Magazine article The Spectator

Triumph of Art over Evil

Magazine article The Spectator

Triumph of Art over Evil

Article excerpt

At the end of the 19th century, R.A.M. Stevenson acknowledged in his book on Velazquez that there was a sort of penalty to be paid for studying the paintings of the great Spanish master. That penalty was the necessity of visiting `the dread capital of Spain'. Until quite recently, something just as politically incorrect could have been written about studying the masterly paintings of Bellotto, in the capital of Poland. Tourists have tended to prefer Cracow. For too long, Warsaw was more or less shut down on orders from Moscow, having had its centre, including the Zamek Krolewski or Royal Castle, razed to the ground by the Nazis. A castle curator lost his life when the first bombs fell on 17 September 1939, and a ceiling by Bacciarelli fell in. Together with 80 per cent of other items that survived the first bombs, the paintings of Bellotto, housed in a special room in the castle, were rescued by Warsaw architects and art historians.

Because they are so informative - in detail - about Warsaw's town plan and its historic architecture, the Bellottos played an honourable role in the long-drawn-out but mind-blowingly successful programme of rebuilding the city. Similarly, a group of exceptionally clear watercolours by the architect Jan Christian Kametser (1753-- 1795) was used by 20th-century Polish artists to recreate the old Marble Room with its 22 portraits of Polish kings. There has also been an amazingly successful policy of reacquisition - a refreshing contrast to the American museum policy of deaccessioning. The Poles have had long experience of reacquisition. Napoleon appropriated four Bellottos, for example, but these were returned after the Congress of Vienna. Tsar Nicholas nicked 21 Bellottos in 1831, but the USSR returned them after the Peace of Riga. After many vicissitudes, and its virtual closure, it's a pleasure to report that, at last, Warsaw is now booming and blooming in 101 ways, not least culturally.

Symptomatically, perhaps, my recent entrance tickets to the rebuilt Royal Castle and to the beautiful gardens of the Wilanow Palace honour Bellotto by illustrating paintings by him. I tried in vain to stand where Bellotto had painted the view on the ticket depicting the 17th-century palace. His vantage point was too high up. Could Bellotto have constructed the painting using ground plans and elevations plus his knowledge of the finer points of perspective? If so, how did he manage to get the statues and people walking in the garden to look so convincing? Individual drawings and sketches from above, perhaps? Or was Bellotto in some building from which he could use his camera obscura? Or did artists erect their own scaffolding for such purposes in those days? These are the sort of questions which David Hockney's forthcoming book, Secret Knowledge, will address.

Under the patronage of Stanislaw Augustus, last king of Poland, ex-lover and subsequent friend of Catherine the Great of Russia and a hero of the Polish Enlightenment, Bellotto immortalised the increasingly beautiful city of Warsaw between 1767 and 1780. He had previously worked at the courts of Vienna, Munich and Dresden. He was on his way to the Russian court but the Polish king snapped him up, giving him a generous salary of 1,000 ducats per annum and a carriage. He even funded Bellotto's family after his abdication.

Stanislaw Augustus made a point of attracting both Polish and foreign artists to his court. Marcello Bacciarelli was already installed as portrait painter and curator of the royal collection. …

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