Bernardo Bellotto, Venice: Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal facing Santa Croce, about 1738. National Gallery, London.
This Monday, 20 September, I will be putting the National Gallery’s small but perfectly formed exhibition Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited into context with a lecture I have entitled Bellotto – The Journey to Dresden, so today I thought I would have a look at one of his earliest views, painted before that journey had even begun. However, I’m having a bit of trouble focussing… I was lucky enough to get home from Rome on Sunday (and I really mean that – I was very lucky to go, I know, but it was so complicated getting out of that country and back into this, that I count myself lucky to be here!). Subsequently my dear friends at Art History Abroad have invited me to go to Portugal the week after next with next to no preparation, which has thrown me into a bit of a flurry. Yes, I should have been in Stockholm now, but I’m not, so I’ll go to Portugal instead. If anyone fancies a spontaneous trip to Porto and the Douro Valley click on the link and have a look. This means that I will not be giving a talk on Monday 4 October (not that I said I would), although the following Tuesday, 12 October (I don’t know where I’ll be on the Monday) I will repeat my talk about The Mosaics of Ravenna. You may have heard it already when I did it for AHA, but as I am finally off to Ravenna the following week (where is the year going?) it seems like a good idea. It will be more or less the same talk, though (if a bit more focussed) so please don’t come along if you want something new! Before then, though, I will talk about the Ferrarese artist Francesco del Cossa – not to mention halos and snails – on Monday 27 September (How to wear you halo – and the Significance of the Snail), and before that, Bellotto. So today, before the The Journey to Dresden, let’s think about Bernardo Bellotto at home with his uncle Giovanni Antonio Canal, or Gianantonio Canal, or simply, Canaletto. And no, I don’t really think he was called Uncle Gianni…
Personally, I think this is a lovely painting. It’s unassuming enough, I suppose, and perhaps there isn’t really much to distinguish it from so many of the views of Venice which now enrich the walls of museums across the world, but it was the only Bellotto that the National Gallery had until its purchase of The Fortress of Königstein from the North just four years ago. Which is strange, perhaps, given that Bellotto was every bit as good as his uncle, and the National Gallery owns at least 14 of his paintings. Why did the British value Bellotto so far below his uncle? Who can say? But it is worthwhile remembering that, while Canaletto spent most of his time working in his native city – the haunt of many a Grand Tourist – Bellotto did not. And the little time Uncle Gianni was out of the country, he was in England – hence his pre-eminence here, perhaps. Not only that, but we do have a tendency to narrow our gaze. You want a view of Venice? You want Canaletto! He’s the main man, he’s the famous one, get the best. Only I’m not convinced that he always was the best: I’d rather have a Bellotto – or a Guardi.
So, what do I like about this painting? Well, it’s charming, it’s clear, well painted, well composed, and it sparkles with light, and with the life of Venice. As with so many of the vedute – or ‘views’ – it appears to assume an impossible point of viewing. We seem to be at the same height as the people on the bridge we can see on the right of the canal – only we also seem to be in the middle of the Grand Canal, and there is not, nor there never was, a bridge just here – although there is, admittedly, a kink in the canal. More of that later. We face the church of Santa Croce directly (it’s on the right), with its simple, apparently neo-classical façade. Now, however often you have been to Venice, I can guarantee that you have not been to this church. How can I be so sure? Well, it was destroyed in 1810: a communal garden now takes its place (see the photograph below). We can see gondoliers on the water, and people walking along the fondamenta – the canal-side path. A be-wigged aristocrat in red stands in the shadows at the foot of the steps to the church, and a hooded figure emerges from the left-hand door. Further back two people cross the bridge, and beyond that we can see the dome of San Simeon Piccolo, completed by architect Gianantonio Scalfarotto in 1738 as a neo-classical echo to Longhena’s baroque Santa Maria della Salute at the other end of the Grand Canal. The date of this church gives us a clue to the date of the painting. In the distance is the campanile (bell tower) of San Geremia – St Jeremiah. In the western church it is not usual to call an old testament prophet ‘Saint’, although it is in the orthodox church. The name of this, and other, Venetian churches reminds us of Venice’s connections with Byzantium. The view – with the exception of the absent church – is not altogether different today.
On the other side are three – or, arguably, four – more churches, only one of which survives.
From left to right they are the convent of Corpus Domini, which is more-or-less hidden by the surrounding wall. Further back it the taller renaissance façade of the Scuola dei Nobili – strictly speaking, a confraternity, although, as they all did, the complex would have included a consecrated chapel. This is followed by Santa Lucia, and finally, Santa Maria di Nazareth, known universally as the Scalzi, being the home of the Discalced (or ‘barefoot’) Carmelites. Its late-baroque façade was designed by Giuseppe Sardi and completed in 1680. This is the only surviving church from those on the left of the painting. Nowadays it is a familiar view, as it is, after San Simeon Piccolo, the second church you would see when emerging from the railway station. And if you have been to Venice by train, you may remember that the station is called Venezia Santa Lucia – which is the main reason why the buildings have changed so much here. In 1861 the Austrian overlords destroyed Santa Lucia (the church) to build the first railway station, at the end of a new land bridge. This was then re-built between 1936 and 1952 (the war slowed things down, of course) to a final design by Paolo Perilli.
This is the best photograph I can find of Bellotto’s view now – with the station on the left, the Scalzi covered in scaffolding, and the campanile – and dome – of San Geremia in the distance. But this is telling – hardly hint of the right bank of the canal, and only a glimpse of the portico of San Simeon. The vedutisti – the artists who painted the vedute – were experts at combining viewpoints, and this was something that Bellotto would have learnt as an essential part of his training. What we see in the images may look real, but we would have to look from side to side to see it all in one go.
Just visible in the background of this photograph – crossing in front of the brightly-lit palazzo – is a relatively ‘new’ bridge, built by the Austrians across the Grand Canal. This helped to connect the station to the city, and facilitated the movement of troops, who were needed to control the revolting Venetians. In 1848 there had indeed been a revolt, when the locals briefly took control of their own city. It didn’t last long: the Hapsburgs took back command the following year, and remained so until 1866 when Venice joined the newly-united (or, at least, uniting) Italy – even if most of them still don’t believe they really are the same as other Italians. Perhaps the best way to understand our painting is to look the other way. Here is a comparison with a painting by Canaletto, which also in the collection of the National Gallery: The Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo painted shortly after the Bellotto, in around 1740. In case you were worried, the final ‘e’ of ‘Simeone’ is not a typo – nor is its absence above: the ‘e’ is Italian, but not Venetian, like ‘Canal’, Gianantonio’s family name. It was because he was the son of another Canal – Bernardo – that he was called ‘little Canal’, i.e. ‘Canaletto’.
We can see some of the same buildings – San Simeon is on the left, with the far simpler bulk of Santa Croce in the distance, just before the kink in the canal which means that the fondamenta curves round to our right – providing the viewpoint for Bellotto’s painting. Then on the right we can see the baroque façade of the Scalzi, and the projecting mass of Santa Lucia. Compare that with the view today – at least of the right-hand side of the canal, from more or less this point of view (where now the really is a bridge).
Apart from the skill, and the beauty of the painting, I love the historical content of Bellotto’s work – the documentation of the life and fabric of the city. I have little doubt that both of these paintings were created – in part, at least – to document one of the city’s latest landmarks – San Simeon Piccolo. The Bellotto is also interesting because he would have been young at the time it was painted. Born in 1722, he was the third child of asset manager Lorenzo Antonio Bellotto and Fiorenza Domenica Canal. He was named after his maternal grandfather, Bernardo Canal, a theatrical scene painter. He trained, of course, with his uncle, Canaletto (Fiorenza’s brother), and already by the age of 16 he was registered as a member of the Fraglia dei Pittori – the Venetian painters’ guild. It was around this time – 1738 – that our veduta was painted. He was sixteen. How could he have got to this level so quickly? Well, manual skill can easily be learnt with enough application and an early start, but the conceptual skill? He had help. His painting was based on his own preparatory drawing, now in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. Sadly, I can’t find an image of it – but not to worry, as Bellotto’s own drawing was actually based on one by his uncle, which is now in the Royal Collection. Compare and contrast:
The composition is almost exactly the same, of course, plus or minus the odd gondola, although Bellotto makes the distant campanile slightly more prominent. This is how you learn – by copying the master. You study his original sketches, see how he combines them into a coherent composition, and copy that compositional drawing, just to make sure that it has all sunk in. I would like to see Bellotto’s version of the drawing, though, as I’d like to see how he sketches the sky. I have no doubt that both artists were right handed. Apart from the obvious fact that most people are, and always were, and, if they weren’t, were often made to be, in Canaletto’s sky the lines go from top right to bottom left – the default direction for right handed people sketching. For Canaletto, this is not a regular angle, though, with the lines varying from 45˚ to the horizontal at the top right and left, and varying across the centre to something more like 25˚. You get a similar variety of brushstrokes in the skies of Canaletto’s paintings. However, one of the stylistic features of Bellotto – to my mind, at least, I’ve never heard anyone else mention it – is that the brushstrokes in the blue of the sky are often an almost obsessive 45˚- which I hope you can see in this detail. It looks as if there is an almost imperceptible rain.
The detail also shows the thickness of the paint in the clouds. This three dimensional ‘paste’ is given the Italian name impasto, and is one of the ways in which Bellotto’s paintings differ from those of Canaletto, who does not use impasto to the same degree. Other differences include larger canvasses, more magisterial views, and a cooler, more silvery palette – but these are the sorts of things I will be talking about on Monday, when I discuss Bellotto’s development after the early years in Venice, not to mention his journeys through Europe which led him to Dresden, and beyond, and then back again… I do hope you can join me then! As for everything else – well, as ever, it should be on the diary page.