This distinguished pair of Venetian views by the youthful Bernardo Bellotto has, rather remarkably, not been mentioned in the extensive literature on the artist and his mentor, his uncle Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto. Although based on compositions by the latter these works demonstrate the precocious brilliance of Bellotto, who was only nineteen at the time they were painted in about 1740.
As both pictures and indeed the other Venetian views painted in his later teens demonstrate, Bellotto’s experience of reworking views devised by his uncle was central both to the evolution of his personal working methods and to the definition of his own artistic personality. The celebrated views of Lombardy and later of Dresden, Vienna and Warsaw developed as a direct result of what Bellotto had absorbed when interpreting compositions evolved by his uncle: in his response to these one immediately senses the bravura of his technique and his dramatic brilliance as a vedutista. The Entrance to the Grand Canal shows, from the left, the Dogana, Longhena’s great church of Santa Maria della Salute, the medieval church of San Gregorio with the monastic buildings beside the canal, its façade seen from the back, a sequence of palaces with the now demolished tower of the Palazzo Venier delle Torreselle, and, in the distance, the campanile of Santa Maria della Carità: opposite, on the right, is the Palazzo Badoer Tiepolo, to the left of which is a campanile. The companion view, taken from close to the north side of the Grand Canal, shows from the left the Ca’ da Mosto, then the Albergo del Leon Bianco where so many distinguished visitors stayed, and the adjacent Palazzo Dolfin, both medieval (an extra arch is added on the first floor of the latter), and after a sequence of lower buildings the recently-built Palazzo Civran, designed by Antonio Massari, the predecessor of the Palazzo Ruzzini, the Fondaco dei Tedeschi and the building beside the Rialto Bridge, designed like this in 1588 by Antonio da Ponte, with behind the former the campanile of San Bartolomeo al Rialto: to the right of the bridge are three major 16th-century buildings, the end of Antonio dei Grigi’s Palazzo dei Camerlenghi, its lateral façade caught in sunlight, the Fabbriche Vecchie di Rialto and five bays of the Fabbriche Nuove.
From a remarkably early age, Bellotto reworked compositions devised by Canaletto to singular effect, developing a technique that was looser and therefore less time-consuming than his uncle’s, and evolving a rich tonal palette that is readily distinguishable from the latter’s. The small group of Venetian views accepted as by Bellotto in Stefan Kozakiewicz’s monograph of 1972 has been significantly augmented more recently by Charles Beddington, Bozena Anna Kowalczyk, and others.
The Entrance to the Grand Canal perfectly exemplifies Bellotto’s method. The composition was based on the refined picture by Canaletto, which was bought by Consul Smith (Windsor, Royal Collection; W.G. Constable, J. Links ed., Canaletto, Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768, Oxford, 1989, no. 161), and was engraved with exacting precision by Antonio Visentini in 1735 (fig. 1; Prospectus Magni Canalis Venetiarum, VI). As usual Bellotto’s canvas is rather larger than that of his uncle’s, which measures 47.6 by 78.7 cm. The architectural detail follows Canaletto’s very closely, as does the general arrangement of the boats. However, the detail of these is changed in numerous respects: on the extreme left Bellotto brought forward the stern of the gondola and eliminated two boats that were in front of it; the oars of the sandalo are shown in various positions and thus not aligned as in the prototype; the clothes of the gondolier in the central vessel, like those of many of the other figures, is altered; the gondola to the right of this is reduced in length, and the boat behind this is much closer to it; and Bellotto introduces the stern of an extra gondola on the right, as if to answer that opposite, presumably because the companion composition was ‘framed’ in this way. Bellotto’s reflections on the water are notably more dramatic than those in his uncle’s picture; and the luminous light clouds too are his, overlying the diagonally laid in ground that is so characteristic of his early work.
The present picture is clearly more mature than another treatment of the subject, also based on the Windsor composition, obtained by James Harris in 1743, which Bozena Anna Kowalczyk dates to 1738 (Canaletto e Bellotto, L’arte della veduta, exhibition catalogue, Turin, Palazzo Bricherasio, 2008, pp. 58-9, no. 2): this in such details as the striped awning on the sandolo adheres more closely to Canaletto’s prototype. The more sophisticated picture under discussion can be more plausibly assigned to the period 1739-40.
The view of The Grand Canal from the Ca’ da Mosto, which is evidently of the same period, was also evolved from a prototype by Canaletto. The picture in question, one of a set of four painted in about 1737 for Charles Powlett, 3rd Duke of Bolton, was sold by his descendant at Christie’s, London, 27 June 1975, lot 6 (fig. 2; Constable, no. 240*). It measures 58.4 by 92.7 cm. and is thus very similar in scale to Bellotto’s rendition. Bellotto adhered not only to the architecture of the original but to the general pattern of the boats, although Bellotto rather characteristically enlarged some of these, most obviously the central gondola and that diagonally behind it. Equally characteristic of Bellotto is the enhanced drama of his reflections, most obviously that cast by the shaded façade of the Palazzo dei Camerlenghi almost at the centre of the composition. Bellotto evidently worked from the characteristically schematic outline drawing at Darmstadt (Hessisches Landesmuseum, inv. no. AE 2187; S. Kozakiewicz, Bernardo Bellotto, London, 1972, II, p. 437, no. Z 202; M. Bleyd, Bernardo Bellotto genannt Canaletto, Darmstadt, 1981, no. 4, dated 1735-8). A further picture first attributed to Bellotto as early as 1907, formerly in the Rudolf Kann and Henry P. Oppenheimer collections, sold at Christie’s, London, 21 June 1968, lot 87 and subsequently at Christie’s, New York, 15 June 1977, lot 92, corresponds very closely with that under discussion: the measurements are recorded as 58.4 by 92.7 cm. (Constable, no. 240 (c), as ‘improbably by Bellotto’; Kozakiewicz, no. 16, as Bellotto; B.A. Kowalczyk, Bernardo Bellotto, 1722-1780, exhibition catalogue, Houston, MFA, 2001, pp. 92-3, no. 16; C. Beddington, ‘Bernardo Bellotto and his circle in Italy. Part I: not Canaletto but Bellotto’, The Burlington Magazine, CXLVI, October 2004, pp. 666-7, fig. 16).
Canaletto himself was averse to repetition. So it is perhaps instructive to consider why Bellotto chose to use the composition of the Bolton picture, rather than the smaller canvas from the Marlborough series (New York, Mrs Charles Wrightsman; Constable, no. 240). The latter is taken from a position somewhat to the left, with the result that the Cà da Mosto is seen in very deep recession, and the Fabbriche Nuove are seen from further away and thus do not balance the palaces opposite so easily. Bellotto, who doubtless knew how important pairs of pictures were to the decorative schemes of contemporary patrons, clearly understood that the Marlborough composition—devised for one of a series of twenty-one canvasses—would have worked less well as a pendant to the Entrance to the Grand Canal than that of the Bolton picture.
While the identification of these pictures as the two sold by Lord Stratford de Redcliffe cannot be proved, no other view of the Grand Canal with the Salute would seem to have been paired with one showing the Rialto. Moreover, the collection of the family who acquired the present two pictures was largely formed at the period in question. Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, who was substantially responsible for Britain’s policy towards the Ottoman Empire for much of the mid-19th century, was not primarily interested in pictures and did not own a substantial collection.