The view from the Regaste S. Zeno on the right bank of the Adige towards the centre of Verona is dominated by the imposing Castle of S. Martino in Aquario (the Castelvecchio) and the adjoining Ponte di Castelvecchio (Ponte Scaligero), whose unity of design, of similar brick construction and with identical Ghibelline forked battlements throughout, further enhances their apparent scale. They were begun in 1354 by Cangrande II della Scala (1332-1359), one of the last members of the della Scala (Scaligeri) family to rule Verona as despots in the manner of the Visconti in Milan and the Este in Modena and Ferrara. The dynasty's century in power, 1277-1387, saw the city expand manyfold and was a golden age for building and the visual arts. Completed in 1376, the castle and the bridge were the last Scaligeri embellishments to Verona. Their form reflects the increasing uncertainty of the family's hold on the city, which little more than a decade after their completion was to pass into the hands of the Carraresi of Padua, and subsequently the Visconti of Milan before becoming part of the Venetian Republic in 1405. The castle is designed as a defence as much against the city as against the outside world, and a prime function of the bridge, which was for the Scaligeri's own exclusive use, was to provide an escape route in time of danger. The skyline is punctuated on the far left by the church of S. Eufemia and, beyond the bridge's three unequal arches, by the eighty-three meter high Torre dei Lamberti of the Palazzo del Comune and the belfry of the church of S. Lorenzo. With the exception of the floating mills in the foreground, which did, however, remain a feature of the cityscape until the beginning of the last century, the view is relatively little changed today. The castle has been accurately restored and since 1925 has housed the Museo Civico where the present painting was exhibited in 1990, while the bridge was rebuilt after its destruction in 1945.
Verona clearly held a particular appeal for Bellotto as a subject. It had been painted on occasion by Vanvitelli and Carlevarijs; a view executed by Joli in 1735 for Marshal von der Schulenburg, a resident of the city in the years 1742-7, and thus presumably known to Bellotto, was sold in these Rooms, 23 April 1993, lot 53. Although Verona is only sixty kilometers west of Venice and had long been part of the Venetian Republic, its picturesque potential had been entirely overlooked by Canaletto. His nephew, however, executed no fewer than seven views of it, all of unusually large size for paintings of his Italian period. This is not the only respect in which they anticipate Bellotto's achievements in Northern Europe after his definite transfer there in July 1747. They can be seen not only as the culmination of Italian work, but also as the first products of his maturity, including as they do one of his greatest masterpieces, the View of Verona with the Ponte delle Navi, looking Downstream sold in these Rooms, 26 November 1970, lot 30, and now on loan to the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh (Kozakiewicz, op. cit., II, no. 101, illustrated). For that and the pendant View of Verona from the Ponte Nuovo at Powis Castle (National Trust; ibid., no. 98, illustrated) Bellotto adopted the large format canvas which he was to use for the rest of his career for all his most important urban views; as Kozakiewicz has pointed out (op. cit., I, p. 44), its width was particularly well suited to the depiction of the breadth of the Adige, a prominent feature of all his views of Verona. In the Ponte delle Navi picture Bellotto gives a supremely virtuoso display of the distinctive characteristics of his style: use of an unusual viewpoint, unifying cold light, acute sense of texture and lyrical atmosphere. The close relationship between the Edinburgh and Powis pictures and Bellotto's work in Northern Europe is further demonstrated by full-size replicas of them in the Gemäldegalerie, Dresden (ibid., nos. 99 and 102, both illustrated). Supplied to Augustus the Strong of Saxony-Poland in 1747-8, those are possibly the first paintings executed by the artist after his emigration, as well as being his last views of Verona and two of only three repetitions of Italian compositions made by him in the North.
The same qualities are evident to varying degrees in Bellotto's three other Veronese paintings, all of which show the Castelvecchio and the Ponte Scaligero. The present picture is the only one taken from upstream. Hidden since 1920 in a French private collection, in which it survived attack with bayonet during the invasion of Paris in 1940, it was only known to Kozakiewicz from old photographs. It was rediscovered in time to be included in the 1990 exhibition but has never before been reproduced in colour. It is the only one for which a preparatory drawing survives, in the Hessischen Landesmuseum, Darmstadt. This accurately delineates the scene from its single viewpoint and corresponds closely with the painting, but shows rather more of the house on the right and omits the boatman on the left and the two washerwomen on the raft at lower right (fig. a; ibid., no. 95, illustrated; Bleyl, loc. cit., no. 49, illustrated; 1990 exhibition, no. 33, illustrated). The picture was accompanied until the Orloff sale in 1920 by a pendant showing the same monuments from downstream, which has remained untraced since its sale by Agnew's in 1934 (Kozakiewicz, op. cit., II, no. 96,). A variant of that, in the Philadelphia Musuem of Art, incorporates imaginary elements, omitting altogether the river bank to the left and including the prominently the whole of the church of S. Lorenzo, to which is appended the apse of the Duomo of Lucca, rising above a fortified wall very like that of the Castello Sforzesco in Milan (ibid., no. 97, illustrated; 1990 exhibition, no. 34, illustrated in colour and with a colour detail, also on a cover). These Castelvecchio views are not yet on the grand scale of the Edinburgh and Powis pictures, their compositions are less dramatic and the light less cold. The corresponding enhancement of the lyrical mood relates them to Bellotto's pair of views of Turin of 1744-5 in the Pinacoteca Sabauda (ibid., nos. 92-3, both illustrated) and indicates that they precede the larger pair. Kozakiewicz (ibid., I, p. 44) and Penelope C. Brownell (in the catalogue of the 1990 exhibition, p. 120) both date the Philadelphia canvas to circa 1745-6 and the present painting and its pendant slightly earlier. Brownell's suggestion that they 'presumably date from the second half of 1745, after the artist's stays in Lombardy and Turin, but the possibility that they were executed in 1744 should not be excluded' seems entirely convincing.
Regrettably, nothing is known of the provenance of this painting and its pendant before the Orloff sale in 1920. The sixty-nine pictures in the sale covered all schools and included several of distinction, Canaletto's important early View of the Bacino di San Marco, Venice, from the Piazzetta in the Musuem Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam (W. G. Constable, Canaletto, Oxford, 1962, and later editions, I, pl. 30; II, no. 124), a Tiepolo sketch of Hagar and the Angel sold at Sotheby's, New York, 4 June 1987, lot 116 (E. Martini, La pittura del Settecento veneto, Udine, 1982, p. 511, note 197, fig. 158) and a Philosopher with a Book, the latter in the Narodni Galerie, Prague (M. Gemin and F. Pedrocco, Giambattista Tiepolo. I dipinti. Opera completa, Venice, 1993, p. 509, no. 45, illustrated), a Bacchus at the Wine Tub and a Lot and his Daughters by Cranach (M. J. Friedlander and J. Rosenberg, The Paintings of Lucas Cranach, New York, 1978, p. 121, no. 260, and p. 110, no. 205, both illustrated), a Man of Sorrows with the Virgin and Saint Catherine by the Master of Santa Verdiana and a Madonna by Cenni de Francesco. The drawing section on the second day consisted predominately of a previously unrecorded album of ninety-six magnificent Tiepolo drawings, many of them highly finished presentation drawings. Of none of Prince Orloff's possessions is any earlier provenance known, and it may be assumed that they had been in Russia for some time before being exported on the eve of the Russian Revolution. Two of the paintings are indeed of Russian origin, a Portrait of a Lady by Levitsky and a Portrait of Madame Gérebzoff by Voille. Professor George Knox's appealing suggestion that the Tiepolo album may have belonged to Gregory Vladimirovitvh Orloff (1777-1826), who published in 1823 a general history of Italian painting, may apply equally to the whole collection (catalogue of the exhibition, Tiepolo: A Bicentenary Exhibition 1770-1970, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 14 March-3 May 1970, under no. 14). The inventory number on the present painting may provide a clue for the eventual clarification of this mystery; it bears some resemblance to that on the Bernardo and Lorenzo Bellotto View of the Piazza del Campidoglio and the Church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, Rome which was offered in these Rooms, 13 Decemeber 1996, lot 93, and was in Russia for most of the nineteenth century, but this may be coincidental.