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Monday, August 6, 2012

Postcards by Canaletto

Giovanni Antonio Canal,
Portrait of Canaletto,
Antonio Visentini
In these, the first decades of the 21st century, we take travel and tourism for granted. What with planes, trains, and automobiles, not to mention motor homes, and cruise ships, even the "middle classes" can save a reasonable amount and take a week-long vacation almost literally anywhere in the world (or at least anywhere in the world the middle classes would want to vacation). Actually the term "vacation" is very much a 20th century term. Before it came the term "tour" which now, ironically, usually means a vacation side-trip of some sort. And "touring" was largely a manifestation of the upper-classes. For Americans, Europe was the most common touring destination, usually starting in either England or France, and ending in Italy. Germany and Holland were somewhat less popular. In Italy, the mandatory stops were Venice, Florence, Naples, and Rome. The bathers went to Capri. The adventurous headed for the picturesque beauty of the Italian Alps.

The Doge's Palace and the Riva degli Schiavoni, 1730s, Canaletto
What has all this to do with art? Well, often the art and architecture of France, and Italy especially, were the main drawing cards for these tours. And, in an age before picture postcards and genuine Italian/Chinese souvenirs, many of these wealthy globe trotters carted off the real thing--original oil paintings, Roman artifacts, sculpture, even whole rooms and buildings. It was a "buyer beware" market of course, and many an eighteenth and nineteenth century "robber baron" found themselves, when they got home, having paid good money for bad copies, but then, perhaps they got what they deserved.

St. Stephani Plaza at Midday, 1735, Canaletto also worked hand-in-hand with an engraver, Antonio Visentini, to satisfy the market for less expensive Venetian souvenirs.
In the area of painting, an entire cadre of painters (also engravers for the economy-minded) developed to satisfy the "Grand Tourist" desiring to take home a painted memory of Venice, Rome, or Naples. And in spite of the fact that they were essentially cranking out large-scale, high-class, picture postcards, many of them were really quite good. One of the best was Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. Born in 1746, in Venice, his work became so popular with British clients, his dealer (yes, even back then there were agents) arranged for him to spend nine years painting in England, the views of London and the nearby countryside presumably to satisfy those touring the British Isles. A typical Canaletto painting is not large, perhaps in the range of about 18"x30", no doubt to make them easy for the 18th century "tourist" to take home. And when we see them in reproduction today there is a very definite "picture postcard" quality to them--perfect perspective, perfect "sunny day" lighting, dramatic angles, and almost endless, exquisite, minute detail--all this on barely 4 square feet of canvas.
Westminster Bridge Under Construction from the South-East Abutment, 1747, Canaletto,
from his years in London, which he found similar in many ways to Venice
(except that the streets were less moist).

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