To treat one of the best works of one of Italy’s finest eighteenth-century painters as a mere tourist’s memento of a London holiday- as no more than a picture postcard- must seem callous indeed. However, Canaletto’s art was exactly that of a postcard maker. Canaletto used the camera obscura to outline the details of his panoramic souvenirs before he colored them in. He was the leading painter of “vedute,” or views, and he made quite a handsome living whacking them out for eighteenth-century tourists. His view of the Thames from Lambeth Palace, in fact, was sold in 1742 to a tourist, Ferdinand Filip, Prince of Lobkowicz and Duke of Sagan, and taken to Prague where it today hangs in the National Gallery.
Giovanni-Antonio Canal, known as “Little Canal” was born in Venice on October 9, 1697, the son of a theatrical scene painter. The father and son painted extravagant architectural fantasies as backdrops for Italian operas, and so Canaletto learned from the time of his chldhood how to paint vast scenes with precise attention to Illusionistic perspective. He learned too, to see buildings as they are meant to be seen, as settings for human activity, or stories.
Yet, as it was soon observed by Canaletto, “his excellency lyes in painting things which fall immediately under his eye”-that is, real scenes rather than imagined ones. As a result, he established himself as a painter of views, following in the footsteps of such artists as Carlevaris, a vedute painter who was the current favorite of the English tourists. In Canaletto’s day, properly raised Englishmen flocked to Italy for a refreshing taste of loud arguments, sudden passions, and art collecting. These Englishmen were aristocrats, or prosperous merchants, not riffraff- it was not called the Grand Tour for nothing- and every summer thousands of them threw themselves into Venetian life, enjoying the city’s music, plays, feasts, gambling, and its marathon carnival.
In 1711, Owen McSwiney, a bankrupt ex-manager of the Drury Lane and Haymarket theaters in London, arrived in Italy and fell in with the actors and artists there. He made himself an impresario, arranging to export Italian opera to London, and an agent for Italian artists. In 1727 McSwiney began to buy Canaletto’s vedute of Venice for the Duke of Richmond. Indeed, the artist seems to have been doing well enough by then to bargain, chisel, become temperamental, and generally behave the way Englishmen expected Italians to behave.
“The fellow is whimsical and varys his prices, every day,” McSwiney wrote to the duke, “and he that has a mind to have any of his work, must not seem to be too fond of it, for he’l be ye worse treated for it, both in the price and in the painting too. He has more work than he can doe, in any reasonable time, and well; but by the assitance of a particular friend of his, I get once in two months a piece sketched out and a little time after finished, by force of bribery.” ( to be continued)….