Francesco Guardi was a Venetian born into the minor nobility and one of three brother artists. He joined the studio of his older brother, Giovanni Antonio Guardi (1699–1760), who was primarily a figure painter, at an early age. Francesco seems to have turned almost exclusively to landscape only after the death of Gianantonio. He painted Piazza San Marco from the west, as seen here, no less than twenty times, presumably throughout the second half of his career. Beginning decades earlier in the eighteenth century, Canaletto depicted the view repeatedly (see 1988.162
), and Michele Marieschi (1710–1744) had painted it as well. All three of the great vedutisti
were distantly preceded by Gentile Bellini, whose incomparable canvas representing a religious procession in Piazza San Marco (Accademia, Venice) dates to 1496. In fact, Venetian view painting was very much an eighteenth-century phenomenon, with both European and American practitioners continuing to work in the maritime city in the nineteenth century.
Here the entrance façade of the multi-domed basilica of San Marco is in shadow. To the left is the clock tower, brilliantly illuminated, and to the right, the campanile or bell tower, with a partial view of the side façade of Palazzo Ducale in sunlight beyond. The wedge-shaped piazza, which is enclosed on three sides, opens out slightly toward the basilica. Guardi shows the complete range of the Procuratie Nuove in late morning shadow to right, with a partial view of the Procuratie Vecchie opposite. These rather similar buildings, with arcades and shops on the ground level, had been designed to provide housing and office space for the procurators, or financial and tax officials, of St. Mark’s. The view was recorded at eye level from a point near the east end of the piazza and a little south of the central line. The façade of the clock tower was brought forward, and thus slightly out of alignment, to make it more visible, but basically the topography is accurate. The only important adjustment is to the bell tower, which, while proportionate in height, is much more slender than in fact, a pencil-like silhouette against the vast expanse of the sky. This change opens up the space, which seems larger and longer in proportion to the scale of the figures.
The majority of the figures—most are men—are wearing cloaks and hats, and cluster in the shadow of the Procuratie Nuove. Many of them have their backs turned. An exception is a fashionable gentleman in a powdered wig, a yellow coat, and a beige waistcoat, facing to front, his plumed tricorne hat under his arm. Of equal interest is a man in a soft hat in the lower right corner who carries under his arm an unframed painting, with a bare canvas tacking edge held in place by nails of which one is visible. It is a landscape, with a building to right, and a fondamenta
and gondolas on the water are indicated. The tiny picture is signed Francesco Guardi. We do not know of any particular significance attaching to the artist’s signature, though such signatures are rare.
In 1884, our canvas was exhibited in London at Burlington House with a pendant representing the island of San Giorgio Maggiore seen through the columns of the Piazzetta. The two works, of exactly the same size, were sold one after the other, to different bidders, in 1924, when the present canvas fetched three times the price of its companion piece, since unlocated. If, as is generally believed, the earlier of two paintings by Francesco Guardi of the same subject in the National Gallery, London, precedes ours, and if that painting dates to about 1760, then The Met’s view was perhaps painted in the mid- or late 1760s.
[Katharine Baetjer 2017]