(b. 1697, Venezia, d. 1768, Venezia)

The Stonemason's Yard

Oil on canvas, 124 x 163 cm
National Gallery, London

Giovanni Antonio Canal's popularity with English Grand Tourists - mainly young noblemen completing their education with an extended trip to the Continent - has meant that many more of his pictures can be found in Britain than in his native Venice or even throughout Italy. Trained as a scene painter, by 1725 he was specialising in vedute - more or less topographically exact records of the city, its canals and churches, festivals and ceremonies. He visited England several times, but his English paintings did not please, and he returned home for good in about 1756.

Although we associate Canaletto for the most part with mass-produced, crystal-clear scenes of celebrated sights, the 'Stonemason's Yard', his masterpiece, is not of this kind. A comparatively early picture, and almost certainly made to order for a Venetian client, it presents an intimate view of the city, as if from a rear window. The site is not in fact a mason's yard, but the Campo San Vidal during re-building operations on the adjoining church of San Vidal or Vitale. Santa Maria della Carità, now the Accademia di Belle Arti, the main art gallery in Venice, is the church seen across the Grand Canal.The Church of Santa Maria della Carità is still flanked by the slender campanile that collapsed in 1741.

Canaletto's later works are painted rather tightly on a reflective white ground, but this picture was freely brushed over reddish brown, the technical reason for the warm tonality of the whole. Thundery clouds are gradually clearing, and the sun casts powerful shadows, whose steep diagonals help define the space and articulate the architecture. Not doges and dignitaries but the working people and children of Venice animate the scene and set the scale. In the left foreground a mother has propped up her broom to rush to the aid of her fallen and incontinent toddler, watched by a woman airing the bedding out of the window above and a serious little girl. Stonemasons kneel to their work. A woman sits spinning at her window. The city, weatherbeaten, dilapidated, lives on, and below the high bell-tower of Santa Maria della Carità it is the little shabby house, with a brave red cloth hanging from the window, which catches the brightest of the sunlight.