Caravaggio and the Painters of the North
From 21 June to 18 September 2016
This painting shows a scene of life in a palace from a daring double-angled perspective that allows the viewer to simultaneously encompass the row of columns that separate the "portego" from the inner patio on the ground floor and the balcony on the main floor, which opens up under the vaulted arch and simultaneously shows all the architectural elements, from the wooden framework underneath the balustrade to the roof over it. A number of lamps hang from long cables between the columns and there is a coat of arms in the inner patio, where a gentleman gives alms to a boy and another beggar waits for his turn, sitting with his back against a column, while chicken run about and a woman sits on the right in front of some steps, sewing. Two figures are leaning against the balustrade, one of them holding a curtain that hangs down from it decorated with a coat-of-arms. The patio is open at the back and shows part of the complex building. There is a woman close to the fountain on the left, and a staircase leads to the upper floor. The scene is framed by the tops of the trees behind the palace and a serene patch of sky only interrupted by light white clouds.
This small painting has a historical importance that exceeds the notable quality of its execution. It is, in fact, an autograph variant (or maybe a first elaboration) of a famous composition by Canaletto in the Gallerie dell'Accademia in Venice which the painter himself gave to that institution two years after having been elected a member of the Accademia di Pittura e Scultura (on the second attempt) on 11 September 1763. Even though the architectural section of the painting in the Accademia -and also consequently in the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection- with its almost pedantically analytical focus, seems to answer completely to the standards of physical verisimilitude that made Canaletto famous, art historians are unanimous in considering it an imaginary image that was largely created at the easel. André Corboz has irrefutably demonstrated that the interior of the palace corresponds to a transformation of the Ca' d'Oro, a source that is, however, unrecognisable in the painting. In any case, the "general depiction of the physical space and the placing of the main accents correspond in every detail with the Ca' d'Oro, which does not appear in any other work. Looking from the back of the "portego" towards the Grand Canal on the left one can see the patio with the grand staircase with the same lay-out and the same arrangement as the one in the present painting, in which Canaletto has maintained the balustrade of simple cylinders forms and with small lions (the latter absent in the Thyssen picture). The wall has been separated from the street while its height has been maintained in order to obtain an open space around the building's wing (a different solution to the one in the Thyssen painting). The first part of the staircase leads to a crowned door by means of a window, which in the painting becomes a circular one (not the case in the Thyssen painting). The cornice arch of the painted door corresponds to the buttress in the constructed door [...]. The real arcade has three intercolumniations in its main axis; the fourth intercolumniation that appears on the canvas would be the result of cutting off the first one perpendicularly. In the painting as much as in the actual building the intercolumniations are wider than the aerostyle, as far as the wooden lintel permits. The columns in the Ca' d'Oro are smooth and Corinthian. Canaletto made them taller, put rings around them and lifted them up even more by means of a high socle [...]. He brought the Gothic gate of the arch that is in the same place -on the edge- to the Ca' d'Oro and closed the space on the right with a wall seen from a low angle. In addition, he transformed the arcade along the canal into a terrace that elongates the portego's stone pavement. Finally, by opening the roof he showed the row of windows that open up onto the patio on the first floor."
Nevertheless, some small but not insignificant details differentiate the Venetian prototype from its smaller replica: the canvas at the Accademia, which is three times a big as the Thyssen painting, offers a different solution to the exterior staircase, which is much larger and more dramatic, while the wall has a completely different and separate closure (thus becoming a completely different architectural entity). In the larger painting, this is a plastered and brick-red wall in which there is no longer a niche, and instead of the sculpture a vase in the style of Piranesi with a pulpy plant now appears in the corner. There is no coat-of-arms on the curtain, while there are also differences in the human figures that people the gallery: the boy that is crouching in the front on the left has disappeared and been replaced by a woman sewing. The beggar no longer asks for alms and the chicken have disappeared so that the dog remains alone tied to the base of the column.
It is very clear that this late work by Canaletto demonstrates his old but "genetically" sincere mastery of an art which he practised during his first years as an artist, when he worked with his father Bernardo Canal, a painter who specialised in designing theatrical sets. One cannot deny the similarity that exists with the theatrical focus of a painting in the National Gallery in London whose size is so similar that it leads us to believe that the two works belong to a same series. This is the Piazza San Marco facing East, from the Southwest corner, with a perspective that is taken from the interior of the arcade of the Procuratie Nuove and immediately reminds us of the double-angled perspective of the portego mentioned above, and which is surprisingly similar.
A preparatory drawing in pen and brown ink with grey watercolour (36 x 29 cm) previously in the Albertini Collection in Rome corresponds in all its details with the Venetian prototype. There is also a sheet in the Museo Correr with architectural sketches that are not as directly linked to the final painting, despite the inscription that appears on one of them and reads: "Per la cademia." Several replicas or copies of this successful subject are known (Constable counts eight of them), of which the small version in the National Loan Collection Trust in London (55.8 x 41.9 cm) is generally accepted as autograph.