Chapter V: Paintings of San Marco and Chapter VI: Late Period in Venice

Canaletto traveled back to Venice for short visits in 1751 and 1753, and finally returned there from England for good in 1755. By the time he returned, his nephew Bellotto was making a name for himself, and Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) was also gaining popularity as a view painter. When exactly he painted Piazza San Marco: Looking South-West (Fig. 18) is not known, but it probably was after 1755 and was likely an attempt to impress the Venetian Academy of Fine Art.[1] What is different about this painting in comparison to his other fantastic pictures, is that he is using a “fish-eye” effect in order to compress a very broad panorama into a single view. The scene stretches from the Palazzo Ducale and San Marco at the left to the Procuratie Vecchie at the right.[2] It is most likely that Canaletto used a lens to accurately show the distortion of space and the buildings in it.[3] The cluster of vertical, diagonal, and horizontal lines creates a stable composition, and the colors he uses are still bright, as the figures and architecture are flooded with sunlight.

In the late 1750s, Canaletto painted Piazza San Marco: Looking East from the North-West Corner (Fig. 19), which compares most closely to his painting of the Westminster Bridge (Fig. 13) from his trip to London.[4] He employs the same technique of framing the foreground with an overhanging arch, so that the main subject of the scene in the distance can be seen through its rounded form. Because Canaletto has purposely darkened the foreground, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the sunlit space beyond. He has chosen to feature San Marco without the flagstaffs that would normally be seen, in order to place full emphasis on the architecture and design of the façade.[5] He continues his geometric style in this painting, by contrasting the domes and rounded spaces with the straight, vertical structures. Also noticeable is his use of dots and tiny curved lines to highlight small details on the figures in the piece. This is known as his late “calligraphic” style, which he adopted after his return to Venice to add a touch of sparkle and life to them.[6]

A different angle of the piazza is shown in his Piazza San Marco: Looking East from the South-West Corner (Fig. 20). The preliminary drawing of circa 1760 (Fig. 21) shows an extended view that Canaletto chose not to include in the final painting, but most likely used as a prototype for other paintings of the piazza. Featured are the Campanile and San Marco underneath the colonnade of the Procuratie Nuove.[7] Although the architecture is prominent, what draws the viewer’s attention directly is the cluster of people in the foreground. It is unknown who these men are, but they are actively engaging in a conversation. The man standing to the right mimics the upright figures elsewhere in the picture. He also holds a cup of coffee, suggesting that he was just at the Café Florian in the Piazza, but not shown in the painting. By including such a figure who is clearly enjoying the locale and the services found there, Canaletto may have been promoting the lively social scene in Venice.[8] He stands and faces to the left, drawing the viewer’s attention in the same direction, toward the sunlit open space and San Marco. Throughout his career, Canaletto had regularly worked outside, drawing from the motif, just as he had probably shown himself in two of the paintings discussed above (figs. 11 and 16). Even at this late point in his career, he was still working outside. In fact, the Reverend Edward Hinchliffe wrote that his grandfather and John Crewe, when in Venice in 1760:

…chanced to see a little man making a sketch of the Campanile in St. Mark’s Place: Hinchliffe took the liberty – not an offensive one abroad, as I myself can testify – to look at what he was doing. Straightway he discovered a masterhand and hazarded the artist’s name ‘Canaletti’. The man looked up and replied ‘mi conosce’.[9]


This suggests Canaletto’s increased popularity and recognition for his skill, especially for British visitors.

In 1763, Canaletto was accepted as a member of the Venetian Academy. It was the custom for an artist to present the Academy with a painting after he was admitted, and Canaletto chose to paint what would be his last capriccio scene.[10] It is called Capriccio: a Colonnade opening on to the Courtyard of a Palace, dated 1765 (fig. 22). The scene is entirely invented and the architecture creates a wonderfully effective contrast between diagonal, vertical, and horizontal lines. Especially beautiful is the intricate detailing along the shafts of the columns. The picture is a charming representation of a fantastic space, comprised of whimsical architecture and delicate detailing. The light highlights the left half of the picture, while the right remains shaded underneath the building. Although the architecture dominates the painting, Canaletto still includes a slice of his trademark bright blue sky and some green foliage. For this very important painting Canaletto wanted to show the Academy all his skill and inventiveness as a painter. Even though landscape and city scenes were not highly regarded as subjects by the Academy—history subjects and portraits were considered more prestigious for painters—Canaletto showed that his capriccio views were not just simple renderings of the world around him, but imaginative scenes that were more beautiful in composition and details than actual life. Canaletto showed with this painting that he was worthy of being a member of the Academy.

His last dated work is a drawing, completed 1766, titled San Marco: the Crossing and North Transept, with Musicians Singing (fig. 23). At the bottom of the paper, he wrote with pride, “I Zuane Antonio da Canal, made the present drawing of the musicians who sing in the ducal church of San Marco at the age of 68, without spectacles in the year 1766.”[11] It is clear that he has lost none of his abilities as an artist, despite the advanced age he acknowledges in his quote. In a painting done of the exact same view thirty-six years earlier, San Marco (An Evening Service) (fig. 24), he filled the composition with people, unlike in the drawing, where he has carefully shown just a few people, including a beggar with a dog and other figures.[12] The chorus sings enthusiastically while people below listen to them and pray, and the sun illuminates the interior of the basilica, touching upon the chorus, the hanging cross, and the crowd of people. In the later drawing, Canaletto takes more advantage of the open space, and does not choose to create such an upward composition. Instead, he focuses more on the figures as individuals and the details of the architectural decorations. Although the drawing is not completed in the same fashion as the painting, Canaletto still plays with the proportions of the composition, which is clearest in the differences in the height and width of the space in the two images. These two comparisons represent Canaletto’s lifelong battle in deciding how to portray his scenes. They are clear examples of his early versus his later styles and show how his style developed over the course of his career. What is “true” may not be visible in either work, but Canaletto still used his own inventiveness in completing both of them.[13]

[1]             Henry S. Francis, “Canaletto: Piazza San Marco, Venice,” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art (October 1962): 186.

[2]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 101.

[3]             Ibid., 103.

[4]             Jane Martineau and Andrew Robison, The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997), 86.

[5]             Ibid., 88.

[6]             Henry S. Francis, “Canaletto: Piazza San Marco, Venice” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art (October 1962): 190.

[7]             Detley Baron von Hadelin, “Some Drawings by Canaletto,” The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs (December 1926): 300.

[8]             Henry S. Francis, “Canaletto: Piazza San Marco, Venice” The Bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art (October 1962): 191.

[9]             Translating to, “you know me.” Links, 216

[10]             David Bomford, Venice through Canaletto’s Eyes (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 234.

[11]             Christopher Baker, Canaletto (London: Phaidon, 1994), 126.

[12]             Carl J. Weinhardt, Jr., “Canaletto: Master Etcher” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin (November 1958): 81.

[13]             Ruth Bromberg, Canaletto’s Etchings (San Francisco: Alan Wofsy Fine Arts, 1993), 44.

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