by Roderick Conway Morris

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Gemaeldegalerie Staatlichen Museen, Berlin
'The Giudecca Canal and the Zattere' by Francesco Guardi, circa 1760

Venice Through an Eccentric's Eyes

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 6 November 2012


Francesco Guardi's pictures gained scant attention during his lifetime and fetched pathetically low prices.

Living a hand-to-mouth existence, and not admitted to Venice's Academy until he was 72, he failed to gain any significant patrons among the more prosperous connoisseurs of his day, either among the local aristocracy or visiting grand tourists.

Contemporary comments on his work are few and far between, yet those that have come down to us often pay tribute to his quirkiness. John Strange, the British resident in Venice from 1773 to 1778, for example, in his sale catalog of pictures of 1789, refers to Guardi's 'particular manner; which is spirited and quite his own.'

Guardi was in his forties by the time he began to manifest fully his own idiosyncratic style of view painting, and it is perhaps hardly surprising that with the rise of Neoclassicism, which coincided with the second half of his career, his 'particular manner' found so little favor.

Only later, as Neoclassicism gave way to Romanticism, did those qualities that had appeared eccentric begin to be appreciated, first and foremost by English buyers, one of whom in 1829 purchased and brought to London a collection of 96 Guardi oils. The artist's international popularity grew steadily during the 19th century and by the early 20th he was already being considered one of the greatest painters of his time.

The tricentenary of Guardi's birth, in October 1712, is now being celebrated at the Correr Museum in Piazza San Marco with a major exhibition of his works, the most important since the one staged in 1993 at the Cini Foundation, also in Venice, marking the 200th anniversary of his death. The more than 120 paintings and drawings from more than 40 institutions on both sides of the Atlantic, curated by Alberto Craievich and Filippo Pedrocco, include examples of all the genres in which he worked.

The first room of the exhibition displays the only known image of the artist, executed by Pietro Longhi in 1764, a notable survival given how little documentation of Guardi survives. Alongside it, is Giuseppe Bertini's large canvas of 1892, 'Francesco Guardi Sells His Little Pictures in Piazza San Marco,' of the downtrodden artist hawking his wares around the cafe tables in the square.

Bertini was also a dealer and sold possibly the single most famous of Guardi's lagoon images, 'Laguna grigia' (Gray Lagoon, also known as Gondolas on the Lagoon), to the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan in 1898. This haunting picture, which does not appear in the Correr show, may have acquired its strangely 19th-century format from having been cut out of a larger Guardi composition by Bertini himself.

The following sections of the exhibitions are organized by genre - First View Paintings, Landscapes and Capricci, Festivals and Ceremonies, and so on. They are roughly chronologically, though, given the paucity of documentary evidence, dating many of the pictures with any accuracy is extremely difficult.

Domenico Guardi, Francesco's father, died in 1716, leaving his modest studio to be run by his eldest son, Antonio (born in 1699), in which he was joined in due course by Francesco and the youngest brother Nicolï. Their only sister, Maria Cecilia, was born in 1702 and married Giambattista Tiepolo in 1719.

Much of the work known to have been done by the studio during this period consisted of making copies of Venetian old masters and other pictures, so it can reasonably be deduced that this constituted Francesco Guardi's primary employment in his earlier years.

Pietro Longhi, the subject of a landmark exhibition at the Correr Museum in 1993-1994, was 11 years older than Guardi and his abandonment at the age of nearly 40 of religious and history painting in favor of genre paintings of everyday life in Venice suggested a potentially profitable new avenue to the younger artist.

Following Longhi's lead, Guardi executed a pair of canvases - 'The Ridotto of Palazzo Dandolo at San Moisé,' depicting a carnavalesque scene in the city's state-run casino, and 'The Nun's Parlor at San Zaccaria,' of friends and relatives visiting the young sisters at the fashionable convent close to San Marco. Both works were acquired by Teodoro Correr and are now normally at Ca' Rezzonico on the Grand Canal.

These are two of the most lively, charming and, in modern times, frequently reproduced Venetian genre scenes of the period. Judging by the women's fashions in them they date to the 1740s. They are accompanied in the exhibition by a second, smaller painting of 'The Ridotto' from a private collection, similar to the larger work, but with a slightly narrower focus. Yet, while Longhi built up a reliable local clientele for his works of this kind, Guardi's display of his skills in this genre did not meet with the same success.

Commissions for religious works, a mainstay for many artists, appear to have been almost as rare, and the six sacred paintings in the following room span several decades. Most striking of these is the dramatic 'Miracle of the Blessed Gonzalo d'Amarante,' in which the painter shifts the scene of this obscure incident in the Portuguese holy man's life - his rescue of a party of monks from a collapsing bridge - to Venice's lagoon.

Guardi made extensive use of engravings of works by Canaletto and Michele Marieschi as a basis for his paintings. Canaletto spent nearly a decade in England from 1746 to 1755, in theory leaving the field open for Guardi to fill the vacuum. But though later described by the Venetian nobleman Pietro Gradenigo as 'a good student of the famous Canaletto,' Guardi produced few pictures that could be mistaken for Canalettos and instead continued, despite the negative economic consequences, to elaborate his own vision of the city and the lagoon.

The flowering of this fluid, highly atmospheric style is richly illustrated in the rooms that form the heart of the show. In city and lagoon views and in a wide range of capricci of fantasy landscapes and waterscapes, Guardi was increasingly less concerned than Canaletto with topographical and architectural accuracy, introducing an element of fantasy even into what might appear at first glance to be actual places. A perfect demonstration of this in miniature can be found in his four exquisite small paintings of courtyard vignettes, on loan here from Bergamo and St. Petersburg, with their artful exaggeration of the proportions of arches and their dazzling use of chiaroscuro.

Guardi was nearly 70 by the time he received the public commissions that had long eluded him. His images of the spectacles occasioned by the visits to Venice in 1782 of the Russian heir to the throne with his consort and of Pope Pius VI are displayed in the penultimate section of the exhibition, along with further commissions to commemorate official and aristocratic festivities.

This was also the period during which he recorded other notable local events, like the 'Fire at San Marcuola' in 1789, represented here by both a drawing and an oil, and by a delightful sketch of Venetians making their way to and from Murano across the ice when the lagoon froze over in 1788-89.

That Guardi's powers remained undiminished but also found their fullest expression in his late works is confirmed by the final two rooms of the exhibition - from whose windows visitors are also offered a magnificent view over the island of San Giorgio, Giudecca and the southern lagoon.

In these paintings, sky and water become an almost seamless continuum of subtly shaded blues, greens and grays, flecked with the white of sails and clouds; and figures, boats and even buildings take on a spectral appearance in a shimmering dream world that seems to be evaporating before our eyes.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023