Francesco Guardi, the last real protagonist of 18th century Venetian vedutismo, spent the first thirty years of his working life as a painter of figures and copyist in his family’s studio, where he distinguished himself completing the altar-pieces made by his brother Antonio (1699-1760) with landscapes, still lifes, and floral decorations. In the mid 1760s, painting vedute and capricci took over as his main activity, allowing him to fully express the depths of his sensitivity and the poetic aspects of his pictorial genius.
It is possible that Francesco Guardi had started making vedute after Canaletto (1697-1768) left for London in May 1746, but none of his known paintings can be dated with any certainty to before 1755, the year of the return in Venice of the celebrated artist (Canaletto is documented in Venice on 12 December 1755, terminus ante quem for his return; Montecuccoli degli Erri, Canaletto incisore, Venice 2002, pp. 6-7). No direct link between the two painters has been established, despite apparently being underscored by the Venetian patrician Pietro Gradenigo’s note of 25th April 1764, which described Guardi as a “good scholar of the famous Canaletto” (L. Livan, Notizie d’Arte tratte dai Notatori e dagli Annali del N.H. Pietro Gradenigo, Venice 1942, p. 106); but the starting point for Guardi’s vedute was undoubtedly the work of the older master, etchings of views of Venice, wide-angle drawings of the Piazza San Marco end of the lagoon, such as the paintings commissioned by Consul Smith (c. 1684-1770) and works in other Venetian collections. Again, during the decades to follow, while remaining an assiduous interpreter of Canaletto and continuing to draw inspiration from the master’s compositions, right from the outset Guardi played with the perspective, widened the spaces, warmed the colour tones and emphasized the variations in light. The figures in the early paintings, while clearly derivative of Canaletto, are already distinctive shapes, some rather more square, others slim, elongated and narrow, with small heads. These characteristics are all true of this beautiful painting and, as a very rare new early work by Guardi, its discovery is particularly exciting.
The painting draws on Canaletto’s etching entitled Le Procuratie Nuove e S. Ziminian, from the famous Vedute Altre prese da i Luoghi altre ideate series, first published in Venice after Joseph Smith’s appointment as British Consul, on 9 June 1744, and dedicated to him (the Canaletto etchings were executed in the early ‘40s but the date of the first published print is unknown; F. Montecuccoli degli Erri believes it dates to 1752. See Montecuccoli degli Erri, 2002, Canaletto incisore, op. cit., pp. 81-98).
The view is totally unreal, built from several different drawings taken from life, as was the custom with the vedutisti. The process of building a painting from a print was already particular to Guardi. He chose a wider canvas in order to broaden Piazza San Marco, putting a greater distance between the two backdrops to the view, the north corner of the Basilica and the edge of the Bell Tower. The entire west side of the Piazza is depicted and Sansovino’s façade on the ancient Church of San Geminiano, which was shut down in 1807 and later pulled down to make way for The Napoleonic Wing, is positioned more centrally. The perspective of the Basilica, with a highly-foreshortened base and the column of Sant’Alipio portal set off-axis, is rendered with a freedom unknown to Canaletto. The Procuratie Nuove, depicted with fewer arcades and windows, are taken from a smaller angle and consequently the two flag-poles have been shifted towards the middle of the Piazza and spaced out. The contours of their bronze bases, chef d’œuvres by Alessandro Leopardi (m. 1523 or 1524) and made under Doge Leonardo Loredan (1501-1521), are merely sketched in in the etching, while the painting shows the exceptionally beautiful sculptural decorations in detail, allegories of the power and sagacity of the Venetian Republic.
Various other details, left out of the print, are testament to the fact that Guardi did not think of Canaletto’s works in terms of models to be copied, but as points of reference from which to start, to be transformed through his own artistic vision and completed with other drawings taken from life. The same process applies to the painting representative of Guardi’s early period, based on another etching by Canaletto, The Piazzetta, Looking toward San Giorgio Maggiore, Museo Civico, Treviso (A. Morassi, Guardi. L’opera completa di Antonio e Francesco Guardi, Venice 1975, vol. l, pp. 36-369, no. 361, figs. 385, 386; fig. 1).
Antonio Morassi has catalogued three different paintings of this composition, conserved in private and public collections, regarded as “early works” and close in terms of chronology (A. Morassi, Guardi. L’opera completa …, op. cit, vol. 1, p. 375, nos. 342-344; vol. 2, figs. 369-371). Like Canaletto, Guardi repeatedly depicted the same views, clearly for commercial ends, but it is the author’s opinion that only one of the three versions, a painting in a Swiss private collection (before 1975. A. Morassi, Guardi. L’opera completa …op. cit, vol. 1, p. 375, no. 344; vol. 2, fig. 371), is in fact in the artist’s hand. It forms part of a series of four views of San Marco (another in the same collection, the other two in the the Bildenden Künste Academy, Vienna. A. Morassi, Guardi. L’opera completa …, op. cit, vol. 1, p. 388, no. 413, pp. 381-382, no. 379, pp. 382-383, no. 384; vol. 2, figs. 433, 402, 405, 406), executed after the Canaletto etchings in the early ‘60s, with vigorous brush-strokes, highly contrasting light and shade effects and large figures that point to the considerable influence of paintings by the young Canaletto.
There is a known preliminary drawing for this composition, formerly in the collection of Paul Wallraf (A. Morassi, Guardi. Tutti i disegni di Antonio, Francesco e Giacomo Guardi, Venice 1975, pp. 136-137, no. 330, fig. 326); the sheet is shaded in watercolour, the fine lines of the architecture, delicate use of watercolour and “angular”, sharply sketched figures, are similar to some of the drawings based on the plein air sketches that can unquestionably be dated to 1757-1758, such as The Lagoon from the Fondamenta Nuove (A. Morassi, Guardi. Tutti i disegni …op. cit., p. 149, no. 399, fig. 329) and A View of the Zattere at the Punta di Santa Marta (A. Morassi, Guardi. Tutti i disegni …, op. cit, p. 149, no. 400, fig. 404; both location unknown).
The chronology of the drawing helps to date this painting. Another known drawing of this composition, the quick sketch without figures, which shows the flag-poles in different positions, in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin (A. Morassi, Guardi. Tutti i disegni …, op. cit, p. 136, no. 329, fig. 329), belongs to a later period; like this painting, it shows a portion of the second arch of the north side of the Basilica that is missing in the print.
The drawing previously in the Wallraf collection was clearly made for this painting, which was the only one to have been executed shortly thereafter. It belongs to Francesco Guardi’s early period, when he interpreted the mature Canaletto with a more pictorial brush-stroke and a personal choice of warm brown tones, choosing a rosy grey for the illuminated parts. The figures retain the same proportions as those in Canaletto’s etching, and by and large the same shapes, yet they have become different, drawn in a particular range of colours, from the browns broken up by some white and blue strokes, dotted with red, as in Canaletto, yet more intense, so as to lead the observer’s eye from the foreground into the view. A clear light reaches from the shadowy foreground up to the church of San Geminiano, highlighting the colours and details. Each element of the composition has been studied to recreate the atmosphere and fascination of an everyday scene in the most beautiful place in the world, where senators and citizens, merchants and boatmen meet. As is usual in Guardi’s early work, the stone pavement in Piazza San Marco bears no trace of the Istrian marble overlay with its geometrical pattern, designed by the architect Andrea Tirali and executed from February 1723. It is interesting to note that Guardi shifted the figures of the two women to the right, close to the cloth shop, so as to “exhibit” the coloured merchandise. The dog-shapes serve as a sort of signature.
This painting belongs to the period during which Francesco Guardi also worked for his first major English clients, Sir Brook Bridges who visited Padua and probably also Venice in the summer of 1757 and John Montagu, Lord Brundenell, who was in Venice from September 1758 until early 1760 (F. Russell, Guardi and the English Tourist, “The Burlington Magazine”, CXXXVIII, 1996). A number of works inspired by Canaletto belong to this period, among them the previously-mentioned The Piazzetta, Looking toward San Giorgio Maggiore, Museo Civico, Treviso (A. Morassi Guardi. L’opera completa …, op. cit, vol. 1, pp. 368-369, no. 361, figs. 385, 386). Guardi was painting on canvases of standard dimensions at that time; the measurements of this painting are very similar to those of a series of views of the Lagoon, with similar elongated and narrow figures with small heads, as in the two pendants in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, The Lagoon and the Fort of San Nicolò di Lido (A. Morassi Guardi. L’opera completa …, op. cit, vol. 1, p. 429, no. 639; vol. 2, fig. 602; 32 x 52,8 cm; fig. 2) and The Lagoon Looking Towards Murano from the Fondamenta Nuova (A. Morassi, Guardi. L’opera completa …, op. cit, vol. 1, p. 432, no. 658; vol. 2, fig. 613; 31,7 x 52,7 cm; fig. 3) together with another pair, now separated, in the Kunsthaus, Zurich (A. Morassi, Guardi. L’opera completa …, op. cit, vol. 1, p. 429, n. 640; vol. 2, fig. 603; 31 x 52 cm) and Gallerie De Jonckheere, Paris - Brussels (A. Morassi, Guardi. L’opera completa …, op. cit, vol. 1, p. 425, no. 617; vol. 2, fig. 585; 31 x 51,5 cm). As in this painting, the red colour dots stand out against the pearl-grey tones. In the 1758 painting depicting The Feast of Giovedì Grasso in the Piazzetta, formerly in the collection of Mario Crespi, Milan (A. Morassi Guardi. L’opera completa …op. cit, vol. 1, p. 362, no. 280; vol. 2, fig. 309; 32 x 54 cm; fig. 4), smaller figures populate Piazza San Marco, but, as in this picture, the Procuratie Nuove have a smaller number of arches and windows and similar thin chimneys, and are rendered in the same way, with black brush-strokes that pick out the architectural and decorative details.
Francesco Guardi guaranteed the continuity of vedutismo and the collection of his work almost until the fall of the Republic. The similarity of his early works to those of Canaletto proved decisive for his success among the British Grand Tour collectors. The above-mentioned note from Pietro Gradenigo, which refers to the two vedute of Venice commissioned from Guardi by an “English foreigner”, confirms that his later works, bearing his personal stamp, continued to attract. In the catalogue for the sale of the collection of John Strange, an English resident in Venice from 1773 to 1788, compiled in 1799, the 436 items included fifteen paintings by Guardi, including views of his villa at Paese.
Bożena Anna Kowalczyk