Most sophisticated museumgoers would think it ineffably crass to complain about Cezanne’s unending sequence of apples and peaches, or the relentless quadrilaterals of Piet Mondrian. But it appears that certain of these people are no proof against the ennui that sets in when they encounter yet another Venetian scene by Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto. And yet the recent exhibition at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, “Canaletto and his Rivals,” represents, for attentive viewers, the definitive refutation of the view that Venetian cityscapes are slavish imitations of reality, that they are entirely lacking in any higher sense of art.

The focus of the show is the 18th-century Venetian vedute, or cityscapes, that were painted not only by Canaletto but by Bernardo Bellotto and Francesco Guardi as well. It also includes less well known painters of considerable merit like Luca Carlevarijs, Michele Marieschi, and Antonio Joli. In short, no important proponent of the genre has been left out.

These vedute stand in the same relation to the places they depict, whether Saint Mark’s Square, the Grand Canal, or San Giorgio Maggiore, as a portrait stands to a specific human being. Whereas a map gives you the pure, hard specificity of the place, the vedute endows those cold data with a certain vital warmth, just as a portrait not only delineates the individual markings of a man but also captures the generalized essence of his humanity. Crucial to this achievement is the insistent presence of people, often of crowds, in 18th-century Venetian vedute. Venice is viewed not as pure architectural presence but as a lived-in space where humans move about incessantly and anonymously. We see the city in action, in its awakened state.

The cityscapes of Canaletto and his contemporaries are symptoms of the great fracturing and diversification of Old Master painting that occurred toward the end of the 16th century, when still lifes, genre scenes, and landscapes achieved a stature almost, but not quite, equal to narrative and devotional works. But if the immediate inspiration for these vedute comes out of Holland (the earliest work in the show, from 1697, is by the Dutch artist Gaspar van Wittel), it is also true that the Venetians had been depicting their city, although in a very sporadic way, since the end of the 15th century.

Such masterpieces as Gentile Bellini’s Procession of the True Cross in Piazza San Marco and Vittore Carpaccio’s Miracles of the True Cross series, both from the 1490s, portray Venice with a loving accuracy that is without parallel in European painting at this date. Perhaps it was the man-madeness of Venice, its triumphant victory over the ever-threatening sea, that impressed upon the Venetians, earlier than the Florentines or Romans, the urgent need to record the beauty that they themselves had fashioned. Even when they are not supposed to be painting Venice, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto eagerly import the latest Palladian façades into the backgrounds of Christ’s passion or the legend of Saint Mark.

Alone among European capitals, Venice is virtually unchanged in the three centuries since these works were made. With a few minor adjustments, their draughtsmanship is so clear and precise that anyone familiar with the city will have little trouble recognizing the scenes depicted. Though a brittle, wintry light occasionally filters into Canaletto’s paintings, the poetic moodiness of the Venetian scenes of Whistler and Monet is never to be found in his art. In its place is an eternity of fair weather, whose dazzling noontide sun may stand as the pictorial embodiment of the Enlightenment itself.

In seeking to defend Canaletto against the charge that he lacked imagination, certain sympathetic critics point to liberties he took, here an artful adjustment in the placement of a palazzo, there the rearrangement of a point of perspective. All of that is true enough, but it misses the essence of his excellence. At his best, Canaletto is a pure painter who can tease formal integrity out of his seemingly photographic depictions, much as his contemporary Alexander Pope was able, against all odds, to wring poetry out of the sere soil of Augustan literary traditions. To appreciate Canaletto according to his merits, one has to be able to savor the reticent painterliness of the waters in his depiction of The Grand Canal, Looking South-East along the Fondamenta di Santa Chiara and his unsurpassed capacity to understand in visual terms the agile stiffness of the gondolas, with their gleaming black prows, in A Regatta on the Grand Canal, and the near-expressionistic verve of the figures who populate his vedute, entire crowds summoned into vivid existence with a few well-placed arabesques of paint.

In respect of these excellences, Canaletto is without equal. But he had two rivals, each excellent in his own way, who had certain virtues to which Canaletto could not lay claim. His nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, often copied him and came very close indeed. But at his best, especially when he was depicting the kingdoms and duchies of Central Europe, Bellotto was able to convey both the form and texture of reality with such force that his proto-realism becomes a powerful, defiant act of imagination.

And then there is Francesco Guardi, who began painting his Venetian scenes about a generation after Canaletto. It is fashionable to see Guardi as an impressionist avant la lettre: That is not strictly accurate, but it will do in describing the feathery lightness of his touch. Sometimes, it is true, his subjects slip away from him. But at his best, as in such paintings as The Molo and the Riva degli Schiavoni from the Bacino di San Marco, he can marshal a command of composition and a choiceness of detail that rival Canaletto’s.

James Gardner recently translated Vida’s Christiad (I Tatti Renaissance Library).

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