Canaletto’s foray into real Venice

To those who know Canaletto as the painter of vedute esatte, or exact cityscapes, with topographically accurate depictions of urban vistas or monuments in which the human figures play a secondary role, The Stonemason’s Yard comes as a great surprise. The painting depicts an informal scene in Venice where the portrayed human activity adds a fresh layer of realism and the location, unlike the more conventional vedute by Canaletto and his rivals, has changed significantly since the 1720s when this picture was painted.

The painting, which now hangs at the National Gallery in London, looks over a temporary stonemason’s yard in the Campo San Vidal and across the Grand Canal towards the church of Santa Maria della Carità. The view of the opposite bank of the Grand Canal is now blocked by the arch of the wooden Accademia Bridge and the church of the Carità has been much altered. The campanile painted here by Canaletto collapsed a few years later in 1744 and the church itself now houses the Gallerie dell’Accademia.

Whereas the conventional vedute of the time intended for the Grand Tourists aim for the conventional views much like those that are now favoured by modern-day photographers of Venice, The Stonemason’s Yard does the opposite. The domestic buildings around the temporary open workshop for repairing the church of San Vidal (not seen in the picture) are in poor repair. Laundry hangs from many of the windows and pot plants stand on several balconies. This is a working class neighbourhood well out of the way of the Grand Tour.

It is a depiction of Venice that is inhabited by real Venetians: one woman is spinning thread on a balcony to the right while another draws water in the campo from a public well-head. Two children are playing in the foreground to the left: one is falling over and urinating in surprise, as a woman lunges forward to catch him while another woman looks down from a balcony above. It is an early morning scene with a rooster crowing on a windowsill to the lower left and sunlight streaming into the picture from same angle.

In all this detail that anticipates the popular interest in Venice of the future, beyond the city’s majestic architecture and in its real inhabitants and its communal life, The Stonemason’s Yard is truly avant-garde. It is now considered one of Canaletto’s finest works and an indication of where the artist could have reached had he not been restrained by the ever growing (and increasingly profitable) demand for vedute of familiar and much beautified scenes like the Piazza San Marco or the Grand Canal that so resemble modern-day photographs.