Construction of La Fenice theatre in the Campo S. Fantin, Venice, was completed in April 1792, a year before Guardi’s death. Along with two related drawings, in the Museo Correr, Venice and the Metropolitan Museum, New York, Guardi shows the building and the surrounding piazza from different angles which together provide a fairly comprehensive view of the setting. Byam Shaw, however, pointed out that of these three, the present drawing was the most accurate, the proportions of the theatre concordant with the size of the buildings around; all three show the façade bathed in sunlight.
The building of the opera house was an event of great importance in Venice, allowing it to join the pantheon of 18th century cultural centres alongside Paris, London and Vienna. Its significance was enough, at any rate, to persuade the ageing Guardi to make the winding journey across Venice from his home in the Campo del Madonnetta delle Grazie. La Fenice was the fulfilment of the ‘new theatre’ concept praised by Andrea Memmo, a great Venetian exponent of the Enlightenment period. It was conceived as an ideal republican theatre where the private booths were intended to be no more expensive than the stall seats and the decoration showed clear restraint. It was later modified and considerably enriched when Napoleon conquered the city. Known affectionately as ‘the Phoenix’ for its ability to rise from the ashes, the Fenice opera company still continues in situ to this day, in spite of loosing its premises on three occasions, firstly to a legal dispute and twice more as a result of fire.
Francesco Guardi brilliantly documented the topography and the buildings of Venice, where he spent almost all his working life. He was most influenced by the great vedute painter Canaletto, who was his senior by fifteen years, but developed a style of his own especially in the fantastical views of ruins, known as capricci. Toward the end of his long career, Francesco was assisted by his younger brother Nicolò and his son Giacomo. After his father's death, Giacomo continued the family studio producing paintings both in his father's and his own style, and frequently adding watercolour washes to his father’s sketches. The verso shows just such a design, where Giacomo has added grey washes to his father’s view of a courtyard interior.