Canaletto was an anomaly, both of his time and apart from it. His fame derives from his elegant depictions of Venice, his hometown, yet his clientele was not, for the most part, Venetian. He was a successful artist whose art didn't generally reflect the conventions of the era in which he lived.
"Venice in the Age of Canaletto" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art presents paintings by Canaletto and some of his contemporaries along with period decorative objects that provide context.
The 18th century saw Venice at its most glorious culturally. It was no longer the great military power or international trading center it once was and by century's end, it would be conquered by Napoleon Bonaparte.
Venice may have been on its way to a political and financial flameout but it was considered one of the most beautiful cities in the world, an absolute must-see for any discerning traveler. Its citizens lived in luxury and style, continuing to support ambitious projects of public, private and religious buildings.
In the early 1700s, "Italy" as a unified country was more than 100 years away. It was, as it had been for a millennium, a collection of independent villages and city-states. Venice had evolved into one of its most dazzling, built as a maritime power over lagoons that gave the impression to those entering it for the first time of a shimmering mirage rising from the water.
Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), born into an old Venetian family, is considered one of the great landscape painters of Western art who influenced artists both in Europe and the United States for 200 years after his death. He was the son of a successful theatrical scene painter and was called "little Canal" or Canaletto. It seems that a 1719 trip to Rome with his father to work on a theatrical project started him on his path as a famous landscape painter. There he was inspired by artists working in the landscape genre called vedute, "views," which were not considered top-tier forms of art but potentially very lucrative.
With the help of an expatriate British entrepreneur, Canaletto began attracting the attention of wealthy English collectors who made fashionable Grand Tours through Italy, especially Venice, and wanted to document their travels in style.
Luca Carlevaris (1663-1729) was already making a small fortune in Venetian landscapes before his young rival blew him out of the water. Looking at both artists' work, you can see why. Carlevaris is faithful to architectural details and good at evoking a sense of the city's grandeur yet he paints with a subtle, miasmic haze over everything. Today we would call it pollution. Canaletto lets the sun pour in, depicting only meteorologically perfect days. He also injects more personality into his scenes. The buildings, broad expanses of water and great piazzas are the stars but he loves the bit players, too. People (and they are literally little people in his big-scale paintings) populate the locations doing what they normally do, whether it's hanging laundry or oaring a gondola. He may have left his dad's profession but he paints as if his world were still a stage.
Venetians themselves wouldn't have cared much about a painting of the Piazza San Marco; they saw it every day. They invested in lavish furnishings for their palazzos, and because their windows looked out onto the same views Canaletto painted, they opted for religious and mythological scenes painted with lush flourishes by fellow greats such as Tiepolo whose style, you will see, is utterly different. The exhibition also gives us good examples of their lifestyle with settees and chairs upholstered in silk, gilded tables and fine porcelain. They would have had gorgeous glass from the nearby Murano glass studios. Here, a tiny glass garden is arranged on a tabletop as it would have been back then, a dream of flowers and enclosures in a city that had no lawns.
Abroad, owning a Canaletto conferred great status. British dukes and earls lined castle walls with them; those of lesser means bought etchings of his paintings. In 1746 Canaletto moved to England. Tourism to Italy had been halted by war so he followed his clients, painting their grand vistas, estates and public buildings. He did well financially but his works began to become formulaic. He was even accused of being an imposter by an art critic. He refuted the claim but his reputation was tarnished.
Almost 10 years later, he came home and returned to replicating his beloved city. Works from the 1760s suggest burnout. The people in them have become dabs of paint rather than fully realized portraits in miniature; the telling details of daily life are repetitive and the water has a still, dirgelike quality. Still, his Venice is beautiful, drifting, as was Canaletto, into the twilight of greatness.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.