Canaletto, greatest of the vedutisti

The greatest of the vedutisti, the apex of vedutism, the most well-known painter of vedute (views), was Canaletto, the ‘Little Canal’.

Named Giovanni Antonio by his father Bernardo Canal, the world knew him by his ‘nickname’ of Canaletto. Born in Venice in October 1697, he expired in his hometown some 70 and a half years later having filled the world with an amazing collection of art something more than 170 works.

While not combatting Picasso in quantity, he certainly provided the world with a more accurate study into pictorial realism.

Canaletto, from an early age, was taught by his father the family trade of being a theatrical scene painter, a craft that required a good eye, a sure hand and a fast arm.

In his early twenties he ventured off to Rome, not stopping to admire renowned art on the way and was enchanted by the city of Rome and the realistic painting of Giovanni Pannini, to the extent that the Little Canal set about painting the eternal city and its people.

His style was later termed ‘topographical’, but to the humble observer whose awareness of art is somewhat ordinary, it may be better referred to as ‘photographical’. In fact, if only Canaletto had been able to produce his works at a more rapid pace, he may have delayed the onset of colour photography for generations.

The first work of Canaletto that is recorded is Architectural Capriccio from 1723. And why ‘capriccio’? It reminds us that the scene so presented is a fantasy, an image from the mind, a story of realism that escapes reality. How Canaletto became the master, supplanting the recognized Luca Carlevarijs as a painter of city scenes was, to my eye, his mastery of colour and light – creating realistic scenes with brilliant colour of which even God may be a little jealous.

A Venetian by blood, love and technique, he was the favoured source of artworks for the English travelers on the Grand Tour in the 18th century, who purchased his commercial output through his entrepreneurial agent, Joseph Smith, who later became British Consul to Venice.

The passion by the British for the images of Venice, as a memorial for their real or dreamed tours, and the intervention of war, resulted in Canaletto spending some 10 years in England painting time and again scenes such as Windsor Castle – though these were not so well received as his Venetian art and he had to resort to painting demonstrations to prove that his works were really from his brush.

Of course, much of his output throughout his life was capricci, or at least pictorial ‘capricciosi’, the result of a blending of true imagery with possible scenery. The tricks of his trade mostly learned in his youth, whether or not he used camera obscura as an aid, enabled him to reproduce and heighten reality in his finished works.

The master had at least one famous pupil, one Bernardo Bellotto, his nephew, and it was often surmised that there were two Canaletti, so similar were their works of the same scene. View: ‘Piazza San Marco, verso est, Venezia’ and decide who painted which.

Finally, Canaletto waited till his last years, following his return from London, to accept election to the Venetian Academy and it was not till his 68th year that he presented his work for admission, ‘Prospettiva con portico’- amazing perspective.

For those who, like me, have become enthralled by the story of Canaletto, the time to appreciate his great art is now, at the 250th anniversary of his departure to a distant celestial scene.

See about 40 of his works at Museo di Roma, Palazzo Braschi in Piazza Navona in the heart of the palace district of Rome, until 19 August 2018.

Enjoy the art and the descriptions and stories in both English and Italian. And maybe send a comment or two, adding a little literal capriccio.