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

The Grand Canal near the Ponte di Rialto

1725
Oil on canvas, 90,5 x 134,6 cm
Private collection

This is one of the four paintings ordered in 1725 from Canaletto by Stefano Conti, a textile merchant and collector from Lucca. Canaletto described the first painting, saying that it showed "the Rialto Bridge from the side facing the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, across from the buildings where the magistrates of, for instance, the Camerlenghi work. These buildings border the market where all sorts of fruits and vegetables are unloaded for distribution to shops all over the city. Painted in the middle of the canal is a distinguished-looking sloop with figures in it being rowed swiftly across the water and, nearby, another gondola being rowed by the liveried servants of the imperial ambassador."

In these canvases Canaletto was apparently striving for the greatest verisimilitude, in which he succeeded by virtue of his great ingenuity and artistic sensibility. The curvature of the river is beautifully rendered in an arc flowing from the approaching sloop, under the dark bridge and on to the sunlit area beyond. This movement is effected by the curving roofline on the left and by the gondolas crossing the canal in the foreground, which binds the composition horizontally. As in so many other cases Canaletto was not the first to represent this particular cityscape; there is an early eighteenth-century print of the same subject by Filippo Vasconi which, in turn, is based on an etching by Israel Silvestre from the mid-seventeenth century.

Here, too, Canaletto must have planned his composition with the help of two, now lost, preparatory drawings covering an angle of approximately ninety degrees. The compositional sketch (c. 1725, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) for the painting has survived and in it we can see how the master combined the two views, creating an effect similar to that of a photograph produced by a wide-angle lens.