Canaletto was one of the first artists fully to develop the capriccio as a major component in both his painted and his drawn œuvre. His first known painted capricci, in which he combines famous ancient ruins in fantasy settings, date from the 1720s (L. Whitaker, in Canaletto & The Art of Venice, exhib. cat., Royal Collection Trust, London, 2017, p. 129 and p. 259, fig. 51). It was not until the early 1740s, however, that capricci found their way into the artist’s drawings. Like his paintings, these works often combine known architectural elements, from Venice or Padua, for example, and sometimes from ancient monuments, but they are re-arranged and placed in imaginary settings. The increased number of drawn capricci in this period might be explained by the decline in painting commissions; the artist may have attempted to attract a new market.
In contrast to Canaletto’s accurate topographical views, his capricci show a highly imaginative and dreamy world. As described by Whitaker these scenes are ‘populated with figures oblivious to their venerable but dilapidated surrounding, creating a contrast between the lofty realms of the ancient past and the mundane present’ (ibid., p. 259). While imaginary, Canaletto’s capricci are in fact constructed very carefully. This is attested by a sketch in black chalk and pen and brown ink, measuring 20 x 28.5 cm and showing the same composition, now in the Fogg Art Museum (inv. 1932.332). That drawing is most likely a study for the present sheet, as first suggested by Constable (op. cit., no. 711, ill.). In the Fogg study Canaletto broadly laid out the composition, but it was only fully developed and finished in the present sheet; the trees and the figures on the monument, for example, are absent in the Fogg study. Despite the careful construction of the sheet, it does not lack Canaletto’s spontaneous treatment. On the contrary, the loosely applied grey washes, the curly lines in brown ink in combination with the white of the paper create a fresh and lively composition -- characteristics that are typical of the artist's mature period.
Canaletto's capricci often show compositions with strong diagonal features, as is the case here, where the viewer is drawn into the composition via the ancient monument to the left, before the eye is drawn to the water-mill in the background. Similarly constructed compositions can be found in two drawings, also comparable in size and technique, in the Victoria & Albert Museum (inv. CAI.421 and CAI.423). Another closely comparable sheet, measuring 24 x 38.7 cm, can be found in the British Museum (inv. 1910,0212.24). A sheet that shares its vibrant quality, original composition and technique with the present drawing, is in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (inv. KdZ 4615; Constable, op. cit., no. 699, ill.) and Anna Bozena Kowalczyk considers this one of the artist's drawn masterpieces from 1760-1765 (A. Bozena Kowalczyk, Canaletto: Rome, Londres, Venise. Le triomphe de la lumière, exhib. cat., Aix-en-Provence, Hotel de Caumont, 2015, no. 39). She has pointed out that both sheets are heightened with white, a technique that Canaletto occasionally used between 1760 and 1766, particularly in the Doge's festival series from 1763-1766. As the present drawing is so close in technique to those drawings added to the fact that it shows Venetian terraferma and lagoon motives, she suggests that the drawing could possibly be dated to 1763-1766.
We are grateful to Charles Beddington and to Anna Bozena Kowalczyk for confirming the attribution after inspecting the drawing in person and for their assistance in cataloguing it.