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Canaletto (Venice 1697-Venice 1768)

The Arch of Septimius Severus 1742

Oil on canvas | 180.7 x 105.9 cm | RCIN 400700

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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 Arch of Septimius Severus with various figures standing looking at it. Canaletto has created a partly fanciful, idealised topography. Seen through the arch are the steps leading up to the Capitol, which are based on those of the Cordonata and are, in actuality, on the other side of the Capitoline Hill. The bas reliefs of the arch, in reality partially illegible, have been ‘restored’ by Canaletto. Signed on a stone extreme right foreground: ANT. CANAL FECIT / ANNO MDCCXLII