Gaspare Vanvitelli, or Gaspare degli Occhiali, as he was also known in Italy where he is first recorded in 1675, born Gaspar Adriaansz. van Wittel in Amersfoort, was incontestably the most influential vedutista of his generation in Italy. Like many northern painters he settled in Rome, where he would be based until his death in 1736. Other northern artists had responded to classical buildings in Rome and to the light of the Roman Campagna, but none had been systematically interested in topography. While Claude’s evocations of Italian landscape were informed by his close study of nature, Vanvitelli’s views were developed from the accurate and often very detailed drawings he made on his Italian journeys. By the early 1690s, he had learnt how most effectively to use these, replicating successful compositions as specific patrons or the market at large determined. He clearly understood that his patrons wanted accurate records of the major cities and other sites they had visited, and honed his art to that end. His successful exploitation of the genre was evidently registered by artists in Venice; and had a significant bearing there on the careers of Carlevarijs and Canaletto, and thus indirectly on those of Marieschi, Bellotto and Guardi. Panini in Rome was yet more directly indebted to Vanvitelli’s example.
The following views of Venice and Messina, with others of the Darsena at Naples (fig. 1; sold Sotheby's, London, 10 July 2003, lot 60, £1,909,600) and Rome with St. Peter’s seen from the Vigna di Santo Spirito (fig. 2; sold Sotheby's, London, 10 July 2003, lot 61, £2,021,600), formed part of a set of four commissioned by the French antiquary, Michel-Ange de La Chausse (1660-1724), almost certainly in 1712. The views of Venice and Naples are both dated 1712, and the latter is inscribed: ‘POUR MONSIEUR LE CHEVAL: LA CHAUSSE’, an apparently unique reference to a patron on Vanvitelli’s part.
De La Chausse was born in Paris, but settled in Rome, where he was to die. He served as the French consul in the city and was appointed a cavaliere of the Order of the Madonna Santissima di Monte Carmelo di San Lazzaro. In 1707, he succeeded the painter Charles Poërson as director of the French Academy in Rome, a post of equal prestige and influence. At once a committed scholar and a significant collector of antiquities, he in 1690 published a catalogue of his classical gems, Le Musée Romain, illustrated with engravings by Pietro Sante Bartoli (1615-1700), who had an European reputation for his work of the kind and had lived for a considerable period in Paris, and with a frontispiece reproducing the portrait of him by Carlo Maratta, then the most esteemed painter in Rome. De La Chausse also collaborated with Giovanni Pietro Bellori (1613-1696), now better known for his biographies of Italian artists than for his later studies of classical material, which in some respects anticipated the neo-classical revival of the following century. De La Chausse clearly had a role in helping French visitors to Rome. He issued a second lavish publication, Gemmes Antiques, in 1700 and was a correspondent and friend of the banker-collector Pierre Crozat (1665-1740), whom he may well have assisted on his visit to Rome in 1714 to negotiate the purchase for the Regent, Philippe, duc d’Orléans, of the picture collection of Queen Christina of Sweden, which had previously been offered unsuccessfully to several English noblemen.
De La Chausse married an Italian, Caterina Francesco Savini, but they had no children. The will he drew up on 1 May 1722 shows how carefully he had considered the disposition of his possessions. The set of four Vanvitellis was, with cameos, engraved stones, agates, portrait miniatures and other small works of art, bequeathed to the library of the convent of La Trinità dei Monti (’alla libraria del convent de’ medesimi Reverendi Padri’), whose correcteur general, Bertrando Monsinat was present on 7 September when an inventory was prepared after de La Chausse’s death.
His secretary Francesco Barat was left a pair of smaller views by Vanvitelli of the Arch of Titus and the Grotto at Posilipo, while his successor as consul, Giovanni Michele de Pressiat received a pair of oval views of Tivoli by the artist and other cameos were left to Crozat. The portrait of himself by Maratta was left to Monsinat, which is a further hint of the importance of the convent of the Trinità dei Monti to him. De La Chausse, however, left his library, very appropriately, to S. Luigi dei Francesi, the French church in Rome.
This exceptional view of Venice by Vanvitelli, the pioneering painter of Italian vedute, was evidently painted for the influential French scholar, Michel-Ange de La Chausse.
It is thought that Vanvitelli travelled in northern Italy before 1690. The earliest of his extant dated pictures of Venice, a view of the Molo (Madrid, Prado; G. Briganti, ed. L. Laureati and L. Trezzani, Gaspar van Wittel, Milan, 1996, no. 287) is of 1697: subsequent variants are dated 1706, 1707 and 1722, while seven are undated. This panorama, taken from near the Isola di San Giorgio, looking west, shows, from the left, the church of the Redentore and the Giudecca Canal, the Zattere, with the Dogana and the mouth of the Grand Canal, dominated by Longhena’s Santa Maria della Salute, and flanked by palaces beyond, Sansovino’s Libreria, the Piazzetta with the four further bays of the Ducal Palace, above which rises the Campanile of San Marco: the Bucintoro is anchored by the palace. The view remains remarkably unchanged, despite the addition of Massari’s church of the Gesuati on the Zattere and the reconstruction of some of the lesser buildings, but the Bucintoro has not been moored at the Molo since the fall of the Venetian Republic.
No fewer than four drawings showing the Salute from the same angle survive: one of the three in the Biblioteca Nazionale, Rome (Briganti, no. D337) would appear to have been drawn on the spot, perhaps using a device; while two others in the Biblioteca Nazionale and a sheet at Chatsworth (Briganti, nos. D343, 348 and 112) presumably followed this, and with the exception of no. D348, of which no illustration is available, these show the campanile of S. Maria della Carità in the distance on the left of the Grand Canal. For whatever reason, Vanvitelli omitted this from most of his pictures of the subject. The earliest of these, similar in width to this picture but or more panoramic format, at Petworth (Briganti, no. 302) is presumably of 1705, the date of its pendant. It was followed by a canvas dated 1710 of the same size as that under discussion in a Florentine collection (Briganti, no. 298), which only shows four bays of the Libreria and omits the Ducal Palace. Vanvitelli must have decided that his earlier composition was visually more satisfying. That this canvas is dated 1712 establishes beyond reasonable doubt that it preceded the variant of the same size at Holkham (Briganti, no. 300), which is part of a set done for Thomas Coke, later 1st Earl of Leicester, its companions in which are variously dated 1715, 1716 and 1717. The artist made two larger versions, respectively in Palazzo Colonna, Rome and in a collection at Prague (Briganti, nos. 301 and 302, the latter dated Roma 1721). He also painted a number of smaller variants of the left half of the composition (Briganti, nos. 304-7) as well as one larger one (Rome, Villa Albani; Briganti, no. 308), and four pictures and a gouache of the central section with the Salute and the Grand Canal (Briganti, nos. 309-13), in all of which the campanile of S. Maria della Carità does appear. Vanvitelli varied the boats and figures in all these pictures—one senses that he relished doing so; and this is the only one in which the Bucintoro is shown.
The Bacino, the most impressive point of arrival for visitors to Venice who arrived at the Piazzetta - seen on the right of this view and presided over by the twin columns of Saint Theodore and Saint Mark - afforded Vanvitelli a great expanse of water on which to exhibit his facility with the brush and ability to incorporate the anecdotal detail, no doubt captured in his fine drawings, that characterise his view painting. Reflections from the surrounding buildings sweep over the translucent water, notably the Salute’s dome, the landmark on Venice’s skyline that would later inspire Canaletto, Francesco Guardi and J.M.W Turner. Vanvitelli’s Bacino is punctuated with splashes of isolated colour to mark the flickering reflections of ships’ flags and the Bucintoro’s red canopy, the calm only disturbed by the oars of gondoliers and prows of boats, whose progress is masterfully described with touches of lead white. As Charles Beddington has observed, the artist’s importance as a precursor to Luca Carlevarijs, Canaletto and those that followed in this tradition is indisputable, and in works such as this outstanding canvas, Vanvitelli ‘heralds the beginning of the golden age of Venetian vedutismo with a fanfare’ (C. Beddington, Venice: Canaletto and his rivals, exhibition catalogue, London, 2010, p. 14).