Bernardo Belloto

Slaughterhouse Five is a book I read every couple of years. It is strange and horribly beautiful and I’m not sure I understand it all. More civilians died in Dresden than in both nuclear attacks on Japan combined. I don’t think that’s a widely shared fact and perhaps the central message of the book.

When Billy Pilgrim describes pre-war Dresden as a Sunday school picture of heaven, it makes me think of the man who painted it, Bernardo Bellotto.

A few years ago I went to a Bellotto exhibition in the Basque Country. He was Canaletto’s nephew and lay long in his relative shadow. His style is very much like his uncles’, but rather than paint endless views of Venice (and those little wiry dogs which seem to inhabit every picture), Bellotto’s landscape was northern Europe. Both Dresden and Warsaw owe him a huge debt.

After the firebombing of Dresden, Bellotto’s pictures were used as the architectural blueprint for the rebuilding of the city. The famous picture from the tower of the Frauenkirche taken on February 13th 1945 is one of utter devastation. “Those who had forgotten how to cry learnt it again in the destruction of Dresden.” The old market squares and the view from the opposite shore of the Elbe were reconstructed from the artist’s paintings. Today, Dresden again has a beautiful centre, it’s a magical place of honey stone and rain on cobbles. From this via this to this. The old quarter of Warsaw was also rebuilt from scratch using Bellotto as its guide.

Vonnegut wrote so well about the senseless destruction of Dresden, but Bellotto captured its beauty.