Canaletto and Guardi, Face-Off in Venice

Updated: Jun 4, 2019


St. Mark's Square in Venice by Canaletto, 1735-1738

Now, I don't like to play favorites, especially when talking about great artists, but between these two views of St. Mark's Square in Venice, I prefer the bottom one, by Guardi, to the one here by Canaletto. Admittedly the Guardi was done 50 years after the Canaletto, but St. Mark's Square didn't change much in that time. Both of these artists were at peak performance when they painted these views or vedute, as beautiful views of Venice were called in the 18th century. So it must boil down to a difference in temperament that makes one almost airbrushed in its clean, clear beauty (Canaletto) and the other more on the gritty side, with even the sky showing more color and movement (Guardi, see below).


St. Mark's Square in Venice, Francesco Guardi, 1785.

Venice, Entrance to the Grand Canal, La Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute by Canaletto, 1722

Venice, of course, was a place of rivalries, since there is only one #1, and no one wanted to be #2. Back in the 16th century, the young and ruthless Titian disputed with his master, the great and much elder Giovanni Bellini, and he even challenged Giorgione. With age Titian schemed with Veronese against Tintoretto, himself a local enfant terrible, then continued to effectively splash his weight around the Lagoon (local nickname for the Venetian area) the rest of his career, which was long - only the Plague could carry him off. The Louvre in 2009 did a huge exhibition called Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese, Rivalries in Venice, which was one of the most wonderful shows of painting I've ever seen, as I love the painting of all three, but the personalities - whew! The point here is that these rivalries were serious as competition for business was stiff. When we come to the 18th century and the creation of the veduta, the beautiful view of Venice, it was Gaspar van Wittel who did a sort of pre-veduta in 1697. Once the idea of these postcard substitutes took off in popularity with those doing the Grand Tour (mostly British), it went on until the end of the century with the death of Francesco Guardi in 1793. It was a big and often profitable enterprise with a number of acknowledged masters like Luca Carlevarijs, Michele Marieschi, Bernardo Bellotto and, of course, Canaletto and Francesco Guardi.


When the National Gallery of London did a show called Canaletto and His Rivals, The Telegraph newspaper in London made this pronouncement: "Canaletto had no rivals!" The very absolutism of that statement, done in what my American mind hears in colonial British tones (like the Stamp Act and the Tax on Tea) got me thinking about something I heard in my art history class when studying Venetian painting. Our instructor commented that while Canaletto's work is much purchased, originally especially by the British, it seems Americans prefer Guardi. The memory of that made me look at these two artists with a desire to see if there was some cultural component to my preference for Guardi.



Basin of St. Mark with Doge's Palace, Canaletto, c.1740

First let's look at Canaletto. Born Giovanni Antonio Canal in Venice in 1697, this son of a theatrical set designer was himself quite skilled at painting backdrops for stage sets. He used this sense of the dramatic, along with an understanding of light and perspective to paint views of the city that caught the attention of those British Grand Tourists around 1726. In fact his contact with the aesthetics of the Anglo-Saxon world, some of it through the British ambassador, Joseph Smith, who collected a number of Canaletto's works and kept them on display in the embassy, moved Canaletto's painting to conform to the ideas of British Rationalism. That good business strategy combined with his superb composition and highly skilled painting techniques (and use of the camera obscura for accuracy) put him in the sweet spot when it came to being a greatly successful, well-rewarded painter in his own lifetime.


Francesco Guardi, 15 years younger than Canaletto, came from a family of painters. He studied under Michele Marieschi, another of the celebrated painters of vedute (views). Along with his brother, Gian Antonio, he painted a number of things between 1735 and 1760, according to whatever commissions were available, and many of these works were unexceptional. In fact, Guardi had a hard scrabble artistic life, dying in poverty in 1793, not unknown but not well regarded. The financial lack caused him to use materials of lesser quality which has often impacted the physical quality and durability of his works.



The Church and Convent of Zatelli in Venice by Francesco Guardi c. 1780

However, if we look at Guardi's painting career, it was after his brother's death that Guardi's painting began to change, and he fully entered the market for the vedute that had been dominated by Canaletto, who died in 1768. Guardi's painting increasingly took on a more impressionistic look, though he lived a century before the French Impressionists. His light touches of paint are known in Italian as pittura di tocco. His style was loose and completely unlike the static rather photographic style of Canaletto. This example of painters around that time beginning to loosen up the image fascinates me, as one finds Francisco Goya doing some of the same in the latter part of his life (early 1800s), and Turner also working in a loose vaporous style as his career developed in the 1800s. Guardi was a bit ahead of both, and his works began to find fame with the coming of Impressionism. It certainly seems that something was teasing the artists to leave strictness behind in favor of more expression, starting around the turn of the 19th century. To see that in play when compared to Canaletto, I give you the picture below from the catalog of the Musée Jacquemart-Andre show Canaletto, Guardi Les Deux Maitres de Venise.


While the clear perfection of Canaletto (two bottom photos) feels almost like a cool breeze, it presents a still and perfect image, a photo from before the photo existed. Guardi's rendition has a soft shimmer to it, a vibrancy that is almost cinematic. For if you look long enough, it seems to move. In that it is almost like an image on a still movie screen that comes to life when the story begins. Which brings me to my original question about is there a cultural component to my preference for Guardi. I think that Guardi's rise to be mentioned now in the same breath with Canaletto comes from the modern desire to not be locked in place. Maybe it is like physics, where we learn that molecules are always moving, so stasis is illusory. In my mind, talk of cultural stereotypes is meaningless; the real difference is Guardi's change in perception of his subject, represented by that looser style of painting. His painting in touches (pittura di tocco) was like a bird heralding a dawn that was to come years later with Impressionism. Impressionism made us see the world differently. Guardi's work fits more with that modern vision of things; hence, the current preference of many people for Guardi over the classicism of Canaletto.


Lastly, I present you with one of Guardi's Gondola in the Lagoon paintings. He started these around 1765, after the death of his brother, when Guardi was no longer part of a duo. I find them to be beautiful in their solitude. We see the image of Venice in the far distance, but the gondola in the foreground is far away and headed who knows where in relation to the city itself. There is a quality of the indefinite, the unfinished, and perhaps even the infinite and the eternal - the eternal, which is what great art always is, isn't it?


Godola in the Lagoon (Grey Gondola), Francesco Guardi, 1765.

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Images are in public domain.





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