Old Master Paintings

Francesco Guardi's Evocative Depiction of Venice Grand Canal

By Sotheby's
Only very recently brought to light for the first time, this beautiful depiction of the Grand Canal is a mature work by Francesco Guardi, most probably painted in the 1770s. The far north-western stretch of the Grand Canal, dominated by the neoclassical church of San Simeone Piccolo and its great dome, was often chosen by Guardi as a subject for his paintings. This canvas is one of a small group of closely related vedute, probably also painted in the same decade and taken from the same viewpoint; it is moreover the only signed example known, and certainly the finest to remain in private hands.

The subtle colour harmonies of creams, pinks, blues and greys, and the wonderful effect of watery Venetian light attest to Guardi’s mastery of his brush, but equally noteworthy are the closely observed details of everyday life upon the canal. In the right foreground, for example, a traghetto or longboat glides across the canal, its passengers standing patiently as they are ferried across the famous waterway from the nearby crossing point beside the church of the Scalzi.

Francesco Guardi, Canal Grande Con S. Simeone Piccolo e gli Scalizi, watercolour on sepia 375 x 625 mm. Private Collection Zurich.

Guardi's view here looks south-west towards the entrance to the Grand Canal itself, which lies just around the bend. The time of day is presumably morning, for the light is falling across the buildings from the east. The composition is dominated by the great church of San Simeone Piccolo, whose huge dome looms over its monumental steps and portico. The way in which Guardi has captured the effects of the sunlight striking the church is one of the most sublime passages in the painting. Rebuilt between 1718 and 1738 by Giovanni Antonio Scalfarotto and still standing today, San Simeone was the last great church to be built in Venice and stood in what was then one of the city’s poorer quarters. We can follow the left bank of the canal as it stretches along the Fondamenta di San Simeone Piccolo, passing beyond the church to the bridge over the Rio dei Tolentini and then leading to the church and monastery of Santa Croce, which were both destroyed around 1810. The opposite right bank shows the Church of Santa Lucia, which, together with the surrounding buildings, was also later demolished to make way for the railway station that bears its name. Guardi’s viewpoint must have been from the Grand Canal itself, very close to the church of the Scalzi (which would be just out of sight on the right hand side of the view) and near the junction of the canal and the Rio dell’Isola. In his choice of viewpoint Guardi may have been influenced by Canaletto’s painting of the same prospect, today in the Royal Collection at Windsor, and which he would have known from Visentini’s popular engraving, published in 1735. This view is however taken from a more distant standpoint, and includes the church of the Scalzi on the right, which Guardi has omitted.

Ludovico Ughi, Iconografica rappresentazione della inclita città di Venezia, 1729 (detail). Guardi’s viewpoint would probably have been just beyond the Church of the Scalzi (seen here on the left or north-west side of the canal) looking south-west towards San Simeone Piccolo.

Guardi’s awareness of Canaletto’s design is also suggested by what appears to be his first exploration of this subject, a large signed drawing, today in a private collection in Zurich. This is similarly taken from a standpoint further back similar to that chosen by Canaletto and includes the church of the Scalzi. Morassi suggests that the drawing may have also originally served as a preliminary study for an engraving. Whether this is true or not, it certainly seems to have served as the prototype for all Guardi’s painted versions of this subject. Aside from the present work, the most important of these include a slightly larger canvas (67.3 x 91.5 cm.) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, a slightly shorter version in the Akademie in Vienna (63 x 90 cm.), and a smaller version in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid (48 x 78 cm.).

Francesco Guardi, Venice, the Grand Canal with San Simeone Piccolo. 1770s. Oil on canvas, 67.3 x 91.5 cm. Philadelphia Museum of Art, John G. Johnson Collection.

All the pictures share the same slightly elevated viewpoint, but the design of the present painting brings the spectator forward and much closer to the church of San Simeone, consequently giving the composition a slightly more vertical emphasis than the others in the group. In each of the other canvases Guardi extended the composition to the right to include the buildings alongside the church of Santa Lucia; in those in Philadelphia and Vienna these take the form of a small chapel and in Madrid a group of old houses. Several of the gondolas which appear in the foreground of each of these pictures can be sourced in the drawing, and it seems likely that Guardi referred to the latter for these elements in each painting, rather than using it as a preparatory study for one in particular. In the present canvas, for example, we can find the traghetto which we see in the lower right-hand corner, as well as the two gondolas with their figures which lie in its path. Another drawing by Guardi of this prospect of the canal in pen and brown ink was sold New York, Christie’s, 13 January 1993, lot 57, but again this does not seem to be specifically preparatory for any of the pictures in the group.

The general consensus among scholars is that all the pictures in this group are likely to be mature works by Guardi, painted in the 1770s. Two of the paintings in this group, those in the Thyssen Collection and the Akademie in Vienna, still retain their original pendants. In each case these are views of the opposite side of the Grand Canal, looking across to the church of Santa Lucia and then up to the convent and church of the Scalzi (Santa Maria di Nazareth). Guardi must have taken his view of San Simeone Piccolo from this last point, just at the juncture of the Grand Canal with the small Rio dell’Isola e Sabbioni. This last landmark was filled in during the nineteenth century, but the church of the Scalzi survived. Whether either the present painting or that in Philadelphia also originally had a companion is not known.

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