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Canaletto and the Art of Venice

The rich eighteenth century Venetian art in the Royal Collection


Ruins of the Forum looking towards the Capitol

Signed and dated 1742

Oil on canvas | 190.0 x 106.2 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 400714

This painting is one of a unique group of five large upright views of Rome, depicting the major sights of the ancient city (RCIN 401002, RCIN 400700, RCIN 400713, RCIN 400524, RCIN 400714). Unusually for Canaletto, all the works are signed and dated prominently in the foreground. It is thought that the paintings formed a special commission for Canaletto’s great friend and patron Joseph Smith, British Consul in Venice, who sold his outstanding group of paintings, prints and drawings to George III. Their tall narrow format suggests that the paintings were originally designed for a specific location, probably decorating a room within Smith’s palace on the Grand Canal, however the cycle does not fall into an obvious arrangement. Acquired by George III in 1762, the paintings were hung in English frames in the Entrance Hall of Buckingham House, alongside the Venetian views. The works are of high competence, yet are not entirely typical of Canaletto. While Canaletto did visit Rome around 1720, it is unlikely that he made a return journey in the 1740s. Therefore, it is generally supposed that this painting, and the rest of the cycle, is based upon drawings made by Canaletto’s nephew, Bernardo Bellotto (1720-1780), who entered his studio in the mid-1730s and had been in Rome during the relevant period. This indebtedness to Bellotto explains the treatment of the figures, the tendency towards heavy shadows, and the less-convincing three-dimensionality of the pictures, atypical of the style of Canaletto. This painting depicts the three columns remaining of the temple of Castor and Pollux with various figures in the foreground. A drawing of the same view as that recorded here, but with a wider format (British Museum), is closely associated with Canaletto, and may be an early work by him. The drawing also served as the basis for paintings with the same format by Canaletto and his studio and by Bellotto; these are all also usually dated to the early 1740s. The main features, lit from the right, occur in both the painting and the drawing, but Canaletto uses the narrower format of the painting to dramatise the view, realigning the ruins to suit his purposes. From the low viewpoint the temple of Castor and Pollux in the foreground is higher than the towers of the Palazzo Senatorio on the Capitoline Hill behind and all are neatly linked together by the angle of the temple of Saturn in the middle distance. The many chimneys, often Venetian in character, accentuate the painting’s vertical accent. As the market place and then the political, religious and civic centre of Rome, the Forum was the heart of the ancient city. The temple of Castor and Pollux, built in honour of the twin heroes in 484 BC, was rebuilt many times, the last in 6 AD. The temple of Saturn was one of the most ancient sanctuaries in the Forum, perhaps inaugurated as early as 498 BC. It was restored in the third and fifth centuries AD, as recorded by the inscription. It is seen against the rear façade of the Palazzo Senatorio, the seat of Roman government, which was rebuilt during the sixteenth century by Michelangelo. The group of admiring visitors and the local Romans such as the knife-grinder seem to be dwarfed and insignificant beside the heavy stone of the architecture associated with an ancient past and the government of a lost empire. Signed and dated ANT.CANAL FECIT / ANNO MCCXLII (D omitted from Roman numerals of the date). Catalogue entry adapted from George III & Queen Charlotte: Patronage, Collecting and Court Taste, London, 2004

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