Francesco Guardi (Venice 1712-1793)
FROM THE BARON HENRI DE ROTHSCHILD COLLECTION Francesco Guardi and his Legacy Few painters in the history of art have shaped posterity’s vision of a city as profoundly as Francesco Guardi did that of Venice. For more than two centuries, it has been through Guardi’s eyes that much of the world has seen Venice. Countless novelists, historians, poets, artists, opera directors, set designers and filmmakers have evoked – consciously or otherwise – the vedute of Guardi when creating their own record of the city. If Canaletto’s architecturally precise and geographically accurate view paintings can still serve as maps to certain Venetian quarters, and Domenico Tiepolo’s witty depictions of the poses, costumes and activities of late eighteenth-century Venetians of every class still vividly evoke the social life of the Serenissima, it is to Guardi that we look when we want to remember the palpable, sensuous experience of being in Venice. It is in Guardi’s paintings that we feel the heavy air and velvety atmosphere of the city, marvel at its shimmering blue skies and waters, flecked with sunlight splashing around its gondolas, admire the epic lagoon vistas and tiny, picturesque alleyways that are the subjects of his finest canvases. It is Guardi’s views, above all others, that sparkle with the vivid, vital, transitory life of the city in a way that both his contemporaries and posterity recognise as authentic. For a painter of Guardi’s supreme cultural importance and enduring popularity, it is remarkable how little documentation there is of his career. His family belonged to the Imperial nobility of Trentino, with members holding military and ecclesiastical positions in the region. His father, Domenico Guardi (1678-1716) was a minor Baroque painter who worked for the local aristocracy in both Venice and Vienna. Procurator Pietro Gradenigo, the first of Francesco’s contemporaries to write of him, described the young painter in a diary entry in 1764 as a ‘scholar’ of Canaletto, an ambiguous term interpreted to mean that he either trained under Canaletto in his workshop, or merely followed in the master’s style. Certainly, Francesco’s principal training came in the workshop of his elder brother, Antonio Guardi (1699-1760), a distinguished and highly original painter of history subjects and altarpieces, who also executed a delightful series of ‘Turkish’ genre scenes for his patron, the Austrian diplomat Marshal Johann Matthias von der Schulenburg. Thirteen years older than Francesco, Antonio had established a large and successful workshop that supplied paintings, usually religious, to the local aristocracy of the Veneto and Trentino, including many members of his own family. Francesco’s first signed painting, A Saint in Ecstasy (Trent, Museo Diocesano), is dated 1739. He worked as a full collaborator with Antonio on the beautiful series of large-scale decorations depicting episodes from Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, executed around 1750-1755, and probably made for an Italian country house (now dispersed: Washington, National Gallery of Art; Kingston upon Hull, Ferens Art Gallery; Copenhagen, Statens Museum for Kunst; Venice, Gallerie dell'Accademia; Pasadena, Norton Simon Museum; and London, Private Collection). It appears that Francesco worked in his brother’s studio until Antonio’s death in 1761, largely as a figure painter, producing history paintings throughout his career there, but also accepting some independent commissions. Francesco’s name is only inscribed in the register of the Guild of Painters in 1761, after Antonio’s death, and it appears from circumstantial evidence that he only launched his career in full as a painter of views around this time. Indeed most of his view pictures were produced from the 1760s onwards. He seems to have quickly developed an enthusiastic following among collectors both foreign – working for the tourist trade, aristocrats on the Grand Tour, foreigners resident in Venice – and local, including the Venetian intelligentsia and the city’s ancient noble families. He even received a documented commission from the Venetian state in 1782, late in his career, to record a state occasion, the visit to Venice of Pope Pius VI, in a series of four paintings. In the late 1770s and early 1780s, Francesco made trips to Trentino, and it was during this time that he painted a series of country-house portraits for John Strange, the British resident in Venice, that are among his most beautiful and singular achievements. Throughout the 1770s and 1780s, Guardi’s palette lightened and brightened. He rearranged topography and employed entirely whimsical lighting, exaggerated the effects of perspective, and increasingly emphasised the surface of his painting with ever more frenetic and irregular brushwork, all of which become the marks of his distinctive, mature style. His images softened into a suffused pale glow which bathes his whole composition. He set the city floating, as Michael Levey observed: ‘frail yet with bubble-like buoyancy, between great expanses of water and watery sky … Nothing is quite still. Boats dart, flags flap, and the buildings themselves seem to unwind like so much ribbon along the Grand Canal.’ From the first, Levey concludes, Guardi: ‘intended to interpret Venice rather than reproduce it, and his best views of it capture a sparkle of light and a sense of eternal movement which Canaletto never quite caught, and which is certainly part of the city.’ (Painting in eighteenth-century Venice, Oxford, 1980, pp. 127-30). After Francesco’s death at the age of 80, his son Giacomo (1764-1835), continued his father’s practice, producing paintings, drawings and small gouaches in his father’s genre, but not really in his manner; charming though they can be, Giacomo’s works display little of the nervous energy, sparking light effects, or brilliant, shimmering colours found in his father’s paintings. Francesco’s true successors are the painters of the generations immediately following his son’s death. Guardi’s quickly, freely painted, highly atmospheric views certainly provided inspiration to J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), whose heavily atmospheric and dreamily nostalgic views of Venice from the 1830s onwards owe an obvious debt to Guardi, whose paintings Turner knew from his travels to Venice and, earlier, in collections of numerous British connoisseurs. Turner’s dream-city is more noble and distant than that of Guardi, whose Venice is more alive, more raffish, but both artists would have affirmed John Constable’s insight that the best lesson he ever had was: ‘Remember light and shade never stand still.’ Guardi’s improvisational manner owed little to the sort of scientific analyses of optics that inspired the Impressionist movement, and yet the most spirited views of Venice by Auguste Renoir, who visited the city in 1881, and Claude Monet, who travelled to Venice in 1908, themselves reflect – if at a romantic distance – the nervous brushwork and naturalistic atmospherics of the great rococo master. A.P.W.
Francesco Guardi (Venice 1712-1793)

Venice, the Bacino di San Marco, with the Piazzetta and the Doge’s Palace

Francesco Guardi (Venice 1712-1793)
Venice, the Bacino di San Marco, with the Piazzetta and the Doge’s Palace

with a nineteenth-century inscription ‘De la collection du Comte de Shaftesbury’ (on the stretcher) and with inscription ‘Veduta della Palazzo Ducale di Francesco Guardi di Venezia’ (on the relining canvas, presumably transcribed from the reverse of the original canvas)
oil on canvas
27 3/8 x 40¼ in. (69.5 x 102.2 cm.)

Purchased in Venice in 1782-4 by Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 5th Earl of Shaftesbury (1761-1811), and by inheritance at St. Giles’s House, Wimborne, Dorset, through his brother,
Cropley Ashley-Cooper, 6th Earl of Shaftesbury (1768-1851), to his son,
Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 7th Earl of Shaftesbury (1801-1885), recorded in ‘A Catalogue of Pictures in St. Giles’ House’, annotated Rec’d 6th January 1873 (Shaftesbury Mss, SG34/1) (‘Guardi Pair of Views in Venice’, initially valued at (£)200 and subsequently valued separately at 50 and 100), and in notes of the 1870s by the 7th Earl as in the Inner East Room (no. 5 ‘View in Venice/ by Guardi—bought at Venice by the 5th Earl—’ or no. 8 'View in Venice/ by Guardi—bought by 5th Earl.’) [we are indebted to the Earl of Shaftesbury and Richard Samways for these references]: a nineteenth-century inscription on the stretcher refers to the ‘Comte de Shaftesbury’.
(Possibly) baron Nathan-James-Edouard de Rothschild (1844-1881), to his daughter,
Jeanne-Sophie-Henriette, baronne David Léonino (1874-1929), and by descent through her brother,
baron Henri-James-Charles-Nathan de Rothschild (1872-1947) to the present owner.
G.A. Simonson, Francesco Guardi, London, 1904, p. 95.
R. Pallucchini, ‘Tiepolo e Guardi alla Galleria Cailleux di Parigi’, Arte Veneta, 1952, p. 231.
L.R. Bortolatto, L’opera completa di Francesco Guardi, Milan, 1974, pp. 99-100, no. 171, illustrated.
A. Morassi, Guardi, Antonio e Francesco Guardi, Venice, 1973, second edition, 1984, I, pp. 241 and 386, no. 402; II, fig. 428.
Paris, Galerie Cailleux, Tiepolo et Guardi dans les collections françaises, November 1952, no. 64.
Brussels, Palais des Beaux-Arts, La Peinture vénetienne, 16 October 1953-10 January 1954, no. 41a.

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Lot Essay

A Master of Topographical nuances

This remarkable canvas, about which Antonio Morassi wrote with particular perception (op. cit., I, p. 241, quoted below), is a masterpiece of Guardi’s full maturity, showing one of the most celebrated prospects of Venice, centering on the Doge’s Palace, which in the artist’s time remained the seat of the government of the Venetian Republic.

The viewpoint is in the Bacino di San Marco, rather less than midway to the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. From the left, with the eastern bays of the Zecca, Guardi shows the Libreria, designed like the Zecca by Jacopo Sansovino, with towering behind this the Campanile, the Piazzetta with the columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, and across from this the Torre dell’Orologio and the Basilica of Saint Mark’s: in the centre is the Doge’s Palace, and, to the right of this, the Ponte della Paglia, and the Prigioni, beyond which are three smaller buildings, now replaced by the Hotel Danieli Excelsior, followed by the fifteenth-century Palazzo Dandolo, now the Hotel Danieli, and, across the Rio del Vin, a smaller palace on the site now occupied by the Casa Nuova of the hotel. As the shadows cast by the buildings indicate, the time is late morning.

Guardi was not the first to paint Venice from the Bacino – one might point to the background of the Tallard Madonna of Giorgione in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford as an early instance – and he must have been aware of views by his predecessors, including Vanvitelli, Canaletto (fig. 1) and Marieschi. Canaletto, except in views from across the Bacino (see W.G. Constable, Canaletto, Giovanni Antonio Canal, 1697-1768, Oxford, 1976, I, nos. 143-4, also seen in late morning light), preferred to survey the buildings from more oblique angles, as indeed Guardi himself did on other occasions (for example in pictures in the National Gallery, London [fig. 2] and private collections; Morassi, nos. 407-10). Guardi, however, from the outset of his career as a vedutista, understood the potential of experimenting with more frontal viewpoints. He seems first to have painted this subject in a signed canvas in a New York private collection (Morassi, no. 389), associable with the group of pictures now known to have been supplied to English visitors in the late 1750s (see F. Russell, ‘Guardi and the English tourist’, The Burlington Magazine, 1996, pp. 4-11). The New York picture was followed in the 1760s by the great canvas at Waddesdon (Morassi, no. 390), in which the composition is extended on the left and more considerably to the right, and taken from a viewpoint across the Bacino. The lighting of the buildings, like that of the New York picture implies a time in the afternoon. A smaller reduction of the Waddesdon picture was destroyed at Strasbourg in 1947 (Morassi, no. 391).

Subsequently, Guardi returned to the theme in a succession of pictures, datable after 1770, which are among the most characteristic productions of his mature phase. These include the masterpiece, of almost precisely the same size as this canvas, in the Musée Camondo, Paris (fig. 3; Morassi, no. 394); the larger canvas in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lehman Collection (Morassi, no. 392); a picture at Boston (Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; Morassi, no. 393); and no fewer than three, of varying scale, in the Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon (Morassi, nos. 400-1 and 403), the lighting in all of which follows that of the New York picture, as is the case with several other smaller variants (i.e. Morassi, nos. 395-8 and 404, one of which [no. 397] omits the Campanile). Of the variants illustrated by Morassi only the small canvas at Philadelphia (Morassi, no. 399, now regarded as by a follower of Guardi) agrees with this picture in showing the buildings by morning light: the left hand section shows the buildings including the Libreria at a similar angle, but the composition is reduced on the right, extending only to five bays of the Prigioni. The implied viewpoint in this composition is considerably closer to the Molo than those of other variants. Rather surprisingly only one drawing of the subject would appear to be recorded, now at Ottawa (A. Morassi, Guardi: I disegni, Venice, 1964, no. 343): this is taken from a much further viewpoint than any of the pictures mentioned above – so that the dome of the Basilica rises above the Doge’s Palace – and shows more of the buildings along the Riva degli Schiavoni. We must assume, however, that Guardi prepared other studies of the kind, to achieve the subtle changes in angle between his closely related compositions taken from slightly different viewpoints. Here a comparison between this picture and that in the Musée Camondo is instructive. In that picture, the viewpoint is further away and, as we can judge most easily from the relative positions of the Libreria and the Campanile, very slightly to the left (west): as a result, the lateral façades of the Prigioni and the Palazzo Dandolo are seen in deeper perspective. Such adjustments are wholly characteristic of the artist’s approach as a vedutista.

The relative chronology of Guardi’s mature treatments of the subject is difficult to determine. While the galley moored before the palace – in this instance marked ‘CXC’ – appears in all the variants, the placing of some of the other boats may cast some light on Guardi’s evolving responses to the subject. Thus the group with four masts and three sails on the right in the Waddesdon picture was followed in that formerly at Strasbourg: the sail associated with one of the masts is omitted in the Boston canvas, while one of the masts is dropped from the Lehman picture in which the shipping is particularly prominent: the left-hand vessel of the group and a single mast appear in the small variant recorded at Lugano (Morassi, no. 404). The care with which Guardi considered such details is beautifully demonstrated in the canvas under discussion: the central gondola and the group of vessels on the right are closely related to the corresponding passages of the Camondo picture and are found also in at least four other canvases (Morassi, nos. 395-398): the gondola on the left reappears nearer the centre in the Philadelphia composition, while the two vessels behind this are related to those in the canvas recorded in the Brunoldi collection at Vigevano (Morassi, no. 398). Most unusually, in this canvas Guardi used incised lines to define the rigging of the boat on the extreme left, but not in any of the other vessels. The shifts and variations in his boats, like the subtle changes in perspective between his views of the Doge’s Palace, remind us that Guardi never allowed topographical demands to diminish his creative spontaneity. And in view of the importance of music in contemporary Venetian life, it is tempting to compare the modulations in Guardi’s successive treatments of what were evidently popular, and thus readily saleable, views with those in the work of Italian composers of the time.

Morassi understood perfectly the poetry of this picture. He wrote of its ‘luce incandescente tinta di rosa e di azzurro e di verde, in una fantasmagoria di colori quasi stravagante’: and contrasted the canvas with the vedute of Canaletto at considerable length. His conclusion calls for quotation in full:
‘Ed ecco dunque che nella “veduta” tutto è vibrazione di luce di colore d’atmosfera, tutto è un tremulo gioco sublime tra il reale ed il sogno. La prospettiva è quale egli la sente in libertà e non la segue più come gli era stata suggerita dalla “camera ottica”. Le linee si dissolvono in una “passionalità” tutta vibratile; le verticali non cadono più "a piombo”, ma sono distorte sempre più verso sinistra, sì che il campanile di S. Marco minaccia di crollo; la riva del Molo è tutta arcuata ed insomma ancora una volta la realtà vien trasfigurata da una volontà di creare le immagini vedutistiche secondo l’estro, la sensazione del momento, l’umore di quel dato giorno e quella data ora. Una visione così “moderna” e precorritrice segue un certo acme emotivo del vedutismo di Francesco.’ (Morassi, op. cit., p. 241).
Seen bathed in morning light, the façade of the Doge’s Palace glows a pale yellow, which is precisely matched in the cloud above, and, as Morassi indicates, Guardi emancipated himself from the straitjacket imposed by the type of camera oscura which he, like Canaletto, used.


Morassi’s dating of about 1780 was advanced on stylistic grounds. This, however, derives circumstantial support from the reference to the Earl of Shaftesbury in an inscription on the stretcher. Anthony Ashley-Cooper, 5th Earl of Shaftesbury (1761-1811), who succeeded his father in 1771, is known to have been in Rome in 1782, the date that appears on Pompeo Batoni’s whole-length portrait (fig. 4) formerly at St. Giles’s, and is recorded in Naples, Florence and Turin in 1784. It seems evident that he made an extended Grand Tour at this time, and although there is as yet no clear evidence that he visited Venice, it is highly unlikely that he did not do so. While his father, the 4th Earl, had not made the Grand Tour, the 5th Earl must have been very conscious of the achievement of his eponymous grandfather, the 3rd Earl, who travelled extensively in Italy in 1686-9 and returned there in 1711, dying at Naples in 1713. Author of Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, which appeared in 1711 and was hugely influential, both in England and on the continent where it was admired by Voltaire, Shaftesbury made significant acquisitions in Italy and commissioned Paolo de Matteis to paint a Choice of Hercules (Oxford, Ashmolean Museum), for which he himself had laid down a specific iconographic programme. Brought up at St. Giles’s in Dorset (fig. 5), the 5th Earl was educated at Winchester and Christ Church, Oxford. Although he is known to have bought an exceptional Genoese basin and ewer (also now in the Ashmolean) for no less than £300 in Naples, little is known about his activity as a picture collector in Italy. This picture by Guardi was not among the 57 lots of pictures sold at Christie’s, 15 May 1852, after the death of his brother and successor, Cropley, 6th Earl of Shaftesbury, father of the celebrated reformer, the 7th Earl, who retained the greater part of the collection. Notes by him establish that he believed that his uncle had acquired the pair of Venetian views by Guardi that are listed at St Giles’s in an inventory of before 6 January 1873: the pictures do not appear in later inventories and were presumably sold by the 7th Earl in the ensuing period. In an earlier, but undated, ‘Catalogue of Pictures in Saint Giles’s House, Pictures insured.’ (Shaftesbury Mss, SG43/2) two pairs of views in Venice by Guardi are recorded, valued respectively at £70 and £30: the less expensive pair, against which the list was subsequently annotated in pencil ‘not found’, must correspond with the rather smaller (53.3 by 85.7 cm.) pendant canvases from the Shaftesbury collection acquired in 1871 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (inventory nos. 71. 119; Morassi, nos. 465 and 554), which must also be of circa 1782-4. What is somewhat surprising is that the original pendant to this picture has not been securely identified.

Baron Nathan-James-Edouard de Rothschild (1844-1881) is thought to have acquired the picture. The ‘goût Rothschild’ was expressed in many fields: where pictures were concerned, the Dutch masters of the ‘Golden Age’ and British portraits, as well, inevitably, as works by the great French masters of the eighteenth century, were seen as appropriate counterparts to French furniture. Pictures by Guardi appealed to several members of the family, as these had done to rival plutocratic collectors such as the 4th Marquess of Hertford: thus Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild acquired the great pair of views now at Waddesdon, including that cited above, in about 1876, while the Camondo canvas related to this picture was owned by Baron A. de Rothschild of Vienna. Michael Hall, to whom we are grateful, suggests that baron Nathan-James-Edouard is likely to have inherited the picture from his father Baron Nathaniel, who, despite his blindness, was a determined collector.

The compiler is indebted to Christina, Countess of Shaftesbury, the Earl of Shaftesbury and Richard Samways for information from the St. Giles’s archive, and to Michael Hall for information about the Rothschild family.


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