Treasures from the Vault: Bernardo Bellotto

Lauren Wolfer, Associate Curator of Special Collections & Archives

A color painting that shows the canals of Venice, bordered by waterfront houses and properties. The blue sky is full of grey clouds, and the canal extends into a bend that seemingly goes on forever into the background. In the foreground, gondolas pierce through the water with people and wares.
Bernardo Bellotto, Italian, 1722-1780. Grand Canal, Venice. Oil on canvas, ca. 1738-1743. Gift of Dr. H. G. Clowes, 1958.07. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Next year marks 10 years since I studied abroad in Venice, Italy. I had plans to visit and spend time at the Venice Biennale, the largest contemporary art fair that occurs every other year, but with all the uncertainty looming and travel restrictions due to COVID-19, the trip is currently postponed. Visiting Venice is other worldly; its atmosphere and beauty are incomparable. I remember walking through the city feeling like I was on a completely different planet; I had never experienced anything like it.

Seeing Grand Canal, Venice by Bernardo Bellotto takes me back to my own time in Venice as, besides the use of power boats, not a lot has changed. The buildings, canals, and even the gondolas remain to this day. I can still hear the men shouting “gondola, gondola, gondola!” trying to lure tourists for a trip down the canal. Back when Bellotto created this painting, ca. 1738-43, the gondola was the main way to get from one place to another, as opposed to the tourist trap it is now. Upon close examination, we can see a couple of gondoliers in the painting. The most prominent, right in front, is a man in a red coat who sits, without any paddles at hand, as two men, standing in work clothes, steer the boat around a much larger vessel. The canals are the most convenient means of transportation in Venice because the pathways are inaccessible to vehicles like cars or bikes (I’ve seen it done, but it’s scary) and many of the bridges are not open to pedestrians. At no time, therefore, will there be a shortage of boats on the water in Venice! Although not a lot of people live on the island anymore because of its expensive cost of living, there always seemed to be a lot of hustle and bustle everyday as people hurried to their destinations down the maze of narrow alleyways and in taxi boats on the canal.

The most beautiful and unique aspect of Venice is the incredible lighting of the city; it is unparalleled. Between the sun in the bright, blue sky and the reflection off the water, the city is always illuminated, as Bellotto has shown in Grand Canal, Venice. Everything feels grandioso (I still remember some words!) in Venice, and part of that is because of the brilliant and enchanting light that strikes every building.

Bernardo Bellotto, born in Venice in 1722, followed in the footsteps of his celebrated uncle, Caneletto, who was a painter himself. Bellotto spent most of his time traveling between Florence, Rome, Verona, and Turin, painting the cities he visited. Outside of Italy, he frequented Dresden, Vienna, and Munich, before he spent his last years in Warsaw.

Bellotto’s paintings are recognizable by their cooler color palette (blues and greens as opposed to yellows and reds), monumental senes, and subject matter. To achieve the monumental scene, in comparison to Canaletto’s work, Bellotto increased his compositions in size and scale. The city of Venice exudes confidence, accurately depicted by Bellotto. An entire city built on wood logs driven into the water did not stop the Venetians from building the most spectacular structures.

A zoomed-in version of Bellotto's painting shows the intricate details: figures stand on their porches hanging out the wash and talking to neighbors while gondoliers on the water push their boats along the canal.
The buildings along the canal, with gondoliers passing by.

Bellotto’s most acclaimed works are his paintings of the European cities he visited, panoramas full of details of the architecture in the scenes. This is the case in Grand Canal, Venice, where the image could continue forever, if it weren’t for the bend in the canal. He was well known for depicting scenes with stark contrast, showing the brightest light and the darkest shadows. One of the most distinctive elements he included in his works is how heavily he built up the layers of paint, specifically in the sky. He often used the sky, clouds, and light to distinguish the time of day. Every inch of Bellotto’s painting is consumed with intricate details: the figures, the architecture, and even the clouds in the sky. Like a photograph, he seemingly captures a moment in time and space.

A photo from Lauren's trip to Venice shows the canal with boats and buildings.
Photographs from Lauren’s trip to Venice. Photos courtesy of Lauren Wolfer.

Even though travel is restricted at the moment, art allows us to reminisce about the places we’ve visited and inspire us to add future travel destinations to our “must see” lists. Bellotto painted with such intricacy, we feel like as if we could step into the scene with him, hail a gondolier, and explore the world of the Venetians!

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