Friday 24 July 2020

IX - Third portrait: Antonio Canaletto

Of Canaletto, most of the best paintings went to England where he himself also went to work.

For the rest of the world, to think of Canaletto is to think of Venice; but for the British, to see Venice has been, for two hundred years, to see the embodiment of a Canaletto.

The unparalleled quantity of Canaletto’s work acquired through Grand Tours left examples in many English stately homes; there they soon formed part of the eighteenth century’s cultural backdrop.  Anyone with the means to undertake a trip to Venice would have frequented one or more of these houses, would have seen and admired the Canalettos, and so, imperceptibly, would have assimilated his vision.  Today, with the democratisation of culture, the dissemination in Britain of the quintessential Canaletto scene is even wider, through access to originals in museums, or through reproductions and books.  Now it is almost impossible to see the city without first experiencing Canaletto’s mediation of it.

Such a cultural colonisation is probably unique.  Think of any of the great cities of the world: London, Paris, New York, Leningrad, Delhi, Beijing or wherever: no one name springs to mind as capturing the essence of that place in the way that Canaletto does Venice.  Certainly, many other painters have been drawn to Venice in an attempt to capture its spirit; but when Turner, for example, produces his extraordinary chromatic fantasies of the Lagoon, they are first and foremost Turners.  A Canaletto scene seems Venice pure and simple.

When we arrive in Venice, then, we unconsciously follow in Canaletto’s footsteps.  What is familiar and what is unfamiliar is partly determined by how much it figures in Canaletto’s work.  His magnificent set pieces of the Piazza San Marco and the Grand Canal define these scenes as the visual high points of our visits.  On the other hand, a spot unrecorded or rare in Canaletto’s output strikes us with a freshness born of personal discovery.  Paradoxically, the most familiar Venice is the least real: for reality we have to look in the squares and canals which the painter left for us to see for ourselves.

It was the British nobility’s desire for souvenirs of their Grand Tours which was largely responsible not only for the creation of that city which we know as Canaletto’s Venice, but also of the mature style we associate with his name.  Before the flow of commissions for these acquisitive aristocrats became a source of regular income, Canaletto’s approach was moody and dramatic - and quite unsuited to the grand but untroubled picture postcards the tourists wanted.  Perhaps the most dramatic example of Canaletto’s early approach is his first surviving painting of the Piazza San Marco, looking east in what would become one of his staple views.  It was painted before the present paving of 1723 had been completed, and shows a scruffy, rather provincial square with stalls clustering around the arches of San Marco.  Broken blinds hang askew over windows, and there are lines of washing clearly visible.  Hardly the noble and majestic scene which is so familiar from the many later versions.

It may have been the purses of the British nobility who paid for these pictures, but the credit for stimulating the demand and encouraging Canaletto to satisfy it belongs to one man: Joseph Smith.  Although not the first to act as a conduit between the painter and his culture-hungry clients - that honour belongs to a rather dubious character called Owen McSwiney - it is Smith who dominates the whole of Canaletto’s productive life, and who is probably at least partly responsible for shaping the idealised Venice of Canaletto - and hence our own vision of that city.

Smith is one of those figures who seem to stand on the sidelines of history; although hardly significant in themselves, these characters play indispensable roles in supporting the leading players, or recording their deeds,  Perhaps for this reason they often live to a great age - Smith died in his nineties - and are part of a great tradition of witnesses.

Smith is particularly important because he acquired paintings from Canaletto for his own collection throughout his life, as well as drawings and sketches.  The bulk of them were bought by George III, and they form the basis of the unmatched wealth of Canaletto’s works in the Royal Collection - 48 paintings and 143 drawings.  He was also responsible for commissioning the two important series of prints of Canaletto’s paintings.

These engravings were probably the most influential means of disseminating Canaletto’s canonical vision of Venice,  In commissioning them, Smith doubtless had a purely pragmatic end in view - drumming up new business for the painter - but their effect in the long-term was more significant.  Increasing numbers of them began to turn up not just among the British nobility - who in any case would be able to afford originals - but among humbler travellers from the British Isles, enabling Canaletto’s Venice to reach an even wider audience.

The man who facilitated that propagation was the engraver Antonio Visentini.  Although he too lived to a great age - he was born in 1688 and died in 1782 - he remains a shadowy figure, best-known for his connections with greater artists.  As well as working with Canaletto, he is probably most famous for his invaluable architectural designs of buildings and copies of plans by Palladio.  Like Canaletto’s works, many of Visentini’s drawings found their way back to Britain with the returning Grand Tourists, often through the offices of Consul Smith, his friend and patron.

At the front of the first book of engravings of Canaletto’s paintings, there is a portrait of Visentini, together with the only authenticated image of Canaletto himself.  Visentini, dressed in an artist’s smock, looks steadily at the viewer with a frank and open gaze.  Canaletto, wearing a formal frock coat and wig, averts his eyes.  Canaletto is described as ‘citizen of Venice’, while Visentini contents himself with just ‘Venetian’; the images maintain the subtle class distinction.

The two men collaborated on three sets of engravings of Venetian scenes, published in two parts in 1735 and 1742; a second edition of all three sets followed in 1751.  The original designs were produced at the height of Canaletto’s powers and popularity, and they constitute a uniquely systematic investigation of his primary subject matter.

The first set, published in 1735, consists of 12 views of the Grand Canal, plus two additional scenes.  They are all based on pictures by Canaletto now in the Royal Collection at Windsor.  The paintings and engravings of the first set offer a tour of the Grand Canal, proceeding from the Rialto bridge, first towards the entrance, ending with two views of Santa Maria della Salute, then back from the Rialto to the very start of the canal, past where the railway station now dominates the scene.  The series ends with views of a gondoliers’ Regatta, and of the Bucintoro, the state barge, aboard which the Doge has just carried out the traditional marriage of the city to the sea by casting a gold ring into the waters of the Adriatic.

The second and third set add twelve more scenes each.  Ten of the second set show further scenes of the Grand Canal, this time proceeding from its start, and moving on past the Rialto bridge to the mouth.  They are followed by two larger views, one of the Riva degli Schiavoni, looking east towards the Ospedale della Pietà, the other looking west along the Molo in front of the Piazzetta.

In all, 23 of the 38 engravings in the three sets show the Grand Canal, along with some 100 of its palaces.  The preponderance of such views obviously reflects in part the desires of Canaletto’s customers for a memento of the unique experience of the famous waterway.  Given the hundreds of other paintings of similar scenes by Canaletto, it is also an indication of his own preoccupation with the enormous variety and detail offered by the Grand Canal along its length.

The third set shows twelve of the campi of Venice, some famous, some of them comparatively unknown.  The series starts with the grand church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, which is followed by the obscure San Nicolo in Castello, hidden away in the east of Venice, and now demolished.  There are views of Santa Maria Zobenigo, the Campo Santo Stefano, Santa Maria Formosa, and the narrow campo in front of the Gesuiti church.  The series - and the collaboration - ends appropriately enough with two views of the Piazza San Marco: one from the east, and one from the west showing the most famous view in Venice, the great facade of San Marco itself.

For the first series at least, and for some of the second and third, it is clear that Visentini was very faithful to the spirit and details of Canaletto’s images.  It is therefore reasonable to suppose that even for those views where there are several closely related versions among Canaletto’s paintings and drawings, none of which matches the engraving in all points, Visentini was following another original, now lost.  There is no evidence that he took any substantial liberties with Canaletto’s images.  Indeed, his forte seems to have been copying.  Although he was an architect in his own right - he designed two palaces for Smith - much of his work consists of engravings after other artists, or else plans of others  buildings.

There is one exception to this general fidelity, attributable perhaps to Visentini’s architectural background.  The fifth engraving of the third series shows the Scuola di San Rocco, famous for its collection of paintings by Tintoretto.  To the right of the Scuola is the church itself.  In the 1720s, the original facade was removed, and until a new one was built in 1771, the church showed the rough brickwork underneath.  In Canaletto’s painting for the engraving, he replaced this with a simple pedimented design.  When Visentini came to make his drawing and engravings, he seems to have felt at liberty to try his own - admirably qualified - hand at the facade, which appears in a rather more ornate form than Canaletto’s.

The way in which Visentini translates Canaletto’s unique representations of Venice from painting to engraving is interesting.  One model that it is unlikely that he was able to follow was Canaletto’s own work as an engraver.  Canaletto took up engraving as a way of reaching a wider audience only in the 1740s, when the market for his paintings among the travelling English nobility seems to have dried up, partly as a result of the War of Austrian Succession.  His one book of etchings was published in 1745.  Unusually, all but two of his works in this medium are of scenes outside Venice: it is therefore hard to make direct comparisons of Canaletto and Visentini as etchers.  But the former’s work is superior in all respects: it offers greater subtlety and detail, and above all it is full of an atmosphere which is totally lacking in Visentini’s efforts.

Nonetheless, Visentini’s images have a consistency and charm of their own. They may lack the distinctive surface of Canaletto’s scenes, but their rather basic cross-hatchings and unvaried vertical and horizontal rules mean that we can accept them as successful re-interpretations and simplifications of Canaletto’s vision, rather than as failed attempts at literal reproduction.

It is symptomatic of this process that two of the key elements of Canaletto’s compositions - the water and the sky - are radically altered.  Visentini never quite matched Canaletto’s apparently naive but totally effective rendition of the waves of the canals.  Visentini tried a number of approaches.  One consists of broken horizontal lines; another, of a series of tiny arcs; and a third, of lines with tiny tremors along their length.  They all tend to make the surface of the water look like a deep pile carpet.  If nothing else, they help us appreciate again Canaletto’s mastery in depicting this crucial element in his scenes.

Gone too in Visentini’s world is the smooth creamy pale sky which is the characteristic light of Canaletto’s Venice.  Instead we have hard straight lines drawn with a ruler, with Canaletto’s subtly modulated clouds turned into patches of white or the odd swirl of marks.

Nearly all of the paintings which form the basis of the engravings found their way to England at some point; many remain there.  The original series of 14 stayed with Smith until his collection passed to George III. The additional views of the second series were drawn from a group of paintings which was dispersed to a number of English collectors: the Duke of Bedford had - and still has - 24 of them, the so-called Harvey collection, now broken up, had 23, and there were odd pairs of paintings obtained by the Duke of Leeds, and the Earl of Fitzwilliam.  This group of fifty or sixty paintings, all passing through the hands of Smith, form our most complete and systematic record of Canaletto’s Venice; that they all spent most of their existence in Britain underlines the unique role of that country in the history of the painter’s output, reputation and subsequent influence.

That English connection is in fact even stronger.  Scenes of Venice naturally dominate Canaletto’s work; but another large group are representations of London and England, fruit of Canaletto’s visits to the country whose patrons had served him so well.

Canaletto arrived in London in 1746, at the end of his most successful Venetian period which had seen the creation of the series of masterpieces handled by Smith as well as a host of other, sometimes inferior paintings. He now set about recording London as he had Venice.  Almost inevitably, it was the Thames which attracted him, its broad curves reminding him of his own city’s main waterway.  He also painted a number of London street scenes.  These are particular fascinating, for Canaletto’s meticulous technique presents us with an almost photographic record of what Charing Cross and Whitehall looked like in the 1740s.  It is ironic that most of his works depict Venice, the major European city which has probably changed least over two centuries, and therefore stands in least need of such a pictorial documentation.  Of London, which has altered beyond recognition, we have only these few tantalising glimpses.

Because of the obvious surface detail of Canaletto’s work, we often take for granted its accuracy.  Yet closer examination shows that few of his views are literalistic; most have been subtly and artfully recomposed. The more we look, the more discrepancies we find, and the more disconcerted we become by this skilful deception.  It strikes at the very root of our conception of the artist.

In some cases, the violations are minor.  For example, the views of the Grand Canal which formed the basis of the first set of engravings published in 1735 correspond so closely with our memories or expectations of Venice - largely because both have been highly coloured by Canaletto’s pervasive influence - that we tend to overlook the basic fact that with a few possible exceptions, all of the vistas are physically impossible to achieve.  That is, they are painted from viewpoints only obtained from a ship’s crow’s nest or perhaps by a hovering bird.  They are therefore totally factitious scenes; neither Canaletto, nor indeed anyone else, ever saw them.  Instead, the artist’s invention drew on his experience and synthesised the affecting scenes we know - or think we know - so well. That we are oblivious of this innocent deceit is in part a measure of the triumph of Canaletto’s art.

Some of the other deviations from reality are more drastic.  From his earliest pictures Canaletto did not hesitate to alter, move or ignore inconvenient shapes, in order to improve the overall composition.  The first version of the Piazza San Marco, referred to above, artfully tapers the Campanile more than reality, and makes San Marco itself slightly higher and less squat.  An early view of the entrance to the Grand Canal from the Piazzetta outside the Palazzo Ducale omits the Column of St Mark altogether and transplants the Column of St Theodore much closer to Sansovino’s Library - all for the sake of balance.

Another dramatic re-arrangement of reality occurs in a painting used in the second set of engravings.  The church of Santa Maria Zobenigo stands in a narrow street which blocks any clear view of its facade.  Canaletto simply removes the offending buildings, and shows the church standing in a spacious campo, its Baroque facade laid bare in all its ornate glory. Increasingly then, Canaletto was starting to re-create Venice from the elements which were so familiar to him.

These variations on reality culminated in a series of 13 paintings commissioned by Smith in the mid 1740s from a by-now impecunious Canaletto, to act as decorative pieces for his house.  They show familiar locations, but with unfamiliar and indeed non-existent buildings.  For example, there is a view of the Rialto bridge - not the design of Antonio da Ponte which stands to this day, but Palladio’s suggestion of one hundred and fifty years earlier.  Another version of the same scene shows an apparently wholly imaginary bridge, together with a massive but fictitious rotunda.  A third fantasy shows the real Rialto bridge but with San Giorgio Maggiore transplanted from its island and placed at one end.

Even the Piazza San Marco was not immune to these re-workings.  An eerie scene depicts the piazza at the western end of San Marco.  In front of it stand the famous four horses, plucked from the cathedral’s facade down to the piazza and raised on massive plinths.  It is disconcerting to see such a well-loved scene painted with all of Canaletto’s familiar stylistic fingerprints - the pale blue sky, the deftly characterised figures, the ubiquitous dog - but containing such a blatantly counterfactual element.  By creating a totally realistic view of a scene which never existed, Canaletto effectively undermines all our confidence in his other scenes which hitherto we have taken to be trustworthy representations.

These capriccios, as Canaletto called them, seem to have been produced throughout his life.  All of them have a strangely melancholy air, as if the artist were expressing a desire to escape from the prison of reality he depicted so meticulously in his mainstream works.  They hint at a darker, more mysterious side to a painter whose works are usually seen as the epitome of bright and sunny optimism.

As with so many artists, there are indeed mysteries surrounding Canaletto. The perfect surface of his works acts as an effective barrier which prevents us from probing too deeply.  But sometimes personal elements creep through.  For example, there is a pair of drawings which show views over some nondescript roofs.  Unremarkable in themselves, they gain in interest when we know that they are precisely the outlook which Canaletto had from two of the windows of his house - the scene is practically unchanged to this day.  We are used to seeing Venice through Canaletto’s eyes, but to see Canaletto’s personal Venice comes as something of a shock, as if an eighteenth century statue had reached out and touched our hand.

A late painting has a similarly personal feel, though the evidence is more circumstantial.  It is small, very intimate view of part of the Piazza San Marco, looking east from half-way down the south side.  Unusually for Canaletto, it is the figures which dominate the scene: three men, two sitting and one standing, in the long arcade outside the Florian café.

The seated pair talk while the man stands holding an elegant cup and saucer.  He listens intently, as does one of Canaletto’s dogs seated at the feet of the other men.  In the background are San Marco and the Campanile, but they are both overshadowed by the extreme perspective view of the arcade full of bustling Venetians.  It is an everyday human scale which prevails here, rather than the usual grand architectural one which informs most of Canaletto’s masterpieces.

Aside from the unusual concentration on the figures, the highlights of their forms picked out with Canaletto’s familiar blobs of light paint, which suggests that the scene had a particular significance for the painter, there is an anecdote which seems to be apposite.

In 1760, two Englishmen were walking across the Piazza San Marco.  They saw a little old man sketching the Campanile.  Going over to observe the work, one of them, called Hinchliffe, recognised the artist’s style familiar at even this early date - and murmured his name.  ‘Mi conosce’ - you know me - the old man said.  A commission resulted, and we can identify the painting Canaletto produced from that sketch the Englishmen chanced upon.

This story was passed on from father to son and recorded by Hinchliffe’s grandson in 1856.  Taken together with the sizeable group of works from this period all based around views of the Campanile from the south side of the Piazza, it is tempting to imagine the old Canaletto, sunk now into relative obscurity, sitting by the café, drinking from the same elegant cups as the standing man in the painting, listening to the conversations while he sketched variations on his favourite Venetian scene.  No longer were these works for eager tourists - though the occasional encounters with Englishmen like Hinchliffe must have provided a welcome boost to his finances - but for himself, as he continued to record and recreate his Venice.

Canaletto allows one more brief glimpse of the man behind the inscrutable artist.  In his last recorded work, a pen and ink drawing of the crossing and north transept of San Marco with musicians singing, Canaletto has added a short inscription.  In a neat and flowing hand are the words “done without spectacles at the age of 68”.  It is the only information we have about him for the last five years of his life.

For most of that life, running through his work like a hidden message, there is one curious personal quirk which probably goes unnoticed by the millions who look at Canaletto’s paintings each year: after a certain date in the mid 1720s, there are no birds in any of his paintings.  His skies remain undisturbed by untidy flocks or lonely stragglers.  Instead we have the creamy pale blue, and the thin veils of high cloud which lend an air of eternal early summer to his scenes,

Perhaps it is simply for reasons of design and overall effect: Canaletto may have wished to preserve the smooth surface of his skies to balance and frame the rich detail of his buildings.  Interestingly, his drawings continue to show birds, but these are never translated into paint.  Some might be tempted to read more into this unnatural absence, just as Freud read so much into Leonardo da Vinci’s childhood memory about a bird.  But would-be interpreters of such tiny events in artists’ lives would do well to remember that Freud’s impressive edifice - his study runs to some 80 pages - is founded on an error, a crucial mistranslation, the correction of which destroys his whole argument.

We are left therefore with little that we can be sure of in the external details of Canaletto’s life.  We know that he was born in 1697, the son of a theatre scenery painter, and that he himself began by designing scenery for opera composers such as Alessandro Scarlatti; we know when some - but only a few - of his paintings were finished; we know odd scraps about him as related in letters from Englishmen abroad; we know that he died in 1768.  Of his thoughts and feelings as he translated his Venice into the images we have today, we know nothing.

Yet we trust those images, we believe in Canaletto.  We look through his eyes at a strange and beautiful world that is and is not a real Venice, and is neither past nor present.  Perhaps his art succeeds today for the same reason it succeeded when it first appeared.  Canaletto has the gift to extract the essence of Venice, the familiar scenes bathed in the steady sunlight, the bustle of the campi, the colourful busyness of the canals, the steady march of the palaces and churches, and to place all those elements in a harmonious whole which skilfully encapsulates our own response to Venice.  It is a Venice of serene perfection, a city which is a masterpiece, a city of joy and pleasure.  If the reality is somewhat different - a rather dirty, smelly city full of tourists, the weather variable, the buildings crumbling and covered in bill posters, no matter.  We know, as Canaletto knew, that underneath all this grime there lies that other eternal Venice.  It is Canaletto’s enduring achievement that he managed to recreate and fix that glorious, shimmering city for us to recognise as soon as we step onto its streets or travel along its canals.

Walks with Lorenzetti

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