(b. 1697, Venezia, d. 1768, Venezia)
Capriccio with Venetian Motifs1740-45
Oil on canvas, 51,2 x 68,6 cm
Art Museum, Saint Louis
Toward the end of the 1730s fewer and fewer tourists came to Venice as a result of the increasing threat of war throughout Europe. That also spelled the end of the blossoming production of topographical souvenirs, which was the mainstay of Canaletto's studio. Joseph Smith, the artist's agent and protector, tried for several more years to attract commissions for painted series of ancient Roman monuments or so-called 'vedute ideate'. A veduta ideata, or idealized view was based on an actual situation. This kind of veduta was beautified, however, or rather improved, by adding buildings from elsewhere or even entirely fictive architectural elements. Such land- and cityscapes illustrated the 'ideal' architecture practiced by the ancients and, in their footsteps, by the sixteenth-century architect Andrea Palladio.
In about 1740, besides vedute ideate, Canaletto began to invent much more fantastic variations on the buildings and landscapes he had long painted 'al reale' in the form of 'capricci'. Nor was he alone in this. Tiepolo and Piranesi also published series of fantasy prints called caprices in the 1740s. A contemporary dictionary of art defined a capriccio as 'an artificial and bizarre composition which opposes the rules and beautiful models of nature and art, but which pleases through a certain lively particularity and a free and bold execution.' Conceived in that sense, the capriccio is the opposite of a veduta ideata, and both the etched and the painted caprices that Canaletto made during the early 1740s meet that description. The present canvas is one of the most beautiful examples.
Across two islands or peninsulas, connected by an impossibly fragile arched bridge, the eye is led toward a third, distant island in the Lagoon, behind which others appear. From the bridge a path leads to the right over a second, small bridge to a gate in Renaissance forms with a curious passageway placed crosswise, with a tiled roof crowned by a stone statue standing guard. To the right are the remains of a wall and a tower, like the gate partly decorated with stone facings. To the left of the bridge a path runs to a chapel with an asymmetrical roof, a tall aisle with a balcony and a loggia on the right side. Behind the campanile rises a façade with a sign indicating that it is an inn. On the third island stands a heavy, square tower. The time is about sunset; on the left, a pale moon rises. A washerwoman, travellers and fishermen populate the scene.
On closer inspection it appears that, with his supposedly randomly selected elements, Canaletto actually ordered his composition entirely in accordance with traditional practice. The placement of the elements in space and the manner in which the eye is led into the distance along the imaginary buildings in leaps is harmonious rather than abrupt. The appealing melancholy evoked by the scene is new; it is the result of the ostensible purposelessness of these friendly structures which are arranged haphazardly in the quiet light of the setting sun and the rising moon.
In Canaletto's art, a strict distinction between veduta ideata and capriccio seems difficult to maintain. No wonder he referred to his own series of etched landscapes as 'views partly taken from life, partly imagined.'