Magazine article The Spectator

Venetian Visions

Magazine article The Spectator

Venetian Visions

Article excerpt

Andrew Lambirth finds the National Gallery's new exhibition on Canaletto and his contemporaries both illuminating and enjoyable

Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), better known as Canaletto, is a safe bet and a crowd-pleaser, and the weary critic is entitled to ask - not another Canaletto show? What can there be left to say? But note the exhibition title - Venice:

Canaletto and his Rivals. Venice comes first, the great tourist trap herself, kingdom of the sea and romance-magnet, and in the placing of the words the unashamed popularism of the show emerges. Or so the cynic might think. In fact, this exhibition is not simply a celebration of Venice, but a carefully selected survey of Venetian view painting in the 18th century, full of surprises and revealing juxtapositions. This is an exhibition which manages that most difficult of feats: to combine scholarly exegesis with public approval.

In the first room is one of Canaletto's earliest view paintings, 'San Cristoforo, San Michele and Murano from the Fondamenta Nuove' (c.1722), not at all typical of the later work. Here the paint-handling is deliciously smoky, smeary almost, thinly and broadly applied, and particularly effective in the brushing of the sky and water. For contrast, note the fluid dark cream facades catching the evening light. This was a very different, more moody Canaletto, and it's good to be reminded that he was not all sunshine.

Here, too, is the earliest dated Italian view painting, by the Dutchman Gaspare Vanvitelli (1652/3-1736), the founding father of the genre. A complex and crowded scene, but very like a stage set or a model layout, it is oddly lifeless when compared with the Canaletto. Also in this room is a trio of dark Canalettos: the charming and slightly dingy 'Piazza San Marco, looking East', dusty, dirty and highly authentic-looking; 'The Rio dei Mendicanti, looking South', in which the tenement buildings are quite superb; and 'The Stonemason's Yard', where the grit is still present, but the sun is breaking through and charm obtrudes.

Room 2 offers a comparison between Canaletto and Michele Marieschi (171043), an artist who doesn't appeal to my eye at all. Examine his 'Bacino di San Marco' alongside Canaletto's version of the same scene. Marieschi's view is greyer and less convincing. Like Canaletto he applies the convention of curly brackets to indicate the movement of the water, but Canaletto uses the device more inventively and his painting offers the sensation of greater depth and visual interest. There is a curious limpidity to the Marieschi, but Canaletto's composition is less staged. It should not be forgotten that Canaletto trained originally as a painter of theatrical scenery and worked as such with his father and brother in Venice and Rome.

Many of his contemporaries did likewise, but not all of them transcended the tricks of their first trade.

Of course, these paintings were produced for the 18th-century tourist market, for the aristocratic travellers making the Grand Tour who wished to return home bearing quality souvenirs of their jaunts.

They were thus made for cognoscenti but also with an eye to the more obvious and dramatic charms of Venice: subtlety was not necessarily a prerequisite. Each painter tried to heighten the particular character of his work, in order to distinguish it from competitors. Bernardo Bellotto (1722-80) was Canaletto's nephew, trained with him and very soon could turn out passable imitations of the master. …

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