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Canaletto's Camera

The Bacino di San Marco: Canaletto's sketches superimposed over his painting. The Campanile is moved to the left.
The Bacino di San Marco: Canaletto's sketches superimposed over his painting. The Campanile is moved to the left.

Canaletto’s contemporary Antonio Zanetti wrote in 1771 that “Canal taught the proper use of the camera obscura.” 20th century historians have debated how exactly the painter might have employed the instrument. Some scholars like Michael Levey and J G Links, while allowing the possibility, have dismissed the question as ‘dreary’ and with little bearing on Canaletto’s style. Italian art historians, including Terisio Pignatti and Decio Gioseffi, have been more positive and inquisitive.

Canaletto’s pictures might seem at first sight to be ‘proto-photographic’, but careful analysis, notably by André Corboz (1985), has shown many departures from real appearances. Setting aside the capricci and Palladian fantasies; in the Venetian vedute the sizes and positions of buildings are changed, architectural details are sometimes imprecise, and different views can be composited together. These manipulations however are found more frequently in churches and other monuments, while the everyday fabric of the city is faithfully depicted.

The question of Canaletto and the camera received new impetus when a quaderno of around 140 sketches resurfaced in 1949. It is clear from numerous idiosyncrasies of layout and graphic character that these are camera drawings. A few similar separate sketches are scattered in museum collections. In 1958 Pignatti used the box camera carrying the name ‘A. Canal’ in the Correr Museum to try to reproduce the quaderno sketches, and met with ‘a thousand difficulties’. In 1959 Gioseffi argued – correctly in my view – that Canaletto must instead have employed a larger camera, in the form of a tent or cubicle, which the artist would have worked inside. Gioseffi was able with such an instrument to successfully produce detailed drawings, similar to those in the quaderno.

The Campo Santa Maria Formosa: Canaletto's sketches superimposed over a photograph taken from his viewpoint
The Campo Santa Maria Formosa: Canaletto's sketches superimposed over a photograph taken from his viewpoint
The Campo Santa Maria Formosa: Canaletto's sketches superimposed over his painting. The church and dome have been raised and enlarged
The Campo Santa Maria Formosa: Canaletto's sketches superimposed over his painting. The church and dome have been raised and enlarged

Following Gioseffi, I have been superimposing Canaletto’s sketches over the relevant paintings, and over photographs taken from the same viewpoints. The illustrations show results for the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, which is little changed since the 18th century. Notice how the subject is covered by a continuous sequence of adjoining sketches, enlarged or reduced to different scales. The sketches match the photo closely, with the exception of the dome, which Canaletto has (perhaps using the camera) drawn much enlarged. Meanwhile in the painting, he has raised the height of the whole church and dome, and has also ‘folded in’ the buildings at the right. These traits, of enlarging prominent buildings, and changing the perspective at the sides of pictures, like theatrical scenery, are found in many paintings. Some wide views on the other hand, like those of the Bacino of San Marco, match closely to the sketches throughout – the one difference, in the example illustrated, being that Canaletto has moved the Campanile some distance leftwards.