Canaletto and his Rivals, National Gallery, London

Why these stiff, theatrical views spawned so many imitators is a question unanswered

One of the oddities of Venetian Renaissance painting is the relative absence from it of Venice.

If your studio looked out on, say, the Giudecca, you'd think the urge to paint it would be overwhelming. Yet, contrarily, the triumph of Giorgione lay in dreaming up a terra firma landscape, of the Bellinis in depicting a new sacred mood, of Titian in a mythological world made real. If this strikes us as perverse, then that is because Venice has, in the past 300 years, become a byword for the urban picturesque. And for that we have to thank one man, his name, by happy chance, being Canal.

Giovanni Antonio Canal, known to all but the logical Germans as Canaletto – they tend to save "Little Canal" for the master's nephew and pupil, Bernardo Bellotto – probably did more than any other artist ever to print the single image of a city on the public mind. If Venetian painters of the 16th and 17th centuries had looked outwards, Canaletto turned his gaze firmly inwards. How this happened is the subject of a new exhibition at the National Gallery called, baldly, Canaletto and his Rivals. The question that remains largely unanswered, though, is why.

It's a problem that first struck me a decade ago, coming out of the cloister of San Giorgio Maggiore. Inside was a show of Canaletto's drawings, including several of the church itself. Many of his vedute – vistas – are either of Palladio's masterpiece or painted from it. (Apart from a coincidental glimpse of San Giorgio in the Bacino di San Marco, none of these pictures is in this show, even though there's a handily borrowable one in Manchester. I'm not sure why.) What was striking about Canaletto's drawings of the scene was how lively they were – loose, freehand, full of the noise and movement that hit you, then as now, as you step out of the basilica's Benedictine calm into the milky Venetian sun.

By contrast, Canaletto's paintings of (and from) San Giorgio are glacial: not so much lifeless as artificially alive, acted out in a stagey way that seems to betray the artist's training as a painter of theatrical backdrops. In looking outwards – to dry land in the case of Giorgione, Classical antiquity in the case of Titian – the painters of Renaissance Venice were like their fellow citizens: acquisitive, curious and mercantile. Theirs was the Venice Shakespeare would imagine for Shylock and Portia 20 years after Titian's death. Canaletto's painted city was more like Racine: ritualised, decadent, ancien régime; a city-state doomed to die.

So why did Canaletto's image prevail? Although the National's show is full of good things, it doesn't answer this question. There is a great deal about who followed whom, and a certain amount about how. What is missing is any real suggestion of why – why an image such as Canaletto's stiff, theatrical, box-spaced The Piazza San Marco, looking East, on loan here from Madrid, should have spawned all those rival vedutisti, the Marieschis and Bellottos, the Cimarolis and the Guardis.

The obvious answer to that – that Canaletto's work was the favourite choice of English milordi on their Grand Tour looking for luxury snapshots to take home – doesn't really solve the problem. Which came first, supply or demand? What was it about Canaletto's unlively imagining of Venice that made it so saleable to foreigners? More, why did a man who, when he drew, drew a living, breathing city, paint it with all the rigidity of a Japanese print? You'd think, from works such as the Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day, that these canvases were made in the studio – squared-up, probably, from rigidly accurate sketches. Actually, Canaletto pre-empted the Impressionists by painting en plein air, setting up his easel in piazzas. And why do we hardly know the name of Michele Marieschi when his looser brushwork – The Rialto Bridge from the Riva del Vin, on loan from the Hermitage, is a case in point – seems so much more modern than Canaletto's?

The main flaw of the National Gallery's show, to put it briefly, is that it treats Canaletto as normal. So used have we become over the past three centuries to his being the default image of Venice that we assume that it was inevitable that it should be so. Personally, I'd like some explanation of how this inevitability came about. Canaletto had rivals for the reason that Microsoft has rivals, because he was very, very successful. But why?

To 16 Jan (020- 7747 2885)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent squares up to The Glasgow Boys at the Royal Academy

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there