GUARDI, Francesco
(b. 1712, Venezia, d. 1793, Venezia)

An Architectural Caprice

before 1777
Oil on canvas, 54 x 36 cm
National Gallery, London

Francesco Guardi, although remembered almost exclusively for his real and imaginary Venetian scenes, worked with his older brother Giovanni Antonio on paintings in many genres: altarpieces, mythological narratives, battle pictures, and even murals. A newly discovered altarpiece, dating from after his brother's death around 1777, proves that Francesco continued to paint some large-scale pictures after the dissolution of the family firm. But from around 1760 his main work consisted of views indebted to Canaletto, whose designs he often copied. Soon, however, Guardi freed himself both from literal topography and Canaletto's more prosaic manner, to concentrate on poetic capricci - airy compilations of Venetian architectural motifs such as this picture, as well as ruins, and evocations of the sparkling waters of the lagoon which he was the first painter to depict. His pastel colours and glancing touch may have been influenced by his sister's husband, Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. Guardi's pictures, however, became smaller and smaller, some barely larger than matchboxes. These were presumably intended as tourist trinkets, souvenirs for the boudoir rather than mementoes of the Grand Tour for great English country houses.

Unlike most views, many of Guardi's imaginary architectural vistas are vertical in format. After his final return to Venice in about 1756, Canaletto had produced some small vertical pictures of the Piazza San Marco seen from under, or through, its colonnade, and Guardi may have been inspired by these. Canaletto's viewer stands still like a camera on a tripod, but in Guardi's picture we are impelled to follow the little figure in lemon yellow carrying its load of what looks like white laundry; we stroll from sunlight into shadow, to emerge once again into a sunlight all the brighter for being framed in light-reflecting darkness, just as the scale of the echoing arches gains from the small stature of the figures beneath. Charity is being dispensed. It may be spring, perhaps early in the morning. Sunshine falls in patches of pale pink, slightly darker on faraway brick walls and on a cloak in the foreground, and, darker still, in the line of a sunlit flagpole. The yellow of our distant guide's robe is drawn forward onto a brass lantern - sky blue fades to white, lemon yellow and pink colours emerge from a silver haze and merge again to enliven the silver and pewter-grey stone. There is no pure red anywhere and just a few nervous touches and lines of black. The perfect harmony of this unpretentious picture can only be experienced in front of the original - when it is as consoling as music, or the memory of a voyage to the Venice of our dreams.