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The Man Before Canaletto

Caspar van Wittel - Piazza Navona, Rome - Google Art Project
Piazza Navona, Rome 1699

Caspar van Wittel was a Dutch veduta painter born on 1653 in Amersfoort, a medieval city in central Netherlands. He lived most of his life in Italy, specifically in Rome— becoming a member of the Accademia di San Luca— although he travelled all over the country. Wittel is considered among the very first to spur the veduta genre, even before Canaletto and Panini, making detailed studies from nature and pioneering the format we know today as the panorama, or wide-view of scenery. Affectionately known in his day as Gaspare degli Occhiali, (Caspar of the Eyeglasses) his views of the Italian countryside combined with beautiful architecture with local figures helped forge a rich , seductive genre that would have an immense impact on landscape art.

In Piazza Navona above, (painted when Canaletto was about two years old) Wittel offers us a view that, even though we know it well to this day, here it still appears fresh and interesting to us. The contrast of warm sunshine with cool shadows in perspective, sharp detail in the architecture, and a myriad of figures scattered across the piazza from foreground to background, creates a real sense of space and presence. Wittel's figures are not stiff or posed, as in some veduta paintings, but are real people going about their daily lives—it is the closest record we have of life in this incredible period. Note the food sellers along the center and right-hand side of the composition. I love how the vanishing point in this one-point perspective leads the eye upward to sparse white clouds, also in perspective, contrasting with the darker, almost imperceptible clouds to the left behind the church of Sant'Agnese in Agone.

Caspar van Wittel - Castel Sant'Angelo from the South - WGA25823
Castel Sant'Angelo from the South, ca. 1695

This verdant view of Rome has a surreal quality to it, almost Egyptian, revealing trees and a view of the Tiber that appears quaint and small to our modern eyes. It has the sense that we are looking at this view from the balcony or roof of a house of a friend or family member, not a formal veduta. We also get the real presence of fresh air, without cars or streets nearby, and architecture that is still clean and unpolluted. It is unclear what the figures on the wooden barge are transporting, besides livestock. Note how the foreground figures are relaxed and enjoying the view.

Caspar van Wittel, Villa Medici and garden in Rome, 1685
The Villa Medici and Garden in Rome, 1685

Note this predominantly cool palette Wittel uses, save for a line of warm-toned trees dividing the right-hand composition. Here the figures predominate the painting, contrasting active with stationary figures. Look at how he subdivides the composition with a horizontal shadow line, placing the foreground active figures in shadow. This was a keen mind of acute visual perception. And someone who dearly loved being in Italy.

7 Rome View of the Arch of Titus
View of the Arch of Titus, ca.1710

Wittel portrays a few people walking along a path once inhabited by the mighty Roman empire, yet these figures seem completely oblivious to it. Wittel seems to be commenting on the universality of social status and how identity is based on being seen and how you are perceived in public, rather than considering the relevance of the past and how it shapes who we are. Wittel bathes these figures in a warm sunlight surrounded by trees, as if to suggest that nature will prevail over power, nothing manmade can last forever. People will prevail in the end. Wittel was more than a veduta painter, he was a someone who saw beyond the veduta.


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