The fortress rears up on its crag against a high northern sky, sunlight glinting on the white walls of the buildings and the horns of a ram in the valley below. It is summer in Saxony; the landscape feels luxuriously mellow. But there is something sinister in the crag’s harsh side. Look closely and the entrance to an underground dungeon is visible, almost at the picture’s centre: an open hole like a dark, watching eye.
Now the viewpoint shifts, and the fortress of Königstein appears in another painting seen from the north, altogether darker and more imperious. The splendour falls on castle walls, as in some proto-Romantic ballad. Down below, a herder leans wearily against his cattle as shadowy figures disappear at dusk. A carriage turns a corner into utter darkness.
Bernardo Bellotto (1722-80) painted the fortress of Königstein again and again, like Monet at Rouen Cathedral. Each time its aspect and contents change. It is a fierce war machine or a hilltop paradise; a military citadel or an 18th-century town on a summit, not far from Dresden, full of handsome soldiers and courting couples.
Each of the five paintings in this exhibition is immense, almost 8ft wide, and overwhelming. All were commissioned by Bellotto’s most prestigious patron, Augustus III, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. Bellotto arrived at Augustus’s court in Dresden in 1747, to paint vedute – or views. His cityscapes were so magnificently photoreal that they would be used by architects during the reconstruction of Dresden, ruined by allied bombing in the second world war.
Fat Saxon noses go red in the cold. Conversations stall. Bored children drag on the arms of their parents
But accuracy is hardly Bellotto’s only gift, otherwise he would have remained little more than the protege of his more famous uncle, Canaletto. The two were consistently confused, not least because Bellotto actually adopted his uncle’s name during his last working years. And a nickname painted on the frame of one of the Königstein views at the National Gallery calls him Il Canalettino – Little Canaletto, as if he were all pint-sized piazzas and canals.
Bellotto did his time in La Serenissima, but spent most of his painting life in the unfamiliar terrain of central Europe, from Dresden to Vienna and Warsaw. On the revelation of this rare show, he was more adventurous, more original and more interested in the human race. His figures are individuals rather than generalisations. His palette is far darker and more tumultuous than that of his airy, sparkling uncle. And so it is with Bellotto’s people.
In one of the views a beggar leans, weak and starving, against a wall while three passing redcoats give him the wide berth you see in London today. A man tries to bargain down the price of sex with an unimpressed woman, who stares wearily at some fixed point beyond his shoulder. A rich man in a copious wig marches ahead, accompanied by a couple of lackeys trailing an obsequious two steps behind. Public poverty everywhere coexists with private wealth at Königstein, this curiously metaphorical city on a hill. And Bellotto may be a master of Venetian vedute but he is also an Italian Hogarth, painting views of a Saxon fortress at the court of a Polish king.
Among his recent proclamations about the future of the National Gallery – from blowing £30m on a “better” welcome for visitors through the Sainsbury Wing entrance to pedestrianising the rapid road round the side of Canada House, good luck with that – its director, Gabriele Finaldi, has spoken of exhibitions as making new knowledge available to both public and scholars. The Königstein Views Reunited is an exemplary show in this respect.
You can be familiar with Bellotto’s soaring architectural cityscapes – it’s no surprise that his scenes of Rome were based on Piranesi etchings – or the pinpoint accuracy of his Dresden series without knowing how wildly Romantic, and even gothic, the artist could be.
Königstein, like Edinburgh Castle, is all ferocious rockface and underground corridors (later prisoners in the dungeon included the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and the German playwright Frank Wedekind). The brickwork is highly variable – sometimes laconically precise (when Bellotto was using a camera obscura), sometimes quickfire and liquidly expressive. Every ray of sun, however qualified by the cold northern light, has its equivalent raking shadow.
Wandering through these scenes, the eye is taken dramatically into a doorway, up to a balcony strewn with washing, or down to the facade of a church and then back out through the landscape to a dark and distant quietude beyond – a faraway land, unknown and stirring, where hermits might be found in caves, or Nosferatu in a haunted castle.
Bellotto can be properly satirical. The sculptures of donor aristocrats on the facade of the church are ridiculously pompous and camp. Fat Saxon noses go red in the cold. Conversations stall. Bored children drag on the arms of their parents. Part of the fortress was a massive 60,000-gallon wine cask in a cellar. Outside, drunks gather, waiting to forget their sorrows.
Trysts succeed and fail; pot plants slowly decline on high windowsills. Carts bring food effortfully up to the fortress. But down below, where we are, at eye level, the rural world continues through the seasons as if the big people had nothing to do with them. And in some profound sense this was true.
Bellotto found himself caught up in the seven years’ war, in which the French, British and Spanish fought over colonies in the New World and Augustus found himself allied with Russia and Austria against Frederick the Great of Prussia. Holed up in Königstein, the elector watched his power fade away. And he never even saw this cycle of paintings, having fled to Poland before they were finished. They fetched up in Britain, and later America, and are reunited here for the first time since their making. Art, and history, are seen anew: Königstein an awesome emblem of Augustus’s power even as it was fatally waning.
Bellotto: The Königstein Views Reunited is at the National Gallery, London, until 31 October