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.