National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

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

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4

In 1965 the distinguished Venetian scholar, Terisio Pignatti, visited the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts where the Canaletto exhibition, arranged by the Art Gallery of Toronto and shared with the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum, was on display. He was attracted by four works, two of them in the collection of the National Gallery, which he felt were by Canaletto's nephew, Bellotto. He used them as the basis for examining Bellotto's early work and in 1966 published the results in Arte Veneta, which has generously given us permission to reprint this article in translation with slight revisions by the author. During the summer of 1967 one of the National Gallery's pictures, the Piazzetta Looking North, was exhibited in Venice in I Vedutisti Veneziani dei Settecento as a work by Bellotto.

After having seen the exhibitions of works by Canaletto in Canada and by his nephew, Bellotto, in Vienna in 1965, I felt that a distinction should be made between Bellotto's early work and his uncle's, if only as an incentive to future research. (1)

The statement that it is difficult to distinguish Bellotto's Venetian works from Canaletto's has become one of the characteristic platitudes about eighteenth-century Venetian painting. Apparently, Guarienti, Bellotto's first biographer, was also the first to make this statement. In Pellegrino Orlandi's Abecedario pittarica, he wrote: "Bernardo Bellotto was from a well-to-do family. He was taught the principles of art by his uncle, Antonio Canal, and after having mastered these principles, began to imitate him with diligence. On the advice of his uncle he went to Rome to improve his style by drawing and painting the ancient ruins and the most beautiful views of that noble city. With all this practice, he became more skillful and returned to Venice. He then depicted the most important sites of Venice, Brescia, Verona and Milan. His scenes of Venice were so carefully and so realistically done that it was exceedingly difficult to distinguish his work from his uncle's." (2)

Bellotto was thus painting "carefully" and drawing "realistically" while he was a member of the Brotherhood of Venetian Painters from 1738 to 1743. To his contemporaries his style seemed almost identical with that of his uncle and teacher. There are, however, very few works from this period that have been confirmed as his. The first reference made to his artistic activity is in an inscription on a drawing in the Darmstadt Museum (AE 2218), "Campo S. Giouani paullo, li 8 Deccemb 1740 Feccit Bernardo Bellotti (plate 1) .The relationship of this drawing to an almost identical one by Canaletto in the Windsor Collection (No. 7481) (plate 2) has been interpreted in different ways: in the past, Bellotto's drawing was considered to be a copy of Canaletto's; (3) Constable suggests that it could be a copy of a lost sketch by Canaletto for a painting in the National Gallery in Washington; (4) Kozakiewicz believes that it probably preceded Canaletto's, and proposes that Bellotto could have acted as a "graphic reporter" for the whole studio. (5) I am now convinced that Bellotto's drawing is not dependent upon Canaletto's but that they were made at the same time, one by the famous uncle and the other by the young nephew, not yet 20 years old. (6)

Before analysing this relationship any further, I should like to mention something about Bellotto's early activity. I have not been able to find any record of what he did during the rest of the time he spent in Venice. The first definite date is 1744 and is found in an inscription on a drawing in Warsaw (folio No. 2039) of the View of Vaprio d'Adda (which is related to a painting in the Metropolitan Museum). By then Bellotto was outside Venice and preparing for the long European tour from which he would not return. Meanwhile his uncle went to England, and the close relationship between the two artists was severed.

There are many paintings, however, that are attributed to Bellotto because of style and to his early period because of subject matter. Kozakiewicz and Pallucchini mention the two Capricci from the museum in Asolo; (7) the Campo SS. Giovanni e Paolo from the Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts (plate 3); various Views of Florence in the museum in Budapest, in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and in Boston's Museum of Fine Arts; the View of Rome in the Detroit Institute of Arts. From his Roman period of 1742, there are four canvases in Parma, The Roman Aqueduct, the Capriccio Romano, the Campidoglio and the Coliseum, in addition to others in museums and private collections. (8) Scenes of Venice like the Miracoli which was formerly in the Castiglioni collection in Venice are rarer. (9)

Up to this point the attribution of these works to Bellotto does not conflict with Canaletto's works, and suggests that Guarienti's preoccupation with the "great connoisseurship" necessary to distinguish them from his uncle's was exaggerated. It appears strange, however, that with such a substantial group of paintings attributed to Bellotto in the years 1738-43, the point has not been pursued and comparisons have not been made with the body of Canaletto's work about 1740. This is what we did in examining the material in the Canadian and Viennese exhibitions.

What then are the characteristics that make it difficult to distinguish Bellotto's Venetian works from Canaletto's? If we return to his drawing from Darmstadt of 1740 (plate 1) and to the remarkably similar drawing by Canaletto from Windsor (plate 2) we find the two artists expressed the same subject matter using very similar techniques. The point of view was, however, slightly different, as though they were drawing from adjoining windows; this gives some indication of the way the studio was run in the 1740's. It is also known that Canaletto would make rough sketches and detailed drawings at the site, and then make the finished drawings and paintings in the studio. (10)

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