Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 3, 2002
Edgar Peters Bowron Bernardo Bellotto and the Capitals of Europe New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000. 304 pp.; 140 color ills.; 50 b/w ills. Cloth $60.00 (0300091818)
Museo Correr, Venice, Italy, February 10–June 27, 2001; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX, July 29–October 21, 2001.
Thumbnail

The townscapes of Bernardo Bellotto (1722–80) have always delighted those in the know. Although never as prominent as his famous uncle, Antonio Canaletto, Bellotto has remained familiar to scholars through the regular appearance of his paintings in exhibitions and occasional reproduction in books. Yet he lingers on the margins of English-language scholarship, perhaps because he spent most of his career in the relatively unfamiliar terrain of Central Europe. Confusion about Bellotto’s relation to Canaletto has also hurt his critical fortune, since some assume that the younger artist simply transferred his uncle’s visual language to a different context. It hasn’t helped that Bellotto adopted Canaletto’s name, which remains to this day his moniker in German- and Polish-language scholarship. Viewers who look carefully at Bellotto, however, recognize that in many ways he was a more adventurous and complex painter than his famous uncle. Edgar Peters Bowron’s Bernardo Bellotto and the Capitals of Europe is the catalogue of an exhibition shown in Venice, Italy, and Houston, TX, that seeks to provide an up-to-date scholarly assessment of Bellotto’s art. Although Bellotto exhibitions have occurred periodically in Europe and scholarship on him has subsequently grown, this publication is the best-developed English-language study of his art in thirty years. As such, it should be of major interest to scholars of eighteenth-century art.

Although born and trained in Venice, Bellotto’s paintings diverge notably from the norms of eighteenth-century Italian view painting, a quality due largely to the circumstances of his career. After a few years of diligent study in Italy, Bellotto accepted an invitation to become court painter to Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland, whose Catholic court at Dresden was a haven for Italian émigrés. Bellotto traveled there in 1747 and remained in Central Europe for the rest of his life, working for various royals and nobles, among them the Elector of Bavaria, the Austrian Habsburgs, and the Polish royal crown. In his Central European vedute, Bellotto constantly stretched the genre’s limits, modifying his visual language to suit his new settings and his patrons’ demands. Most distinctively, Bellotto emphasized the human activity in his scenes, individualizing his figures to a degree not typical of Canaletto’s art. He also employed a darker and richer palette that produces a somber mood quite unlike his uncle’s airy elegance. What strikes a modern viewer most about Bellotto’s vedute, perhaps, is their uncanny photographic quality. Few artists evoke so successfully the sense of everyday life in an eighteenth-century city, of magnificence and filth coexisting.

This book consists of two parts. After a brief director’s foreword and an annotated chronology, four essays discuss the major phases of Bellotto’s career. A multiauthored catalogue follows; arranged geographically, it includes paintings depicting several Italian cities, Dresden, Vienna, Munich, and Warsaw, as well a number of capricci and decorative works.

Bozena Anna Kowalczyk’s essay, “Bernardo Bellotto and the Formation of an Original Style,” focuses on the artist’s early years in Italy. Kowalczyk notes that as a student Bellotto so successfully copied his uncle’s manner that attributions have proven difficult ever since. In differentiating Canaletto from Bellotto, Kowalczyk looks for accentuations of Canaletto’s technique, moments where his visual language seems exaggerated, and uses these as the basis for reattribution. She also notes that Bellotto’s tendency to personalize the figures in his paintings developed early; the elder artist drew from a stock vocabulary of staffage figures, which his nephew copied, but Bellotto soon outgrew this practice in favor of greater individualization.

Gregor J. M. Weber’s essay on Bellotto in Dresden addresses the city that Bellotto painted most extensively: Bellotto’s output consists of three dozen different views of Dresden, including two parallel series of urban scenes made for Augustus III and the Saxon prime minister Count Heinrich Brühl. Weber tackles the complex question of Bellotto’s relationship to Dresden’s actual appearance, and advances interesting arguments about interpreting scenes that, superficially, seem to document Dresden’s layout unproblematically. Weber argues that Bellotto’s transformation of each city scene into a painted image relied on manipulations of compositional structure, lighting, and choice of accessory figures, all of which have their roots in earlier, particularly Dutch, visual traditions. He notes particularly that Bellotto manipulated perspective in subtle ways to “improve” the views he painted, as well as to emphasize the city’s prominent monuments. In addition, the artist used light to frame his scenes and to underscore specific human activities, producing paintings that deftly tread the boundary between reality and artifice.

Despite its title, Martina Frank’s essay on “Bernardo Bellotto in Vienna and Munich” focuses almost exclusively on Vienna, where Bellotto fled during the Seven Years’ War. Frank emphasizes the role of State Chancellor Wenzel Anton Kaunitz in bringing the artist to Vienna and discusses Bellotto’s work for Empress Maria Theresia. Although Bellotto produced many paintings for the Viennese court, they depict a highly selective choice of sites and omit some of the city’s most renowned monuments. Ultimately, Frank argues convincingly for a historicizing interpretation of these vedute, in which establishing connections between the city’s present monarchy and its past dictated their subject matter. In particular, Bellotto’s interest in buildings commissioned by Prince Eugene of Savoy evokes that figure’s role in Habsburg history, as does Bellotto’s linking of certain scenes to contemporary military events.

To my mind, the richest of the four essays is Andrzej Rottermund’s on Bellotto’s activities in Warsaw, where the artist spent the final two decades of his life in the service of King Stanislaw II Poniatowski. Rottermund emphasizes the political function of Bellotto’s paintings, their relation to the uniquely Polish, antiabsolutist doctrine of Sarmatism, which claimed for the Poles a mythical, non-European identity, yet one that fervently embraced Catholicism. Although not strongly Sarmatist himself, Stanislaw used Bellotto’s paintings to emphasize his allegiance to the predominantly Sarmatist nobility, while also glorifying his dynastic links to celebrated Polish clans. While in Warsaw, Bellotto decorated a Sale de Canaletto in the newly renovated suburban palace of Ujazdów. There, he paired views of Warsaw with views of Rome in order to stress Warsaw’s status as a modern capital city, a “New Rome” in Poland. Rottermund concludes that Bellotto’s views demonstrate the crown’s manipulation of Enlightenment and Sarmatist ideals for political ends. In the Warsaw scenes, Bellotto’s attention to human activity exceeds anything he attempted previously: The minute details of everyday street life, with various strata of society intermingling, and the scale and prominence of his figures in relation to their painted setting produce an effect more in tune with nineteenth-century landscapes than with eighteenth-century vedute. It is not outlandish to suggest, as several authors do in this volume, that Bellotto’s views prefigure developments in the art of Corot, Daubigny, and the Barbizon School.

The scope of the catalogue following these essays varies from analysis of composition and content to provenance, conservation reports, historical discussions, and passages of extended ekphrasis. The accompanying photographs are mostly of high quality, with one or two out-of-focus exceptions. Some minor problems, however, detract from the catalogue’s usefulness. The text’s (partial?) translation from Italian has resulted in some cumbersome passages and occasional confusion. Unfortunately, quite a few typos have made it into the text. With no less than seven authors analyzing more than ninety paintings, many depicting similar subjects, there is inevitably some repetition of ideas. This is perhaps a book better dipped into for specific information than read from cover to cover. With that in mind, it would have been nice to have an index. These quibbles aside, this volume provides much wide-ranging and stimulating analysis of paintings that deserve to be better known.

A final note: On the whole, the catalogue adheres to a traditional art-historical perspective concerned with issues of attribution, function, patronage, and historical context. There is nothing wrong with that, since Bellotto’s art rewards any attention it receives. But embedded within this framework lie the seeds for a different kind of analysis. The notion that Bellotto’s art flirts with scientific legitimacy while relying heavily on artifice to produce its veristic effects; the notion that Bellotto manipulates shadows in order to lend his scenes a vivid theatricality; the notion that Bellotto’s paintings include portraits of living individuals, whose actions are memorialized within their city: these insights suggest new possibilities for thinking about Bellotto’s art. Bernardo Bellotto and the Capitals of Europe should make a wide audience aware that this nephew of a famous painter deserves to be recognized for his own significant accomplishments.

Michael Yonan
Associate Professor, Department of Art History and Archaeology, University of Missouri

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.