By Richard Varr
I feel the exhilaration of the gentle and uniform strokes culminating in the picture postcard scenes – greenish-blue water with white-frosted ripples, dotted with 18th-century gondolas and sturdy seafaring vessels. I stand in awe over the bustle of a busy seaport framed by a grandiose basilica, the Doge’s Palace and a towering campanile, all bearing witness to majestic regattas on the Grand Canal.
The setting is 18th century Venice – strikingly similar in appearance to the present day city, but virtually unchanged in revelry and spirit. I am admiring these nearly 300-year-old scenes through view paintings, or vedute, created through the eyes and heart of the Italian old master Canaletto. One of the Baroque era’s most famous view painters, Canaletto’s accurate panoramas have preserved the colorful reality of the Venetian past, just as a camera’s lens would do so today.
As a passionate admirer of his works, I am intrigued to find out how these precise views from his paintings compare with the same views today – from the prominent Rialto Bridge and waterfront palaces along the Grand Canal, to the city’s peaceful squares and churches nestled within quiet neighborhoods. Do the centuries-old buildings remain? Do the earthen-brick campaniles still tower over basilicas and churches? Has the flood of tourists and commercialism choked the magical charm of this city on the lagoon?
With a map and a book of his paintings in hand, I follow the old master’s footsteps by strolling through winding streets and by crossing footbridge after footbridge over the maze of narrow canals. I sneak through alleyways and courtyards to find the very spots where Canaletto captured his 18th century images.
“Canaletto painted with lightness of color to portray the dream of Venice, like it should be in the hearts and minds of the Venetian people,” explains tour guide Cristina Bottero. I start my tour in St. Mark’s Square, lured here by the sounds of violins and laughing crowds sipping wine at outdoor cafes. We hear classical ensembles bowing Mozart and Vivaldi. Visitors stroll through the gaggle of fluttering pigeons while gazing upon the Doge’s Palace, the nearby campanile and the centerpiece, mosaic-adorned St. Mark’s Basilica.
“In his paintings,” Bottero continues, “there’s a mixture of sensations because there are colors and ‘the light.’ We have the sun shining. We have a timeless city where it’s not crowded.” She then points to the nearby lagoon. “He painted the waves to be not so strong, but instead sort of dancing and soft.”
Canaletto’s many paintings of this square and the area flanking the water known as the Molo reveal little here has changed. He painted such detail as the mosaics above the Basilica’s main doorways – some dating back to the 13th century – that remain today. He also captured images of the four bronze horses seized by the Venetians from Constantinople when they conquered the Byzantine city in 1204. Only replicas sit atop the Basilica now; the original bronze horses are housed in the Basilica’s museum.
The campanile still towers over the piazza, although the one painted by Canaletto, which dated back to the 16th century, crumbled to the ground after its foundation gave out in 1902. The current campanile was completed in 1912. The artist also captured the sun’s soft glow reflecting off the pink Verona marble of the Doge’s Palace – a facade with sculptures carved between the 13th and 15th centuries.
The imposing Baroque church of Santa Maria della Salute, built to pay homage to the city surviving the plague of 1630, sits at the mouth of the Grand Canal. It appears multiple times in Canaletto’s works. The old master dabbed its complex architectural precision on canvas, including stone scrolls, supporting buttresses and the duo of august domes emerging from an array of statues. The domes are crowned with smaller cupolas that seemingly pierce puffy clouds against a bright blue Venetian sky.
Canaletto also repeatedly painted the landmark 16th century Rialto Bridge, the centerpiece of the city’s main marketplace for centuries. It’s where vendors still clutter two rows of shops lining sharply ascending steps, selling a rather unremarkable mix of tacky souvenirs, leather goods, glassware, Carnavale masks and even pasta.
With my art book in hand, I walk through narrow walkways just north of the bridge to find the very spot where Canaletto captured some of his most popular Rialto images – paintings with spectators atop the bridge eyeing gondolas on the busy waterway below, just as they do today.
“There is a sort of reality in Canaletto’s paintings. He painted life like it was. There are some rundown areas and not such beautiful things,” points out Bottero. “You have a lot of details – the different colors of the people’s clothing, particular aspects of the gondolas, the details of the windows. You get a glimpse of Venetian life.”
Along the Molo, I see painters displaying a hodgepodge of “tourist paintings” swashed with blazing red hues and puddles of purple pigment – their interpretations of scenic canals and 15th century palaces. I find one painter, however, whose work stands out.
“I feel inspired sometimes because Canaletto painted during a great historic period,” says Picchio Santangelo, a local artist who is passionate about recreating Canaletto’s 18th century views. “And for me, it’s something to remember my past and tradition.” Santangelo’s replicas reveal palaces in golden and earthen tones. The Grand Canal appears glassy, but with muted dark green hues and topped with frothy white lines depicting splashes. I can almost smell the brackish water as gondoliers row through the timeless scene before me.
“Canaletto was a witness to our past,” Santangelo tells me. “He painted a photographic record of something that nobody can have again. He painted Venice so well of how it was a few centuries ago so we don’t forget the way it once looked.”
When evening falls, cool April air rushes into my room at the Hotel Bel Sito. I open the shutters wider, only to see – in full view before me – the grand baroque facade of the Santa Maria Zobenigo church. Canaletto painted this same church facade flanked with columns and adorned with commanding statues, including angels with elongated trumpets.
In a strange twist, I suddenly hear an angelic voice. It’s actually a street performer outside gently bellowing Bach’s Ave Maria. I gaze upon the church’s carved marble figures and wonder how many people before me have marveled upon these beautiful statues over the last three or four centuries. A crescent moon hovers above, and as I listen to the street performer’s soothing song, I imagine she is singing just for me.
On my final night in Venice, I watch the waning sunlight cast its golden glow on St. Mark’s Basilica. As darkness envelops the city, colors quickly fade and the canals lose their aquamarine tint. Streetlights illuminate the blackness and cast a streak-filled sheen across the water. Yet I know the canals’ blue-green luminosity will again reappear with the faint light of morning, inspiring artists once again to paint this mystical city on the lagoon like the great view painter before them.
Born Giovanni Antonio Canal in 1697, Canaletto’s training started at an early age as his father Bernardo painted theater sets and backdrops. This background provided him with great precision in architectural painting, yet with the ability to enhance perspective and illusion within his views. Living in Venice for most of his life, Canaletto painted vedute for visiting wealthy patrons who simply wanted a souvenir to take back with them, just as a modern day tourist might snap photos or buy postcards.
Like other view painters of his day, including Francesco Guardi, Michele Marieschi and his own nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, Canaletto created his snapshot images with the aid of the camera obscura. Using the same principle as a camera, a lens inside the instrument reflects an image that is traced on paper and later transferred it to a larger canvas. Separate images were often combined to create large and wide view paintings.
“Canaletto painted views precisely,” says tour guide Cristina Bottero. “The paintings were like a photograph when cameras were not around. We can actually see what it looked like back then.”
Despite Canaletto producing scores of paintings for his patrons, only four or five such masterpieces are on display in Venice. Two are at the Accademia, with the remainder housed in the CA’ Rezzonico museum. Most were taken to England, with many eventually finding homes in museums and private collections throughout Europe and North America. R.V.