Canaletto and Piranesi: Views of Venice and Rome
By Jason Edward Kaufman
In anticipation of the “Canaletto” show that opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week, the Director of Pace Old Master Prints and Drawings, Carlo Bella, has assembled an exhibition of woodblock, engraved, and etched prints depicting Canaletto’s preferred theme, his native Venice. “Views of Venice, 1492-1880” includes 16 etchings by the eighteenth-century master himself, and three which were based on his paintings. Impressions of these prints will be included in the Metropolitan retrospective.
Antonio Canal (known as “Canaletto”, 1697-1768) was, and still is, regarded as the preeminent portrayer of Venice. Many of his patrons were members of the English aristocracy who visited the city on the Grand Tour. Canaletto dedicated his only etchings, a suite of 31 views of Venice and its locale (1740-41), to Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice and the artist’s friend and patron. Their popularity contributed to Canaletto’s decision in 1745 to leave for England, where his career flourished for most of the next decade.
Mr. Bella has included only clear, early impressions that preserve details that vanish in late pulls from the plates. The sheets of thick, white, laid paper are largely in excellent condition (as are most of the works in the show). Their superb condition enables one to explore the variegated contours and patterning with which Canaletto described textures and tonal nuances in his atmospheric panoramas.
The view of Mestre, the town on the mainland that served as the conduit for goods traveling to and from Venice, shows a broad public street populated with carts and pedestrians. Flanking the thoroughfare are sun-drenched buildings, their sides submerged in shadow, which attest to the artist’s fascination with the descriptive function of light.
In his etchings, as with his paintings, Canaletto mixed fact and fancy. The Imaginary View of Padua shows strollers in the shade of a foreground tree passing a mill on the shore of the Brenta River. The city rises in the middle distance, its skyline dominated by cathedral domes, church spires, and palace towers. According to the expert Dario Succi, this is Canaletto’s last etching.
Though the foremost, Canaletto was not the only master of the Venetian view or “veduta.” In 1742, Michele Marieschi (1710-43) produced a suite of 21 etchings (and a frontispiece) of select prospects of Venice and its surroundings. Four of these images are included in the present show. Marieschi’s striking compositions, with sweeping, Tintoretto-esque diagonals, combine precisely rendered architectural details with evocative atmospheric effects, though in a less convincing manner than do the naturalistic scenes by Canaletto.
Gianbattista Brustoloni (1712-96) fashioned 22 etchings (with a decorative frontispiece) based on works by Canaletto, Marieschi, Giovanni Battista Moretti, and other notable Venetian artists of the day. Published by Ludovico Furlanetto in Venice in 1763, the series met with considerable commercial success. Among the landmarks depicted are the Grand Canal, the Ducal Palace, the Rialto, and the church of San Giovanni and Paolo with Verrocchio’s Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni. But despite their intriguing subject matter and often superb compositions, these prints lack the vitality and coherence of the virtuosic Canalettos.
In the late 1770s, Furlanetto again enlisted Brustoloni to etch a set of 12 scenes illustrating the Ducal Festivals — ceremonies involving the “doge“, head of the republican government, and his Venetian court. Brustoloni again used designs by Canaletto (10 of the original drawings with watercolor are known). The prints accurately depict the extravagant pageants and the settings in which they occurred: the coronation takes place atop the famed Scala dei Giganti in the Ducal Palace courtyard, processions pass through the Piazza San Marco and the Piazzetta, and the doge and his retinue appear in the Great Council Chamber, the cavernous hall in which the legislative assembly convened. In this image, on the brightly illuminated left wall, are seen history paintings commemorating Venetian diplomatic triumphs, while covering the distant end wall is the great Paradiso by Tintoretto, the largest painting on canvas in the world.
Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) later copied this suite for his painting series on the Ducal Festivals. A master of Venetian vedute in his own right, Guardi invented compositions that themselves served as prototypes for printers. For example, three etchings by Antonio Sardi (1733-1817), included in the exhibition, derive from Guardi’s views of events in the vicinity of Piazza San Marco. Guardi was the last great view painter of eighteenth-century Venice.
But, “Views of Venice” is more than a preview of the Metropolitan’s Canaletto show. In addition to the works by Canaletto and his contemporaries, there is a 1492 woodcut from the Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg, 1493), a history of the world that could ill do without a view of the illustrious Venetian republic. Though the artist economized by using the same woodblocks for portions of different cities, for Venice he created a fairly accurate scheme. Perhaps Venetian architecture was too well known to fudge.
Somewhat less archaic are two perspectival views from late sixteenth-century atlases. One showing the city and the lagoon first appeared in a 1574 Venetian gazetteer, and was reissued independently in 1594, with a list of the doges on one side and a chronology of the city’s history on the other.
An early seventeenth-century engraving by Andrea Piazza, printed by the Scolari family in 1662, records the annual Fist Fight on the Bridge of San Barbara, a peculiar local ritual in which the citizens reenact the tenth-century battle in which kidnapped Venetian women were rescued from their captors. The image shows the titular bridge crowded with rather stiffly-drawn, brawling participants, many of whom are tossed into the canal below. The smiling onlooker in the foreground, who turns toward the viewer and points to the free-for-all, may be a self-portrait of the artist.
As many of the publishers of Venetian vedute were cartographers, it is appropriate that the exhibition includes a mural-scaled map of Venice, issued in 1729 by Furlanetto, which names all the canals and streets of the city, and is embellished by 16 hand-colored border views of significant landmarks.
Crowning the exhibition are thirteen etchings by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). In 1879, the American-born expatriate was commissioned by the Fine Art Society of London to spend three months in Venice making a dozen etched views to be sold by subscription. Fourteen months later, he returned with nearly fifty etchings, most of which were issued in two successive editions.
The first, published in 1880, consisted of 12 images, and the second, published six years later, totaled 26. Four from the earlier and nine from the second set are on view. Many were printed by the artist himself on antique oriental and Dutch papers. Whistler varied the amount of ink used, and sometimes left ink not only in the grooves, but on the surface of the plate in order to create wash-like effects. Therefore, though the prints are multiples, each impression is essentially unique.
Whistler brings the unceremonious schemes and evocative colorism of Canaletto to a new intensity, one possible only with the advent of Impressionism. He chose to picture the less monumental, more intimate features of the city, emphasizing the musty decay of ancient stonework rising from the canals, and isolated waterfront doorways framing laborers within. Several scenes are mysterious nocturnes, with radiant, Rembrantesque chiaroscuro, while others, with angled foregrounds and high horizons, show only a few elements distributed across the sheet with a spareness evocative of the Japanese album leaves and prints he admired.
To print collectors, the size of the margins surrounding an image is often of considerable importance; to focus the connoisseurs’ attention solely on his art, Whistler employed an unusual practice: he trimmed away the margins leaving only a small tab on which he drew his “butterfly” signature.
“Views of Venice, 1492-1880” continues at Pace Master Prints, 32 East 57th Street, through December 9. A catalogue includes reproductions of many of the images, and notes on the provenance and condition of each. For further information call (212) 421-3688.
Piranesi and his Contemporaries
Like Venice, 18th-century Rome was a stop on the Grand Tour, and an essential experience for every educated person in Europe, particularly for artists. In Rome, the relics of antiquity, the achievements of the Renaissance, and the splendors of the Baroque beckoned to all who would know mankind’s aesthetic accomplishments. An exhibition at the Morgan Library, “Exploring Rome: Piranesi and His Contemporaries,” presents approximately 70 drawings of the Eternal City and the campagna executed by 18th- and early 19th-century Italian, French, and English artists.
The focus of the exhibition is the work of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-78), the Venetian-born architect, antiquarian, and draftsman whose prints of Roman themes were proliferated throughout Europe stimulating the Neoclassical movement. The Morgan owns the largest collection of Piranesi drawings in the world, of which around 30 sheets are on display.
Piranesi had both a documentary and an imaginary aspect. He made detailed drawings of antique lamps, masks, decorative objects, and buildings; he studied and recorded the recently excavated sites of Herculaneum and Pompeii; and as a practicing architect, he completed designs for remodeling several Roman churches.
But, he invented also fantastic, Imperial-architectural scenes with colossal, marble temples overlooking crowded plazas dotted with commemorative statuary and obelisks.
Perhaps Piranesi’s most famous works are his “Carceri d’invenzione” (1745 and early 1760s), which depict chains, spiked wheels, and other instruments of torture in cavernous stone dungeons from whose mammoth, timber infrastructures swing chandeliers and menacing pulleys.
And even more bizarre are his “capriccios”, wild scenes with beasts and satyrs disporting amidst fallen columns and overgrown ruins. Fraught with mystery and melancholy, these gloomy environs were intended to conjure the spirit of the Roman past much as the architectural fantasies were meant to capture the lost grandeur of the city’s urban fabric.
One of Piranesi’s contemporaries who also produced views for the souvenir trade, was Paolo Panini. His veduta of the Great Vaulted Portico of the Villa Albani is rendered with astonishing finesse, not only in the architectural drafting, but in the subtle shading, as well. Cardinal Albani, one of the premier collectors of his day, filled the niches of his portico with antique statues from his collection, which was acquired with the assistance of his librarian, J. J. Winckelmann, one of the leaders of the Neoclassical movement.
Pensioners at the French Academy in Rome, including Jean-Honoré Fragonard, Hubert Robert, and Louis-Jean Desprez, were taught by Panini and influenced also by Piranesi. Desprez’s Fantastic Interior with Torture Scene imitates Piranesi’s “Carceri”, while Robert so enjoyed depicting antique sites that he acquired the nickname “Robert des ruines.” His student sketchbook includes some handsome red chalk drawings of the half-buried Arch of Titus in the Roman forum, the Greek temples at Paestum, and an assortment of other noteworthy sites.
Though somewhat out of the architectural context of the show, Fragonard’s superbly adept brushwork in his sympathetic Portrait of a Neapolitan Girl, loaned by Mr. and Mrs. Eugene V. Thaw, is one of the highpoints of the exhibition.
One of Piranesi’s sketching partners was the Scottish architect Robert Adam, whose Album of Landscape Compositions contains 39 drawings of Roman architectural details, sculptures, and picturesque landscapes. Upon his return to London, Adam championed the “archaeological-decorative” movement in interior design, a style infused with antiquarian motifs and dubbed the “Adams Manner.”
“Piranesi and His Contemporaries” continues at The Pierpont Morgan Library, 29 East 36th Street, through November 6. For further information call (212) 685-0008.
More Views of Rome
If the reader missed “Views of Rome: Drawings and Watercolors from the Vatican Library,” recently on view at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, he will be pleased to discover that virtually the entire exhibition is recreated in a luxurious, large-format volume. This catalogue (published by Scala Books in association with the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service) reproduces in full color each of the exhibition’s 85 works, which date from the 16th to 19th centuries, and provides literary passages pertinent to each view. Among the commentaries brought to bear on drawings by Ferdinand Becker, Etienne Duperac, Jean Grandjean, Robert Wilson, and Claude Lorrain are passages by Byron, Dickens, Goethe, Hawthorne, Henry James, Florence Nightingale, Shelley, and the Marquis de Sade.
Among the pictorial highlights are the numerous pen and grey ink wash views by Becker, the rooftop panorama by Duperac, the unexcavated Colosseum as depicted in a watercolor by Jakob Philipp Hackert, and Claude’s luminous view of the Ponte Salario. The pictures are grouped by subject, with special attention paid to the construction of Saint Peter’s, the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo, the Colosseum and other monuments in the Forum, and Hadrian’s gardens at Tivoli.
The works were selected from the Ashby Collection, formed by the first Director of the American Academy in Rome, Thomas Ashby (1874-1931), a scholar of Roman archaeology and topography who assembled about 6,000 prints and 1,000 drawings, as well as maps for the purpose of studying the history of the Eternal City. In 1933, his widow sold the collection to the Vatican Library, fulfilling her late husband’s wish. Though they were gathered for their documentary interest, the portrayal of the changing city and its environs is often marked by great beauty.
The exhibition will travel to Santa Barbara, Chicago, Washington, and Montreal. To order the book “Views of Rome from the Ashby Collection in the Vatican Library” call 1-(800)-638-3030.
Jason Edward Kaufman ©
This article appeared in New York City Tribune, Oct. 31, 1989, p. 16.