by Roderick Conway Morris

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Pinacoteca Capitolina, Rome
View of the Ponte Sisto, Rome by Gaspare Vanvitelli

Vanvitelli and his 'camera obscura'

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 15 March 2003


The debate as to how much artists of the past employed mechanical and optical devices, a debate revived by David Hockney, is unlikely ever to reach a conclusion.

However, in the case of Gaspare Vanvitelli, who was born Gaspar Van Wittel in Holland in 1652 but spent most of his life in Italy (where he died in 1736), we can see how the use of an optical device, the 'camera obscura,' in the hands of a particular artist played a key role in establishing both a genre - Italian view painting - and a practical method of executing such pictures, which was taken up by a number painters until the invention of photography.

Although previously noted as a forerunner of Carlevaris, Canaletto, Belotto, Guardi and other 18th-century Venetian view painters, Vanvitelli is now finally being given the benefit of an extensive show devoted primarily to his achievements, 'Vanvitelli and the Origins of View Painting,' curated by Fabio Benzi, at the Correr Museum. It continues until May 18.

It was news from Holland about an optical instrument that inspired Galileo to build his first telescope in 1609, and the greater intellectual freedom enjoyed in northern countries fostered science in general and the development of such devices as the century progressed. When the young Gaspar Van Wittel went south about 1675 to seek his fortune in Italy, he was familiar with both the workings of the camera obscura, the prototype of the modern camera - which could cast an image via a lens onto a screen within a box - and its usefulness for the burgeoning northern genre of townscape view painting. Jan Vermeer himself had already used the device for this purpose.

The camera obscura was not unknown in Italy. The Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher had one and described it, but it seems to have been regarded more as a kind of miraculous toy or magic lantern than as a day-to-day tool for artists. Italian artists had worked out the principles of linear or scientific perspective based on mathematics and geometry about 200 years earlier, and the mastery of these techniques was a key component in Italian artistic training.

How adept Vanvitelli was at scientific perspective is unclear, but his preparatory drawings, which are one of the highlights of the exhibition, are notable for their lack of the often complicated network of 'sight lines' typical of their Italian equivalents. Thus, the Dutch artist may have opted to use the camera obscura as an alternative, 'empirical' method to make up for his deficiencies in knowledge of linear perspective, or because he found it a handier tool for what he was trying to do.

In the case of a large panoramic view, such as his 'View of Piazza Navona,' which is about two meters (six feet) long, Vanvitelli used his camera obscura to take a series of 'snapshots,' pasting these preliminary drawings together afterward.

His first steps toward becoming a specialist in view painting can be traced to some commissions he received shortly after he arrived in Rome. These came from his fellow Netherlander, the hydraulic engineer Cornelis Meyer. The engineer needed graphics for the presentations of the projects he was trying to sell to the Roman authorities to restore the navigability of the Tiber from Rome as far up-river as Perugia, and to turn the city's obelisks into giant gnomons for sundials in squares (he had already attempted to interest the Venetians in a new system for dredging their canals).

Vanvitelli's illustrations were essentially technical drawings, but the ones he did of city squares, especially, may have suggested the potential of such scenes as material for more self-consciously 'artistic' productions.

In an age when the boundaries between the arts and sciences had yet to be distinctly drawn, no opprobrium seems to have attached to the use of a camera obscura for any kind of drawing at the time. The grids penciled in below the initial sketching and then inked in on top, at the stage when the artist was transferring his work into paint and onto canvas, suggest that he made free use of the device. It seems only later that the employment of a mechanical device came to be regarded as a form of 'cheating.' But it is important to remember that a camera obscura could produce good results only in the hands of an expert artist, and Vanvitelli emerges in his drawings as a vigorous and highly skilled free-hand draftsman.

One of the aspects of Vanvitelli's choice of views that anticipated the wide-ranging applications of actual photography was that he seems to have been as interested in the human life of the city and its less-frequented corners as in its ruins and monuments, which had almost entirely held the attention of his predecessors. This quality in his work obviously appealed to his local Roman buyers, and it is striking how many of his paintings - in contrast to Canaletto's, nearly all which were carried off to distant climes - remained in Italy.

Having established himself as the leading view painter of his adopted city, Vanvitelli undertook a number of journeys around the peninsula to record other places. He visited Venice in the 1690s and did numerous drawings, out of which came more than 40 paintings. Vanvitelli's example quite likely encouraged the Venetian artist Luca Carlevaris (1665-1731) to switch in mid-career to view painting, to which he devoted himself from the early years of the new century onward.

So, by the time Canaletto (1697-1768) came on the scene, there was already at least one well-known resident view painter at work in Venice, although aside from his exhaustive record of the city's principal monuments, which were issued as prints, Carlevaris's specialty became the city's most magnificent views, and the arrival of foreign ambassadors and other pageants, rather than the kind of simpler, everyday townscapes that Vanvitelli favored.

Interestingly, Canaletto did not switch from the family profession of theatrical scene painting to view painting until he went to Rome in 1719-20 (when Vanvitelli still held sway in his chosen genre) to assist his father in doing the sets for two Scarlatti operas. The Roman patrons whom the Canal family met through this commission were among Vanvitelli's keenest collectors, as Ludovica Trezzani documents in the show's catalogue, and it is difficult to imagine that Canaletto did not see some of the Vanvitellis owned by this circle. Although eye-witness evidence is presently lacking, it is perfectly likely that Canaletto encountered the venerable Dutch artist himself.

Canaletto's first known drawing of a view, of the Arch of Constantine, was executed in Rome in 1720. This was a fateful moment for Vanvitelli's long-term reputation. For, in due course, it was Canaletto who was to become the ideal view painter and Venice the ideal view.

The Dutch painter subsequently sank gradually out of sight - somewhat unjustly, since, as this exhibition reveals, Vanvitelli was a rather better draftsman and more engaging painter than his present obscurity would tend to suggest.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023