Canaletto's Secret

How Canaletto's 'photographic' paintings are being used to fight the "acqua alta" in Venice

By Museo Correr

and Ca' Rezzonico - Museum of the 18th century Venice

River of Mendicanti (1724 ca.) by Antonio Canal, known as CanalettoCa' Rezzonico - Museum of the 18th century Venice

Canaletto's views of Venice: not only a matter or art. 

Canaletto is the view painter par excellence, known all over the world for his Venice and Grand Canal's views. But the great value of his paintings isn't only a matter of art. In the last few years they have proved to be fundamental in analyzing Venice's sea level, as "acqua alta" is a pressing problem in the lagoon.

Camera obscura (18th century) by Antonio Canal, known as CanalettoMuseo Correr

Photographs before photography

Canaletto used 'camera obscura' technique to fully create photographic paintings. In fact, his reproductions of Venice are so accurate they can be used as scientific evidence—photographs before photography was even invented.

Camera obscura (18th century) by Antonio Canal, known as CanalettoMuseo Correr

View of the Grand Canal at San Geremia (1758/1759) by Francesco GuardiMuseo Correr

San Pietro Martire in Murano (early 1760s) by Francesco GuardiMuseo Correr

River of Mendicanti (1724 ca.) by Antonio Canal, known as CanalettoCa' Rezzonico - Museum of the 18th century Venice

A tour among the ancient canals

Publication of the prints put Canaletto’s paintings in a fixed sequence. The inimitable experience of fluidity gliding along the Canal may even have suggested the arrangement that appears in Canaletto’s paintings. No earlier published set of printed views provides a similar re-creation of the sequential spacing experience of moving through an urban setting.
We could even see this arrangement as a precursor of modern Google Street View.

Street View ahead of time

Canaletto’s paintings offer a sequential trip up and down the Grand Canal that starts at, and then returns to, Rialto.

Visit Venice like a tourist of the past

This arrangement was adopted because, when visitors first came to Venice, they often began exploring it from that point. Such was the case with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who visited in 1786.

The Grand Canal from Palazzo Balbi towards the Rialto (c. 1722) by Antonio Canal detto CanalettoCa' Rezzonico - Museum of the 18th century Venice

The secrets hidden in the artworks

By looking at the algae belt on buildings facing the Grand Canal in his paintings, Italian researchers Dario Camuffo and Giovanni Sturaro collected a huge amount of previously unknown data.

The sea level

They have been able to understand how the sea level has changed over the last three centuries.

Natural changes and human impact

The comparison of the data from the ancient paintings with those gathered today through much more modern techniques (such as satellite derived measurements) is of invaluable help to distinguish between natural and human impact on subsidence and other phenomena.

A city at the forefront

Venice is the symbol of the critical sea level rise, an issue being faced by many cities and countries around the world. Historically, the city has always been at the forefront in addressing the matter and finding new ways of understanding it and challenging it.

Fighting the climate change

Even today, Italian researchers and engineers are inspiring the international community in the common defense against the consequences of climate change.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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