The Portico with the Lantern is one of a series of 34 etchings of Italian views produced by Canaletto over a ten year period, between 1735 and 1744. Some were topographically accurate, but most, such as the present work, were partly imaginary and partly inspired by the landscape surrounding Padua and the Brenta Canal. They were his first and only attempts at etching, a technique which he probably taught himself. Judging from his swift, loose marks and subtle variations of tone, it was one that he mastered very quickly.
The immediacy of direct drawing onto a copper plate must have come as a welcome relief to an artist whose success resided in the large scale production of highly finished, accurate paintings of Venice intended for well-to-do British tourists. He was also inspired by the etchings of his contemporaries Tiepolo and Marieschi, who had encouraged a recent revival of this form of printmaking in Italy. Freed from the constraints of depicting colour and physical likeness, Canaletto was finally able to concentrate on one of his most enduring concerns: the play of light and shadow. In the present composition, contrasts are achieved through an ingenious arrangement of a shady portico in the foreground, where a few pedestrians have gathered to seek shelter from the dazzling sun, giving way to wider spaces beyond, with open skies and a lagoon in the distance. The artist's innovative use of stopping-out varnish for the white blades of grass close the left pillar perfectly captures the intensity of the sun as it highlights them. The beauty of this print, and particularly the façade of the house at the front, lies in the combination of short tremulous lines and areas of blank paper, both of which recall the way in which light can dance across surfaces, making them shimmer, luminesce and vibrate.