Painting at MFA-H

The marketplace bustles. Vendors clutching bags of produce arrange their goods on tables. I see women gossiping and children playing. Across from the whitewashed Town Hall with its olive-green clock tower, a well brims with water as an attendant stands by ready to top off wooden barrels. And, noblemen scurry on horseback — all within a central square flanked by stately homes and with views of a hilltop fortress.   

I imagine taking a step back in time – more than 250 years – to witness this day in the small Saxon town of Pirna, Germany.  

But in reality, I’m actually gazing upon a painting, The Marketplace at Pirna, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It’s so realistic that I can almost hear the merchants’ banter, the well water splashing and the thumping of horse hooves. I can almost feel the sun’s warm glow as it illuminates the ornate Gothic windows on the 15th century tower of St. Mary’s Church.  This view of Pirna – like a vivid postcard or high resolution photograph – was precisely dabbed on canvas by the Italian view painter and old master Bernardo Bellotto in 1753-54. I have admired this painting for nearly 20 years; it inspired me to finally visit the town during my recent trip to Germany.  

I arrive to find that little has changed. Town Hall’s Renaissance and Baroque tower still dominates the skyline. The square’s prominent 1520 medieval building with its peculiar angled roof – now the tourist office known as the “Canaletto House” – remains as well. And, I soon learn Bellotto, nicknamed “Canaletto” after his famous artist uncle, is the town’s favorite son, with his Canaletto namesake and scenes from his paintings emblazoned on everything from wine bottles and chocolate boxes to posters and storefront marquees. 

“The Canaletto House is in the center of the painting, and that’s why everyone calls it that,” tour guide Katrin Peach tells me as we look upon a copy of The Marketplace at Pirna prominently emblazoned on a tourist office wall. “But we now know Bellotto had never been in the house.”

“It was very typical for Bellotto to be interested in the everyday life of a town like Pirna,” Peach explains. “What you can see in the painting is there are rich people and poor people. We can see the marketplace with its fountains. And, everything seems to be natural and idyllic, like looking at the olden days.”

Pirna is in the heart of Saxony, known for its 300-year-old porcelain industry where Meissen’s produces world-renowned dishware and figurines streaked with hand-painted designs. It’s where bike baths gently curve along the glassy Elbe River and where jagged rocky outcrops and plunging ravines  reveal the beauty of Saxon Switzerland’s Elbe Sandstone Mountains. Castle turrets poke above hilly landscapes and clusters of vineyards dot the sloping river valley along a 55 kilometer wine route, where grapes have been harvested for 800 years.

Bellotto, the court painter for Elector of Saxony Augustus III, son of Augustus the Strong, painted more than 30 views of palaces and landscapes in and around the Saxon capital of Dresden. He lived in suburban Pirna from 1753-55, painting The Marketplace at Pirna from a third-level window in a building now housing the busy Café Canaletto within a corner storefront below.The artist also created 10 other Pirna masterpieces, primarily with views of the town’s amber-tinted rooftops as seen from the elevated Sonnenstein Fortress and from across the Elbe River.  

Against a backdrop of well-kept homes along dirt roads, his paintings depict tradesmen and families in everyday life – tending sheep, fetching water and hanging clothes to dry. A prosperous merchant-driven community during medieval times, Pirna today is a small walkable town with quiet cafes, coffee shops, restaurants and boutiques. From the tourist office, Katrin leads me to St. Mary’s Church with its vaulted ceiling, gilded Baroque altar and Gothic baptismal font from 1561.  

“This church was built by the Pirna people themselves to show theirs was a powerful city,” Katrin said. “In the Middle Ages, Pirna was more important than Dresden because of its location on the Elbe River.”

We walk along pedestrian streets where I see 16th-18th century homes hued in burnt reds, pale blues and faded yellows and adorned with architectural  accents, including wide bay windows, grinning gargoyles and ornate doors trims.  

We stop at a former Dominican Monastery where three faded 14th century frescoes remain on the chapel’s peeling walls, while the former chapter house is now the town’s museum. Bellotto painted the monastery’s wide roof in one of his Elbe River views.

Spared from damage during World War II, many of Pirna’s medieval buildings remain intact. For that reason, Pirna is a classroom of sorts for studying Bellotto and his use of the camera obscura in scene painting. Like a camera, the instrument has a lens that reflects an image on paper which the artist would trace and later transfer to a larger canvas. Separate images were often combined to create wide view paintings.  

“If we try to understand Bellotto’s painting techniques, we have to go to the marketplace in Pirna. It’s one of the very few places where the architecture still exists,” said Dr. Andreas Henning, curator of Italian Paintings at Dresden’s Old Masters Picture Gallery in the Zwinger Palace.

“Dresden was bombed; all of its architecture was remodeled and rebuilt.” 

Bellotto painted 17 views of Dresden, most of which are now part of the Old Masters Picture Gallery’s permanent collection.  

His precise brush strokes and muted colors so vividly capture the Saxon capital’s vibrant skyline dominated by the pointed three-tiered tower of the Baroque Hofkirche or royal Catholic church, and by the gargantuan stone dome of the Church of Our Lady, the Frauenkirche. Those structures remain today, rebuilt with the help of Bellotto’s paintings after Allied firebombing leveled Dresden in 1945. The landmark Church of Our Lady with its 12,000-ton dome was most recently rebuilt from 45 percent of the 8,500 usable stones found in the rubble. After 12 years of reconstruction, it reopened in October 2005, built to the architectural specifications of the original 1743 church. 

“For the reconstruction of Dresden, Bellotto’s paintings are very important,” said Dr. Henning.  “For example, the colors of the Catholic church where the basement walls were colored with wine. We see that only in his paintings, not in the remaining parts of the church itself.”

Richard Varr is a freelance writer and former Fox26 news reporter.  He blogs at www.varrtravel.wordpress.com.

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