Alfred de Musset
In Venice the Red,
No boat moves.
There is no fisher on the waters,
No lantern to be seen…
Giovanni Antonio Canal was born in Venice on October 18, 1697. He usually used the surname “Canaletto”, which he assumed or received during a trip to London. Also, we should mention that every now and then he used the appellation Il Tottino. In effect, Giovanni Antonio Canal signed or wrote his name numerous ways: Canal, da Canal, Canale, Canalelo, Canaletti and Canaletto. Two centuries ago, no-one found anything wrong with that. And no matter what a person’s social status, correct spelling of proper or nicknames was non-existent and offered no consistency. Therefore, it was difficult to confirm whether or not he was of noble origin or if he legitimately possessed that nobility by which we have usually known him.
In his writings, Antonio Maria Zanetti believed he could attribute patrician origins to Canaletto by linking him to the noble line of da Canal, which he described as having “a sky blue coat of arms, with a silver chevron”. However, Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, in his portrait of Canaletto entitled Nobilis Venetus, leads one to believe that his family had “a sky blue coat of arms, with a gold chevron”. This regrettable difference causes one to doubt that the master illustrator of Venice’s enchanting faces ever appeared as a descendant of an eminent family in the libro d’oro that was kept at the Doges’ Palace. What difference would the favours or the status of “patrician” really have made? If Canaletto was only flattering himself with this nominal nobility, in the end he is still truly noble, whether of Venetian old and pure blooded ancestry or not, whether a gentleman or a commoner; it is his talent that imbues him with a superior value, for which he is indebted to no-one but himself, which his ancestors can neitherrelinquish nor diminish.
Moreover, almost all of the great Italian artists live in our memories under assumed names, like the Apostles, notably the primitives and simple artisans who participated in the beginnings of art movements, religious groups and historical legends. We call the artist Giovanni Antonio Canal “Canaletto” (son of Canal), as we call Domenico di Tommaso Bigordi “Ghirlandaio” (his father, a goldsmith, had invented the ghirlande), as we call Andrea del “Sarto” (because his father was a tailor, sarto in Italian), and as we name Tintoretto (whose father was a dyer), whose name refers to Veronese ink (as he was born in Verona). All Italian painters from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries underwent this entertaining kind of metonymy that twisted their names around as if to better vulgarize their glory in the milieu in which they exercised their profession.
Therefore, in spite of a remarkable kind of patronymic diversity, there was only one man: Giovanni Antonio Canal. From 1719 to about 1750, from the time of his first works until the time when his nephew and pupil Bernardo Bellotto chose to give himself his prestigious signature, he alone kept the name Canaletto. Today, however, one has to link both the master and his disciple to this surname. And it would be a good idea to connect, under the famous designation “Canaletto”, the two personalities, related by blood, because of their specialized genre and value as artists. As neither of the two dated their canvases, as they manifested nearly equal talent, as they show a regularity in their brush strokes, as they render impossible any means of discovering different styles relating to different periods in their lives, these two painters deny any real critical investigation into their separate artistic personalities.
However, there would be no Canaletto without Giovanni Antonio Canal. Indeed, he was the undisputed creator of the carefully crafted painting of intense perspectives. Because of the discoveries that his studies brought to him, he was the first to demonstrate the practical and rational use of the optical chamber, of which he almost always took advantage. Therefore, he might, in some way, appear to be the forerunner of Nicéphore Niépce and Jacques Daguerre. But Canaletto was not looking to use chemical agents to reproduce the image projected by a camera obscura. He chose instead, through the use of all of his discerning powers, to evoke the images visible in a camera obscura with his brushes, which were obedient to his technique and talent. He thus endeavoured to express all the photogenic hues that he ingeniously knew how to capture. Many of his predecessors used this practice when painting architecture, but the technique had yet to be systematised during his era. Some had opened the way; for example, Tiepolo had ventured into this arena, but with impetuous and opulent fieriness that was farremoved from matching the precise and rigorous organization of Venetian architecture.
Although the undeniable pictorial quality of Canaletto’s work is plain to see, and even more apparent with each glance, it is more difficult to shed light on his life. In effect, the lack of biographical documentation about him gives us only a partial curriculum vitae. Like the great majority of eighteenth century Venetian painters, he was as motivated to disseminate his works as he was to conceal his personality. He wanted to obscure the events that could have constituted a comprehensive biography. The artists during that period were hardly ever seen outside of their studios, except by chance. Nothing out there attracted them. Worries about their reputations resided, above all, in their persistent “studio work”. The idea of publicity, motivated by a desire to stir up an opinions about themselves in gazettes and social environments susceptible to influence, or a desire to put themselves on centre stage for the benefit of their self-esteem and their sales, did not germinate inside the solid minds of these “hard working producers of paintings”.
Without a doubt, professionals in the arts of painting, decoration, sculpture, architecture and engraving considered themselves purely as artisans. They did not lay claim to any social privileges other than those reserved for any other working men, that is to say, common labourers working for corporations. No artist was looking to perch himself on a high spot along this scale or to strut about in a proudly ostentatious manner. Each of them relied on their thoughtful work, their efforts to achieve the best with the conscientious value of their technique, the quality and subtleties of sober and methodical execution, and the reputation and good name that would not fail to compensate, during these fortunate times, the studious and the skilled. It was rare to see creators of art showing off their vanitas in public, searching for praise in the discourse and writings of fellow citizens, exacerbating their personal pride in the promotion of emulation and intrigues, or throwing themselves out onto the stage, with the furiously pursued goal of seeing themselves designated as worthy champions in the minds of the masses.
Two portraits of Canaletto are, however, in existence. The first is an engraving in the style of Piazzetta by Antonio Visentini, showing a young, pleasant-looking Venetian. The impression it made must have been perfectly befitting. His physiognomy belies intelligence and candour. He has a full, oval face. He is smiling and there is a lively twinkle in his eyes. The second portrait is rather dissimilar. His features are emaciated, his general expression is listless and seems shrouded by a kind of melancholy. His head is covered by the kind of enormous wig that was then in style in Venice. This small medallion, which does not bear the name of the engraver, indicates, moreover, that Canaletto was a member of the Argonauts’ Academy. Canaletto, in the company of the most illustrious of his countrymen, contemplated the same horizon and was soothed by the same spectacle; he drew his qualities as a colourist from this nature which he obediently accepted. Some were impressed by the exceptional beauty of his horizons. One finds azure skies in his paintings in which big, fluffy clouds are banked up. The bluish clouds in the distance allow warm tones to stand out in his foregrounds.
Of all the cities in the world, Venice seems to be the one that has carried out the most imperious seduction, of its sons who love their mother city, as well of foreign visitors. Its portraitists multiplied throughout its history. Of these, there were none more zealous, attentive or more gifted than Canaletto and his nephew Bellotto, who reproduced, on multiple occasions, all of its faces, aspects and perspectives. The happy and spiritual Venetians of Tiepolo and Goldoni’s century declared that they had such a predilection for their divine city that they passed their lives there in order “to comfort the eyes”. One can easily understand this contemplative intoxication, this continuous visual enchantment, this salutary exhilaration occasioned by gazing at the most marvellous of urban scenery created by men who would never tire of admiring it since its subtle charm of its lighting and variety of atmospheres continually modify its every aspect…
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