Chris Rogers | Writer on architecture and visual culture
Being There: the other Canaletto
Evening. The last light of the day turns roofs gold under a yellowing sky; shadows lengthen. Still water laps against stone as swans glide by. This is a depiction of the end of a day at Dresden’s Royal Zwinger palace two hundred and fifty years ago – a picture in words drawn from a picture in oils by Bernado Bellotto, the lesser-known artist nephew of Canaletto, Giovanni Antonio Canal, one of the 18th century’s greatest artists. This vedutista’s luminously beautiful, apparently-precise renditions of waterside vistas in Italy and England wow crowds wherever they are hung, and rightly so, yet move outside the capital and explore galleries elsewhere in Britain and the continent and you’ll discover an even more astonishing talent for showing urban life in all its richness – a talent that’s very much in the family.
Canaletto was twenty five and already a noted artist when his sister, married to Lorenzo Bellotto, gave birth to a son. Named after Canaletto’s father, by the age of thirteen Bernado Bellotto was being trained at his uncle’s studio in Venice whilst also assisting the great master. His talent rapidly becoming clear, Bellotto moved to Rome in 1742 and then to Verona and Lucca. Visits to other Italian towns followed, until in 1747 Bellotto left Italy for good. He arrived at Dresden and the court of ruler Augustus the Strong where he was hired as court painter and commissioned to produce views of the prosperous Saxon city. It was around this time that he appears to have appended the name ‘de Canaletto’ to his works, causing authorship confusion for years to come. Whether this was a deliberate attempt by Bellotto to link himself with his feted uncle’s work is unclear; he had after all achieved success in his own right by this stage. In the decade that followed, though, Bellotto’s genius was confirmed, entirely independently of his master, as his personal vision matured.
Whereas Canaletto’s pictures were bright and colour-filled, Bellotto used light very differently and through a very much cooler palette of greys, browns and greens. In this he was drawing on the modest naturalism of the Netherlands which had in fact directly influenced Canaletto in his early career before gloss and glamour took over. Canaletto also knew Vermeer’s work, and it seems unlikely that Bellotto would have remained unaware of the Dutchman’s hushed interiors. Bellotto’s realistic, almost accidental, angles and muted hues yet razor-sharp delineation and startling precision between sunlit areas and those in shadow thus established a style unique in Italian vedute painting, rooted in the northern European tradition rather than the southern.
Images such as View of Dresden from the Right Bank of the Elbe with the Augustbrucke of around 1752 present a calm, reflective view of the burgeoning city, with its Hofkirche rising up to join other grand buildings. The colours of the stone are carefully picked out, new against old, the sky is pale and the atmosphere clear. Already Bellotto’s sympathy with the built environment is apparent. He paints the various structures with no attempt to ease the viewer’s task of unscrambling their mixed identities – what seems to be a spire on the Hofkirche, for example, is in fact the Hausmannsturm behind – and updates buildings which had been extended since he last painted them. He even adds the Hofkirche’s actual tower even though it had not been built at the time he set brush to canvas, working from the architect’s plans. It’s tempting to see in this something of Canaletto’s penchant for adjusting reality to satisfy his needs; since it’s thought that Canaletto may have used some of his nephew’s sketches in his own work, Bellotto may have returned the favour by adopting one of his uncle’s tricks. Regardless, the Dresden works are almost shockingly real, a fresh, innovative way of depicting reality – one might call it presence art.
A more intimate picture of the royal residences is provided by The Courtyard of the Castle of Konigstein from the West, where every tile and every brick and their attendant imperfections are all lovingly outlined, the texture of peeling plaster can be almost felt and where figures are tucked away in detail-obscuring shadows as though caught in a snapshot. It’s a picture where you can almost hear the time pass.
Ironically time was something that ran out for Bellotto when a Prussian invasion of Dresden forced him to leave a few years later – this painting and another never made it to Augustus and were bought by the Marquis of Londonderry.
Bellotto moved to Vienna where he continued to attract royal patronage, this time from Empress Maria Theresia. More imperial vistas resulted – ravishing panoramas of and from the Belvedere Palace and the Schlosshof, continuing the work begun in Dresden but further stretching Bellotto’s affinity for architecture as he tackled the fall of sunlight on intricately-shaped stone balustrades.
Bellotto’s commission also included the new squares, churches and other public buildings of Vienna. He took a brilliantly original and revealing approach to these small spaces and their surroundings. Depicting the Dominikanerkirche, for example, Bellotto chose a position that severely foreshortened its façade and even cast it in deep shade, but yet ensured a full view of the frontage by projecting its shadow on the buildings opposite. Bellotto’s subjects are often shown in dull light, but remain rich with texture and feel; as any photographer knows, an overcast day reveals detail just as well as direct sun, if not better. Bellotto is to Canaletto what monochrome reportage is to Sunday supplement slickness.
Photographic and cinematic comparisons are inescapable when discussing Bellotto’s work, so similar are his techniques to those that would emerge two centuries later with the birth of another art form. The washed-out colours, awkward viewpoints and sharp focus seem to foreshadow directors and cinematographers instead of echoing painters. Indeed, it’s difficult to argue against critics who theorise around Bellotto’s use of a camera obscura to frame his images, though the end result is surely anything but mechanistic. He has transformed this artificial aid into his own ‘shooting style’ – Scorsese, perhaps, to his uncle’s Spielberg. The effect is of hovering over the scene, of being in it.
From Vienna Bellotto moved to Pirna and Munich and finally to Warsaw, where he died in 1780. He had unquestionably proved his unique gift, and was every bit the equal of his uncle, though it was Canaletto, dying in 1768, who was to receive later generations’ adulation – until now.
Awareness and appreciation of Bellotto’s work is on the rise. The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna dedicated an entire exhibition to him a few years ago; London’s Royal Academy selected some of his astonishing widescreen images of Dresden’s palaces during its recent show of works from the water-logged Gemaldegallerie Alte Meister; and even Manchester City Art Gallery featured one of its Bellottos in its publicity leaflets. With uncle still pulling in the masses, why should this be?
Perhaps because an increasingly troubled world reaches out to the art that reflects that uncertainty and shows a more flawed and recognisable picture of life. Perhaps subconsciously Bellotto’s work, with its quirky views, distressed surfaces and dark water, now connects with us more keenly than Canaletto’s gilded depictions of celebration and pageant. And as if to reinforce this connection, it is Bellotto’s meticulous recordings that have been used to inform the reconstruction of war-ravaged Warsaw and Dresden, a process which culminated in the triumphant reopening of the latter’s Frauenkirche in 2005.
So, the next time you stand in raptures and stare at the light tumbling off a Canaletto, don’t stay for too long; lurking in the shadows is an unassuming young man waiting for the sun to go behind a cloud…
View of Dresden from the Right Bank of the Elbe with the Augustus Bridge, in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
The Dominikanerkirche, Vienna, its main facade only visible as a shadow falling on the buildings opposite (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna)
Dresden's Zwinger Place moat, a view almost unchanged today