The Italian painter Giovanni Antonio Canal, called Canaletto (1697-1768), is known for his scenes of 18th-century Venice, executed with accuracy, precision, and Iuminosity.
Canaletto and Francesco Guardi between them created the image the world has held of Venice from the late 18th century to the present day. Guardi romanticized what he saw, but Canaletto did not. One of the many Englishmen who visited Venice in the 18th century said that Canaletto's excellence lay in painting things that fell immediately under his eye. What falls under the eye in Venice, then as now, is romantic enough. The buildings, built along canals instead of streets, seem to rise up out of the lagoon as if suspended between earth and water. From a distance, domes and towers appear to float. The colorful crowds that throng the main squares give Venice the air of being continuously in carnival. Canaletto painted his views not for Venetians but for foreign visitors, above all for the rich Englishmen taking the grand tour.
Canaletto was born in Venice on Oct. 18, 1697. He was trained by his father, Bernardo Canal, as a designer of stage sets. Most of the theatrical productions of the period called for sets representing palace interiors or palace gardens. Such scenes usually involved an intricate recession of pillars, pediments, porticoes, balustrades, and garden statues, and thus to execute them required a knowledge of the complexities of architectural perspective.
In 1719 Canaletto gave up designing stage sets and went to study in Rome. The following year he was back in Venice, where he was inscribed as a member of the painters' guild. From then on he was busy painting views of his native city. His most important patron was the English consul, Joseph Smith, who bought large numbers of Canalettos for resale to his countrymen.
Canaletto constructed his views of Venice with painstaking care. Usually he drew the scene on the spot and then made more detailed studies in his studio. These studies were then transferred to the canvas with the help of lines cut into the prepared surface as guidelines for columns, cornices, arches, and domes. We also know that Canaletto used the camera obscura, a darkened box or chamber in which the view is caught and reflected by lenses and mirrors onto a sheet of drawing paper so that the artist can render the perspective lines accurately simply by tracing the contours of the reflected image.
Pleased by his success with the English, Canaletto went to England in 1746. He stayed there off and on for a decade, but the results were disappointing. In Venice he had provided the English with scenes they considered exotic and picturesque, whereas in England he could provide them only with views of what they already knew.
Back in Venice, Canaletto continued to paint views for tourists. He also won acceptance from the Venetians themselves with a new form, the architectural caprice, in which famous landmarks were combined arbitrarily or (rarely in Canaletto's case) the architecture was invented altogether. With one of these as his reception piece he was finally admitted to the Venetian Academy in 1763. Five years later, on April 20, 1768, he died.
The Stonemasons' Yard gives a good idea of Canaletto's very early work. It is a Venice the tourist seldom sees, or tries not to remember: a view of disorder and poverty, of a vacant lot filled with stone and rubble, of gray buildings hung with damp laundry, of gray clouds closing off the sky. But it is also filled with gravity, dignity, and a sense of timelessness.
Far more typical are the sunlit scenes Canaletto painted so often of St. Mark's Square, the Ducal Palace, and the Grand Canal. In the best of these canvases the painted surfaces are beautifully modulated—the tan buildings touched with rose, and rose again in the blue of the sky. The open spaces come alive with festive clusters of bright little figures. These he brushed in broadly and made them sparkle with a scattering of white dots.
Under increasing pressure to turn out more and more paintings for the tourist trade, Canaletto took on assistants, who watered down his style. Many of his late canvases are overly rigid and dry.
Further Reading on Canaletto
The most complete study of Canaletto is W. G. Constable, Canaletto, Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768 (2 vols., 1962), but it is difficult and dry. For a more sensitive interpretation see F. J. B. Watson, Canaletto (1949). K. T. Parker, The Drawings of Antonio Canaletto … at Windsor Castle (1948), is the best book in its area. A brief but highly readable account of Canaletto appears in Michael Levey, Painting in XVIII Century Venice (1959).