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Bulletin 9-10 (V:1-2), 1967

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Bernardo Bellotto's Venetian Period (1738-1743)

by Professor Terisio Pignatti, Vice-Directore
Musei Civici Veneziani

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Such a distinction appeared artificial, and it confirmed the doubts that I had at the beginning. If the four paintings really did belong to a single series, I was convinced that the apparent difference in style, that had led to their being placed in an unsubstantiated chronology over a period of ten years, was due to the fact that the person who painted them was still a novice. The "Canalettism" of the four paintings could be explained more logically by placing them near prototypes that might have been models for the young Bellotto while he was being taught by his uncle. (15)

Once I was convinced that the four paintings were not by Canaletto and that an attempt should be made to remove them from the list of his works, I thought it desirable to see whether they could be by Bellotto, for they would be important additions to what little we know of his Venetian Period. If the four canvases were painted by Bellotto, the distinctive characteristics of his work that have already been described should apply to them. (16)

First of all, space in these four canvases is rendered in the same way as it is by Bellotto. If they are compared to paintings of the same subject by Canaletto such as the Piazzetta Looking South or the Entrance to the Grand Canal from the Windsor Collection, it can be seen that a more decisive angle has been chosen, the foreground widened and the background described with greater precision. It is a theatrical conception of space but one always controlled by a preoccupation with drawing everyday life in the most exacting detail and in the clearest light.

The lighting is also rendered in a way that is characteristic of Bellotto's work. In the Piazza della Signoria (plate 17) from the museum in Budapest, dated 1742, and in the Porte del Dolo (plate 4), dated 1748, there is a sharply-outlined shadow coming from the right and spreading like a carpet over the square there is a similar shadow in The Arsenal (plate 16). Figures move in the shaded foreground, like cut-out silhouettes; such Chinese shadows are often found in other paintings of the period from 1742 to 1745, for example in the Piazza Navona in the Brown Boveri Collection, and in the View of the Arno in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum and of the museum in Budapest.

Bellotto's characteristic sketches of human figures can also be seen in these paintings. From the beginning, unlike Canaletto, he showed an inclination toward characterization, to topical themes, in short, to realism, in drawing people. Nobody could confuse the accurate caricatures in Bellotto's View of the Kreuzkirche of Dresden (plate 18) with the curled chinoiseries of Canaletto's figures in the contemporary Procuratie Nuove, San Marco (plate 19) in the National Gallery, London. At the end of his career, in Warsaw, Bellotto used to insert large figures and even portraits into his paintings. In the four works under consideration highly characterized figures, too strongly emphasized to be by Canaletto, form groups which play a dominant role in the total effect. In the Entrance to the Grand Canal, there is a group with a nobleman talking to a veiled woman, and another of commoners on the steps of the column of Todar; in the Piazzetta Looking North, there is a group of idlers near the arcades of the Ducal Palace; in The Arsenal, there is a group standing in the sun in front of the Arsenal's gate. The figures always assume a genre pose; the faces are characterized and highlighted in a special way which makes them unnaturally bright, almost like masks - a mask with grotesque, heavy black eyes and a ball-shaped nose placed in the middle of the face like a cork.

Bellotto's figures were made with brush strokes of bright contrasting colours. On the other hand Canaletto's figures in The Vegetable Market and San Giacometto di Rialto (plate 6) and in the Piazza San Marco (plate 7) from the National Gallery of Canada show numerous gradations of colour from the wigs to the cloaks, trousers and shoes. Canaletto's fine paint brush moved continuously along the sinuous curves with zinc white, creating a special sort of transparent highlight - the characteristic "ricciolo.' or swirl of Canaletto; this does not appear in the four paintings in question. In these paintings, the figures are quite corpulent and plastic; they are composed of a few pure colours that were rarely mixed to create tonal nuances. The movement of the brush is also different, much more rectilinear, giving the figures a squared appearance. The difference between these figures and Canaletto's can be seen when the figure of the Gentleman in the View of the Zecca (plate 20) is compared with the copy of the same figure in the Piazzetta Looking North (plate 21). There has been a transition from the most refined pictorial poetry to a very objective, simplified prose.

Another interesting comparison could be made between the people clustered around the charlatan in the Piazzetta Looking North (plate 22) and the one in the Piazza della Signoria (plate 23) from the museum in Budapest, which is definitely attributed to Bellotto; these two groups are identical.

The architecture in the four paintings is also rendered in a way that is characteristic of Bellotto. Although both Bellotto and Canaletto underlined the shadows and the cornices of their buildings, Canaletto covered the lines with thin successive strokes of colour which gave an atmospheric effect (plate 24), while Bellotto applied thick parallel strokes juxtaposed like small mosaic tiles with strokes of light for the mortar between the bricks and the stones (plate 25). This technique of Bellotto's can be seen in the Dresden paintings such as the Porte del Dolo (plate 10) and the View of the Kreuzkirche as well as in The Arsenal (plate 26). Bellotto also gave light to the surface of walls with strokes of burnt umber heightened with white lead and cadmium yellow; for example the Roman arches in the canvas from Parma of 1742 (plate 27). (18) He depicted columns in a very special way: the veins of the marble were rendered by a series of horizontal brush strokes cut vertically by streaks of shimmering light. The columns in the four paintings in question are surprisingly similar to those that are characteristic of Bellotto. He would use streaks of cadmium yellow to highlight the edges of cornices, for example in the Capriccio Romano (plate 28) and in the door of the Kreuzkirche (plate 18); these streaks have not been found in any of Canaletto's work. The yellow streaks do appear, however, in the arches of the Ducal Palace in the Piazzetta Looking North (plate 29), and along the arches of the Library in the Entrance to the Grand Canal ( plate 14). Bellotto's technique of painting terracotta-tiled roofs is also very characteristic and helps distinguish his work from Canaletto's. The roof of the small house in the centre of the View of the Po (plate 30), a painting definitely attributed to Bellotto, is exactly the same as that of the Procuratie Vecchie in the Piazzetta Looking North (figure 31). This characteristic rendering of architecture in Bellotto's youthful work is found in the View of the Adige at Verona in Dresden (plate 32) as well as in the Piazzetta Looking North (plate 33).

The date of these four canvases must now be determined. The Venetian subject matter does not in itself indicate that the paintings were made between 1738 and 1743 because Bellotto painted Venetian scenes such as the views of Verona, Porte del Dolo and Bacino e San Giorgio while he was in Dresden in 1747 and 1748. (19) The freshness and imagination of these canvases suggest, however, the moment of first creative enthusiasm - the moment of the artist's discovery of his own ability - rather than a style tested and subtle like Bellotto's in Dresden. The similarity between these paintings and those from his Roman or Florentine period would indicate a date between the Darmstadt drawing of 1740 and 1742.

For all these reasons I think that the four paintings should be moved from their place in Canaletto's work to Bellotto's Venetian period. (20) Although these works are sufficiently close to Canaletto's to have justified their being attributed to him, they still show the first distinctive style of an artist who was destined to play an important role in the history of eighteenth-century European painting.

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