WHEN is a landscape not a landscape? Easy - when it is a cityscape. In the 18th century, cityscapes had an extraordinary flowering, thanks to the wealthy and powerful foreigners making the almost obligatory Grand Tour of Europe. With a picture painted on the spot, these elite tourists could prove a site to be all that they said it was. Painters in Venice had developed local views into real art. This is especially true of Antonio Canal and his precocious nephew, Bernardo Bellotto, who at 14 was already a full-fledged assistant to his uncle. Antonio, known then and now as Canaletto, added a new sensibility tied primarily to the play of light. Bernardo's scenes were, perhaps, even more poetic. As a team, they painted in Rome and in several other cities of Italy, and then returned to Venice.
In 1747 there arrived a solicitation: The ruler of Saxony wished Canaletto to move to Dresden to paint for him.
Being in love with Venice, which he had visited often, the prince had imported from that city architects, sculptors, painters, singers, musicians, actors, poets, art historians, even gondola constructors. With them he had converted his once-provincial city into a mecca for lovers of art and culture. Now, he needed a master painter, Venetian of course, to record his achievements.
Canaletto had already gone to London, called by the English monarchy; so Bellotto, then barely 26, went to Dresden to offer his services. The prince liked the artist, put him to work, and soon appointed him the Official Painter.
The ensuing twenty-some years must have been the happiest of Bernardo's life - performing a secure and continuous, well-paid service for an enlightened prince in a court that valued and appreciated him. His paintings and etchings glorified the new Dresden, and it became known as one of the loveliest of German cities.
Bernardo Bellotto's palette was characterized by cold-silver tints that produced an autumnal light, a tinge of melancholy, reality transfigured by a subdued lyricism. His customary point of view was a considerable elevation with a wide-angle vision. Most of his canvases were large, about 4 feet by 7 feet.
The accompanying photograph, a detail, shows the central portion of his 1751 painting ``The Old Market Place at Dresden.'' The greatness of the site itself is enhanced by finely executed particulars of daily life. Of note are the royal carriage pulled by six black horses and the tall, angular tower of the Church of the Cross. Houses have mansard roofs and windows typical of Northern architecture, while most ground floors are occupied by shops. On market days the square would be full of people.
In the last years of his life, Bellotto was granted leaves of absence to paint in other Northern cities. He never returned to Venice; consequently, his mature work has been little known in his hometown.
A recent large exhibition of canvases and etchings from Dresden established Bernardo Bellotto's exceptional talent. Held on the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice and sponsored by the Giorgio Cini Foundation, the show had the active and full participation of the owners of the collection, the State Art Museum of Dresden, East Germany.