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Professor Philip Steadman
University College London
Emeritus Fellowship

Canaletto’s camera

Philip Steadman systematically compares photographs with the sketches, paintings and drawings of Canaletto

A photograph of Campo Santa Maria Formosa in Venice, with copies of camera obscura sketches by Canaletto superimposed.
A photograph of Campo Santa Maria Formosa in Venice, with copies of camera obscura sketches by Canaletto superimposed.

The paintings of Canaletto are popularly thought of as superior postcards for aristocrats visiting Venice on the Grand Tour. (English visitors were indeed for a time the artist’s most enthusiastic clients, which explains why so many of the works are in Britain today.) The implication is that the pictures are highly realistic, ‘proto-photographic’ images of the city. Canaletto is known to have used the camera obscura – the predecessor of the photographic camera – as an aid. Canaletto’s contemporary Antonio Zanetti, wrote in 1771 that “Canal taught the proper use of the camera obscura.” It might seem, then, that the ‘photographic’ character of the paintings is explained by an optical method of production.

The truth is more complicated and more interesting. Many sketches by Canaletto survive, indubitably made using a camera. However, detailed comparisons with the corresponding paintings, with Canaletto’s finished drawings and engravings and with photographs of the scenes, show many departures from the real architecture of Venice. The artist enlarges important monuments, raises domes, shifts campaniles sideways and combines views from different viewpoints.

The illustration above shows a photograph of the Campo Santa Maria Formosa, with tracings of Canaletto’s camera sketches superimposed. They match the everyday buildings closely. But see how Canaletto’s dome on Santa Maria is traced much larger than the real dome, to give the church the prominence it deserves. In other cases, the transformations are much more extreme. Canaletto himself divided his work into vedute (views) and capricci (fantasies). The capricci might appear to show completely imaginary buildings on improbable sites. But again, detailed examination shows that often these also have their origins in drawings made with a camera obscura, which are then cut up, recombined and permuted, as in some kind of eighteenth century Photoshop.

In this project I will continue to make comparisons of camera sketches, paintings, presentation drawings and photographs. I also plan to build a camera or cameras, following eighteenth-century designs that Canaletto would have known about. I will use these instruments to make experiments, not in Venice but in London, where Canaletto worked for nine years in the 1740s and 1750s. I hope to find out more about the ‘proper use of the camera’ that Canaletto taught.

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