The twin towns of Vaprio and Canonica, at the confluence of the Rivers Adda and Brembo and the Naviglio Martesana, between Milan and Venice, were at a convenient distance from Milan to provide summer residences for members of the Milanese aristocracy. Vaprio in particular was one of the most popular beauty spots on the Adda. Leonardo da Vinci spent much time there in the years 1507-13 as the guest of the family of his beloved pupil Francesco Melzi, whose descendants still own the villa shown surrounded by cypress trees towards the left in the present picture. The place's attractions were noted by Madame du Bocage, who stayed there in 1757: 'une orangerie en terrasses qui s'étend le long du chateau, y regne sur un canal navigable pour tout le commerce de Milan; & trente pieds au dessous, chose rare, coule l'Adda, rivière qui n'est séparée du canal supérieur que par un mur de douze pieds d'épaisseur. Au bord de l'autre rive, s'élevent deux villages pleins de jolies maisons: au-delà une riche plaine, de bois & de riants côteaux mènent en cercle l'oeil aux Alpes, dont le sommet couvert de neige entremêlée de nuages, forme dans le lointain le plus admirable tableau' (Anne Marie Lepage Piquet Madame du Bocage, Recueil des Oeuvres, III, Lyon, 1762, pp. 142-3, quoted by Olivari, op. cit., p. 76).
Eleven views by Bellotto of Lombardy are currently known, all generally assumed to have been painted in 1744. These include the celebrated pair of views of La Gazzada in the Brera (S. Kozakiewicz, Bernardo Bellotto, London, 1972, nos. 90-1; nos. 17-18 in the 1990 exhibition cited above) and a replica of one of these in the Kunsthaus, Zürich (C. Klemm, The Paintings of the Betty and David M. Koetser Foundation, Zürich, 1988, pp. 148-9, no. 64). Three are views of Milan, showing the Castello Sforzesco, in the Castle of Namest, near Oslavou in the Czech Republic (Kozakiewicz no. 82; no. 16 in the 1990 exhibition); the churches of Sant'Eufemia and San Paolo Converso, in a Milanese private collection (Fig. a; sold in these Rooms, 30 November 1973, lot 101, and subsequently included in the exhibition Art Venetien en Suisse et au Liechtenstein, Pfäffikon and Geneva, 1978, p. 187, no. 167; see also the catalogue of the 1990 exhibition, pp. 24-5); and the recently rediscovered view of the Palazzo dei Giureconsulti and the Broletto Nuovo (exhibited at Milan, Galeria Salamon, Inverno '91, no. 7, and Padua, Palazzo della Ragione, Luca Carlevarijs e la veduta veneziana del Settecento, 1994, no. 88). The remainder, no less than five pictures, show Vaprio and Canonica. Apart from the present painting, these form two pairs, one now divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Kozakiewicz no. 83; no. 13 in the 1990 exhibition) and the heirs of Mario Crespi, Milan (Kozakiewicz no. 87), the other sold by the Abercorn Heirlooms Settlement in these Rooms, 13 December 1991, lot 100.
The Abercorn pictures, which measure 47 x 71cm., are the only works in the group not of approximately 65 x 90cm. The present painting is a large version of one of the pair, differing from it in the clouds, in showing two figures rather than one on the riverbank, and in providing the elegant couple in the foreground with a parasol. In these respects it - rather than the Abercorn version - corresponds with a preparatory drawing at Warsaw (Fig. b). It may thus be the first version although, as Martini points out, loc. cit., no other signed painting by Bellotto is known before the View of Turin with the old Bridge over the Po executed in the summer of 1745 (Galleria Sabauda, Turin; Kozakiewicz no. 93, no. 23 in the 1990 exhibition; similarly signed 'BERNARDO. BELLOTO. D. IL CANALETTO F.').
An inscription on the Warsaw drawing states that the corresponding painting was in Dresden. There is strong evidence, however, to doubt the reliability of this. For, as only Kowalczyk has observed, the present work was accompanied until the 1973 Christie's sale by the view of Sant'Eufemia and San Paolo Converso, Milan (Fig. a) and there seems no reason to doubt that they had always been pendants. Indeed, there can be no question that they are the 'Due quadri, uno rappresentante veduta del Monastero delle monache di S. Paolo, la parrocchiale di S. Eufemia e la cinta del monastero della Maddalena di Milano; l'altro vedute di Vaprio con maggiette. Opere del Canaletti', listed as no. 43 in the inventory of the Quadreria Arcivescovile in Milan drawn up by Andrea Appiani and Alessandro Belinzaghi and dated 18 February 1802 (see Bona Castellotti, loc. cit.). This lists the paintings bequeathed to his successors by Giuseppe Pozzobonelli, Archbishop of Milan (1696-1783), who was elected a cardinal in January 1744. Regrettably, no other documents survive to shed light on the formation of Pozzobonelli's remarkable collection, which included works by Antoniani, Zuccarelli, Marco Ricci, Zais, Cioci, Cignaroli and Panini still in the Arcivescovado. It is thought, however, that he often acquired pictures direct from the artists. He may thus have been the first owner of the present painting, although Conte Antonio Simonetta, who commissioned the New York and Crespi views of Vaprio, has been proposed as an alternative candidate (idem).