Bellotto's Masterpiece Comes to Norwich

30 April 2021

Bellotto’s Masterpiece Comes to Norwich

Home to a wealth of historical, fine art and archaeological treasures to inspire visitors of all ages, Norwich Castle Museum has an exciting new addition to its treasure trove, albeit a temporary one. On loan from the National Gallery in London, The Fortress of Königstein from the North, by Bernardo Bellotto is an important painting marking the first Bellotto piece to have ever been displayed at Norwich Castle before.

Painted by Bellotto in 1756-8, The Fortress of Königstein from the North is one of the most original and impressive examples of 18th century landscape painting. And at over 2 metres in length, the size of this enormous painting will be sure to amaze you as well! On show this spring and summer between 17 May – 4 July, entry to the castle and exhibition costs £6.70 (children £6.20). Bookings must be made in advance and online from 7 May.

Here, Dr Francesca Vanke FSA, the Senior Curator at Norwich Museums tells us why the painting is a must-see for everyone.

The Fortress of Königstein from the North by Bernardo Bellotto

The Fortress of Königstein from the North by Bernardo Bellotto

Glorious Landscapes

People know Norwich Castle as a home of paintings by artists of the Norwich School, depicting archetypal English landscapes of the early 19th century, which will be perfectly showcased in its next exhibition, A Passion for Landscape: Re-discovering John Crome. But the Bellotto painting is a different type of landscape, centring around another extraordinary castle far far away…

Actually, only as far away as present-day Germany, 25 miles southeast of Dresden. Still existing today, the castle was a stronghold of the historic rulers of Saxony, and like Norwich Castle it was adapted over time. At one point in its history, it was even used as a state prison! Although now it is a museum (just like Norwich Castle.)

The History

This remarkable rendition by Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780) is one of five views of the Königstein on the same monumental scale, commissioned by his most important and prestigious patron, Frederick Augustus, the Elector of Saxony, also known as Augustus III King of Poland. The other four paintings in the series also survive, each painted from a different viewpoint. Two, now in the Manchester Art Gallery, show the fortress from within the walls. The others, housed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington and in a private collection, are exterior views.

The Seven Years’ War (1756-63), and the invasion of Dresden by Prussion troops just after the Königstein paintings were commissioned meant that sadly, they were never delivered to Bellotto’s patron Frederick Augustus. He fled to Warsaw in autumn 1756, after having sought refuge in the fortress for several months.

Bellotto was paid for the pictures in 1758, which suggests he had finished them, but it seems that they never reached Königstein. What happened to them during that time remains a mystery. All we know is that all five paintings were imported into Britain during the artist’s lifetime.

Bernardo Bellotto

Bellotto himself was born in Venice and trained under his uncle, the famous view painter Canaletto. From him, Bellotto learnt the principles of drawing and painting topographical views, which he later applied to his own work. He specialised in cityscapes, both in Italy and in northern Europe, where he spent most of his working life.

Bellotto excelled at portraying broad, sweeping vistas, which you are sure to pick up on when viewing The Fortress of Königstein from the North. In it, he has adopted a very low viewpoint which emphasises the fortress’s dominance within the landscape. The height at which it is placed dwarfs everything else around and forces the viewer to look up towards it. It also gives us a vivid idea of the viewpoint the people in the neighbourhood would have had. This massive edifice would always have been somewhere in their line of sight, leaving us to wonder if they were constantly aware of the power of their ruler watching them, if they felt insignificant by comparison, or if the sight was so familiar, they scarcely noticed it?

It was certainly an intimidating building. Castles were designed for defence and vigilant surveillance, so strategic position was all-important. Likewise, the architectural construction which, as here – where it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the building from the rockface – conveys impregnable permanence.

The architecture also made the most of human resources. A relatively small force would be needed to defend a castle, and a much larger one to besiege it successfully. Once Königstein had been reinforced in the 16th century, into the form as we see it in the painting, it was never conquered. Augustus III’s troops were defeated by the Prussians in Dresden in 1756, but not at the castle itself. Its defensive strength (and its success as a prison) gave it the nickname of ‘The Bastille of Saxony’.

Bellotto in Norwich

Image of Norwich marketplace and castle

Norwich Market and Castle

The Fortress of Königstein from the North will be on display in Norwich Castle’s Colman Project Space gallery from 17 May when Norwich Castle Museum and its galleries will reopen to the public, according to the government’s current timetable for the easing of lockdown restrictions. It will remain on display until 4 July 2021 as part of a national tour to showcase this fascinating historical artwork to as many different audiences as possible. So make sure to book your tickets when they become available on 7 May to avoid disappointment!

Want to find out more? Take a look at this film or keep an eye on the Norwich Castle Museum YouTube channel for more videos on Bellotto’s masterpiece. Or you can check out the Norwich Castle blog for more fascinating stories from its collections.

Fancy extending your stay in the City of Stories? Take a look at Norwich accommodation and book your UK break.