When Bernardo Bellotto (1721-80) arrived in Verona sometime between 1744 and 1745, it seemed he had found a subject befitting his talent. He made several drawings on the spot, which he later worked up into finished paintings in his studio in Venice.
On 8 July one of these works, View of Verona with the Ponte delle Navi, will be offered in the Old Masters Evening Sale in London. The painting depicts the busy Ponte delle Navi bridge across the Adige river, its green waters populated by a number of boats.
‘It is staggering to think he was still only in his mid-twenties when he executed this painting,’ says Christie’s Old Masters specialist Clementine Sinclair. ‘He clearly had huge ambition.’
‘It marks a highpoint in the career of Bernardo Bellotto. It is a picture that defined his artistic vision’ — specialist Henry Pettifer
One of the incidental pleasures of the scene is Bellotto’s inspired use of shadow, which adds drama to the picture. ‘He was incredibly clever at manipulating light to animate the composition and define the sense of space,’ says Sinclair.
‘He was also excellent at anecdotal detail. No matter how tiny or cursory the figures, you can still imagine them breaking into movement.’
Christie’s head of Old Masters Henry Pettifer says that the work is ‘painted on an epic scale’ and one of the very last monumental canvases by the artist that is still in private hands.
The magnificent scale of this painting was unprecedented in Bellotto’s work, and it set the course of his subsequent development at the courts of Dresden, Vienna, Munich and Warsaw.
The prodigiously talented nephew of Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768), Bellotto is celebrated as one of the greatest topographical view painters, instrumental in the development of the genre across Europe in the 18th century.
By the age of 16, Bellotto had mastered his uncle’s style so convincingly that his paintings were sometimes misattributed to his more famous relative. Outside Italy he signed his works de Canaletto, and hence became known as Canaletto, which further complicated issues of attribution in the 19th century.
In the 1740s, the War of the Austrian Succession deterred Grand Tourists from journeying across Europe, which made it difficult for Bellotto to sell his paintings. In 1747 he left Venice for Dresden, where he became court painter to Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony (1696-1763).
Examples of the monumental paintings he made of the city are now held at the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden, and one of Bellotto’s major German works, The Fortress of Königstein from the North (c. 1756-58), below, was purchased by the National Gallery in London in 2017.
After the death of his patron in 1764, Bellotto set out for St Petersburg in the hope of securing the patronage of Catherine the Great. An invitation from the new King of Poland, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski (1732-98), however, enticed the artist to Warsaw, where he remained for the rest of his life.
Bellotto holds a special place in the affections of the city’s inhabitants: the beautiful topographical paintings of 16th-century Warsaw that he made with a camera obscura were so accurate that they were used almost 200 years later to reconstruct key locations in the historic centre, which German forces had razed to the ground in 1944. Today there are copies of his paintings on street corners.
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Bellotto’s early painting of the Ponte delle Navi in Verona helped to set a precedent for those later magnificent cityscapes.
‘It marks a highpoint in the career of Bernardo Bellotto,’ says Pettifer. ‘It is a picture that defined his artistic vision and shaped the extraordinary pan-European success he went on to enjoy as a topographical view painter.’