Gaspar Van Wittel, the father of landscape painting in love with Naples

by Federico Quagliuolo

We find them in most famous museums in the world; they have a invaluable in historical and economic terms; they give us photographs of the Italian cities of three centuries ago with a level of detail unmatched. We are talking about the paintings by Gaspar Van Wittel, the father of landscape painting in Italy, which he was very close to Naples.

It could not be otherwise: his son was still the most famous Luigi Vanvitelli, the father of the Royal Palace of Caserta.

Gaspar Van Wittel, il padre della pittura di veduta innamorato di Napoli
View of Naples from Largo di Palazzo, one of Gaspar Van Wittel's most famous paintings

A painting "without filters"

Holland and Naples have some special alchemy when it comes to painting. Indeed, if in the nineteenth century another Dutchman, Anton Sminck Van Pitlo, arrived in the city and founded the Posillipo School, a hundred years earlier it arrived in the Kingdom of Naples a young Dutch painter in search of fortune, called by the viceroy himself.

The story of Gaspar Van Wittel, however, begins in Rome in 1673, when he decided to leave his Amersfoort in search of fortune.
In fact, in the capital of the Papal State there was a huge colony of Dutch which, for various reasons, were engaged in the arts or mercantile work. From that moment his life was a pendulum between the Kingdom of Naples and the future capital of Italy.

We know very little about Van Wittel because, strangely, no one has ever told us about him on a human level. Through some letter and the testimonies of the time we can discover that it was of character very serious, very attentive to details (and we notice it in his paintings!) and characterized by a Nordic punctuality who never left him. On the contrary, initially he did not tolerate the Italians, so much so that as a boy he joined the Schildersbent, the "painters clan" with based in Rome, which was an association of Dutch, German and Flemish artists who rebelled against the ancient canons of painting and did not accept any "foreigners", so much so that we could talk only in Dutch. Then he changed his surname to Vanvitelli.

It was during his Roman experience that Gaspare Vanvitelli decided to create a new way of painting panoramas: in his opinion, reality is beautiful as the eyes perceive it. There is no need for fantasies, angels descending from heaven, perspectives from above or others typical distortions of the past. What it takes it is only the human gaze and a brush capable of defining the scene: if in the times of photography this concept may seem obvious, for the time it was an extraordinary innovation.

Gaspar Van Wittel ritratto Luigi
The portrait of Gaspar Van Wittel, made by his son when he was just 11 years old

An industrial production of paintings

If we do the math, we notice that there are very many almost identical ones by Vanvitelli. Often change some details, such as the subjects moving in the scene, the open or closed windows or the presence of some particular element. Other times instead change the time of day: some are at sunset, others at noon.

For example, remaining in the Neapolitan period of Vanvitelli, there are well eighteen versions of the Naples dock all apparently the same. If we count the very famous View of the Largo di Palazzo, which is one of the most famous paintings in Naples ever, we have you are almost the same. The only differences are the details, which Vanvitelli painted with almost photographic precision.

Van Wittel wasn't crazy about drawing the same subject over and over again, e he has never even returned 18 times to the same place to repaint his paintings, if the imagination made us imagine a scene similar to Claude Monet's Rouen Cathedral. Indeed, moreover almost all the Neapolitan paintings he made in his studio in Rome.

The trick behind his industrial production of paintings was indeed photography and a good memory.

Quadro Gaspar Van Wittel Largo di Palazzo dettaglio
An enlargement of the painting in the Largo di Palazzo. We note the almost scientific attention that Van Wittel has in drawing every single detail of the view. This part has now been replaced by the basilica of San Francesco di Paola

It was already known in the eighteenth century an instrument called "Optical Camera". It was a rudimentary object: we are still very far from first photograph, dated 1828, but the optical chamber allowed to create a small projection of what passed through the lens. In practice it was a camera without film, replaced by the hand of the painter who he traced the lines on a sheet of paper.

In this way Vanvitelli had at his disposal a series of very precise sketches from which to start to produce his paintings: he could replicate them endlessly, simply imagining different positions for the subjects, and his was enough memory to remember colors, shapes and atmospheres. This technique was of great inspiration for Canaletto, one of the most famous landscape painters in Italy, who declared himself to have been influenced by Gaspar Van Wittel. In addition, almost all the sketches are preserved in the Royal Palace of Caserta. Rome, on the other hand, is the home of most of his paintings, together with Florence and Capodimonte.

Darsena di Napoli Gaspar Van Wittel
The dock of Naples. There are 18 copies of this painting!

The legacy of Gaspar Van Wittel

While working for the Royal Palace of Naples in 1700, moreover, he married a Neapolitan noblewoman. From the union the little one was born Luigi, so called in honor of the viceroy Luigi Francesco de la Cerda, who also baptized him in the first person.

Although just a year later Gaspar Van Wittel was forced to escape from Naples for the various political movements in favor of the Austrians that would soon lead to the collapse of the Viceregno, actually the Dutch painter in his Roman studio he continued to paint and resell paintings of Neapolitan views for the rest of his life, even when, at the ripe old age of 83, he was practically blind. But he did not despair at all: he had indeed left his legacy in good hands.

The son, Luigi Vanvitelli, was called to assist his father ever since he was little more than a child. First he colored some of his paintings then, as a teenager, he became a real "partner" of his art workshop. And finally, when the young Luigi chose the path of architecture, his father helped him to find rich patrons in the provinces of central and northern Italy.

It was a matter of time. While Gaspar Van Wittel was on his deathbed, Charles of Bourbon entered Napolthe. We will have to wait 15 years to review a Vanvitelli in Campania: his son Luigi was in fact called for build monumental works which, ironically, became the privileged subject of the landscape painters of the following centuries.

-Federico Quagliuolo

Appunti Vanvitelli Camera Ottica
One of Vanvitelli's sheets traced on the images of the optical camera

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