This intimate view of Venice, weatherbeaten and dilapidated, is one of Canaletto’s masterpieces. In the early morning sun, workmen chisel away at pieces of stone. Everyday life continues around them: a mother rushes to comfort her crying child, watched by a woman on the balcony above.
This square – the Campo San Vidal – was not usually a mason’s yard: it appears to have been temporarily transformed into a workshop while repairs are done to the nearby church of San Vidal. The church of Saint Maria della Carità and its campanile (bell tower) are visible on the far side of the Grand Canal.
Painted during the late 1720s, this is one of Canaletto’s finest early works. He has skilfully described various materials and textures: the crumbling plaster, exposed brick, and rough timber in a subtle range of colours. The buildings of different styles and heights, the animated figures and the areas of light and shadow in this theatrical picture may recall the stage sets Canaletto painted at the very beginning of his career.
This intimate view of Venice, weatherbeaten and dilapidated, is the subject of one of Canaletto’s masterpieces, which captures a real sense of the atmosphere of the city. It must be shortly after dawn: the sun is rising in the east and a cockerel crows on a windowsill to the left of this scene. Workmen chisel away at pieces of stone scattered across the foreground and in front of a simple wooden hut on the right.
This square – the Campo San Vidal – was not usually a mason’s yard: it appears to have been temporarily transformed into a workshop while repairs are done to the nearby church of San Vidal. The blocks of Istrian stone – a dense limestone commonly used for buildings in Venice – must have been brought by water to the square. Everyday life continues around the labouring stonemasons. To the left, a mother rushes to comfort her child who has fallen backwards, and is watched by both her daughter and the nosy neighbour airing the bedding out of the window above. On the balcony of the house to the right, a woman sits spinning yarn and observing the activity below. Beside the wooden hut, another woman scoops water from the well (which still exists in the square today). Sunlight catches intricate details, like the masons’ tools and the plant pots precariously balanced on the balcony to the right, and casts powerful shadows, with steep diagonals that define the depth of space and articulate the receding architecture.
Beyond the square is the Grand Canal, which appears rather less grand than usual when viewed from this angle. Canaletto’s paintings of the canal more often show its full breadth, making use of its natural perspective to lead our eye into the distance – see, for example, Venice: The Grand Canal with S. Simeone Piccolo. Here, gondoliers await their first passengers of the day, while one boat crosses the smooth green water. On the far side of the canal, a priest emerges from a doorway and women hang out their washing. Behind is the campanile (bell tower) and north side of the church of Saint Maria della Carità, with the facade of the Scuola della Carità in its shadow to the right. Among the jumbled roofs and chimneys is the white campanile of the church of San Trovaso. A mass of grey cloud looms overhead.
We view the scene from a high position on a level with the first-floor balconies, but Canaletto does not appear to have altered the topography or combined different viewpoints – as he did in many of his works, such as A Regatta on the Grand Canal – to achieve the ideal perspective. There are no preliminary drawings or other painted versions of this composition. The view has changed substantially since Canaletto’s lifetime. Today, it is dominated by a wooden bridge that crosses the canal from this point in the square; the church and Scuola now house the Accademia art gallery. The most dramatic change is the absence of Saint Maria della Carità’s campanile, which collapsed in 1744, demolishing the two small houses in front of it, and was never rebuilt. The facade of the Scuola Grande della Carità was replaced in 1760. Although the house on the far right still stands, the one to the left was demolished during the nineteenth century to give space to a garden for the Palazzo Cavalli.
Canaletto probably painted this work in the late 1720s when construction on the facade of San Vidal was nearing completion. A drawing by the artist of around 1730 (Royal Collection, Windsor Castle) shows the same group of houses that appear on the far right here, but the square is empty and the workman’s hut is absent. This is considered one of Canaletto’s finest early pictures, and the bold composition, the densely applied paint and the highly individualised figures are characteristic of his work of the mid- to late 1720s. During this period, he typically made use of a brick-coloured ground in some parts of the composition, which gives a richness and intensity to the final paint layers. By around 1730 he began to cover the entire picture with a uniform layer of grey or beige to produce a cooler, misty tonality. With skilful handling of paint he has described the crumbling plaster, exposed brick and rough timber in browns, ochre, reds and pinks – all are captured with brushstrokes that mimic the textures and materials they represent. The curtains blowing in the breeze, the weather-beaten stone and washing line in the distance were painted using touches of bright white impasto. The buildings of different styles and heights, the animated figures and the alternating areas of light and shadow may recall the stage sets Canaletto painted alongside his father at the very beginning of his career.
This view of the Grand Canal would probably not have appealed to tourists, who favoured the ‘picture postcard’ panoramic views of famous squares and landmarks for which Canaletto later became known, like The Basin of San Marco on Ascension Day. Although the early whereabouts of this painting remains a mystery, one theory is that it may have been made for a local Venetian. This painting was acquired in 1808 by Sir George Beaumont, an avid art collector and a driving force behind the creation of the National Gallery. It was officially bequeathed to the Gallery in 1828 as part of the Beaumont Gift and was the first Canaletto to enter the collection.
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