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

Pope Pius VI Blessing the People on Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo

Oil on canvas, 63,5 x 78,5 cm
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

In May 1782, Pope Pius VI visited the city of Venice. The ceremonies and festivities on that occasion were recorded by Francesco Guardi in a series of four paintings. The city council commissioned Guardi to make four paintings representing the following subjects: the arrival of the pontiff near San Giorgio in Alga, the papal mass in SS Giovanni e Paolo, the papal audience and the blessing of the people on Campo SS Giovanni e Paolo.

In this scene, the blessing of the people on the square before the church of Santi Giovanni e Paolo is shown. To the right is the large Dominican church of Santi Giovanni and Paolo, with Verrocchio's equestrian statue of Colleoni in front of it. Our view of the façade of the Scuola Grande di San Marco in the background is partly obstructed by a temporary wooden platform with double stairs and a balcony. On the left we see the houses and palazzi on the Rio dei Mendicanti. The canal itself has been covered with planks to provide more room for the spectators. The large crowd attending the ceremony dominates the foreground of the painting. The picture is considered the most important of the different versions of the scene, which appears to be based on a composition by Canaletto.

Pope Pius VI visited Venice from 15 till 19 May 1782, returning from an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to the Austrian emperor Joseph II in Vienna. Large-scale festivities were organized in Venice in honour of the distinguished guest. At his arrival in the city, the Pope was welcomed by the Doge and the Signoria; the following day he held an audience and was honoured with music recitals, held in part in his absence. The highpoint of the festivities was the blessing of the people on Pentecost, the day on which the Pope was scheduled to leave. On the square before SS Giovanni e Paolo, the monastery where the Prince of the Church had taken up residence, a wooden platform had been constructed. Flanked by the ruling Doge, Paolo Renier, and by the Patriarch of Venice, and accompanied by spiritual and secular dignitaries, the pontiff blessed the assembled people. The papal blessing was actually to have taken place on Piazza San Marco, but because many shops and stands would have had to be removed for the occasion, it was decided to move the ceremony to the square in front of the Dominican church. In order to preserve something of the atmosphere of the Piazza nonetheless, an attempt was made to recall the façade of the basilica of San Marco in the design of the wooden construction.

The paintings that Guardi made of the festivities are among his few works that are securely documented and dated. Guardi prepared his depiction of the papal benediction with great care. Several drawn and painted studies of the platform before the Scuola di San Marco are known, while a remarkable combination of two drawings provides more information about the working method of the painter.

This series of paintings forms the last great manifestation of a rich tradition of depictions of Venetian festivities and ceremonies.