Walk into most halfway-decent museums, and you’ll see a cityscape of Venice, especially the canals, from the late Baroque or early Rococo. You might think to yourself, “Oh look, a Canaletto!” After all, Canaletto’s name is the easiest “cheat code” for paintings of all. Basically all he did was paint canals and his name was “Little Canal” in Italian! I’m reminded of that old “dad joke”: “what are the odds of Lou Gehrig getting Lou Gehrig disease?!” But Canaletto was actually born Giovanni Antonio Canal, the son of painter Bernardo Canal. What are the odds?!
But next time you walk past that Venetian canal painting from the 1700s, check the plaque. It might not be a Canaletto. There was another canal-painting giant from this time, and his name was Francesco Guardi.
So how do you tell them apart?
Let’s start with Canaletto. Canaletto often likes to use wider views of the canals. The painting below of the entrance to the Grand Canal is probably about as close-up a view as his paintings will get. He is also incredibly exacting, capturing every detail, with near-photographic precision, of the waterways and architecture of the city. His images are crystal-clear. He was absolutely painstaking in getting the architectural perspective correct. You can imagine him penciling out every new composition with a ruler before getting down to the paint. Note the church in the background, the Santa Maria della Salute.
Now compare it to a modern photograph from the same angle:
As you can see, this is no imagined landscape. This is Venice. No disrespect to Canaletto, but I like to imagine his paintings as early postcards of the city. In fact, that’s sort of what they became, as Englishmen shipped them back home while on their Grand Tour of Continental Europe.
Now let’s try a Guardi.
Same subject from almost an identical angle and yet, a totally different painting. Its airy brush strokes give it a much more impressionistic feel (a shift from the Baroque to the Rococo). The loose brushwork and small dots combine to give Guardi a unique “touch.” In Italian, it was referred to as pittura di tocco. His paintings have a much more atmospheric quality. On the surface, his views of Venice are far less accurate than Canaletto’s. And yet, they may capture the city much better than his contemporary does. Anyone who has been to Venice can testify to its beauty; but they might also point out its decrepitude. Its waterways choked by algae and polluted by human sewage; its crumbling stone; its smell. None of that is captured in a Canaletto painting, and it is in a Guardi.
Think of a Guardi like the first three Star Wars films. The sets were dirty; lived-in. Here’s a still of Luke Skywalker next to his busted old landspeeder on Tatooine:
And compare them to the next three Star Wars prequels (Episodes I, II and III). Here’s a still of a Naboo royal starship on Tatooine:
This thing looks like a shiny new concept car!
Make no mistake: I am not trying to compare Canaletto to the worst of Star Wars and Guardi to the best. But I do think that one can admire Canaletto’s technique, precision and commitment to craft without being as emotionally invested in his paintings. To put it simply, Guardi had more fun, and I think his paintings reflect that. Like Hubert Robert, he even took a lot of architectural liberties himself, painting many “capricci” of Venice. Here’s an example:
As a final note, Canaletto’s paintings almost always take place in the dead of afternoon, with a bright sun reflecting off the waters. Guardi’s paintings take place at all times of the day, the most atmospheric of which during the gloaming.
Now, just as a Hubert Robert painting is like being “inside” a Lorrain painting, so too is a Giovanni Paolo Panini painting like being inside a Canaletto or a Guardi. What do I mean by that? Well, you’ll have find out next time!