Was Canaletto’s nephew the better painter?

The turbulent relationship between two great Venetian painters

Alastair Smart


Few artists are quite so synonymous with a particular place as Giovanni Antonio Canal (aka Canaletto) is with Venice.

For generations, first-time visitors to the city have experienced a sense of déjà vu due to their familiarity with his imagery – whether of gondoliers ferrying well-to-do passengers across emerald-green waters or honey-coloured Gothic palazzi exuding sun-drenched grandeur.

In a sense, Canaletto is Venice: the most serene painter of The Most Serene Republic.

He didn’t exist in a vacuum, of course. When it came to painters of Venetian vedute (topographical views) in the 18th century, he counted Luca Carlevarijs among his predecessors – and Francesco Guardi and Michele Marieschi among his peers.

Canaletto, Piazza San Marco Looking West, Venice, 1753 ca / oil on canvas,175,2 × 139,5 cm, Alnwick Castle, The Duke of Northumberland Collection (03327), © The Northumberland Estates 2016

Yet, as a new exhibition at Intesa Sanpaolo’s Gallerie d'Italia, in Milan, reveals, if any painter came close to matching him, it was his own nephew Bernardo Bellotto.

Canaletto was as adept financially as he was artistically, canny enough to cash in on the myriad English aristocrats descending upon Venice as part of their Grand Tour and in the market for a portable souvenir.

Aptly for the son of a theatre set designer, he was well aware that all of Venice was a stage; that, even though its days as a maritime power were over, it could still pretend otherwise through the pomp of its regattas and carnivals. Canaletto kept up the charade in his dazzling paintings.

Bernardo Bellotto, The Grand Canal with the Rialto Bridge from the South, Venice, 1740 ca, oil on canvas
45 x 76 cm, Paris, Institut de France, Musée Jacquemart André (MJAP-P 577-1) © Culturespaces-Musée Jacquemart-André

The vedute were in such high demand that by the mid-1730s, he had to employ a studio of assistants – Bellotto becoming chief among them. Having trained under uncle Giovanni Antonio, Bellotto soon mastered his style so completely that many of his own Venetian paintings have, over the years, been erroneously attributed to Canaletto.

His posthumous reputation hasn’t been helped by the fact that he signed a number of his works “Il Canaletto”. For a long time, he struggled to emerge from his relative’s great shadow.

The bank's temporary exhibitions are always milestones of scholarship and study in the great story of Italian art

– Michele Coppola
Intesa Sanpaolo’s head of cultural activity

Really until now, one might say. The exhibition Bellotto & Canaletto: Wonder and Light, held at Gallerie d’Italia di Piazza Scala, presents the pair – finally – as equals and displays multiple works by them side by side.

There were actually a number of differences between the duo. The art historian Charles Beddington, for instance, identified their rendering of clouds as one: Canaletto’s are more like “cotton wool”, Bellotto’s like “scraped icing sugar”.

Bernardo Bellotto, Dresden from the Left Bank of the Elbe, the Palace on the Left, the Catholic Hofkirche Streight Ahead, 1748, oil on canvas, 133 x 235 cm, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden (608), © 2016. Foto Scala, Firenze/bpk, Bildagentur fuer Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte, Berlin

More importantly, the latter lacked the former’s lightness of touch and favoured a greater contrast between light and shade. Bellotto’s palette was darker than Canaletto’s – something which made him more naturally suited to the climes of Northern Europe, for which he left Italy for good in 1747, aged 25.

It was in Dresden, at the invitation of Augustus II, Elector of Saxony – and later in Munich, Vienna and Warsaw – that he really came into his own. He became a townscape painter of major quality.

His views of Warsaw were considered so accurate that they were even used by planners reconstructing historic sections of the city after the Second World War, around 90 per cent of the Polish capital having been destroyed.

Bernardo Bellotto, The Wilanòw Palace from the Garden, 1777, oil on canvas, 117 x 164 cm, The Royal Castle in Warsaw – Museum (ZKW/460), Foto di / Photo by Andrzej Ring, Lech Sandzewicz

“Bellotto tends to keep things more real, while Canaletto was more prone to idealise,” says exhibition curator Anna Bozena Kowalczyk. “We aim to show that, given the freedom to develop beyond his uncle’s orbit, Bellotto arguably surpassed even Canaletto’s achievements, combining a mastery of architecture and perspective with a lively sense of social interaction on the ground.”

According to Kowalczyk, the two painters also had different temperaments. “Accounts say Canaletto was good-natured,” she says, “while Bellotto was the opposite: moody and saturnine.”



Photo: Anna Bozena Kowalczyk, exhibition curator

Over the decades – as part of its commitment to cultural richness and civil society, and to the preservation and championing of Italy’s cultural heritage specifically – Intesa Sanpaolo has acquired an art collection of 20,000 pieces.

The works by Italian painters such as Canaletto are its highlights, thus making Gallerie d’Italia di Piazza Scala a most fitting location for this exhibition. Wonder and Light draws on loans from across the globe – including London’s National Gallery, St Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum and Dresden’s Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.

“Thanks to a long and meticulous process,” says Michele Coppola, Intesa Sanpaolo’s head of cultural activity, “we’ve managed to secure the loan of over 100 paintings, prints and drawings, many of them being exhibited in Italy for the first time.

“After our monograph exhibition devoted to the Romantic painter Francesco Hayez and also Beauty Regained – a show of recently-restored masterpieces by Caravaggio and Rubens among others – we’ve found in the vedute another fascinating subject for a Piazza Scala exhibition.”

In whichever of Intesa Sanpaolo’s three galleries they’re held – in Napoli, Vicenza or Milan – Coppola stresses the bank’s temporary exhibitions are “always milestones of scholarship and study in the great story of Italian art”.

Bernardo Bellotto, The Castello Sforzesco, Milan, 1744 ca, oil on canvas, 61 x 97, 5 cm, The National Heritage Institute, Regional Historic Sites Management in České Budějovice, Castle Náměšť nad Oslavou


Not that Wonder and Light is in any way a dry, art-historical exercise of compare and contrast – or “spot the Bellotto”. Kowalczyk and her team have delved into the personal relationship between uncle and nephew – and found that, according to some reports, it wasn’t wholly harmonious.

Realising that the best way of gaining wealthy aristocrats’ commissions was actually to visit England itself, Canaletto left Venice in 1746 – for nine years. An intriguing entry from the notebook of contemporary English engraver and art critic George Vertue mentions that a “puffed up” Bellotto had “disobliged his uncle, who cast him adrift”.

Was professional jealousy the reason Canaletto didn’t invite Bellotto (then still in his early twenties) with him to England? It has also been suggested that Canaletto personally recommended his nephew for the job at Augustus II’s court in a bid to put half a continent’s distance between them.

Whatever the truth, it did Bellotto no harm artistically to be his own man. His work in Dresden (and subsequently) is so purged of Venetian influence it’s remarkable. His scenes brim with incident, feasts of narrative detail that pull our eyes from point to point at will. They’re proof, if it were still needed, that Bellotto was so much more than a mere imitator.

Bellotto and Canaletto: Wonder and Light is on at Gallerie d’Italia di Piazza Scala, Milan, until 5 March, 2017

Cover photo:
Bernardo Bellotto
Piazza San Marco, Venice,
oil on canvas
136,2 x 232,5 cm
The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund (1962.169)
© The Cleveland Museum of Art

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