Canaletto and Venice: where imagination and reality work hand in hand
There are certain cities in the world that live in the collective imagination through the medium of various artistic forms such as painting, photography and cinema. Some examples would be New York as immortalized in film, or Paris as recreated by the Impressionists, or Venice as evoked by Canaletto. In this article, we will discuss the latter pairing, and attempt to understand the Venice that emerges from the works of Giovanni Antonio Canal, the artist’s full name.
Let’s begin with a statistical figure: the number of his paintings on display in his city are relatively few when compared to those housed in U.S. and British museums. The reason is simple. From the 1700s onwards, these works represented breathtaking mementos of what was known as the Grand Tour. His canvases were acquired by rich tourists as a way of bringing home with them something of Italy, particularly paintings of its famous monuments. Canaletto’s landscapes were undoubtedly highly prized.
When did Canaletto begin to paint his city of birth? It was around 1720, after a long period spent in Rome, where he had followed his father to help him create the stage designs for several operas. It was there that he met Luca Carlevarijs, considered the forefather of vedutismo, or landscape painting, and Marco Ricci, another artist in the style, just as it was beginning to be appreciated by collectors.
These artists employed the technique of camera obscura, an optical device created in the 1500s and perfected over time, which allowed a faithful rendering of settingsand architecture. It consisted of a box with a hole, and a lens mounted near the opening. A blank piece of paper was placed at the back of the box and, by means of two angled mirrors, an upside down image of the view from the hole is projected onto the paper. At that point, the painter could essentially retrace it on the paper.
Canaletto made use of the contraption, a predecessor of modern photography, but in moving from paper to canvas, as part of the process of constructing the perspective, composing and framing the work, the artist redirected his gaze, modifying what the camera obscura had captured. In a certain sense, Canaletto passed from view to vision, reinterpreting the subject. The freedom with which he altered points of view and managed angles, what we would today call “wide-angle”, gave his canvases the power to reflect reality, but a reinvented reality. Venice is clearly Venice, but it is also an imagined city, a dream-like, utopian version, in which inventiveness plays a subtle, and in some ways, surprising role.
Canaletto portrayed architectural elements that take on life and consistency due to his classic brush stokes laden with paint. His painting vary in thickness, sometimes denser, other times more delicate, a juxtaposition that make his work seem theatrical, even enigmatic.
The lagoon panoramas were depicted according to a certain principles of scenography, with which, however, Canaletto took great artistic license. The human forms, the waves, the skies were rendered with rich brush strokes and the details, while similar to reality, were infused in places with a touch of poetry. The shades of colors were calculated and included with remarkable accuracy, an attention that reveals architectural details, a wealth of small and large episodes and skies full of moods and changes.
In certain circumstances, the painter depicts reality dramatically and highlights it through intense contrasts in lighting.
It is true that Canaletto had a great talent in reinterpreting Venice, however, the city provided him with his truly unique urban character, it helped him with his penchant for illusion and theatricality, with his dream-like atmospheres, the lighting that constantly changed, the mist, the fog and with buildings that constantly hung in the balance between splendor and decay.
Hence, the composite soul of the Most Serence Republic of Venice corresponds to Canaletto’s illusory art, on one hand able to render buildings, fields, squares and hidden corners with scientific precision, making them immediately recognizable, while at the same time, reassembling them, reworking them, filtering them through a combination of careful thought and imagination. In a certain sense, he copied Venice to make it even more beautiful.
This is why there could be no Venice without Canaletto and no Canaletto without Venice. Venice is made eternal by his paintings, paintings that were inspired by the perfect urban landscape and at the same time, made possible by the re-interpretive skill of Canaletto. Between imagination and reality.