unknown as to when exactly the following paintings of San Marco were completed. During this time, he painted a work called Piazza San Marco: looking South-West (Fig. 17). This painting was probably one of his attempts at impressing the Venetian Academy of Fine Art. What is different about this painting in comparison to his other fantastical pictures, is that he is using a “fish-eye” effect in order to incorporate the entire scene into one painting. The panorama stretches from the Palazzo Ducale and San Marco at the left to the Procuratie Vecchie at the right. It is most likely that Canaletto used a lens to accurately show the distortion of space. The cluster of vertical and horizontal lines shifts the piece into a stable composition, and the colors he uses are still bright, as the figures and architecture are well lit.
In the late 1750s, he painted Piazza San Marco: looking East from the North-West Corner (Fig. 18). This most similarly compares to his painting of the Westminster Bridge (Fig. 12) from his trip to London. He employs the same technique of framing the foreground with an overhanging arch, so that what is highlighted and focused on is shown through the rounded form. Canaletto has purposely darkened the foreground, so that the viewer’s attention is drawn to the highlighted space beyond. He has chosen to feature San Marco without the flagstaffs that would normally be seen, in order to place full emphasis on the architecture and design of the façade. His geometric style has carried on in this piece, by creating a relationship between the domes and rounded spaces, and straight, vertical structures. Also noticeable is his use of dots and curved lines to highlight small details on figures in the piece. This is known as his late “calligraphic” style, adopted after his return to Venice.
A different angle of the piazza is shown in his Piazza San Marco: looking East from the South-West Corner (Fig. 19). The preliminary drawing (Fig. 20) shows an extended version, that Canaletto chose not to include in the final painting, but most likely still used as a prototype for other paintings of the piazza. Featured are the Campanile and San Marco underneath the colonnade of the Procuratie Nuove. Although the architecture is prominently displayed, what draws the viewer’s attention directly is the cluster of people in the foreground. It is unknown who these men are, but they are actively engaging in a conversation. The man standing to the right may be mimicking the upright figures found elsewhere in the picture. He also holds a cup of coffee, suggesting that he was just at the Café Florian, which is not shown in the picture. This may have been to promote the social scene in Venice, promoting its liveliness once again. His gaze towards the left half of the picture draws the viewer’s attention outward, bringing light to the open space and San Marco. At this time, Canaletto was still working outside. In fact, according to a quote by Reverend Edward Hinchliffe, in reference to his grandfather and John Crewe being in Venice one day in 1760, they:
…chanced to see a little man making a sketch of the Campanile in St. Mark’s Place: Hinchliffe took the liberty – not an offensive one abroad, as I myself can testify – to look at what he was doing. Straightway he discovered a masterhand and hazarded the artist’s name ‘Canaletti’. The man looked up and replied ‘m conosce’.
This quote demonstrates Canaletto’s increased popularity and recognition for his skill.
In 1765, Canaletto painted his last capriccio scene. It is called Capriccio: a Colonnade opening on to the Courtyard of a Palace (Fig. 21). He made it in order to be accepted into the Academy in 1763, and it was successful. The scene is entirely made up, as the architecture creates a large variation between diagonal, vertical, and horizontal lines. He included a few figures, as well, and intricate detailing along the shafts of the columns. The picture is a charming representation of a fantastical space, comprised of whimsical architecture and delicate detailing. The light highlights the left half of the picture, while the right remains shaded underneath the building. Although more dimly lit in this painting, he still includes his trademark bright blue sky with green foliage. He gave this painting to the Academy just two years after his election into it.
His last dated picture is titled San Marco: the Crossing and North Transept, with Musicians Singing (Fig. 22), in 1766. At the bottom of the paper, he wrote, “I Zuane Antonio da Canal, made the present drawing of the musicians who sing in the ducal church of San Marco at the age of 68, without spectacles in the year 1766.” It is clear that this picture is nothing less than his previous works, despite the obvious coming of age that he acknowledges in his quote. In a painting done of the exact same thing thirty-six years earlier (Fig. 23), he filled the composition with people, unlike in the drawing, where he has carefully shown a few people, including a beggar with a dog and other unidentifiable figures. The chorus sings enthusiastically while people below listen to them and pray. These two comparisons represent Canaletto’s lifelong battle between deciding how to portray his scenes. They are clear examples of his early versus his later days of work, showing how his style developed between the decades of his life. In San Marco: (an evening service) (Fig. 23), the composition is largely vertical with a large group of people taking over the foreground space. Light and shadow are defined as separate entities and the sun illuminating the interior of the basilica touch upon the chorus, hanging cross, and crowd of people. In the drawing, Canaletto takes more advantage over the open space, and does not choose to create such an upward composition. Instead, he focuses more on the characters as individuals and the details of the decorations. Although not completed in the same fashion, he still plays with the proportions of the composition, as the differences in the height and width of the space are noticeable between the two pictures. What is “true” may not be visible in either works, but Canaletto still used his own flair in completing both of them.
Canaletto was one of the most influential Venetian artists of the eighteenth century. He sought to entertain his clients and improve his compositions by creating spaces that were sometimes only inspired by places that actually existed. Throughout the course of his life, he became more experimental with architectural structures, while still incorporating his initial desire to skew or combine perspectives within one space. He is most recognizable for what he included and did not include within his countless prints, drawings, and paintings. His contribution to Venice is undeniable, as he promoted tourism and curiosity that surrounded the city at the time. He took his techniques up north, and both learned from and influenced his fellow contemporaries. Though his style developed formulaically in England, he regained his dramatic and original style again, upon spending his last years in Venice. He died of a fever on April 19, 1768, leaving behind him a legacy of masterworks and ingenuity.