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The Piazzetta, Venice, with the Campanile under Repair



Giovanni Antonio Canal, Il Canaletto (1697-1768)
The Piazzetta, Venice, with the Campanile under Repair
oil on canvas
AGLC 453 @ A.G Leventis Gallery

These exceptional – and exceptionally wellpreserved – paintings were unknown to scholars before their reappearance on the London art market from Jamaica in 1966, when the attribution of both to Canaletto was confirmed by W. G. Constable and Antonio Morassi. They were subsequently included by Pierre Rosenberg in the Venetian exhibition in Paris in 1971, and by J. G. Links in his revised edition of Constable’s great catalogue of Canaletto’s work. Morassi’s and Rosenberg’s dating of the paintings to Canaletto’s period in England is surely correct. He arrived in London towards the end of May 1746 and remained there until 1755 (sometime before 12 December), except for an eight-month return to Venice in 1750-1751. These paintings are characteristic of Canaletto’s English period in their use of a grey ground, rather than the typically Venetian russet of his work both before and after, and in their corresponding light tonality. The handling of paint and the figure style are also closely paralleled in other works painted in England. Further evidence of the dating of The Piazzetta, if it is needed, is provided by the depiction of the Campanile being repaired, surely in the summer or latter part of 1745, while the absence of Giorgio Massari’s upper storeys of the wings of the Torre dell’Orologio suggests a date before 1755, when those were begun. In the Capriccio (see p. 147), the dome reminiscent of that of Saint Paul’s Cathedral and the late Gothic elements in the Campanile indicate a knowledge of English architecture.

The view of the Piazzetta corresponds, with variations, with a particularly fine finished drawing in the British Royal Collection, which is of an unusually large size (42.5 x 29.2 cm) and also remarkable in being in a vertical format and a record of an actual event. It is carefully inscribed A di 23 aprile 1745 giorno di S. Giorgio Cavalier diede la saeta nel Canpanil [sic] di S. Marco [On 23 April 1745 St George’s Day a thunderbolt struck the Campanile of S. Marco]. The drawing must date from somewhat after the event, as it shows repairs already in progress, and is the last evidence of Canaletto’s activity in Venice before his transfer to London. There is every reason to believe that the drawing was executed specifically for Joseph Smith, the painter’s great patron and agent, who had been appointed British Consul in Venice in 1744, and with whose collection it entered the Royal Collection in 1763. Smith may have seen a particular significance in the occurrence of the dramatic event on the feast day of the patron saint of England, as Charlotte Miller and J. G. Links have pointed out.    

A replica of the Royal Collection drawing is in the British Museum. Of similar size, it shows more figures, and there are other minor variations. It is in distinctly less good condition, but its status as a secondary version is confirmed by the absence of traces of the pencil underdrawing on the right side of the Campanile evident in that in the Royal Collection. The paper has a Strasburg Lily watermark, which is of Dutch origin, and this has been interpreted as indicating that the drawing was made during Canaletto’s years in England, the artist having brought the Royal Collection version with him. The watermark is, however, found on the majority of the Canaletto drawings in the Royal Collection, including several predating the painter’s departure for England, as Crawley and Clayton have revealed. It is thus at least as likely that Canaletto executed the British Museum version in Venice before delivering that in the Royal Collection to Smith and leaving for London. The A. G. Leventis Collection Piazzetta, the only known painting by Canaletto showing the damage to the Campanile, was presumably based on the British Museum drawing. The only detail which corresponds with the Royal Collection drawing alone is the angel on the summit of the Campanile facing to the right rather than the left. In other respects, including the continuous balcony across the mezzanine level of the Torre dell’Orologio on the right, rather than two separate balconies, and the figures on the scaffolding and on the cradle on the Campanile, it corresponds with that in the British Museum. The painting, however, by no means follows the drawing. Highly adept as he was at breathing life into graphic sources, Canaletto demonstrated his versatility at manipulating the subject matter which he knew so well. he moved the viewpoint for the Libreria and the Campanile, and to the left, while more is shown of the Procuratie Vecchie, the flagpoles are more widely spaced. The Campanile is thus shown more frontally, but its height is also far more strongly emphasised than in the drawings, despite the composition being extended on both sides. Canaletto’s lack of concern for topographical accuracy is further shown by the apparent absence of Antonio Gai’s bronze gates to the loggetta of the Campanile, which were put in place in 1742. The Capriccio has proved rather more controversial. While Rosenberg saw it as an assemblage of buildings inspired by London, several of the architectural features are demonstrably of Italian origin, and Links felt that, ‘The presence of the Ponte S. Trinità [over the Arno in Florence] inevitably casts doubt on the attribution. Canaletto was never in Florence, as far as is recorded, and certainly painted no other Florentine building.’ He concluded that the attribution of the Capriccio ‘is far from secure’ and catalogued it as ‘Attributed to Canaletto’. While the attribution to Canaletto is incontestable, the painter’s awareness of the view of the Ponte Santa Trinità from the terrace of the Palazzo Corsini remains unexplained. The most obvious graphic source, Giuseppe Zocchi’s print, plate VI of his Scelta di XXIV vedute delle principali contrade, piazze, chiese, e palazzi della città di Firenze published in 1744, shows the bridge rather differently and from the opposite side of the river. Corboz has pointed out that the central part of the palace on the right strongly resembles the centre part of the garden front of the Villa Aldobrandini at Frascati, as shown in Dominique Barrière’s engraving of 1647. He also noted that the top of the campanile is very similar to that in a capriccio drawing by Canaletto in the British Museum.

Links had overcome his doubts about the Capriccio by 1981, although he remained puzzled by the relationship between the two paintings, describing the Capriccio as a ‘companion, but not necessarily pendant’ to the Venetian view. the pairing of a view with a capriccio is not without parallel in Italian view painting of the 18th century, from Gaspare Vanvitelli (1653-1736) near the beginning of the century to Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) towards its end, and Canaletto’s own set of ‘Lovelace Capricci’ includes at least one painting which is certainly not a capriccio. The striking discrepancies in the scale of the foreground figures and in the horizon level between the two A. G. Leventis Collection paintings, which are lit from opposite directions, are extremely unexpected in Canaletto’s work, however, and suggest that they may have been intended as parts of a larger set. No other component has been identified, and regrettably nothing is known of their provenance before the 1917 sale which might help to clarify this. They were consigned to the auction anonymously through a London solicitor, and Christie’s daybook provides no further clues. The small group of paintings from the same source did, however, include as lot 35 ‘A. Canaletto – The Grand Canal, Venice: A view looking up the canal through the Rialto, with numerous gondolas and figures, 33 by 53 in.’ (sold for 420 guineas to Colnaghi). Subsequently in the collection of the great Japanese collector Kojiro Matsukata, it was with David Carritt Ltd (Artemis), London, in 1984. While the pair of Canaletto paintings in the Leventis Collection was mistakenly associated with Bernardo Bellotto (1722- 1780) in 1917, this painting is conversely probably an early work by Bellotto, dating from around 1740. It may well have been sold from the studio as the work of Canaletto himself, and a patron who acquired a Venetian view from Canaletto around 1740 and went on to commission more work from him in England would fit a common pattern. The only clue to the possible identity of the patron is offered by lot 34 in the 1917 sale, a pair of pastel portraits of Hugh Hume Campbell, 3rd Earl of Marchmont (1708-1794), and his first wife, Anne, whom he married in 1731. A Tory politician, Campbell inherited the title in 1740 and remarried in 1748 following Anne’s death in 1747. He was portrayed in a miniature by Jean-Étienne Liotard (1702-1789) in 1756. These dates certainly make Marchmont’s patronage of Canaletto a possibility, but obviously this must remain a very tentative hypothesis in the absence of further evidence.

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About the artist

  Canaletto is undoubtedly the best known 18th century Venetian view painter, whose fame extended well beyond his native Venice.   Canaletto was the son of the painter Bernado Canal, hence the mononym Canaletto, which means ‘little canal’. He served his apprentiship with his father, as a theatrical scene painter and then worked in Rome, between 1719-1720, painting for the opera. In Rome, Canaletto was inspired by the Roman vedutista Giovanni Paolo Pannini, and started painting the daily life of the city and its people.   After his return to his homeland he turned to creating topographical images of Venice and its architecture, known as vedute. His paintings were characterised by a distinct precision which brought him international fame and important patronage. Canaletto was also famous for his Capriccios. The name Capriccio was given in Italy to describe a painting representing a fantasy or a mixture of real and imaginary features. Artists such as Canaletto placed together architectural buildings, archaeological remains and other architectural elements in fictional and other fantastical combinations.   In 1746, Canaletto moved to England where he stayed for almost nine years. There, he continued to paint images of Venice but he also began painting views of London and the country houses of his patrons. He then returned back to Venice where he continued to paint until the end of his life.  

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