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Artists’ Different Takes On the ‘City of Canals’

Venice might play second fiddle to Paris in the famous-romantic-city department. But an upcoming exhibit gives the Italian city of love — home to Casanova, courtesans and intimate gondola rides — its proper due.

“Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals,” opening this weekend at the National Gallery of Art, boasts more than 50 vibrant paintings of the architecture, canals and alleyways of the Italian lagoon city. A tourist destination even in the 18th century, the city inspired an array of view painters — artists who painted scenes of the city as souvenirs for tourists. The best-known of these was Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto.

Before visitors reach the exhibition itself, they encounter one of the world’s oldest gondolas. More than 35 feet long, painted black and accented in gold, the Venetian symbol visually ferries visitors to the city celebrated in the collection. Once inside, they are treated to a greatest-hits array of Venice’s most famous sights, from the Piazza San Marco to the Santa Maria della Salute.

Trained as a theatrical painter, Canaletto began his career painting atmospheric, artistic representations of the city he loved. The skies behind his richly colored monuments are moody and dark, and his figures are spontaneous and loose. 

As his fame grew, Canaletto’s paintings evolved, gaining the crystalline detail and accuracy for which he is known. “They are far more precise. There’s very intricate detail,” said Charles Beddington, the exhibition’s guest curator and a leading Canaletto specialist. In these later works, “Canaletto … adapted his style to paint exactly what the British tourist would have wanted to hang on his wall back at home.”

Unlike other exhibitions of Canaletto’s work, this one allows visitors to compare the artist’s work with similar scenes painted by his apparent rivals, the contemporaries who both inspired and imitated Canaletto, often competing with his fame and fortune. While each of the exhibition’s paintings is skillfully painted, the comparisons allow visitors a better sense of each painter’s personality and style. Often they highlight Canaletto’s superior talent.

“These sort of comparisons introduce artists who hopefully deserve to be known better while at the same time enhancing the status of the presiding genius, Canaletto himself,” Beddington said.

In addition to rivals such as his predecessor, Luca Carlevarijs, and the original and dynamic Michele Marieschi, the exhibition showcases the work of Canaletto’s nephew Bernardo Bellotto, who trained under his famous uncle but painted in a more vibrant style. The exhibition closes with a comparison between Canaletto and Francesco Guardi, whose use of light and color seems to emphasize Venice’s fragility rather than its vibrancy.

The exhibition also addresses an early convergence of science and art with a display of two 18th-century camera obscuras, devices that projected images onto glass plates for tracing. Originally developed as a scientific instrument, the contraption appealed to artists seeking precision. Canaletto himself used a camera obscura, as did several of his rivals. Also on display is a first edition of one of the earliest and most accurate maps of Venice, likely created with the help of such a device.

Visitors to the exhibition can continue their Venetian education downstairs at the National Gallery’s Garden Café. Chef Fabio Trabocchi, the award-winning chef at New York City’s Fiamma, has transformed the cafe’s menu to feature signature Italian dishes in honor of the new exhibition. 

The exhibition is a cornerstone of this spring’s Italy@150, a series of activities throughout the U.S. celebrating the 150th anniversary of the reunification of Italy. This spring, the city will also host La Dolce DC, a festival timed to honor the anniversary as well as the Italian art shows at the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection. Both exhibitions are exclusive to D.C.

Like the festival, the exhibition aims to showcase the vibrancy of one of the world’s most famous and beautiful cities.

“Venice represents, for them all and for us, a true dream,” Italian ambassador Giulio Terzi said in a presentation introducing the exhibit to the media. The painters’ “approach is not only an intellectual stimulus, but it is also a manner of looking at the past to understand the present and the future.”

“Venice: Canaletto and his Rivals” will be on view from Sunday to May 30. The special cafe menu is available through March 20.

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