Drawn in connection with Guardi's painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, which is known in versions in private collections in Bergamo and Bologna, and at the Rhode Island School of Design, Providence (A. Morassi, I Guardi, I Dipinti, Venice, 1975 [reprinted 1984], nos. 270-273, figs. 302-304). Guardi developed this upright format from the final composition in his series of four horizontal paintings commissioned by the Venetian Senate to record the visit of Pope Pius VI on 15-19 May 1782. The series was one of Guardi's most successful, and he seems to have almost immediately revisited the official suite in a slightly smaller series of darker tonality, perhaps for a private patron. The larger painting of the Benediction in Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo is now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (A. Morassi, op. cit., 1975, no. 269, fig. 300), while the smaller variant is in the Bearsted Collection at Upton House, Oxfordshire (A. Morassi, op. cit., 1975, no. 268, fig. 299). The large number of versions of this composition suggest that it was very popular, and Guardi seems to have been encouraged to recast it in an upright format as seen in the present drawing. This new arrangement takes a closer viewpoint and in suppressing the façade of Santi Giovanni e Paolo to the right focuses on the Scuola di San Marco and the temporary platform. Another drawing for this arrangement, marginally smaller in size and with slightly less definition in the architectural features, was formerly in the collection of Pierre Decourcelle (sold at Christie's, Paris, 21 March 2002, lot 310). The development of the series has been examined in depth by Eric Garberson (D. Degrazia and E. Garberson, op. cit., 1996, pp. 125-130).
The contract for the commission, made between Pietro Edwards, an Englishman who was Inspector of Fine Arts for the Venetian Republic, and Francesco Guardi, shows that the artist agreed to work on tightly defined subject matter. He was required to paint four specific scenes: The Pope greeted by the Doge at the island of San Giorgio in Alga; The Te Deum celebrated by the Pope in Santi Giovanni e Paolo; The Senate's audience with the Pope in the refectory of the Dominican monastery at Santi Giovanni e Paolo; and The Papal Benediction from a temporary platform in the campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo. The contract stipulated that Guardi should base the compositions on studies of the actual sites, and that Edwards would direct the arrangement of the figures so as to curb Guardi's naturally fanciful tendencies. In the present drawing Guardi is free from this meddling. The Benediction had originally been planned to take place in the Piazza San Marco, but merchants objected that they would lose business if the Piazza was cleared and the ceremony was moved to the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, next to the Pope's lodgings at the Dominican monastery. To reflect the original site Antonio Codagnato, the designer of the platform, was instructed to base his designs on the façade of the Basilica of San Marco and to extend the structure over the boarded up Rio dei Mendicanti to the left. In the present drawing Guardi has elongated the vaulted bays both of the temporary structure and the Scuola di San Marco behind to produce an extremely elegant and impressive composition.
The present drawing bears the distinctive inscription and framing lines found on a number of drawings by members of the Guardi and Tiepolo families, and other Venetian artists (see lot 21), which James Byam Shaw identified as of 18th Century Venetian origin (J. Byam Shaw, The Drawings of Francesco Guardi, London, 1951, pp. 43-44). In the 1962 Fondazione Cini exhibition catalogue Mr. Byam Shaw distinguished the present drawing as being 'of the greatest expressive force and of the most immediate pictorial effect' in comparison with the other versions of the composition (Venice, op. cit., 1962, no. 94).