Venetian Painting – Francesco Guardi

AN entry in Gradenigo’s diary of 1764, preserved in the Museo Correr, speaks of Francesco Guardi, painter of the quarter of SS. Apostoli, along the Fondamente Nuove, a good pupil of the famous Canaleto, having by the aid of the camera ottica, most successfully painted two can-vases (not small) by the order of a stranger (an Englishman), with views of the Piazza San Marco, towards the Church and the Clock Tower, and of the Bridge of the Rialto and buildings towards the Canaregio, and have to – day examined them under the colonnades of the Procurazie and met with universal applause.”

Francesco Guardi was a son of the Austrian Tyrol, and his mountain ancestry may account, as in the case of Titian, for the freshness and vigour of his art. Both his father, who settled in Venice, and his brother were painters. His son became one in due time, and the profession being followed by four members of the family accounts for the indifferent works often attributed to Guardi.

His indebtedness to Canale is universally acknowledged, and perhaps it is true that he never attains to the monumental quality, the traditional dignity which marks Canale out as a great master, but he differs from Canale in temperament, style, and technique. Canale is a much more exact and serious student of architectural detail ; Guardi, with greater visible vigour, obliterates detail, and has no hesitation in drawing in buildings which do not really appear. In his oval painting of the Ducal Palace (Wallace Collection) he makes it much loftier and more spacious than it really is. In his ” Piazzetta ” he puts in a corner of the Loggia where it would not actually be seen. In the ” Fair in Piazza S. Marco ” the arch from under which the Fair appears is gigantic, and he fore-shortens the wing of the royal palace. He curtails the length of the columns in the piazza and so avoids monotony of effect, and he often alters the height of the campaniles he uses, making them tall and slender or short and broad, as his picture requires. At one time he produced some colossal pictures, in several of which Mr. Simonson, who has written an admirable life of the painter, believes that the hand of Canale is perceptible in collaboration; but it was not his natural element, and he often became heavy in colour and handling. In 1782 he undertook a commission from Pietro Edwards, who was a noted connoisseur and inspector of State pictures, and had been appointed superintendent in 1778 of an official studio for the restoration of old masters.

Edwards had important dealings with Guardi, who was directed to paint four leading incidents in the rejoicings in honour of the visit of Pius IV. to Venice. The Venetians themselves had become indifferent patrons of art, but Venice attracted great numbers of foreign visitors, and before the second half of the eighteenth century the export of old masters had already become an established trade. There is no sign, however, that Joseph Smith, who retained his consulship till 176o, extended any patronage to Guardi, though he enriched George III.’s collection with works of the chief contemporary artists of Venice. It is probable that Guardi had been warned against him by Canale and profited by the latter’s experience.

We can divide his work into three categories. 1. Views of Venice. 2. Public ceremonies. 3. Landscapes. Gradenigo mentions casually that he used the camera ottica, but though we may consider it probable, we cannot trace the use of it in his works. He is not only a painter of architecture, but pays great attention to light and atmosphere, and aims at subtle effects ; a transparent haze floats over the lagoons, or the sun pierces though the morning mists. His four large pendants in the Wallace Collection show his happiest efforts ; light glances off the water and is reflected on the shadowed walls. His views round the Salute bring vividly before us those delicious morning hours in Venice when the green tide has just raced up the Grand Canal, when a fresh wind is lifting and curling all the loose sails and fluttering pennons, and when the gondoliers are straining at the oars, as their light craft is caught and blown from side to side upon the rippling water. The sky occupies much of his space, he makes searching studies of it, and his favourite effect is a flash of light shooting across a piled-up mass of clouds. The line of the horizon is low, and he exhibits great mastery in painting the wide lagoons, but he also paints rough seas, and is one of the few masters of his day–perhaps the only one—who succeeds in representing a storm at sea.

Often as he paints the same subjects he never becomes mechanical or photographic. We may sometimes tire of the monotony of Canale’s unerring perspective and accurate buildings, but Guardi always finds some new rendering, some fresh point of interest. Sometimes he gives us a summer day, when Venice stands out in light, her white palaces reflected in the sun-illumined water ; sometimes he is arrested by old churches bathed in shadow and fusing into the rich, dark tones of twilight. His boats and figures are introduced with great spirit and brio, and are alive with that handling which a French critic has described as his griffe endiablée.

His masterly and spirited painting of crowds enables him to reproduce for us all those public ceremonies which Venice retained as long as the Republic lasted : yearly pilgrimages of the Doge to Venetian churches, to the Salute to commemorate the cessation of the plague, to San Zaccaria on Easter Day, the solemn pro-cession on Corpus Christi Day, receptions of ambassadors, and, most gorgeous of all, the Feast of the Wedding of the Adriatic. He has faith-fully preserved the ancient ceremonial which accompanied State festivities. In the “Fête du Jeudi Gras ” (Louvre) he illustrates the acrobatic feats which were performed before Doge Mocenigo. A huge Temple of Victory is erected on the Piazzetta, and gondoliers are seen climbing on each other’s shoulders and dancing upon ropes. His motley crowds show that the whole population, patricians as well as people, took part in the feasts. He has also left many striking interiors : among others, that of the Sala del Gran Consiglio, where sometimes as many as a thousand persons were assembled, the “Reception of the Doge and Senate by Pius IV.” (which formed one of the series ordered by Pietro Edwards), or the fine ” Interior of a Theatre,” exhibited at the Burlington Fine Arts in 1911, belonging to a series of which another is at Munich.

In his landscapes Guardi does not pay very faithful attention to nature. The landscape painters of the eighteenth century, as Mr. Simonson points out, were not animated by any very genuine impulse to study nature minutely. It was the picturesque element which appealed to them, and they were chiefly concerned to reproduce romantic features, grouped according to fancy. Guardi composes half fantastic scenes, introducing classic remains, triumphal arches, airy Paladian monuments. His capricci include compositions in which Roman ruins, overgrown with foliage, occupy the foreground of a painting of Venetian palaces, but in which the combination is carried out with so much sparkle and nervous life and such charm of style, that it is attractive and piquant rather than grotesque.

England is richest in Guardis, of any country, but France in one respect is better off, in possessing no less than eleven fine paintings of public ceremonials. Guardi may be considered the originator of small sketches, and perhaps the precursor of those glib little views which are handed about the Piazza at the present day. His drawings are fairly numerous, and are remarkably delicate and incisive in touch. A large collection which he left to his son is now in the Museo Correr. In his later years he was reduced to poverty and used to exhibit sketches in the Piazza, parting with them for a few ducats, and in this way flooding Venice with small landscapes. The exact spot occupied by his bottega is said to be at the corner of the Palazzo Reale, opposite the Clock Tower. The house in which he died still exists in the Campiello della Madonna, No. 5433, Parrocchio S. Canziano, and has a shrine dedicated to the Madonna attached to it. When quite an old man, Guardi paid a visit to the home of his ancestors, at Mastellano in the Austrian Tyrol, and made a drawing of Castello Corvello on the route. To this day his name is remembered with pride in his Tyrolean valley.


Bergamo. Lochis : Landscapes.

Berlin. Grand Canal ; Lagoon, Cemetery Island.

London. Views in Venice.

Milan. Museo Civico : Landscapes ; Poldi-Pezzoli ; Piazzetta Dogana ; Landscapes.

Oxford. Taylorian Museum : Views in Venice.

Padua. Views in Venice.

Paris. Procession of the Doge to S. Zaccaria ; Embarkment in Bucentaur ; Festival at Salute ; ” Jeudi Gras ” in Venice ; Corpus Christi ; Sala di Collegio ; Coronation of Doge.

Turin. Cottage ; Staircase ; Bridge over Canal.

Venice. Museo Correr : The Ridotto ; Parlour of Convent. Verona. Landscapes.

Wallace Collection. The Rialto ; San Giorgio Maggiore (two) ; S. Maria della Salute ; Archway in Venice ; Vaulted Arcades ; The Dogana.