- Art as Information
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Through Leonardo's special project addressing the role of artists in times of war, social or economic conflict, the journal's editors have created a unique occasion to recall intriguing occurrences. The one I would like to bring to light is the art of Bernardo Bellotto . The work of this artist became instrumental in shaping perceptions and initiatives, not at the time when it was created, but almost 300 years later—in the early days after the end of World War II. The impact of Bernardo Bellotto's art became crucial to bringing back the historical shape of the severely damaged city of Warsaw, Poland.
Bernardo Bellotto, called Canaletto Junior in Europe, was born in Venice, Italy, on 30 January 1720 into a respectable family with strong artistic traditions. For Bellotto, the artistic profession might have been somehow seen as a heritage from preceding generations. His grandfather, Bernardo Canal, born 1697 in Venice , painted stage sets, and his uncle Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto (1697-1768), gained worldwide recognition as one of the most distinguished painters of city landscapes . Bernardo Bellotto painted images of Venice (often using the family studio), Tuscany, Rome, Lombardy, Turin, Verona, Dresden, Koenigstein, Vienna and Munich . He then tried his chances in England and in Dresden, Germany, where in 1748 he was awarded the title "peintre du Rois" by King August III. Due to a war with Frederick II, the king and his court had to retreat to Warsaw. Intending to go to Petersburg, Bellotto came to Warsaw in 1767, where, patronized by the king, he settled and worked as the royal painter until his death in 1780.
Bellotto created myriad precise panoramic views of cities, remarkable in terms of both their artistic quality and their historical accuracy. Both Canaletto and Bellotto, as well as their contemporaries Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) and Jan van der Heyden (1637-1712), created, in accord with the city landscape tradition, precise views (vedute esatte) and imaginary or fantastic views (vedute ideate or di fantasia) adorned using poetic license. Bellotto generally chose the first type and painted faithful and detailed views in his specific style, which was more dry, detailed and impartial in respect to actual colors than that of his famous uncle Canaletto.
In 1944, 90% of the city of Warsaw was burned by the Nazis. Citizens and architects returning to Warsaw after the end of the World War II decided to rebuild the city according to its original
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appearance. They needed informative visual materials documenting the city's pre-war appearance in order to resurrect entire city quarters, historical houses, residences and churches, but historical works representing the Polish past had been put on the Nazis' blacklist of artworks to be destroyed in their program of "Germanization" of invaded countries. In the midst of the 1939 city bombardment, many paintings, including those of Bellotto, were taken away from Warsaw museums and hidden in underground crypts in order to prevent their destruction . After the end of the war, some of them were removed from their hiding places and renovated so that they could serve as evidence of the culture of past periods. Due to his accuracy and careful attention to relevant details, Bellotto's legible paintings furnished visual evidence about 18th-century Warsaw. He had captured the architecture, the social structure and the lifestyle of his time. Views of diverse city quarters—aristocratic and noble residences, houses of the bourgeois and lower classes, and poverty-stricken dwellings of the working class—could be seen in his paintings. He provided information about the appearance of whole buildings as well as their architectural details (Fig. 1), so architects working on the Warsaw restoration were able to magnify selected parts of the...