Canaletto and the Gondola

Canaletto and the Gondola. A small celebration in images, words and verse, of his Venetian canal paintings, featuring this iconic Venetian vessel.

Brief Biography

Poem

Canaletto’s Gondolas and other small boats.

Gondola development over time

Poem

Links (internal-external)


 

Canaletto. “The Grand Canal, Venice, looking toward Southeast-Campo della Carità to the right.” 1730’s,

Note. To the right you can see the bell tower of the church of Santa Maria della Carita and a small sunlit cottage on its Campo. The main complex of buildings comprised the church, its monastery and the Scuola Grande. What’s there today? The Accademia bridge and the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia

The first Accademia of Venice, was established by the Serenissima’s Senate on 24 September 1750; adopting its statutes in 1756. The Accademia council was comprised of 36 professors and every year, four of them were chosen to lecture on the following subjects: figure painting, portrait painting, landscape painting, and sculpture. After the fall of the Republic, the complex, became the property of the state. Then in 1807, following an edict by Napoleon; it was designated as the site of the “Accademia di belle arti” (Academy of Fine Arts) and its gallery.

The first version of the Ponte dell’Accademia made of steel, was finished in 1854 during the Austrian occupation of Venice. However, in 1933 during the Fascism era, the Austrian-made steel bridge was demolished and replaced by a wooden bridge. Again in 1986, it was replaced by another wooden structure. The most recent major renovation, took place during 2017-2018.

 

Canaletto and the Gondola – Biography

Canaletto, whose real name was Giovanni Antonio Canal, was born on October 18, 1697, in Venice. He was a prominent Italian painter known for his masterful landscapes and cityscapes, particularly of Venice and London. His work is characterized by its detailed and atmospheric portrayal of urban scenes, which has influenced many landscape artists that followed.

Canaletto began his career working with his father, Bernardo Canal, who was a theatrical scene painter. This early experience with stage design influenced his later work, which often showcased a dramatic and theatrical perspective. After a period of working in Rome, where he painted scenes for operas, Canaletto returned to Venice and shifted his focus to topographical painting.

His paintings of Venice, with their precise detail and luminous atmosphere, gained him international fame.

Canaletto was also known for his “vedute,” which are detailed views of the city that were particularly popular with foreign patrons. These works often featured the Grand Canal and other iconic Venetian landmarks, captured with a clarity and light that seemed to bring the city to life on canvas. Looking at his paintings, he did however, use a degree of artistic licence to depart from reality, particularly regarding composition to enhance the pictorial effect.

Canaletto. “The Entrance to the Grand Canal, Venice”,  c.1730

Canaletto spent a significant period of his life in England, from 1746 to 1756, where he painted many views of London and other English sites. His success in England was partly due to the patronage of Joseph Smith, a British merchant who later sold his large collection of Canaletto’s works to King George III.

Throughout his career, Canaletto was meticulous about his work, insisting on using reliable pigments and often working outdoors to capture the natural light and atmosphere. His dedication to his craft is evident in the enduring appeal of his paintings, which continue to be celebrated for their beauty and historical value.

Canaletto. “S.Geremia and the Entrance to the Cannaregio.” 1726-27.

Note about Canaletto’s artistic licence . At the centre of the composition is the mouth of the canal of Cannaregio, heading north-west from the Grand Canal towards the lagoon, and at that time the principal route from central Venice to the mainland. The canal is spanned by the sixteenth-century Ponte delle Guglie (‘of the obelisks’), painted excessively large to hold the centre of the composition. Beyond the bridge is the Ghetto, built high up because of shortage of land. To the left is the rear of the church of San Geremia with its thirteenth-century belltower, more slender than in reality. The belltower survives, but the church was rebuilt in 1753-60 by Carlo Corbellini and its clumsy mass now dominates the waterfront. Abutting the belltower is Palazzo Labia, built over several decades from the mid-seventeenth century. Canaletto has dramatised the view, giving the Palazzo Querini on the right a more pronounced and angled façade and raising its height compared to the Palazzo Labia opposite.The buildings on the right are ‘opened out’, as if from a point on the Riva di Biasio to the left of the principal view, which makes the waterside façades visible on both sides. The bridge is brought closer and the buildings enlarged in the Ghetto beyond.

Here’s a poem that hopefully resonates with the spirit of Canaletto’s life, his enduring legacy as an artist and the iconic gondola.

In a city where water mirrors the sky,
Canaletto’s brush strokes gently lie.
A canvas of dreams in Venetian hue,
Where gondolas glide on waters so true.

The Grand Canal whispers tales of old,
As oars stir the secrets the waters hold.
Each painting, a window to the past,
Where Venetian glory is captured to last.

The gondola floats, a silent ballet,
Under bridges where lovers steal away.
A serenade drifts, a soft, sweet moan,
In Canaletto’s world, forever shown.

Through his eyes, we travel back in time,
To a Venice serene, almost sublime.
His art, a portal to a golden age,
Each scene, a story on a silent stage.

So let us drift on this painted ride,
Where gondolas and history coincide.
In Canaletto’s paintings, we find,
The timeless beauty of an era enshrined.

In Venice’s embrace, where waters flow,
Lived Canaletto, with his canvas aglow.
Through his eyes, the city’s heart did beat,
On each street corner, a picturesque treat.

With brush in hand, he captured the light,
Of gondolas gliding, into the night.
The Grand Canal, under a sky so wide,
Its beauty eternal, on canvas did reside.

From Venice to London, his journey did span,
A master of vedute, a visionary man.
His art, like music, a visual sonnet,
Each stroke told a story, each scene a sonnet.

The Rialto Bridge, in the morning sun,
Stood still in time, second to none.
The Doge’s Palace, a sight to behold,
In Canaletto’s hands, its story told.

As seasons changed, so did his view,
Yet his love for painting, forever true.
A legacy of light, shadow, and hue,
Canaletto’s vision, forever anew.

So let us remember, this artist so grand,
Whose paintings of cities, still proudly stand.
A mirror to history, a feast for the eye,
Canaletto’s art, will never die.

 

Canaletto. “View of the entrance to the Arsenal“. 1732

 

Canaletto’s Gondolas and other small boats.

In a city built on water, it’s no surprise that a boat is one of Venice’s most defining symbols. Throughout the history of Venice, several types of small boats have evolved, each with its own unique design and purpose. Below are just some of the traditional Venetian boats, that one can see in Canaletto’s 18th century paintings. These boats were essential to the daily life in Venice: navigating the lagoon and serving various purposes from trade, hunting and transportation. Flat bottomed vessels, were particularly favoured for use in shallow marshland (fishing and hunting) and the calmer waters within the islands canal systems. The gondola’s design has evolved over hundreds of years and has a rich history dating back to the 11th century; becoming an iconic symbol of Venice over the centuries. (Please see my posts below in the links section).

  • Gondola: The most iconic Venetian boat, known for its asymmetrical design, flat bottom and ornately carved prow with it’s own symbolism. The iron prow-head of the gondola, called “fero da prorà”, is needed to balance the weight of the gondolier at the stern and has an “Ƨ” shape symbolic of the twists in the Grand Canal. Under the main blade there is a kind of comb with six teeth or “rebbi” or prongs;  pointing forward standing for the six districts or sestieri of Venice. A kind of tooth that juts out backwards toward the centre of the gondola, symbolizes the island of Giudecca. The curved top signifies the Doge’s cap. The semi-circular break, between the curved top and the six teeth is said to represent the Rialto Bridge. Sometimes three friezes can be seen in-between the six prongs, indicating the three main islands of the city: Murano, Burano and Torcello.
  • Sandolo: A flat-bottomed boat similar to the gondola but wider and shorter, often used for fishing or transportation.
  • Mascareta: A small rowing boat that’s lighter and faster, typically used for regattas.
  • Pupparin: A boat with a pointed bow and stern, used for leisurely travel within the canals.
  • Scaula: Considered a predecessor to the gondola, this boat was shorter, wider, and symmetrical.
  • Esse: A racing boat designed for speed and agility in regattas.

 

Canaletto. “Ca’ Rezzonico – Il rio dei Mendicati“. 1721 – 1724

Look closely at the boats in his view paintings and where the palazzos’ facades meet the water. In some respects, the gondolas in these painting are somewhat similar to the ones that visitors to Venice see today; the pitch-black paintwork, the long single oar and even the ornately carved prow.

However, there are several key differences:

  • Gondolas appear flatter and appear to sit lower in the water, without the  more elevated stern. Another fact, is that in Canaletto’s time, gondolas were status symbols; owned mostly by wealthy Venetian families.
  • Many had an enclosed cabin, known as the felze, that provided privacy; meaning that gondolas often hosted secret or romantic meetings. For some, travelling in a gondola was less about seeing the city and more about not being seen!
  • Where the front facade of buildings meets the water; you can see the mooring poles and steps up into the palazzo’s main entrance. These canal side moorings allowed, not only offered residents convenient water access; but also commercial trading goods to be stored in the main ground floor space. The early palaces (Byzantine and Venetian Gothic) were both the home and workplace (warehouse) of the merchant nobility and known as casa-fondaco. Elements of this dual functionality can be traced through later architectural styles. The front of a Venetian palace always faces the water, because that was the way one approached it – by boat. It also was the most elaborately decorated.
  • Interestingly, another feature not seen in his paintings were the coloured canal poles or “Pali di Casada” and wooden jetties, seen today. Originally, these distinctive poles on the canal frontages of many palazzos, were decorated in the family colours and capped with lanterns, rather than the gold caps seen today. They were used for identification in darkness, or during the frequent winter sea-mists. For a full consideration of these iconic canalside features, please se my post “Canal Poles – Pali di Casada”; in the links section below.

In 1817, Lord Byron alluded to the gondola’s intimate interior in his poem Beppo: A Venetian Story

“It glides along the water looking blackly,
Just like a coffin clapt in a canoe,
Where none can make out what you say or do”.

The drawing below, is by 19th century artist William Edward Cooke, who visited Venice 10 times between 1850 and 1877. The work shows his view, looking out from a gondola’s interior towards Venice and the domes of the “Salute” basilica. During his time in Venice, hiring of a gondola was essential and he always used the same gondolier – Vicenzo Grilla; who served him throughout his visits.

William Edward Cooke. “From my Gondola

 

Gondola development over time

At the peak of the Venetian Republic, gondolas could be finished in a variety of colours and highly decorated. A sumptuary law of Venice passed in 1562, required that gondolas should be painted black; as is the case today for public use. (A sumptuary law is one which limits consumption, in this case in relation to the degree of extravagance and competitive excess; by wealthy Venetians at that time). They were also limited to three flourishes in metal – a multi-pronged prow or “ferro”, a curly rear tail or “rico” and two sea-horses. 

During the 17th and 18th C, it is estimated that there were eight to ten thousand gondolas. The many wonderful paintings of Canaletto (1697-1765), show the typical gondola design of that period; together with the wide variety of other boats of varying size. 

The modern gondola was developed only in the 19th C by the boat-builder Tramontin, whose heirs still run the Tramontin boatyard (Squero Tramontin) in the Dorsoduro district. His transformational improvements included an asymmetric lengthened design, a wider bottom at the stern, perfect balance, manoeuvrability and durability. The gondolier stands on a more elevated stern, ensuring greater frontal visibility.

By 1878, the number of gondolas had reduced to about 4000.

Up to the early part of the early 20th C, gondolas were still often fitted with a small cabin or felze. In response to increasing tourism and probable complaints about restrictive views, it was replaced for a few decades by a kind of vestigial summer awning or tendalin.  These can be seen on gondolas as late as the mid-1950s, as in the film Summertime (1955).

Another poem on Canaletto and his artistic legacy:

In Venice’s embrace, where waters flow,
Lived Canaletto, with his canvas aglow.
Through his eyes, the city’s heart did beat,
On each street corner, a picturesque treat.

With brush in hand, he captured the light,
Of gondolas gliding, into the night.
The Grand Canal, under a sky so wide,
Its beauty eternal, on canvas did reside.

From Venice to London, his journey did span,
A master of vedute, a visionary man.
His art, like music, a visual sonnet,
Each stroke told a story, each scene a sonnet.

The Rialto Bridge, in the morning sun,
Stood still in time, second to none.
The Doge’s Palace, a sight to behold,
In Canaletto’s hands, its story told.

As seasons changed, so did his view,
Yet his love for painting, forever true.
A legacy of light, shadow, and hue,
Canaletto’s vision, forever anew.

So let us remember, this artist so grand,
Whose paintings of cities, still proudly stand.
A mirror to history, a feast for the eye,
Canaletto’s art, will never die.

 

Canaletto. “Venice Grand Canal and the Rialto Bridge view from South” 1733-35

Note. Behind the Rialto Bridge you can see the large Fontego dei Tedeschi, ( originally, the work-lodging place for Germanic traders), which at the time was surmounted by beautiful and large chimneys; as well as two small buildings positioned at each corner of the roof, which have now been removed. The building is now a luxury department store, with a top viewing terrace (advance booking only).


 

Gondolas. Today’s view from the Molo towards Isola di San Giorgio Maggiore, with its famous Palladian styled Basilica in classical Renaissance style.


 

Links (internal-external)

The Gondolas of Venice. A complete guide to this quintessentially Venetian boat. Traditionally a flat-bottomed and rudderless rowing craft; it is well suited to the shallow conditions of the lagoon and the city’s canal system.   “The Gondolas of Venice”

Canal Poles or “Pali di Casada”, are colourful and distinctive waterside poles that line Venetian canals; yet most visitors remain unaware of their history and significance.  “Canal Poles – Pali di Casada”

VIDEO. The Grand Canal in Venice from Palazzo Flangini to Campo San Marcuola, Canaletto (youtube.com)

VIDEO. A Journey into Art – Giovanni Antonio Canal – Canaletto (youtube.com)

Squero di San Trovaso – Venezia”     See how a Venetian gondola is made at one of the few remaining gondola workshop of “Squero San Trovaso”, in the Dorsoduro district of Venice.     Squero San Trovaso – Dorsoduro 1097 – 30123 Venezia


 

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