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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

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

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star