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Saturday, May 24, 2014

Francesco Guardi

Copyright, Jim Lane
Two Venices, 220 years apart.

Portrait of Francesco Guardi,
1774, Pietro Longhi.
Ever since my wife and I visited Venice, Italy, in the spring of 2013, I've had a special interest in Venetian painting. First and foremost, that means Canaletto, but also Titian, Veronese, Giorgione, Tintoretto, and of course, the Bellini brothers. Except for Canaletto, that means lots of religious paintings, naked women, portraits, and a good deal of history painting. Venice has a lot of history to paint, by the way. Then today I came across the Venetian paintings of the 18th century artist, Francesco Guardi. Guardi is kind of a romanticized Canaletto, and considered the last of the great Venetian painters (a lot of artist today in Venice would take issue with that but...). In any case, Guardi painted Venice in decline, no longer ruling a considerable maritime empire, its lagoon becoming murky with wastes, its once glorious palazzos starting to sink into the mud, its canals lacking in upkeep, its population declining (as it still is today).
Copyright, Jim Lane
Guardi's obligatory view of San Giorgio Maggiore contrasts sharply with my 2013 photo,
yet underscores the timelessness of this historic and strangely beautiful city.
What I find most interesting about Guardi is that, despite the decline, there is an atmospheric truth in his numerous Venetian scenes. Canaletto is supernaturally pristine, bright, hard edged, architectural, and superficial. Guardi is none of that. His Venice is soft, gentle, cloudy, and, as I said before, romantic. The contrast is all the more noticeable to me, having been there, lived and breathed the same ambience as Guardi, yet come away with photos (above, below, and at top) that tend to be kind of a cross between Canaletto and Guardi.

Copyright, Jim Lane
This is a scene peering between the Campanile and San Marco's. 
Street vendors in tents still peddle their souvenirs today, 243 years later.
Turn around at the foot of the Grand
Staircase below, and this is what you see,
today the exit from the Doge's Palace. 
Guardi didn't paint only Venetian landmarks and waterways. He painted the life and times of the Venice he knew. When important kings, queens, popes, and prelates came to the city, Guardi was commissioned to paint them (he painted them, in fact, whether commissioned or not). His Coronation of the Doge (below), from 1770, is seen against the backdrop of the Grand Staircase in the courtyard of the Doge's Palace. It's not changed one iota in 243 years (despite having been underwater more than a few times since Guardi plied his trade. More than that, though, his paintings allow us a peek into the rich, high-ceilinged interior rooms of the palace as they hosted concerts and public audiences with city officials. Little has changed, though Guardi (and other artists as well) often tend to exaggerate heights. Guardi's Campanile in Piazza San Marco always seems more slender than it really is. The same is true of his interiors, though only slightly.

Copyright, Jim Lane
Coronation of the Doge (above, left), 1770, Francesco Guardi 
Guardi was born in 1712 and died in 1793. He came from a painting family. His father died when Francesco was four but before he died, he's taught Francesco's older brother Gian Antonio (who, himself was just a lad of thirteen) how to paint. Gian Antonio, in turn, taught Francesco. Another older brother, Nicolo, was also a painter and it's believed the three worked interchangeably on various commissions they received. Ironically, it is "little brother," Francesco, who is most highly regarded today. His Nighttime Procession in Piazza San Marco (below) from 1758 is one of few, perhaps the only nocturnal painting of Venice.

Nighttime Procession in Piazza San Marco, 1758 , Francesco Guardi. Of all
the vistas provided by Piazza San Marco, this seemed to be the artist's favorite.

Audience Granted by the Doge, 1766, Francesco Guardi.
The room is some three stories tall and the size of a basketball court.

On the night of December 28, 1789, the oil depot at San Marcuola caught fire. Though well into his 70s at the time, Guardi rushed to the scene, set up his easel, and painted the fire. He had plenty of time, perhaps even plenty of light (it was a BIG fire). Judging by the fact he painted at least two other similar versions with daylight (one is seen below), the fire appears to have continued well into the next day. I'm not sure what, exactly, they used oil for in that day and age--lighting perhaps...heating?

Fire at the Oil Depot, San Marcuola, 1789, Francesco Guardi. Local firefighters,
if there were any, would have been helpless against such a conflagration.
Strangely, all historic references to this event refer only to Guardi's paintings.


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