It becomes clear from the start of this documentary that the intended audience resembles the British Grand tourists of an earlier era. The exhibition on screen is an immersive experience just as the Grand Tour might have been, now transposed into our pervasively digital era. Although not inaccessible, it’s definitely for those interested in art and is absolutely for aesthetes.
Giovanni Antonio Canal, better known as Canaletto, is a well-known painter but hasn’t reached the rank of some of his Italia predeccesors and contemporaries. The purpose of the documentary is not only to showcase a curated collection of Canaletto’s view paintings, now part of the Queen’s Collection at Buckingham Palace, but also to recreate the life of Canaletto and the Venice to which he belonged. In Canaletto & the Art of Venice, we are introduced to six view paintings of Venice and five of Rome. Joseph Smith, who was Canaletto’s agent and a piquant figure in both Venetian and English history, originally commissioned these. By 1762, George III purchased them for Buckingham Palace, and here we are today.
Great admiration for Canaletto’s work drips from the tone of the documentary. We are led to understand that he did not aim towards photographic impressions, but rather towards recreation and reinvention (under the influence of his father, a stage painter). By layering contours and lines, Canaletto ‘transforms his Venice’ in an act of love and inspiration. Experts respond in turn, deeming his fingerprint in the corner of a painting ‘charming and precious’. And when you see the paintings yourself, you’ve got to admit: his vividly clear colors are striking; his paintings possess a delicious clarity of light.
We get commentary from experts primarily from the University of Warwick, and insight from the curators of the Royal Collection. Both take us into the Venetian world of art, history, geography, and architecture. There is a feeling of a story within a story: both the exhibition and the restoration have been set up with obviously meticulous care. The artist’s process is explained: how he calculates and recalculates is visible in his sketches.
All of Canaletto’s paintings look like pieces of each other, appearing to be snapshots of a city, which caters to the intentionally transportative element. The music is magical, a combination of violas and operatic arias that double the sensorial experience of viewing a painting and makes it come to life.
The surprising and ambivalent figure of the story isn’t Canaletto, but rather Joseph Smith. While Smith’s collection represents a priceless lens of Venetian life, it becomes clear at the end of the documentary that Canaletto had a very small inventory at the time of death, leading experts to believe that the dealer might have exploited the artist. Smith’s presence is larger than life in this tale, often seeming to loom over poor Canaletto. And yet, Canaletto might have remained anonymous without him. Commentary doesn’t dwell too much on this, and the subtle ‘unsaid’ allows you to draw your own conclusions.
While the images are sharp and diverse, I would have liked more panoramic filming to actually match up with what Canaletto saw and painted. Instead, claustrophobic close-ups do not breath life, but are stifling – although one tends to think ‘hey, that’s Venice’. In the same vein, the entire documentary is a bit too dense in its attempt to cover a very broad range of facts about Venice instead of sticking to the Canaletto micro-cosmos.
All in all, this is an ultra-thorough documentary that requires patience and calm. If you’ve got the affinity, prepare yourself for an interesting and well-made biography.
Dir: David Bickerstaff
Featuring: Gianni Basso, Charles Beddington, Claire Chorley, Matthew Hirst, Lorenzo Pericolo, Rosie Razzall, Rosemary Sweet, Giorgio Tagliaferro, Lucy Whitaker
Prd: Phil Grabsky
DOP: Bickerstaff, Hugh Hood
Music: Asa Bennett
Runtime: 90 mins