19 April 2017

Canaletto - Venetian painter

Brilliant artist known for beautiful views of Venice

Giovanni Antonio Canal - Canaletto
Giovanni Antonio Canal - Canaletto
The Venetian artist Giovanni Antonio Canal – better known as Canaletto – died on this day in 1768 in the apartment in Venice in which he had lived for most of his life.

He was 70 years old and according to art historian William George Constable he had been suffering from a fever caused by a bladder infection.

His death certificate dated April 20 indicated that he died la notte scorsa all’ore 7 circa – ‘last night at about seven o'clock’. He was buried in the nearby church of San Lio in the Castello district, not far from the Rialto bridge.

Canaletto was famous largely for the views he painted of his native city, although he also spent time in Rome and the best part of 10 years working in London.

His work was popular with English visitors to Venice, in particular. In the days before photographs, paintings were the only souvenirs that tourists could take home to remind them of the city’s beauty.

Unlike his contemporary, and sometime pupil, Francesco Guardi, whose paintings were a romanticised vision of the city, Canaletto did not feel the need to embellish what he saw.  His works, therefore, were notable for their accuracy.

A Canaletto painting of St Mark's Square looking towards the clock tower on the northern side
A Canaletto painting of St Mark's Square looking towards
the clock tower on the northern side
His paintings would begin with a drawing made on the spot, which he would reproduce on canvas in his studio. Canaletto was known to use the camera obscura – a darkened box with a pinhole in which the view is caught and reflected by lenses and mirrors onto a sheet of drawing paper, enabling the artist to trace the outlines of the reflected image as an aid to perspective.

In the studio, he would cut lines into the canvas so that he could accurately reproduce the shape and size of the buildings he had sketched, returning to the scene to add detail and colour by painting ‘from nature’ – in the open air.

Famous for his sweeping scenes of wide canals and water pageants, and for capturing the grandeur of the Doge's Palace and St Mark’s, Canaletto did not confine himself only to the most popular views. He appreciated the beauty created by sunlight illuminating the stone of the buildings and the terracotta roofs, creating different shades of colour depending on the time of day.

Yet he also recognised a different side to his city, as depicted in one of his early paintings, The Stonemasons’ Yard, in which the figures are peasant workers engaged in hard physical work, the buildings scruffy and dilapidated, the sky grey and overcast.

Canaletto's early work The Stonemasons' Yard contrasted with the 'picture postcard' views for which he became famous
Canaletto's early work The Stonemasons' Yard contrasted
with the 'picture postcard' views for which he became famous
Born in 1697, Giovanni was the son of a painter, Bernard Canal, who made a living making scenery for the theatre. He began as an apprentice in his father’s workshop and became known as Canaletto – literally ‘little Canal’.

He went to Rome to study and was very impressed with the work of Giovanni Paolo Pannini, who painted the daily life of people in his own city, and returned in 1719 eager to become of the Pannini of his own city.  The first painting known to have been signed by Canaletto was dated 1723.

He owed much of his commercial success to the wealthy English merchant, Joseph Smith, later to be the British Consul in Venice, who bought many of Canaletto’s paintings to hang in his own houses, or to sell on to other wealthy Englishmen. He effectively became Canaletto’s agent, often arriving with commissions to paint particular views.

In 1746 Canaletto moved to London, partly to be nearer to his most profitable market, but also because the Austrian War of Succession led to a fall in the number of English visitors to Venice.  For the next 10 years, he produced views of London, including Westminster Abbey, Northumberland House and the new Westminster Bridge, although his clients were less excited with pictures of scenes with which they were familiar than the ones that brought back memories of their travels.

Joseph Smith eventually sold much of his personal collection to George III, which is why the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle contains a substantial number of Canaletto originals. George III paid £20,000 for the lot, which seems very little given the amounts that have changed hands for Canaletto paintings in more recent years.

The record price paid at auction for a Canaletto – indeed the record paid for any work by one of the so-called Old Masters – is £18.6 million, which an anonymous bidder paid for View of the Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi to the Rialto at Sotheby's in London in July 2005, eclipsing the record set the previous day when The Bucintoro at the Molo, Venice, on Ascension Day was sold by the same auction house for £11.4 million.

Canaletto's house, marked with the plaque above the brown doors, was in an obscure backstreet near the Rialto
Canaletto's house, marked with the plaque above the brown
doors, was in an obscure backstreet near the Rialto
Travel tip:

For much of his life, Canaletto lived in a modest apartment at the end of Calle de la Malvasia, close to a small courtyard-square called Corte Perini in Castello. The building is marked with a plaque. It is easy enough to find – simply leave St Mark’s Square via Marzaria dell’Orologio, passing under the famous clock on the north side of the square, proceed to the church of San Zulian and look for a small alleyway off to the right called Piscina San Zulian, leading to a bridge, Ponte de la Malvasia, which crosses into Calle de la Malvasia. The church of San Lio is in Salizada San Lio, accessible from Corte Perini via a covered walkway.

The Ca' Rezzonico museum holds a number of Canalettos
Travel tip:

Although many Canaletto paintings are in museums and private collections around the world, particularly in England and the United States, a small number are on display in Venice at Ca’ Rezzonico, a palace on the Grand Canal in the Dorsoduro sestiere, which is now a museum dedicated to 18th century Venice.

Check out Venice hotels on TripAdvisor

More reading:

How Venetian old master Titian set new standards

Where the work of Tintoretto remains on show in Venice

How Guardi evoked the last days of the Venetian Republic

Also on this day:

1937: The birth of TV chef and restaurateur Antonio Carluccio


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