by Roderick Conway Morris

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Museo Civico, Asolo
Capriccio of Ruins of a Roman Temple on the Shores of the Lagoon by Bellotto, 1742-43

The Artist Behind the Doppelganger

By Roderick Conway Morris
CONEGLIANO, Italy 14 January 2012


Bernardo Bellotto was his uncle Canaletto's most gifted student and, at the beginning of his career, his most adept imitator. Quite a number of pictures once attributed to Canaletto are now widely agreed to be by his nephew.

Bellotto's Venetian views make up a small proportion of his output, but have attracted a large part of the scholarly interest devoted to the artist, as experts have tried to resolve problems of attribution. This has greatly impeded a more general appreciation of Bellotto's whole oeuvre.

A further source of confusion has been Bellotto's borrowing of his uncle's name. The first known work that Bellotto signed as 'Canaletto' dates from 1747, after his uncle had departed the previous year for England to try his fortunes there and Bellotto had moved to Dresden. He continued to use 'Canaletto' as his name in art for the rest of his life, which he spent in Germany, Austria, and in Poland where he is still known as Canaletto. (While the true Canaletto was in England he was the target of malicious rumors, probably spread by rival English artists, that he was an impostor and the 'real' Canaletto was in Germany.)

Dario Succi, the curator of 'Bernardo Bellotto: The Canaletto of the European Courts,' which is showing at the Palazzo Sarcinelli in Conegliano through April 15, reflects this peculiar dopplegänger nomenclature in the subtitle of the current exhibition, while wisely including only two of Bellotto's Venetian view paintings and concentrating on the artist's distinguished 33-year-long career in Mitteleuropa after he left his native city.

Paradoxically, Bellotto adopted Canaletto's name only having broken free from his uncle's overwhelming influence and forged a distinctive style of his own. This transition, which came about during Bellotto's travels in Italy when he was in his early twenties, is tellingly witnessed here by two fantastical capricci of the Venetian lagoon with Roman ruins, and the broodingly atmospheric 'View of Villa Perabï-Melzi at Gazzada' painted between 1743 and 1744.

In these pictures, particularly in the view of the villa at Gazzada, the elements of Bellotto's mature style are evident. The palette is darker and colder than that of Canaletto, the contrast of light and shade more pronounced, and objects have already taken on a solidity more typical of those observed in the light and weather conditions north of the Alps.

Bellotto was summoned to Dresden by Frederick-Augustus II, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. There were already Italian architects, artists, designers, musicians and entertainers at work in Dresden, as Frederick-Augustus lavished large sums on transforming his capital in Germany into a European cultural center. The model was above all Venice, the new Frauenkirche being inspired by the Santa Maria della Salute on the Grand Canal, and Venetian gondola-builders were imported to construct suitable vessels to ply the waters of the Elbe.

The young artist's task was to immortalize Dresden in paint and engravings in the manner in which his uncle had defined the international image of the Serenissima's capital for Grand Tourists from all over the Continent. Bellotto was richly rewarded, receiving a jeweled purse containing 300 gold coins and a salary considerably higher than that of any of his fellow German artists. His new position gave him the opportunity to display not only his remarkable technical accomplishments but also an originality of approach in his views of Dresden and nearby towns, fortresses and landscapes.

His creation of a new outsized format measuring around 135 by 230 centimeters, or 53 by 90 inches, allowed him to create sweeping panoramic views rich in detail but grand in overall effect. Three of the finest of these from Dresden's State Art Collections are on loan to the exhibition. Displaying the artist's talents to the full, they are of the riverside port of Pirna near Dresden and its castle on a bluff above the town.

Impressively industrious, Bellotto managed to produce many more pictures over the same period than his uncle in England, who sometimes struggled to obtain commissions. During his time in Saxony, Bellotto painted 17 views of Dresden, 11 of Pirna and five of the fortress of Königstein for Frederick-Augustus, duplicating 21 of these for his prime minister Heinrich, Graf von Brühl. To achieve this he must have painted a large-format picture every twelve weeks, apart from many other private commissions and numerous engravings, over a score of which are also on show here.

The tranquil life of the towns and surrounding countryside celebrated in Bellotto's idyllic images was threatened by the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756. And the artist lost his principal patrons when Frederick-Augustus, along with Brühl, withdrew to the safety of his other capital, Warsaw.

Bellotto left his house and studio in Dresden and took to the road again, finding new commissions in Vienna to paint the palaces of the local nobility and imperial winter and summer residences.

From this time onward Bellotto began to include portrait likenesses of some of his patrons in the foreground of his pictures of their palaces, villas and gardens. One of the earliest examples, from 1759-60, is of the Prince Liechtenstein and his wife, with another lady, on a terrace of their magnificent villa, on loan from the current prince's collection.

Bellotto's panoramic views became ever more ambitious in scope - often skillfully combining more than one point of view in a single picture in order to encompass more than the human eye could, in reality, take in on the spot.

In 1761 the artist went on to Munich, where he painted a series of city and palace views, returning to Dresden at the end of that year.

The city had been bombarded and badly damaged by the Prussians in 1760, during Bellotto's absence. His house, studio and all but one of his engraving plates were destroyed. He recorded the shattered ruins of the tower of the Kreuzkirche in an arrestingly novel, realist painting, from which he also made an engraving, on show here. Although the court returned to Dresden in 1763, both its ruler and Brühl died within the year, and Bellotto found himself marginalized in the town's new artistic hierarchy.

In 1766 he set off for St. Petersburg in the hope of finding a position at the court of Catherine the Great. But on the way he paused in Warsaw, where the new king of Poland, Stanislas Poniatowski, offered him employment, making him official court painter two years later, a post the artist was to hold until his death in 1780.

During these years Bellotto created a unique record, illustrated here by examples from the Royal Castle in Warsaw, of not only the city but also its population, both high and low, in their palaces, in the streets and going about their rural tasks on Warsaw's outskirts. These canvases are estimated to contain around 3000 miniature portrait figures.

A series of Bellotto's views were given prominence in one of the principal chambers of the Royal Castle, hence known as the 'Canaletto Room.' When the castle, which was systematically dynamited by the Nazis, was rebuilt along with other monuments after the Second World War, Bellotto's painted images played a central role in the reconstruction of Warsaw's historic city center.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023