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Canal Giovanni Antonio called Canaletto

(Venice 1697 - 1768)

This oil painting, executed on fine English canvas, depicts the Colosseum as seen from the west, rendered massive in scale in relation to the few surrounding architectural structures. In the foreground, on a cobblestone pavement depicted in foreshortening, several colourful characters arranged in groups of two or three lend rhythm to the composition, introducing a narrative element. The diagonal formed by the paved path draws the eye to the top of the Flavian Amphitheatre, where three slim crosses stand out amidst the foliage sprouting from the ruins. Although the focus is almost exclusively on the mass of the amphitheatre, there is a subtle balance between the soft blue of the sky, the golden tone of the building and the few shadowy areas of the grassy bushes, enlivened here and there by the bright colourful splashes of the figures.

The painting is based on one of the twenty-four drawings made by Canaletto during his 1719-1720 trip to Rome. It was probably not made on commission, but painted during the last years of the artist’s stay in London at a time when English intellectual circles were showing a renewed interest in the Eternal City. Although critics have long had divided opinions regarding its attribution - vacillating between his nephew Bernardo Bellotto and the young Canaletto - they now seem to agree on the latter, dating the work to around 1754-55.

Object details

oil on canvas
cm. 27x36
Text not translated yet

Londra, Walter I. Abraham. Acquisto dello stato, 1908.

  • 1994 Dortmund, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte
  • 2000 Lodève, Musée de Lodève, Hôtel du Cardinal de Fleury
  • 2002 Città del Messico, Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño
  • 2004-2005 Roma, Palazzo Poli
  • 2007 Shizuoka, Shizuoka Prefectural Museum
  • 2007 Oita, Oita Art Museum
  • 2007 Tokyo, the Bunkamura Museum of Art
  • 2007 Totai, Tottori Prefectural Museum of Art
  • 2007 Toyota, Municipal Museum of Art
  • 2015 Aix-en-Provence, Hotel de Caumont
  • 2016-2017 Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza
  • 2018 Roma, Palazzo Braschi
  • 2020 Ajaccio, Palais Fesch-Musée des beaux-arts
Conservation and Diagnostic
  • 1914, Luigi Bartolucci e Augusto Cecconi Principi (?)


Canaletto depicts the Flavian Amphitheatre from the western side, with the part of the missing ring facing the observer. The choice of such an angle, rather than the more complete north-facing elevation, appears to be aimed at highlighting the ruined aspect of the building. This is emphasised by bushes of Mediterranean scrub emerging at the stringcourses of the first two orders. The parasite-like vegetation, rather than being intended to express the ‘terrifying sublime’ in the manner of Giovan Battista Piranesi's engravings, seems here to faithfully reflect the condition of the monument throughout the 18th century. This same condition can also be seen in the frontispiece of the 1815 Romanarum plantarum, by the physician Antonio Sebastiani (Sebastiani 1815).

On the top of the Colosseum, in a slightly off-centre position on the left, three wooden crosses can be made out. They may be the crosses erected by the Carmelite friar Angelo Paoli (1642-1720) on the orders of Pope Clement XI, prior to the consecration of the site as the Via Crucis in 1750, according to the friar's memoirs (Cacciari 1756, p. 89). In keeping with the tenets of realistic Vedutism, the Venetian painter did not flinch from recording with topographical accuracy the state of the Colosseum at his time. The focus on details such as the Crucifixion painted in the archivolt of the western entrance make this clear. The archaeologist Giovanni Marangoni (1746, p. 67) mentions it in his dissertation on the building, but it is also visible in the brickwork in the arches of the first order, commissioned by Clement XI. Not only do the 17th-century guide books confirm that the monument was located outside the urban area, but also the painstaking analysis of the amphitheatre's condition carried out by the architect Carlo Fontana (1725, pp. 39-44)..

The sheer scale of the ancient architecture emerges when compared to the difference in size of the small figures arranged along the path. The people, picked out with vibrant splashes of colour, are in keeping with the habitual depiction of 18th-century tourists in front of classical backdrops in the years of the Grand Tour. The taste for the anecdotal in the depiction of genre scenes is combined with rigorous handling of perspective, probably facilitated by the use of the camera obscura, also successfully employed by Gaspar van Wittel at the same time. In terms of the painting style, the soft, almost transparent light that bathes the landscape, while creating patches of synthetism without chiaroscuro, does not become pure monochrome. The subtle tonal transitions between the different hues are achieved by precise and restrained brushwork, which only in the definition of some points of light give way to more rapid and vigorous strokes.

The creative idea for the canvas is closely linked to one of the twenty-four watercolour drawings – housed in the British Museum in London, apart from one in the Museum of Art, Darmstadt – done by Canaletto probably during his 1719-20 visit to Rome and recognised as autograph in 2001 (Chapman, in Canaletto prima maniera 2001, pp. 43-46). This is the Colosseo, da ovest (no. 235), which is also the origin of another drawing, previously believed to be by Bellotto, held at the Istituto Centrale per la Grafica in Rome (inv. no. FN 507 [4143]). Reiterating his interest in the theme, the Flavian Amphitheatre is the subject of other canvases that have been tentatively ascribed to Canaletto, such as the one in the Royal Collections at Hampton Court (1743), which focuses on the north side of the monument. Finally, inspired by the same drawing in the British Museum we find two works by Bellotto – one in the Galleria Cesare Lampronti, the other in the Galleria Nazionale di Parma – as well as a view of the Colosseum by his father Bernardo Canal, sold by Christie's in London on 5 December 2012 (Joyeux, in La Grande Bellezza 2020, p. 112).

Together with its pendant of the basilica of Maxentius (inv. 541), the painting was purchased in 1908 on the London antiquities market from Walter Abraham for 2,500 lire (Kunstchronik 1909, p. 254). The purchase was facilitated by Ettore Modigliani, then director of the Pinacoteca di Brera and responsible for the acquisition of several works by the Venetian master for Italian collections. Images of the two canvases first appeared in an article by Pietro d'Achiardi, then Inspector of the Galleria Borghese, in the ‘Bollettino d’Arte’ of 1912. Since then, there have been various suggestions as to their attribution: from Bernardo Bellotto (Ashby-Constable 1925; Fritzsche 1936; Parker 1948) to Canaletto's ‘early manner’ (D'Achiardi 1912; Ozzola 1913), as well as to the latter’s mature production, but with elements that pre-date Bellotto’s art (Longhi 1928). In the more recent literature, scholars have generally concurred in recognising the hand of Canaletto (Beddington 2006; Joyeux, in La Grande Bellezza 2020), or in more cautiously ascribing the two canvases to his workshop between the 1750s and 1760s (B. A. Kowalczyk in Nolli, Vasi, Piranesi 2005, later opting for attribution to Canaletto in Canaletto: Rome, Londres, Venise 2015 and in Canaletto, 1697-1768 2018). The hypothesis that the two Borghese paintings were produced, not on commission, during the years of the artist’s English sojourn would appear convincing, judging by the stylistic affinities with the works commissioned by Thomas Hollis in 1754-55 (Beddington 2006). The return to the youthful drawings of 1719-20 thirty years later, consistent with the practice of Vedutism based on recollections, should thus be viewed in the context of a renewed focus on the Eternal City in English intellectual circles during the years of the Grand Tour. However, the artist’s reawakened personal interest in Roman themes, following his nephew Bernardo Bellotto's visit to the capital in 1742-45, should not be overlooked. 

Chiara Pazzaglia

  • G. Marangoni, Delle memorie sacre e profane dell'Anfiteatro Flavio di Roma volgarmente detto il Colosseo, Roma 1746, pp. 66-67.
  • P. T. Cacciari, Della Vita, Virtù e Doni sopranaturali del venerabile servo di Dio P. Angiolo Paoli carmelitano dell'antica osservanza, Roma 1756, pp. 88-90.
  • A. Sebastiani, Romanarum plantarum fasciculus alter accedit enumeratio plantarum sponte nascentium in ruderibus Amphiteatri Flavii, Roma 1815.
  • Sammlungen, in Kunstchronik: Wochenschrift für Kunst und Kunstgewerbe, Neue Folge, n. 20, 1909, p. 254.
  • P. D'Achiardi, Nuovi acquisti della R. Galleria Borghese, in Bollettino d'Arte, anno 6, fasc. 3 (31 marzo 1912), pp. 81-82; tav. I p. 84.
  • L. Ozzola, Le rovine romane nella pittura del XVII e XVIII secolo, in L'Arte, anno XVI, n. 2, 1913, p. 128; fig. 24, p. 121.
  • R. Strinati, La Galleria Borghese di Roma, in Emporium, vol. LX, n. 358, ottobre 1924, p. 604.
  • T. Ashby, W. G. Constable, Canaletto and Bellotto in Rome – 1, in The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs, vol. 46, n. 266, May 1925, p. 213.
  • R. Longhi, Precisioni nelle gallerie italiane: 1. R. Galleria Borghese, Roma 1928, p. 225.
  • H. A. Fritzsche, Bernardo Bellotto, genannt Canaletto, Burg bei Magdeburg 1936, p. 105.
  • H. Voss, [Recensione del libro di H. A Fritzsche, Bernardo Bellotto, genannt Canaletto], in Göttingische Gelehrte Anzeigen, annata 199, n. 5, 1937, p. 196.
  • A. De Rinaldis, La R. Galleria Borghese in Roma, Roma 1939, pp. 30, 61.
  • A. Morassi, Settecento veneziano inedito (II), in Arte Veneta, 1950 (n. 4), p. 47.
  • P. Della Pergola, La Galleria Borghese in Roma, Milano 1955, p. 109, n. 194.
  • W. G. Constable, Canaletto. Giovanni Antonio Canal 1697-1768, Oxford 1962, I, n. 388; II, pp. 364-365.
  • M. Di Macco, Il Colosseo: funzione simbolica, storica, urbana, Roma 1971, pp. 79-97.
  • L. Puppi, L'opera completa del Canaletto, Milano 1968, p. 109, n. 216.
  • S. Kozakiewicz, Bernardo Bellotto, II, Milano 1972, p. 464; fig. 328, p. 467.
  • W. G. Constable, Canaletto: Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768, Oxford 1989, I, p. 31; II, p. 393, n. 388.
  • Roma Antica. Römische Ruinen in der italienischen Kunst des 18. Jahrhunderts, catalogo della mostra (Dortmund, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte der Stadt Dortmund, 1994), a cura di B. Buberl, München 1994, pp. 135-136.
  • Peintres de Venise. De Titien à Canaletto dans les collections italiennes, catalogo della mostra (Lodève, Musée de Lodève, Hôtel du Cardinal de Fleury, 2000), a cura di M. Vallès – Bled, Milano 2000.
  • H. Chapman, in Canaletto prima maniera, catalogo della mostra (Venezia, Fondazione Giorgio Cini, 2001), a cura di A. Bettagno, B. A. Kowalczyk, Milano 2001, pp. 43-46 e p. 50, n. 3.
  • Bellotto and the capitals of Europe, catalogo della mostra (Venezia, Museo Correr; Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, 2001), a cura di E. Peters Brown, New Haven – London 2001, pp. 136-137.
  • Pintura Veneciana de Tiziano a Longhi, catalogo della mostra (Città del Messico, Museo Dolores Olmedo Patiño, 2002), a cura di M. Vallès – Bled, Città del Messico, 2002.
  • Nolli, Vasi, Piranesi. Immagine di Roma Antica e Moderna, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Fontana di Trevi, 2005), a cura di M. Bevilacqua, Roma 2005, p. 108.
  • B. A. Kowalczyck in Canaletto, il trionfo della veduta, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Palazzo Giustiniani, 2005), a cura di A. Bettagno, B. A. Kowalczyk, Cinisello Balsamo 2005, p. 260.
  • Canaletto in England: a Venetian artist abroad, 1746-1765, catalogo della mostra (New Haven-Londra, 2006-2007), a cura di C. Beddington, London-New Haven 2006, p. 154.
  • Canaletto: Rome, Londres, Venise: le triomphe de la lumière, catalogo della mostra (Aix-en-Provence, Hotel de Caumont, 2015), a cura di B. A. Kowalczyk, Bruxelles 2015, pp. 178-181.
  • B. A. Kowalczyk, scheda in Canaletto, 1697-1768, catalogo della mostra (Roma, Museo di Roma - Palazzo Braschi, 2018), a cura di B. A. Kowalczyk, Cinisello Balsamo 2018, pp. 150-151, n. 40.
  • N. Joyeux, scheda in La Grande Bellezza: L'Art à Rome au XVIIIe siecle, 1700-1758, catalogo della mostra (Ajaccio, Palais Fesch, 2020), a cura di A. Bacchi, L. Barroero, P. Costamagna, A. Zanella, Milano 2020, pp. 111-112, cat. 14a.