The paintings of Canaletto (1697-1768) are very dear to me, and I was delighted to find three of them in The Louvre: All the Paintings. One of the three, The Molo Seen from the Bacino di San Marco (after 1730), gave me a marvelous thrill of recognition, but, if a copy of the Mona Lisa is still only a copy, I can’t really boast that my recognition was real recognition. After all, I didn’t see the painting while I was at the Louvre in August 2012, almost two years ago now, and I’ve never been to Venice. Nevertheless, it was an image I felt very familiar with; for more than 20 years, in fact, I have seen it almost every day, because there is a print of it in my bedroom.
Or, rather, I thought I had seen it almost every day, and I thought I had a print of it in my bedroom. When I carried the Louvre book upstairs to delight in the coincidence, I discovered that, despite many similarities, the print on my wall was not a duplicate of the Louvre painting. Although the Ducal Palace (called the Molo) is virtually identical in both, and Canaletto has reproduced some of the very same boats across the foreground view of the basin of San Marco, and even the human figures on the boats are uncannily alike, nevertheless, there are differences, in posture, in number of figures, etc.
I’ve written before about the idiosyncrasies of my thrill of recognition, e.g., in entries 14 and 15, after a visit to the Art Gallery of Ontario, during which I mistakenly thought that I recognized a Giotto painting from the Louvre in a visiting show. I decided to spend a little more time with the curious similarities and differences of the two Canaletto images I had encountered. I hoped to answer two questions: Where was the original of my print, and could I track down any other images of the Ducal Palace that perhaps contributed to the feeling of recognition inspired in me by the Louvre Canaletto?
I started by reviewing another thrill of recognition I associate with the print in my bedroom, which I experienced when I saw Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Dashing archeologist Jones and a companion arrive in Venice from the U.S. in search of Jones’s missing father; as they leave their water taxi, the camera captures in the background the basin of San Marco and, across the expanse of lustrous water, the Ducal Palace. I remember attributing my strong impression of seeing something familiar to the exactness of the film’s reproduction of the image in my print. I didn’t have the same feeling at all when I watched the scene again on videotape; instead of confirming my impression that I had seen full front the lovely stone expanse of the palace, I discovered that the building was shown at a sharp angle and in sufficient distance that the light-drenched reddish brown color of Canaletto’s depiction was replaced by a grayish white.
Despite this second revelation that I apparently pretty much see whatever I want to see, I decided to look through mementoes of galleries I associate with Canaletto. So far, the closest I appear to have come to the Molo in person was during a visit years ago to the wonderful Wallace Collection in London, where I could have seen, among more than 25 other paintings attributed either to Canaletto or to his imitators, a work entitled Venice: The Molo from the Bacio di S. Marco. There’s a reproduction of it on the Wallace Collection website; here’s a link: http://wallacelive.wallacecollection.org/eMuseumPlus. Search there for Canaletto; the results will include the painting of the Molo, along with notes that identify its original with a work housed in the Brera in Milan, rather than in the Louvre, and the comment that there are “six other closely related compositions by Canaletto.”
I could see enough differences between this Milan painting—and its imitation in the Wallace Collection—and my bedroom print to conclude that I hadn’t found the original on which the print was based, so I kept looking. I didn’t have much to go on: the print itself had no textual information beyond a title, Palace of the Doge, and Canaletto’s name. I didn’t get any help from any of the other gallery websites I visited, so I tried another sort of resource, a website that stores reproductions from a wide selection of galleries. I had seen such databases before, but it was in an online database new to me that I found what I think is my print’s original while examining the more than 100 Canalettos (and imitations of Canaletto) it reproduces. The Web Gallery of Art (http://www.wga.hu/index1.html), a very handsome and user-friendly website, contains a reproduction of a painting entitled Palazzo Ducale and the Piazza di San Marco that hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It corresponds in every detail of boat and sailor with the foreground elements of my bedroom print. One curiosity: a copy of the Uffizi Gallery catalogue i was given years ago by a friend who had visited Florence calls the painting View of the San Marco Wharf. Still, despite this discrepancy in names, I think the Uffizi painting is likely the original I was looking for. I have included both paintings, the one from the Louvre and the one from the Uffizi here, for comparison, along with the painting from the Wallace Collection I mentioned above.
My research produced one other valuable resource: there’s a commentary on the Molo Seen from the Bacino di San Marco in the Louvre’s “Artworks of the Day” series, a feature of the website I wrote about in entry 18. I was searching for a reproduction of the Canaletto painting, and the results included a link to the commentary. Two especially notable pieces of information it provided: the Louvre says that there are not six but ten Canaletto paintings that closely resemble the Louvre’s view of the Ducal Palace and that, of these, the one closest to the Louvre’s is the one from the Uffizi, that is, the original of my print.
See for yourself. In the meantime, I’m going to try to collect anything else I have that can shed light on my acquaintance with Canaletto and hope to write about the results soon.