These sparkling views show two of the most celebrated sights of Venice, the Piazza San Marco looking towards the Basilica, the religious centre although not originally the cathedral of the city, and the Piazzetta, flanked by two of the great secular buildings of Venice, the medieval Doges' Palace on the left and Sansovino's Libreria on the right, with the Molo, and, across the Bacino, the façade of Palladio's great church of San Giorgio Maggiore. Inevitably both were subjects for which there was a considerable demand, Morassi listing no fewer than twenty-eight variants of the Piazza and eighteen of the Piazzetta seen from a roughly central view point (A. Morassi, Guardi, Venice, 1975, nos. 314-41 and 361-72 respectively). Of these the majority are on canvas. Of the five views of the Piazza on panel (ibid., nos. 325, 329, 333, 335 and 336), all are smaller than this pair, the closest in scale being the picture formerly in a French collection (ibid., no. 329, measuring 25.5 by 41 cm.) which is stylistically very similar to this picture and like many of the other versions, shows the Piazza by low afternoon light. None of the other recorded views of the Piazzetta is on panel. There too Guardi shows the view by afternoon light, which catches the statues on the parapet of the Libreria and illuminates the gothic finials of the Doges' Palace and the distant façade of San Giorgio Maggiore.
The statesman William Fitzmaurice, 2nd Earl of Shelborne and 1st Marquis of Lansdowne (1737-1793), who acquired the as-yet unfinished Bute House, subsequently Lansdowne House, Berkeley Square, designed by Robert Adam and who also employed the architect at Bowood, formed a notable collection of pictures that was sold by his elder son, John, 2nd Marquis of Lansdowne (1765-1809). The latter's half-brother, Henry, 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne (1780-1863), for half a century was a dominant figure in Whig politics and evidently loved pictures as Mrs Jameson records (op. cit., pp. 287-9). He sought successfully to rebuild the collection, securing such masterpieces as Rembrandt's Mill (Washington, National Gallery of Art) and his late Self Portrait (Kenwood, the Iveagh Bequest), purchased perhaps in deliberate competition with his brother-in-law, Lord Ilchester, who owned the artist's equally remarkable self-portrait now in the Frick Collection, New York. Lansdowne's tastes were catholic and he acquired a substantial number of works by Italian artists. These pictures were placed in the great Drawing Room, with works by other Italian artists as well as of the Dutch, French and English schools, including The Mill, Bronzino's Portrait of a Youth (now on loan to the National Gallery, London), a Murillo portrait now in the National Gallery, Reynolds' Mrs Baldwin (Compton Verney), with works by artists as varied as Luini and Hogarth.
The fact that the two panels were attributed to Canaletto suggests that these may have been relatively early purchases on the 3rd Marquis of Lansdowne's part, as Guardi's personality only came to be widely recognised after sales from the large series of pictures acquired by Lord Dover from the 1830s. It is a telling comment on Dr. Waagen's acuity that he recognised in 1854 that the pictures were not by Canaletto, although that attribution continued to be mentioned until at least 1897.