Known as the “Canaletto of Florence”, Giuseppe Zocchi was a painter and printmaker who from an early age was taken under the protection of the Marchese Andrea Gerini, an intellectual and patron of the arts from a noble family which had been settled in Florence since the 14th century. Gerini sent the young artist to study the work of his contemporaries in Rome, Bologna, Milan and especially Venice, where he remained for almost two years before returning to Florence around 1741. With the views of Canaletto, Bellotto and Marieschi fresh in his mind, Zocchi almost immediately undertook an extensive project for the Marchese, who had commissioned him to produce two series of etched views of Florence and its environs intended for visitors as mementos of their time in the city. Zocchi finished the project by the end of 1741, when his compositions were sent off to the best engravers throughout the Italian Peninsula. We can be sure that one of these drawings he produced for the Marchese's engravings (fig. 1), certainly carried out in situ, served as the basis for the present painted view, which Zocchi must have begun around 1742.
Taken from the south bank of the Arno river, this exquisite vista shows a skyline we can still easily recognize. The viewer is positioned just outside the Porta San Niccolò – the fortified gate to the city built in c. 1324 but destroyed save for its tower in 1870 – and below the church of San Miniato al Monte, higher up on the hill to the South, outside the picture field. At the leftmost point on the opposite bank, and positioned in the center of the composition to draw the viewer's gaze, rises the unmistakable crenellated tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. Constructed at the beginning of the 14th century on the designs of the great architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, the city's town hall was known initially as the Palazzo della Signoria for the ruling body of the Republic of Florence. Although the piazza over which it towers still bears that name, the Palazzo Vecchio was so christened when the Medici took power in Florence and the residence of the Medici Dukes was moved to the Palazzo Pitti in 1540.
Just to the right of the Palazzo Vecchio is the rectangular top of Orsanmichele, originally built in the 14th century as a grain market but soon converted to a church for the members of Florence's most prominent guilds. Adorned with paintings by 14th-century artists Andrea di Cione and Bernardo Daddi as well as sculptures by 15th-century luminaries Donatello, Ghiberti, and Verrocchio, this building is among the city's treasured artistic monuments. The viewer's eye moves immediately on to the monumental Franciscan Church of Santa Croce, the burial place of artists including Michelangelo Buonarrotti as well as visionaries like Galileo Galilei and Niccolò Macchiavelli. To its right is the elegant free-standing bell tower of Florence, or Campanile, designed by Giotto and splendidly constructed in pink, green, and white. The Campanile's partner – perhaps the most recognizable of all Florentine structures – is also visible, showing Brunelleschi's famous dome, which Leon Battista Alberti wrote was "vast enough to cover the entire Tuscan population with its shadow." Finally, at far right, is the tower of the Zecchia Vecchia, the city's old mint, which was built in the 1380s and does not survive today.
But while the painting's faithful description of the city's monuments adheres very closely to the preparatory drawing, the canvas captures the reflective surface of the water in the foreground in a way the work on paper cannot. Masterfully painted with special attention to the ephemeral light illuminating the reflections in the foreground, Zocchi has endowed the view with a feeling of movement and transience. Indeed, Antonio Morassi rapturously described on the painting's “crystalline splendor” (“nitore cristallino”) and “lucid atmosphere” (“atmosfera lucida”), pointing out the “bluish-silver sky” (“cielo cilestrino-argenteo”) and diffuse, “transparent clouds like puffs of cotton wool” (“poche e trasparenti nubi e battuffoli come d'ovatta”), and noted the influence of Venetian contemporaries like Marieschi on Zocchi's technique (loc. cit.).
It has been suggested that the present work was made for the Marchese Gerini, although it does not appear in the 1759 or 1786 catalogue of his collection. However, its close relationship to the drawing, which would have been Gerini's, does seem to support the theory that Gerini himself may have owned this picture immediately after it was made. In any case, the painting was acquired by George, 3rd Earl of Ashburnham, who had a residence in Florence known as the villa Pasquale, probably during one of his trips to the city in the 1780s. George was the eldest surviving son and heir of John, 2nd Earl Ashburnham and Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of John Crowley of Barking, Co. Suffolk. From 1781-1783 George undertook an extensive European tour, from which his diaries – which record trips to Flanders, Austria, Germany, and Italy – survive. Many of the paintings in his renowned collection were acquired during these travels or soon after his return to England. Featuring important works by Renaissance painters such as Sassetta, Gossaert, Bernard van Orley, and Filippino Lippi, the collection also included great portraits by 18th-century painters such as Maratti and Batoni, to name a few. It was with these works that the present view hung in a place of honor in the Great Entrance Hall (figs. 2, 3). It remained in the Ashburnham collection for nearly two hundred years.
The present composition is known in one other painted version, a canvas in the Cassa di Risparmio, Florence.