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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Bernardo Bellotto

Copyright, Jim Lane
Bernardo Bellotto's San Giorgio Maggiore (left) San Giorgio today (right)
As a practicing "Europhile," it's always fascinating to explore the work of post-Renaissance artists with a similar predisposition toward painting virtually anything that doesn't move so long as it looks old and might be architecturally significant. The Venetian painter, Bernardo Bellotto, was one such artist. This type of painting is called Vedute, which translated means "views." Having just returned from Venice a few weeks ago, I first encountered his name and his work there in the city of his birth (1721). Little Bernardo was fortunate from birth. His mother was Fiorenza Canal, the sister of the famous urban landscape painter Canaletto, whose work is practically synonymous with Venetian art. Bernardo grew up to study in his uncle's workshop where he picked up all the best traits in his master's repertoire, though his palette is significantly darker and colder than that of his uncle. For us, perhaps the most important trait he picked up was his uncle's wanderlust. Canaletto ended up painting almost as much of London as he did Venice.

Copyright, Jim Lane
In Florence, surprisingly little has changed from Bellotto's vedute of the Signoria,
painted in 1745, and my photo from 2001.
In 1742, at the tender age of 21, the accomplished painter headed to Rome where he used what he learned from his uncle to record the look and feel of that great city. He was not above also using his uncle's name from time to time as well, sometimes signing his work Bernardo Canaletto. Hey, a career in art is a rough road, a guy's gotta play the hand he's dealt. Bernardo Bellotto stayed in Rome a couple years, painting all the important tourist venues of that time, then headed north, literally painting his way up the boot of Italy through Florence, toward Milan, eventually ending up in Dresden, (Germany today, but then part of Poland) where he found an appreciative benefactor in King August III. His work there preserved the beauty of the city lost during the extensive fire bombing of WW II.
Bellotto recorded the before and "during" as the old Kreuzkirche in
Dresden was mostly demolished in being "renovated."
From Dresden he move on to Vienna, Austria, at the invitation of the Empress Maria Theresa where he recorded that city for posterity as well. Then he moved on to Munich, then back to Dresden. When his friend, the king, died, he headed for St. Petersburg, Russia, at the invitation of Catherine II. He made a brief stopover in Warsaw to greet the new Polish King Stanislaw August Poinatowski. The "brief stop" turned into a sixteen-year stint as the court painter. Bellotto died in Warsaw in 1780, having never made it to Russia. However his paintings later did. After WW II they were returned to Poland where they were referenced in helping restore the city of Warsaw after its near destruction during the war.

Copyright, Jim Lane
It would appear Bellotto (left) with his camera obscura, may have had much the same
problems as I did with my digital camera in capturing Rome's Pantheon. His juxtapositioning of the drum to the portico is skewed to the left. My
version involved the knitting together of five separate images.
In comparing Bellotto's paintings of European urban "views" then and now, one comes to realize that Rome isn't the only "Eternal City" in Europe. I shot photos of many of the same vistas Bellotto painted. In fact, Bellotto may have used a camera-like contrivance called the camera obscura, (almost certainly used by his uncle) in accurately depicting Rome and the other cities he visited. Camera obscura, by the way, means "dark room," and may have been at least somewhat portable. By "portable" I mean it likely took two grown men to move it and probably consisted of a box-like framework covered with canvas. Take it from me, my digital "contrivance" is a vast improvement.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Bellotto's Doge's Palace waterfront from around 1740 (left)
and where we ate lunch, roughly the lower left corner in Bellotto's painting.

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