June 2013
Number 13


Sonia Sbolzani


Francesco Guardi image

We are still feeling the impact from the celebrations sur- rounding the 300th anniversary of the birth of Francesco Guardi (1712-1793). Although originally from the Trentino region (the son of the painter Domenico, a native of Mastellina in the Val di Sole), he is now considered one of the foremost figures in 18th century Venetian art. Due to the dominance of neo-classical taste, Guardi was neglected for many years after his death, only to be rediscovered in the mid-nineteenth century, confirming the dictum: “nemo propheta in patria” (a prophet is not without honour, save in his own country). The re-evaluation of this artist began in Paris, with the return to favour of the rococo style, and here the critic Charles Yriarte was moved to describe him as “much more lively than Canaletto”.
Indeed, Francesco Guardi has the distinction of re-exploring in a “sentimental way” the genre of the lanscape, focusing on a more subjective, poetic and emotionally-charged interpretation. This can be seen in the flickering appearance of his brushwork, much less sharp than that of Canaletto, as well as in his greater care in balancing the colour relationships in his compositions. Nowadays, his views and “capriccios” (fanciful works) are on show in the world’s major art museums - from the Louvre to the Hermitage, and from London’s National Gallery to the Metropolitan in New York - in addition to the main institutions in Venice.

Francesco Guardi image

To celebrate this important anniversary, the Correr Museum in Venice and Buonconsiglio Castle in Trento staged two parallel, simultaneous exhibitions of Guardi’s work, which closed on January 6th. The joint event was made possible thanks to a fruitful collaboration between the Civic Museums of Venice Foundation and the Superintendence for Historic and Artistic Heritage of the Autonomous Province of Trentino, and with the support of various sponsors and the patronage of the President of the Republic. The intention was to give a complete picture of the painter’s original output, also in relation to other artists of the period, beginning with members of his own family. Indeed, his training took place in the context of the family studio, where his father Domenico worked, as well as his brothers Nicolò and (more notably) Gian Antonio.
The Venetian retrospective, curated by Alberto Craievich and Filippo Pedrocco (and with scientific management by Gabriella Belli), although not producing any great novelties, aligned itself firmly on the side of tradition by presenting the work in a chronological sequence and grouped according to theme. The display involved 121 works, both paintings and drawings, chosen for their quality and historical significance in the context of an extremely wide and varied repertoire. It ranged from youthful studies of figures (mainly inspired by the costume paintings of the time, of which Pietro Longhi was the foremost exponent) to sacred paintings, and from landscapes and fanciful works to the magnificent views of his later years: works which indicate an increasingly allusive and individual style, independent of other contemporary Venetian artists accustomed to portraying the social life of the great Republic.
Francesco Guardi image

The exhibition in Trento, although on a smaller scale, was certainly more particular and original. It concentrated on the themes of Guardi’s early work, under the title ““Francesco Guardi nella Terra degli Avi. Dipinti di Figura e Capricci Floreali” (Francesco Guardi in the Land of his Forebears: Figurative Paintings and Floral Capriccios). The curator of this show and the accompanying catalogue was Elvio Mich, with contributions and notes by Gianluca and Ulisse Bocchi, Silvia Proni, Salvatore Ferrari, Francesca de Gramatica, Stefano Volpin, Roberto Perini, Cristino Gervasi, and Davide Bussolari. In this case, the exhibition helped to illustrate certain little-known aspects of Guardi’s religious and figurative work, and most especially his still-life paintings. The show at the Buonconsiglio Castle served to highlight very effectively the special relationship between Guardi and the Trentino region, giving us the chance to admire the restored lunettes depicting the Appearance of the Angel to Saint Francis of Assisi and the Washing of the Feet from the sacristy of the parish church at Vigo di Ton, the altar-piece of Saints Peter and Paul from the parish church at Roncegno (1775), the Saint Adoring the Eucharist (Saint Norbert) from Castel Thun (signed on the back), and a Last Supper, also originally from the collection at Castel Thun.
The Vigo lunettes in particular, executed by Francesco in 1738 in collaboration with his older brother, Gian Antonio, display for the first time what was to become an important theme in the artist’s work, and one much debated by critics. This was the creation of still life studies of flowers, reinterpreting the style of floral composition made popular by Margherita Caffi and Elisabetta Marchioni, and achieving new heights of expression for the genre. This area of activity became increasingly popular with the public during the 18th century, but set against the considerable studio output (as well as the many imitators), the number of still life studies definitely attributable to Francesco Guardi seem like really rather few.

Francesco Guardi image

There are a number of still life paintings of floral compositions on show at Trento, which carry the initials “FG”. These throw considerable light on the origins of Guardi’s flower-painting and help us to understand it as an independent genre, characterized by a consistency in style which incorporates creative flair, subtle half-tones, and tricks of light which lend form and life to the flowers, arranged in a harmonious composition which includes such a multitude of connections one almost has the impression of listening to music.
The fortunate discovery in a private collection of a pair of canvases which include a vase bearing the unmistakable signature “FG” has enabled us to establish the links between Guardi and the abovementioned seventeenth-century painter Margherita Caffi: an artist who enjoyed an excellent reputation among Venetian collectors. One can note the fine use of brushstrokes and way of marking the canvas that he borrowed from her and then translated into the rococo style with ebullient vitality and gentle playfulness. Even so, these works are definitely not lacking in material substance, but are rather characterised by their firm, decisive lines.

Francesco Guardi image

The “Land of his Forbears” therefore provides us with one of the most important and universally acclaimed bodies of work from a consummate master of eighteenth-century Venetian art.
The occasion of the third centenary of the birth of Francesco Guardi has given the public a unique opportunity to admire a series of masterpieces which have, in some cases, been the object of restoration work and technical and scientific analysis by the Trentino Superintendence for Historic and Artistic Heritage. Therefore, the event at Buonconsiglio Castle, by spreading new awareness of Guardi’s local output, provides an ideal complement to the historic exhibition of 1949, staged at Trento by Giuseppe Fiocco and Rodolfo Pallucchini, and also to that held at Castel Caldes in 1993 to celebrate the second centenary of the artist’s death, with a catalogue by G. Romanelli, A. Dorigato, and E. Mich.
But how was it that Francesco Guardi became one of the most important landscape painters in eighteenth century Venice?
Francesco Guardi imageThe Guardi family came to Venice from Vienna, where Domenico, Francesco’s father, had been staying in 1690 to study painting at an academy run by the Strudel brothers. Following his marriage and the birth of his first son, Gian Antonio (1699-1760), the Guardi family settled permanently in Venice. The first evidence of artistic activity by Francesco relates to a series of copies of old paintings, executed in 1731 together with Gian Antonio on behalf of the noble Giovanelli family. After these first common endeavours in the context of the family workshop, the careers of the two brothers went off in different directions: while Gian Antonio continued to dedicate himself, with worthy results, to figurative painting, Francesco followed the example of Canaletto and gravitated towards landscape art. It was a more fortunate choice of genre, and one on which he stamped his own personality, eclipsing the reputation of his brother for a very long period. The connection with the Trentino region still remained very much alive, however: indeed, it was their uncle, Don Pietro Antonio Guardi, priest of Vigo di Ton, who commissioned his two nephews to produce a series of paintings on religious themes.


We will conclude this article with an interview kindly contributed by the distinguished art scholar Gianluca Bocchi, a specialist in Guardi’s still life work and co-author of the text in the catalogue for the Buonconsiglio Castle exhibition. In 1993, Gianluca and Ulisse Bocchi identified an anonymous painting in Stockholm – “Flowers both loose and in a basket, accompanied by a rooster” - as being the work of Francesco Guardi. The attribution was later confirmed by the discovery of the original signature, and so this picture can be considered an indisputable example of the floral work of the artist from Trentino.

Francesco Guardi image

What are the distinctive features of Francesco Guardi's flower painting?
Francesco Guardi was a man of his time and his floral art is definitively rococo, consisting of darting, fluttering strokes, and superb virtuosity with the paintbrush. We should also make the point that all of his output, from figurative art to views, from fanciful landscapes to floral “capriccios”, has its origins in the training he shared with his brother: an education based on the imitation of past or present models. To use a term which might appear discreditable, they were for a long time “copyist painters” before giving free vent to their respective and unique individual talents. This cultural imprinting had a lasting influence on their output: a phenomenon which has now given us an artist able to reinterpret the subjects of others with extraordinary individuality, to the extent of revolutionizing their contents and meaning by introducing a completely unique vision. He was therefore an outstanding re-inventor of other people’s models, and so it is quite legitimate to search his views for examples from Canaletto, or in his “capriccios” we find hints of Marco Ricci and Carlevaris. In his still life paintings, we have to go back to models from the seventeenth century, from which he took both the studies of vases and the dark backgrounds from which emerge with equal refinement either wild flowers, garden flowers, or non-existent botanical varieties painted in vivid shades of red, yellow and blue.
As you suggest in the title to this article, the inclusion of the rooster among the flowers seems rather curious, even in terms of rococo art, which generally preferred small birds or the legendary parrot. The reason for this unusual choice is still unclear to me.

You are amongst the foremost scholars to have recognized and promoted Guardi as a painter of still life. How did you develop your interest in this artist and how did you come to research this particular strand in his output?
My father and I have always had an interest in the whole still life genre, and this has never been restricted to the study of only particular artists or specific schools. The conventional classifications in terms of region, which have always featured in the study of art history, are very useful for a basic understanding of the fashions, styles and workshop production of various artistic and cultural centres (Rome, Florence, Naples, Bologna, and Venice) during certain well-established periods.
Meanwhile, the task of the expert in a particular genre is to build up an appreciation of all these different examples and compare them to each other, identifying points of convergence and divergence, reciprocal or one-way influences, similarity and distinctiveness: all within the wisest possible geographical and historical framework. I think that although the foremost twentieth-century scholars of Francesco Guardi (for example Giuseppe Fiocco and Antonio Morassi) certainly had a good knowledge of the methods and techniques of floral painting, they also failed to understand its true essence. This was partly due to the lack of signed works, but also ascribable to an overly “Venetian” approach to the subject, which substantially excludes an examination of other specialists in naturalia working both within and outside Venice.

Francesco Guardi image

How many still life works are listed which can definitely be attributed to Guardi?

The twenty years which have passed between the discovery of the first signed work and the creation of this exhibition have involved a methodical study of any paintings which could display similarities in style to a reference model. This research initially drew on the photographic archives of scholars working in the last century on the problematic issue of Guardi’s floral art. It was then extended to include works appearing on the international art market, either those listed in sales catalogues, or those shown in publications relating to antique fairs or art galleries. The most interesting news, however, reached us from the private collections. Nothing came out of the museum collections, but this is hardly surprising, if one only considers the original decorative purpose of these paintings.
Despite this detailed research effort, we cannot currently add any other flower paintings by Francesco Guardi to those on show at the exhibition and another two reproduced in the essay. My personal opinion – which I also express in the catalogue – is that this body of work should be seen in the context of a particular period of pictorial experimentation, initiated towards the middle of the 1750s and concluded with his decisive move towards landscape painting. If this is true, then it is hard to imagine that there are a significant number of new floral “capriccios” to be discovered in the future.

What are the special features of the Trento exhibition of Francesco Guardi’s work? What contribution did you make in particular?
The Trento exhibition has fitted in very well with the 2012 Guardi celebrations. It is much to the credit of the organizers, the Superintendence for Historic and Artistic Heritage and Buonconsiglio Castle, to have managed to arrange an exhibition which both promotes the local output of Francesco and Gianantonio Guardi and at the same time perfectly complements the show which is on concurrently at the Correr Museum in Venice.
Over a period of many years, I had a relationship of work, study and personal friendship with Elvio Mich, an official at the Superintendence and curator of the Trento exhibition. Mich had an excellent knowledge of Guardi’s work and was perfectly cognisant of the fact that my father and I were concluding our research into the flower paintings of Francesco Guardi after finding two initialled works in a private collection. These were works more in the old style, confirming the influence on his painting of studying the pictures of the Milanese artist, Margherita Caffi. There was therefore a happy convergence of time, study and interest which led to the creation of this unusual exhibition, certainly one of the most innovative and interdisciplinary appreciations of the artist’s work to be staged either in Italy or abroad. Indeed, the event includes detailed archive research of Elvio Mich, accounts of restoration work by Cristino Gervasi and Roberto Perini, combined with chemical and physical studies by Stefano Volpin, radiological investigations by Davide Bussolari, and the botanical contributions of Maria Silvia Proni.

Personally speaking, which do you think are the best examples of Guardi’s floral painting?
I don’t want to appear prejudiced in a preditable way, but I think the first picture I discovered, “Flowers both loose and in a basket, accompanied by a rooster ”, is still the one that fascinates me most: not so much for its successful execution, which is generally comparable to other works, as for the spirit which permeates the painting.
In this work, I believe that Francesco reaches a peak: the floral “capriccio”, in the same way as the fantasy landscape, becomes a means for withdrawing from an everyday existence in which the artist felt himself to be less and less a participant. Guardi overturns reality by using his own utterly inimitable pictorial language and a totally imaginary setting, somewhere between land and sea, where everything floats weightlessly in an all-embracing silence.

Which questions still remain unanswered in relation to Guardi’s flower paintings?
Francesco Guardi image Basically, that of the theoretical existence of different types of flower compositions, not forming part of that unified style I have been searching for up to now. This would be a necessary premise for proving the existence of a body of work which has generally denied for the last thirty years.
There might just be a hint in the painting “Display of flowers in a majolica vase with oriental decoration, accompanied by a rooster” which, despite using stylistic elements recognisable from other works, accomplishes this with a meticulousness, minute attention to detail and unusual precision, as if formal perfection was the main purpose of the work.
The possible discovery of other similar canvasses, in which technical performance exceeds and minimizes the typical emotional aspect of Guardi’s work, would serve to overturn my belief that I am looking at a one-off commission painted at the express request of a patron.