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Francesco Guardi Essay Sample

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Francesco Guardi Essay Sample

Venice has always managed to appeal to all refined tastes. It simultaneously attracts admirers of Gothic style and the Renaissance, lovers of the Baroque and Classicists. The eighteenth century, when other European cities played a major role in the disturbed affairs of Europe, Venice remained one of the main centers of painting with the masters of marvelous landscapes that engraved in the history of art a perfect portrait of Venice of the 18th century. Venetian school produced the best examples of rococo and large, bright landscape and cityscape compositions. One of the peculiar features of Venetian school was rather strong Byzantine influence which dated back to the medieval period but still palpable not only during the Renaissance but as late as the eighteenth century[1]. Pictures on a gold ground continued to be painted in Venice, for example, in pictures by Guardi, gold backgrounds are still occasionally to be found. But above all, Venice was famous for its great school of “vedutisti”[2] – the artists devoted to picturing cityscapes; the masters in both engraving and painting were Bellotto, Canaletto and Guardi. The latter deserves much attention for his unconditional for that period manner of representing the views of Venice.

The life story of Francesco Guardi evokes a lot of discussion and speculation as there is little contemporary documentation available. The absence of profound information on artist’s life can be, probably, explained by the fact that he was not very popular at his days. Though he was a real great Venetian vedutisti the only in the 20th century he became generally recognized. With little records by his contemporaries available, Byam Shaw made in the book The Drawings by Francesco Guardi an attempt to collect the most essential sources and restore probable story of Guardi’s life. Francesco Guardi was born in a family of artists – both his father and brothers were painters and his sister was married to famous Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo[3]. Though it can hardly be stated that Francesco learned this profession from his father as the father had died when Francesco was a little boy.

His brother Antonio kept a family studio and probably there Francesco Guardi tried himself as an artist. Guardi began as a figure painter under the guidance of his brother Antonio, with whom he collaborated until the latter’s death in 1760. But after his brother’s death Francesco came into his own as a veduta painter or painter of views. Starting from 1760s Francesco developed own style though he still followed the practice of borrowing compositions from others; he copied the works of Canaletto, but remained stylistically quite different from him, rejecting perspective frameworks for freer compositions. Unlike Canaletto Guardi was a defender of a very liberal concept of the veduta. To Canaletto’s impeccable perspective and clear spatial construction, held in careful balance, he substituted a tremulous, almost excited play of lights and shadows and an elusive, aerial perspective. A veduta by Guardi was always enlivened by forms in movement–small figures, boats and so on–rendered in tiny, flickering brushstrokes splashed with light. His aim was not to give an accurately detailed depiction of each object on his picture, quite contrary he preferred to underline the general mood and atmosphere of the scene through magical colors and luminous vibrancy. That is why much of his cityscapes devoted to Venice are tinted with his very subjective approach. This approach was very similar to that developed later by the Impressionists.

The period between 1770 and 1780 illustrates the gradual development of the most admired Guardi style: the brushwork becomes looser and freer, the color lighter, the ‘magical effects’ more and more apparent. And as Francesco’s mannerisms in the little figures increased his respect for the topography of Venice declined. Topographical evidence, as a means of dating his views of Venice, is no longer reliable. Such Guardi’s tendency to imaginary compositions, called capricci[4], is tangible in his View of the Rialto from the Grand Canal (Fig.1). As typically for capricci and veduta there must be a particular subject in the center of a cityscape to which all the attention is attracted. When observing View of the Rialto viewer’s attention is drawn to the central object that is a Rialto Bridge. The Rialto Bridge was the only connection between the banks of Grand Canal in the eighteenth century’s Venice and thus it was one of city’s busiest crossroads. With small figures, particularly of his paintings, Guardi’s work conveys both the agitated rhythm of boats being unloaded on the left side and the general vividness of the scene with innumerable figures popping out from their windows and walking on the right bank. Nevertheless, people and events matter much less than his own enchanted interpretation of Venice, that is why, the figures are not so distinctly depicted.

Here Guardi creates a shimmering insubstantial city, forever rocking on the water.  The light is always refracted into lively dancing points which gleam on the dots of people and glitter on buildings. Eventually light and air and water are the only “subjects” of his work: the waters of the lagoon flood the composition, and the View of the Rialto becomes not a view but a harmony in brownish yellow tints. The flickering white highlights create that, when combined with the almost abstract patterns of broken colors in the buildings, transforms an actual view into a vision of glittering, ever-changing life. In this cityscape Guardi searches for lighting effects that bring every particular to life like the reflections of buildings in the water or light shadows on the walls, conferring a suggestive validity to them.  Thus the “view” became for him a subtle and suggestive capricci, which, however, had little popularity among his contemporaries. While for his predecessors such imaginary views of Venice were a means of stressing the picturesque at the expense of the documentary, for Guardi they were a way of escape from the humdrum and pedestrian, and as such indispensable to the free flow of his fancy. These imaginary views, the key to his spirited interpretations of Venice, are offspring of a vision that is not yet that of Romanticism, even less that of Impressionism, but true Rococo.

Such a deeply subjective approach was of little interest to those foreigners who purchased Venetian vedute. They gave more preference to the works by Canaletto who had built up a solid Venice from blocks of masonry, tubes of chimneys, facades as firm as marble and thus created the exact, almost photographic views of Venice. Guardi created very personal works and continuously avoided the exact reproduction of the cityscape. Guardi is often compared and contrasted with Canaletto. Though at first Gaurdi seemed to emulate Canatello, in later period Guardi became diametrically opposed to Canatello in style. Canatello’s works are guided by linear perspective which for Guardi was of secondary importance; he attained depth through atmospheric effects. The city views are not painted with consideration of exactness, but by means of transparent hues and abrupt brushstrokes a scintillating atmosphere is recreated, conveying vivid image penetrated by specific unparalleled mood of Venice. Therefore Guardi’s subjective approach, thanks to the lack of detailing accuracy and precision in lines, moulds an exquisite illustration of a Venetian reality.

In 1768, when Canaletto died, Francesco Guardi succeeded him as official painter of Venice. His position was consecrated only when, in 1782, the authorities commissioned paintings from him to commemorate the visit of Pope Pius VI[5]. As his sense of color grew in acuteness and refinement, his paints took on a limpidity tinted with the warm buff of walls. As Michael Levey observes “Only an artist adept at figure-painting from earliest youth could so effectively sum up the human figure in a dab of pigment, transform line into color patches and integrate these into a rhythmic, light-filled whole.”[6]  Though being neglected during the most part of his life nowadays Francesco Guardi is justly recognized as the exquisite, always ingenious improvisator of Venice views, strong as few others are in the direct transference of his personal impression to canvas.

For a hundred years or more Venetian painting had been a symbol of artistic excellence in all the capitals of Europe, revered for the splendor of its color, for its ease and spontaneity of expression and – after Guardi – for its vibrant effusion of atmospheric light.


Brunetti, Mario Venice. Transl. by James Emmons, New York: Skira, 1956.

Levey, Michael. A Concise History of Painting: From Giotto to Cezanne. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962

Mc Carthy, Mary. Venice Observed. New York: Reynal, 1957

Shaw, Byam J. The Drawings of Francesco Guardi, London

“Capriccio.” Grove Art Online. Oxford University Press, 15 Aug 2006

<http://www.groveart.com/ >

“Veduta.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 23 May 2006, 07:21 UTC. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 15 Aug 2006 <http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Veduta&oldid=54668972>.

[1] More on Byzantine influences in Venetian art see M. Brunetti Venice. (1956, p.31-34)

[2] Derivative from a veduta (Italian: view, pl. vedute) is a highly detailed, usually large-scale painting of a cityscape or some other vista. (Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veduta )

[3] Byam Shaw’s book The Drawings by Francesco Guardi is a real guide-book, presenting details on artist’s life and work and is quite indispensable to any student interested in Venetian art.

[4] A drawing or painted or engraved composition combining features of imaginary and/or real architecture, ruined or intact, in a picturesque setting. In its fantasy element it is the opposite of the veduta. (http://www.groveart.com/ )

[5] Mc Carthy “Venice Observed” (1957, p. 90)

[6] Michael Levey. A Concise History of Painting: From Giotto to Cezanne. (1962, p. 236)

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