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.
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.
Canaletto at Lambeth Palace
Canaletto painted this view of the Thames and the old Westminster Bridge from the roof of Lambeth Palace in 1746. The painting is one of two Canalettos now in the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague. It seems that the pictures were bought by Prince Lobkowicz directly from Canaletto on a visit to London.
As part of the project on Canaletto, Adam Azmy, craftsman and filmmaker, has reconstructed an eighteenth-century design of camera obscura published by the Dutch mathematician G J ‘s Gravesande in his Essai de Perspective of 1711. There are reasons to believe that Canaletto used an instrument of this general type for making sketches, which then served as the basis of finished drawings and paintings. Our camera takes the form of a tent which the artist sits inside. An optical image is projected by a tilted mirror, down through a lens in a vertical tube onto a table, where it can be traced. Azmy’s version reproduces the optics and dimensions of ‘s Gravesande’s design in modern materials.
In October 2022 we took the camera to Lambeth Palace with the kind permission of the Palace authorities. We installed it on the roof of Morton’s Tower, the painting’s viewpoint. I made tracings inside the camera. The photos show the view as it is today, and the camera in position, with my legs visible under the table. I am facing away from the subject.
The view is an extremely wide panorama, perhaps made with the camera pointed in three directions. The chapel and other buildings of the Palace are visible at the right-hand side of the painting. The chapel was bombed in World War 2, and the flat roof visible in the painting was replaced with a new pitched roof. St Paul’s Cathedral is visible at the extreme right but is hidden behind nearer buildings today. Westminster Abbey is seen at the left: today only its towers are visible behind the Houses of Parliament. Plane trees have grown up to obscure some of what Canaletto depicted. The picture can be dated to 1746 by the state of the new (old) Westminster Bridge, which is nearing completion, but has some sections of balustrade still to be added. The bridge was replaced in the nineteenth century.
The pictures below show the optical image on the drawing table inside the camera, and three pages of sketches made of the buildings of the Palace.
This project is funded by an Emeritus Fellowship from the Leverhulme Trust, for which I am extremely grateful.