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    Movie Review

    A visit to Venice, with Canaletto as tour guide

    One of the Royal Collection’s works by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto depicting a canal scene in Venice.
    Courtesy of the MFA/The Royal Collection
    One of the Royal Collection’s works by Giovanni Antonio Canaletto depicting a canal scene in Venice.

    Giovanni Antonio Canal was born in Venice, in 1697, and died there, in 1768. Call it fate: A man named Canal became best known for painting a city best known for its canals. The world knows him as Canaletto, which means little Canal. He was called that for two reasons. His father was a painter, too, and the different name helped distinguish between them. Also, Canaletto was short.

    “Canaletto and the Art of Venice” screens at the Museum of Fine Arts on various dates between Jan. 3 and Jan. 25. The documentary is inspired by an exhibition that ran last year in London at the Queen’s Gallery. The exhibition arrives in May at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, in Edinburgh, then goes to the National Gallery of Ireland, in December.

    The show consists of more than 200 works — drawings and prints, as well as paintings — belonging to Britain’s Royal Collection. On the basis of what the documentary presents, the Queen’s Gallery hanging was exceedingly handsome. The gallery is at Buckingham Palace. The documentary also visits Windsor Castle and the Duke of Bedford’s Woburn Abbey (more British Canaletto holdings). Devotees of royal/aristo porn should bring smelling salts.


    As the title indicates, Canaletto dominates the show. Yet it also includes work from such contemporaries as Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Francesco Zuccarelli, Rosalba Carriera, Pietro Longhi, and Giovanni Battista Piazzetta.

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    The documentary’s focus is nearly as much on Venice as on Canaletto. There’s lots of contemporary travelogue footage, extending to gondola-eye views of the canals. It’s all very pretty — and all too soon pretty tedious. Unfortunately, it’s also representative of how padded, and generally slack, the documentary is.

    For Canaletto’s art, there are many pan-and-scan views. We hear from various curators and art historians. A conservator points out a painting in which Canaletto left a thumbprint. He did so intentionally: The whorls and ridges left on the canvas help convey the texture of stone.

    Canaletto’s doing this was both wonderfully pragmatic and a charmingly personal touch. It was also uncharacteristic. Texture didn’t interest him; light did. What’s almost as distinctive about Canaletto’s paintings as their subject matter is what a curator calls its “abolute clarity.” He excelled at precision and detail.

    The Royal Collection’s holdings of Canaletto are the greatest extant. The documentary explains how so many Canalettos ended up with the royal family. Joseph Smith, the British consul in Venice, championed the artist. He both collected Canaletto’s work and, with his London-based brother, acted as a conduit to British collectors. Canalettos were so popular in Britain that the painter moved to London in 1746, staying nearly a decade.


    In 1762, King George III bought all of Smith’s holdings — Canalettos and much else besides — for 20,000 pounds. That’s the equivalent of $5.24 million today. With bargains like that, why should George worry about the American colonies?


    Directed by David Bickerstaff. Written by Bickerstaff and Phil Grabsky. At Museum of Fine Arts, various dates, Jan. 3-25. 87 minutes. Unrated.

    Mark Feeney can be reached at