Francesco Guardi
Biography of Venetian Cityscape View-Painter.

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View of San Giorgio Maggiore Venice
Museu Calouste Gulbenkian,
Lisbon, Portugal.

Francesco Guardi (1712–1793)

The Italian artist Francesco Guardi, along with Canaletto (1697-1768) and Bellotto (1721-80), is one of the greatest view-painters (vedutisti) of Venetian painting. During his lifetime, however, Guardi was overshadowed by his older brother Gianantonio (1699-1760); his style was too loose to stand comparison with the architecturally exact Canaletto, and he died in poverty. It wasn't until the late 19th-century that his reputation soared, when he was rediscovered during the highpoint of Impressionism, when his spontaneous brushwork was considered a welcome contrast to the static, photographic style of Canaletto.

Since then, critics have viewed him as one of the great Venetian Old Masters. Although he was a highly versatile painter who created altarpieces, frescos, scenes from mythology, landscapes, cityscapes, and contemporary genre scenes in the manner of Venetian painter Pietro Longhi, he remains best known for his urban landscape painting of Venice.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Francesco Guardi
in his colour painting,
see: Colour Palette of 18th-Century.

For the best examples, see:
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See: Art Definition, Meaning.

For a guide to artists and painting
styles in the 15th/16th centuries,
see: Renaissance Art in Venice.

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Early Life

Guardi was born into a family of well established and respected artists. His father Domenico (1678-1716) and brothers Nicolo (1715-86) and Gianantonio (1699-1760) ran the Guardi studio. His sister Maria also became involved in the arts: in 1719, she married one of Italy's most famous artists, Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770). Guardi joined his family in the business, and from a young age was fully occupied in drawing, painting and sculpting. As his father died when Guardi was only 4, he probably received most of his training from his older brother Gianantonio. This closeness has caused problems for scholars and art historians: the brothers often collaborated on artworks together, so it is not definitively clear which works can be attributed to Francesco, even though it is believed that Gianantonio concentrated mostly on historical works while Francesco focused on townscapes. The first work signed by Francesco is Saint Adoring the Eucharist (c.1739). There was some speculation that Francesco may have been taught by famous Venetian painter Canaletto (1697-1768), but it is more likely that the similarity of style is probably due to Guardi's detailed studies and copies of Canaletto's works.


Veduta (View Painting)

It appears that Francesco found his forte in vedute painting, but those paintings that can definitely be attributed to him, are dated mainly after the 1750s. A veduta (singular) is a detailed, usually large scale painting of a cityscape. As a genre, vedute painting originated with Flemish landscape artists such as Paul Brill and was perfected by masters such as Jan Vermeer. By the 18th century, when Guardi was active, Venice was home to the greatest collection of veduta artists in painting, etching and other print media. Guardi's first series of view-paintings has strong echoes of Canaletto, with his exaggerated perspectives and powerful light and colour. This style changed during the 1750s, when Guardi turned to a darker palette: his skies became stormy and charged with atmosphere. Where Canaletto, and indeed Bernardo Bellotto attempted to cram their townscapes with as much detail as possible, Guardi was more concerned about creating a mood and atmosphere. This approach was not popular with 18th century buyers, many of whom were foreign and wanted to buy the more photographic views of Canaletto and Bellotto. It was not until the 19th and 20th century that Guardi's painterly skills became more appreciated.

Mature Works

In 1757, Guardi is recorded as having married Maria Mattea, daughter of painter Matteo Pagani. In the same year, his brother Gianantonio died. Although Guardi also had some training under the painter Michele Marieschi in 1735, he was still employed by others while in his 40s. Financial success never came his way. In 1763 he worked in Murano, finishing a Miracle of a Dominican Saint in the church of San Pietro Martire. In the same year came an important commission involving a series of twelve canvases on the subject of the Doge's Feasts. These pictures, which are among Guardi's most important mature works, depicted the ceremonies held in 1763 for the election of Doge Alvise IV Mocenigo. In 1778, Gaudi painted Holy Trinity Appearing to St Peter and Paul for the Parish Church of Roncegno, and in 1782, he was commissioned by the Venetian Government to create six paintings celebrating the visit of Russian Archdukes to the City. The same year he was finally admitted to the Fine Arts Academy of Venice.


As well as view-paintings, Guardi also painted capricci pictures, compositions of architectural fantasy, placing buildings and people in fictional, often fantastical combinations. Capricci are usually classified under the genre of landscape painting, but the term can also refer to other types of works with elements of fantasy. Capricci painters include Marco Ricci, Giovanni Paolo Pannini and Canaletto. Gianbattista Tiepolo also carried out etchings in this style, reducing buildings to classical ruins, in which beautiful people cast in exotic clothes carried out their enigmatic business, with no titles or words of explanation to explain the works.

Painting Style

In his mature works Guardi sometimes used sfumato as a technique for creating depth and atmosphere. Sfumato is one of the 4 canonical painting modes of the Renaissance, the others being Chiaroscuro, Cangiante and Unione. When applying sfumato, the painter avoids the extremes of light and dark, and the brightness values are grouped tightly together around the middle grey. Guardi's mastery of this oil painting technique can be seen in his Story of Tobit, at the Church of Saint Raphael Angel in Venice. In the last 20 years of his life, Guardi created some of his most personal and expressionist works. His city views became less detailed, his brushwork shimmering. He often applied his paint in small dots, a style that is known as pittura di tocco. This element proved highly impressive to the Pointillists and Neo-Impressionism in later years. Guardi died in Venice in 1793.

Fake Art Works

Guardi was enormously prolific and his work can be found in the best art museums in Italy, France and Britain, including: the Venice Academy Gallery, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan; Museo Civico, Treviso; Galleria Franchetti, Venice; Museo del Settecento Venice; Museo del Settecento Veneziano, Venice; Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona; Louvre, Paris; Staatliche Museen, Berlin; Alte Pinakothek, Munich; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge; National Gallery, London; National Museum, Belgrade; Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon; The Hermitage, St. Petersburg; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and National Gallery of Art, Washington.

The only problem concerns the similarity between Francesco's and Gianantonio's canvases. Guardi never seems to have opened his own studio, although his son Giacomo (1764-1835) assisted him on many works, and later would copy his works specializing in gouache views of Venice (which lacked the freshness of his father's paintings). Also, there was an active industry in fake Guardi's during the late 18th century, a fact aggravated by Guardi's habit of painting the same scene over and over again.

• For profiles of the major art styles/movements/periods, see: History of Art.
• For a chronological list of dates, see: Timeline: History of Art.
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