It is hard to believe that a painting so bold in its scale, so broad in its conception and so brilliant in its execution should have been painted by a teenager. But that is here the case. Taking a far smaller picture painted for the Duke of Marlborough by his uncle, Canaletto, as a starting point, the young Bellotto stamped his own persona on this splendid canvas whose beautiful condition allows us to relish every tile, every modulated surface, every ripple, the whole painted with the confidence and verve which was always Bellotto's hallmark.
This view shows a stretch of the Grand Canal particularly rich in Baroque and Neo-palladian buildings. On the right is Domenico Rossi's (1678-1742) sparkling white façade of 1709-10 of the newly rebuilt church of Sant' Eustachio, known in Venetian dialect as San Stae, surmounted by the sculptor Antonio Corradini's (1668-1752) statues of the Redeemer, Faith, and Hope. Against its far flank is the small Scuola dei Tiraoro e Battiloro (the guild of the gold drawers and beaters) of 1711, and beyond the Palazzo Coccina Giunti Foscarini Giovanelli is the magnificent Baroque fagade of Baldassare Longhena's (1596-1682) Ca' Pesaro, begun in 1652 and now site of the Gallery of Modern Art. The painting only hints at the presence of two small houses which separate this from the Palazzo Corner della Regina (in the depiction of which significant liberties have also been taken), reconstructed in 1724-7 by the same Domenico Rossi and clearly intended to rival the Ca' Pesaro, then nearing completion. The view stretches beyond to the Fabbriche Nuove di Rialto.
The subject was treated by Canaletto in two paintings measuring approximately 18½ x 30 5/8 in. (47 x 78 cm.) and datable to the second half of the 1730s (fig. 1). One, now in a London private collection, is from the series of twenty once owned by Sir Robert Grenville Harvey of Langley Park, Slough, now known to have been painted for the Duke of Marlborough (W. G. Constable, Canaletto, London, 1962, I, pl. 50, II, p. 309, no. 246). The other, sold at Christie's, London, 4 July 1997 (lot 120) and now in an American private collection, is of a slightly later date and is that engraved by Antonio Visentini for the 1742 edition of the Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum. (Constable and Links 1989, vol. 2, p. 309, no. 246(a)) In this painting the viewpoint is raised from that of a man standing in a gondola to a level perhaps eighteen feet above the water level, and the foreground boats and figures and the clouds are entirely different.
The present painting, for which Alice Douglas Pennant followed the traditional attribution to Canaletto with the observation 'This picture had always been called a Canaletto, but like many works so named is perhaps by his nephew, Belotto [sic],' was completely overlooked, its high quality being entirely obscured. The point of departure is clearly the earlier of Canaletto's two depictions of the view, which it follows quite closely in details such as the two gondola prows in the lower left corner, the poses of the two gondoliers in the left foreground and those of the two others in the moored gondola beyond, as well as, to a degree, in the form of the cloud bank above Ca' Pesaro. The sense of the monumentality of the buildings provided by the low viewpoint is further enhanced by the painting's considerably larger size. It is in no sense, however, a copy, numerous details reveal a fresh examination of the subject. While strongly Canalettesque, and illuminated by the same cold light which characterizes Canaletto's style at the end of the 1730s, the handling is unmistakably Bellotto's.
His is the juicy impasto, the calligraphy of the ripples in the water, the texturing of the brickwork at lower left and right, and the back-lighting of the boats and figures in the left foreground. The use throughout of incising to define the architectural forms and to catch the light, with the verticals carried on down (those marking the verticals of the dominant palazzo almost to the bottom edge) in order to play an important role in defining their reflections as well, is a hallmark of Bellotto's work at this moment in his development. Also characteristic of the artist's style in about 1740 are many of the figure and facial types, the latter with eyes in dark hollows set close together, the rendering of roof tiles in light and dark dots, the almost abstract patterning in horizontal striations of the distant clouds, and the impression that the boat sits on, rather than in, the water. Bellotto's youthfulness is particularly evident in the drawing of the urns in front of the church.
The provenance of the painting is, regrettably, unknown before it entered the collection of Edmund Higginson, one of the finest assembled in Britain in the nineteenth century. It is not recorded in the catalogue of Higginson's pictures published in 1842, nor in the sales of sections of the collection held in 1846 and 1860 (Christie's, London, 4-6 June 1846 and 16 June 1860). There seems no reason to doubt, however, the statement of Alice Douglas Pennant that the work was purchased privately from Higginson by her grandfather, Col. the Hon. Edward Douglas Pennant, later 1st Lord Penrhyn of Llandegai, in 1860, presumably through the great Belgian dealer C.J. Nieuwenhuys, Lord Penrhyn's chief adviser and source of pictures. Also from Higginson Lord Penrhyn acquired a Canaletto view of The Thames and Westminster from near the York Water Gate, which remains at Penrhyn Castle, and a pair of Venetian views sold in 1924 and now in a European private collection, which has recently been attributed to Bellotto (Constable and Links 1989, vol. 2, pp. 232, 292, nos. 95(b) and 219(a)). At the Saltmarshe sale of 1860 (lot 23) Nieuwenhuys purchased for Penrhyn another Canaletto (lot 23) which is apparently the impressive view of Piazza di San Marco still in the family collection (Constable and Links 1989, vol. 2, p. 190, no. 9). Penrhyn's fine group of views was completed by a late Canaletto of the Piazza di San Marco sold in 1924 and now in the collection of Dr. Gustav Rau, and a Bellotto of Campo San Stin which is still at Penrhyn Castle. The provenance of none of these paintings before Higginson and/or Penrhyn is known.
The present painting would seem to have remained in Venice for a time, as a full-size copy recently on the art market shows in the far distance, though subsequently painted over, the campanile of the church of San Bartolomeo in the form which it took in 1754. While that corresponds closely in small details of colour, both it and a smaller copy also recently on the market omit the sculptures on the pediment over the church door and the woman in the window on the far right, and include two additional figures in the right foreground (oil on canvas, 15 x 26 inches (38 x 66 cm); from the collection of the Hon. P. Elliot (nineteenth century); sold (with a pendant) at Wingett's, Wrexham, Clwyd, Wales, 21 February 1990, as attributed to Bellotto and subsequently with Rafael Valls Ltd; London).
The collection housed in the neo-Norman castle at Penrhyn (fig. 2) was one of the finest assembled in the British Isles in the nineteenth century. In addition to a superb group of eighteenth-century vedute it included seminal Dutch works from the seventeenth century, most notably Jan Steen's Burgher of Delft and Rembrandt's Portrait of Catherine Hoogsaet of 1651, like this, coincidentally, a painting formerly owned by Edmund Higginson.
We are indebted to Charles Beddington for his assistance; this entry is based on that which he wrote for the catalogue of the 2001 exhibition cited above.
We are also grateful to Bozena Anna Kowalczyk (written communication, 15 February 2007) for confirming the attribution to Bellotto from tranparencies. She points out there is a lost drawing by Bellotto, from his personal collection, presumably of the same or similar composition (see H.A. Fritzsche in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, as 'I Canal Grande mit S. Eustachio und Pal. Pesaro' in Bernardo Belotto genannt Canaletto, Burg b.M[agdeburg] 1936, p. 133, n. VZ 56).