Pictorial license

One of the newest and most significant features of art of the 18th century was the ''veduta,'' or view - generally a townscape. Venice, perhaps owing to its dreamlike appearance, became the most favored subject.

Giovanni Anton Canal, called Il Canaletto (1697-1768), was the greatest interpreter of Venice's charm, beauty, and majesty. Trained in scenography, renowned as a realist, he was first and foremost an artist so skillfully accomplished that even his fantastic pictures, the capriccios, seem verifiable.

Canaletto's paintings have an intense, crystalline luminosity that captures the special atmosphere of Venice, an exquisite low-lying city of centuries-old marble and stone palaces extended between water and sky. His visions are extremely precise and linear.

A graphic artist in his painting, Canaletto was a painter in designs. By some mysterious alchemy, his black lines incite the white to transmit a vague although certain suggestion of color. Often he attains this by treating the distance with delicacy while the nearby looms dramatic and forceful.

The accompanying photo well illustrates this feature. The drawing is from a large notebook in the Galleries of the Academy of Venice. The 138 designs, intrinsically very valuable, are priceless for revealing how Canaletto worked and for manifesting his artistic sensibilities and impulses.

He made hundreds of on-the-spot sketches, then in the studio elaborated a ''veduta''; several actual aspects were combined, pictorial license used. Canaletto took full advantage of picturesque accidents and was not above occasionally permitting his fancy to turn views into extravaganzas.

Designs like this are considered to be the intermediate stage between first impression and finished work. Everything here existed; however, Canaletto has knowingly, deliberately, poetically made modifications. He impetuously added pen and ink strokes for further emphases.

The artist conceived this particular ''veduta'' as if from a position inside the arcaded portico of the Procuratie Vecchie, the joined row of buildings on the left of the Piazza di San Marco. A part of the Basilica and its detached bell tower frame the view into the Piazzetta. We see the Doges' Palace to one side and Sansovino's Library to the other. Between them, barely suggested, is the wharf of the Grand Canal.

The Piazzetta has been for centuries Venice's gateway to the sea. Here the armies of the Republic of Venice embarked for exploits in the East to return laden with spoils. At this landing arrived foreign dignitaries to be greeted ceremoniously by the Doge, who ranked as one of the most powerful sovereigns of Europe. The Piazzetta and the spacious Piazza di San Marco have hosted countless processions and parades, military, ecclesiastical, political, or just festive. They have been the beating heart of the republic and still are for the city.

Canaletto's ''veduta'' is strangely tranquil; never was this site so devoid of people!

Except for approximately ten years in England where he reproduced in ''veduta'' the light of London, the water of the Thames, the mellow tenderness of the English countryside, Canaletto spent his entire mature life realizing Venice in its different aspects.

Surprisingly, most of the artist's work is in England, generally purchased in Venice by people of the aristocracy making the Grand Tour. Two hundred pieces, including designs and paintings, were acquired by King George III in 1763 for the Royal Collection of Windsor Castle. So important is this group, no Canaletto show is undertaken unless Queen Elizabeth II consents to participate.

Il Canaletto gave to the Venetian ''veduta'' organic unity, style, and poetry. Each picture is a stage scene; the tempo of the music is ''andante sostenuto.'' Venice lives.

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