Baroque and Rococo


Baroque and Rococo Art Map

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Francesco Guardi



Francesco Guardi

born 1712, Venice
died 1793, Venice

one of the outstanding Venetian landscape painters of the Rococo period.

Francesco and his brother Nicolo (1715–86) were trained under their elder brother, Giovanni Antonio Guardi (q.v.). Their sister Cecilia married Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. By 1731 the brothers are recorded as collaborating in a bottega, half-studio and half-shop. Francesco does not appear to have adopted the practice of veduta (q.v.) view painting, on which his fame rests, before the mid-1750s or later. Perhaps he was impelled by the approaching death of his brother Giovanni and the absence of competition in this profitable field except from the aging and then unproductive Canaletto. His earliest views are almost always signed or initialed, as though to draw attention to his new artistic aims, and they seem inspired by Canaletto's own works of 30 years before.

In 1782 he depicted the official celebrations in honour of the grand duke Paul's visit to Venice, basing at least one of the compositions on commonplace contemporary engravings. Later in the year he was commissioned by the republic to make similar records of Pius VI's visit, the contract specifically forbidding such copying. He enjoyed considerable favour with the English and other foreigners and was elected to the Venetian Academy in 1784. He was an exceedingly prolific artist whose scintillating and romantic impressions of the declining city are in marked contrast to Canaletto's limpid photographic records of its architecture.

Francesco Guardi:

The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day, c. 1770

The marriage of Venice with the sea

(Rose-Marie & Rainer Hagen)

Francesco Guardi
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day
Oil on canvas, 66 x 100 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris


Every year on Ascension Day, in a symbolic act of union with the sea, the Doge of Venice boarded the ship of state, a ceremonial barge that was so heavily burdened with ornament, it was practically unseaworthy. The weaker the Republic became, the more pompous the ceremony, captured here by Francesco Guardi in 1770, only decades before Venice finally lost its independent sovereignty.
The painting, measuring 67 x 101 cm, is now in the Louvre, Paris.


A few light clouds adorn a blue sky over Venice. The doge's palace and the Campanile can be seen on the right, the churches of Santa Maria della Salute and San Giorgio Maggiore in the centre and on the left. The artist evidently set up his easel at a point now occupied by the public gardens, the setting of today's Venice Art Biennale. Francesco Guardi has compressed the panorama a little in order to show as many famous buildings as possible.
The large ship floating in the harbour is the bucintoro, the Venetian Republic's ship of state. The name originally meant "ship of gold". The doge with his dignitaries and senators are on board to enact the symbolic marriage of the head of state with the Adriatic, a ceremony celebrated each year on Ascension Day.
This was the most important festival of the year, spread out over two weeks to allow the Venetians to celebrate as befitted the occasion. With masques permitted and theatres and the casino open, tourists flocked to the city. A trades fair, offering Venetian luxury goods, was mounted simultaneously. Ascension thus cleverly combined business interest with a pleasurable springtime extension of Carnival, officially opened with a popular, semi-religious ceremony of state.
The work belongs to a series of twelve depictions of Venetian festivals which Guardi probably painted for Doge Alvise Mocenigo IV. the third last of the doges be-fore the annals of the Republic closed. Mocenigo celebrated his first marriage with the sea in 1763. As usual, the Venetians were entitled to inspect the bucintoro the day before. Those who possessed boats joined a flotilla which, in a manner resembling a wedding procession, accompanied the dream-ship along its route. According to Goethe, the ship showed both "what the Venetians were, and what they imagined themselves to be".


A golden parasol recalls Byzantium

Francesco Guardi
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day


Many ships were richly decorated in those days, but none weighed quite as heavily at the bows as the bucintoro. The lengthy, projecting wooden beak, usually attached to galleys for the purpose of ramming enemy ships, was here purely decorative; moreover, it was even complemented by a second such extension. The upper beak, ornamented with waves, seaweed and children, symbolized the sea, while the lower one, with bushes and stones, and with Zephyr puffing his cheeks, was the Earth. They joined in a gigantic bank of shells upon which Justitia was enthroned.
Behind the latter, the doge himself would be practically invisible were it not for his golden parasol. Whenever he left his palace on official business, this ancient, oriental symbol of power was carried along beside him, a reminder of the town's earliest days when it was part of the Byzantine Empire. The marriage to the sea itself harked back to the first centuries of the maritime Republic. Originally the water was merely blessed by those on board, a ceremony resembling that in which the coastal dwellers of antiquity had asked for Nepune's clemency. Later, the Christians had adapted the heathen custom to their own ends. The ceremony was followed by a simple repast of chestnuts and red wine.
This altered again with Venice's rise to power. The ritual now began to incorporate reminders of Venice's former triumphs. On Ascension Day in 997 or 1000 (the exact date was a matter of dispute between town chroniclers), the Doge Pietro Orseolo II put out to sea to liberate the towns of the Dalmatian coast from pirates. The operation was successful and marked the beginning of Venetian hegemony over the Dalmatian coast. In 1177 Venice succeeded in arbitrating between Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III. According to legend, the two greatest potentates of the age held their conciliatory meeting in St. Mark's, thereby involuntarily recognizing Venice's claim to dominion over the Adriatic. As a token of his gratitude, the Pope is said to have presented the doge with a consecrated ring, expressing the wish that he "marry the sea, just as a man marries a woman to become her lord".
Venice in its infancy had begged for the sea's clemency; now it presumed to declare itself the ruler of the waves. The religious ceremony was transformed to an act of state in which the town celebrated itself and its claims to power. Each year the doge had a ring made that was identical to that given to him after his election as an official symbol of his unity with the Republic, and each year he would throw the ring to the waves, uttering the declaration: "We wed ourselves to thee, O Sea, as a sign of our true and lasting dominion."
This avowal of lasting marital supremacy was the object of much ridicule. When the Turks became powerful during the 16th century, it was said that while Venice might be the sea's husband, Turkey was her lover. The 18th-century Venetian writer Giacomo Casanova commented that if the unseaworthy vessel were to sink "all Europe would laugh at the tragic accident, saying the doge had finally decided to consumate his marriage."



"The ship is a veritable monstrance"


Francesco Guardi
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day


For the lords and dignitaries of Venice to sail beyond the Lido m the bucintoro would have been rash; the Lido itself was navigable only on a comfortable breeze. According to Casanova, whether or not the bucintoro left its dock at all depended "on the courage of the Admiral of the Arsenal, who vouched for good weather with his head".
Thus laden with responsiblity, the official in question is seen in the present picture standing on the roof of the ship, setting the course with his commander's baton and leaning with his other hand against the mast which, instead of a sail, carries a flag with the emblem of the Venetian lion. The roof was hardly the best of places whence to maintain control or give orders, but there was none better to be had. The commander is flanked by two other admirals, identifiable by their red coats. In wartime, admirals were not permitted to command the Venetian fleet, since this was the prerogative of patricians. High-ranking officers, on the other hand, "were ordinary burghers who had won their colours at sea and were made responsible for the various districts of the harbour, including the shipyards, or Arsenal. Their most important public role came at Ascencion, or La Sensa, as the Venetians called it, or whenever the bucintoro was used to transport state visitors.
The Admiral of the Arsenal was a higher rank than other admirals, for it was in his area of control that ships were built and housed; the Arsenal was the shipping centre of Venice. The bucintoro, too, had its own, stylish boathouse there, designed in 1547 by the architect Michele Sanmicheli. Venice, in its heyday as a great, seagoing power, had been home port to over 3000 seaworthy vessels, almost all built in Venice herself. By the mid-18th century, there were only 60 or 70, all of which were built at foreign shipyards. The Dutch and English had developed better ships, forcing the Venetians to buy from them if they wished to hold their own as merchants.
The Arsenal was once the most important industrial quarter in Venice. The arsenalotti, or dockers, were employed by the
state, which, relying heavily on their services, treated them accordingly. If it is true that they were not paid as highly as workers at some private shipyards, they could not be dismissed either. They were responsible for supplying a fire-fighting service and guarding the three most important sites of the Republic: the doge's Palace, the Mint and, of course, the Arsenal itself. Only they were permitted to row the bucintoro, during which task they sang elaborate madrigals.
The ship of state was a galley, a type of vessel that was known for its seaworthiness. Unlike the bucintoro! "The ship is all decoration,... all gilded carvings, a veritable monstrance, devoid of all purpose beyond exhibition to the people of the
lordly heads of its rulers", wrote Goethe, and went on: "For it is well known that people like their overlords adorned as sprucely as their hats."
The Venetians built a new bucintoro approximately once a century. The ship painted by Guardi was launched in 1729, and cost 70,000 ducats. It was 35 metres long and 7.5 metres wide, with four men at each oar. The enclosed upper deck was reserved for the senators.
The vessel's last voyage came in 1796, shortly before Napoleon's troops occupied the town and brought the history of the maritime Republic to an end. The Venetians were forced to stand by and watch while the French put their "gilded" "decoration" to the torch.


Pleasure under the roof of a gondola


Francesco Guardi
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day


In Venice's heyday the bucintoro would be accompanied by some 4000 to 5000 vessels: fishing boats, gondolas and peote. The latter were gilded gondolas of state with ornately carved cabins. The doge owned three, using them on official occasions, or to meet royal visitors to Venice who preferred to travel incognito. For official state visits the bucintoro was towed from its dock at the Arsenal. Foreign diplomats owned peote, too, attempting to outdo one another with the splendour and number of the vessels in their possession.
The type of vessel known as the gondola gradually developed during the 16th century. By the 18th century, their appearance was much as it is today, with the exception that a larger number had roofs or cabins; the need for protection was evidently felt more keenly than the desire to see or be seen. Gondolas were used in much the same way as coaches in other towns, for trysts and everyday transport.
"The gondola is a peaceful way to travel, allowing one to he back safely, whether alone or with company, laughing, having fun, playing games, enjoying oneself, doing whatever one wishes, and nothing one will ever regret." This paean was written in the 16th century; even then, the gondola, decked out with cushions, was seen as a "soft shell of love" - a love nest. It is no accident that the verb "gondolar", to "travel in a gondola", also means to "amuse oneself" in Venetian dialect.
Goethe, visiting Venice in 1786, also enjoyed the pleasures of travelling by gondola. Having come all the way from Weimar, however, where he had left Frau von Stein, he did not experience the vessel as a love nest, but as a kind of mini-bucintoro: "Grown weary, I took a seat in a gondola ... and, transported, suddenly was a ruler of the Adriatic: a feeling every Venetian knows who lies back in his gondola."
Gondoliers wore a special costume, usually consisting of knee breeches, white stockings and a red beret. When Venice was a leading sea-going power, some 3000 gondoliers were employed by the patricians; by Guardi's day there were only c. 300 left, sadly depleted, like the number and wealth of the patricians themselves. Gondoliers in private employ were expected to be especially discreet, since they, more than anyone, knew where the individual members of a family spent their time away from home, or where letters and presents were taken. Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian writer of comedies, described them as "blithe, contended, honest men of honour, famed for courage and courtesy, always ready to share a joke, even with their Excellencies". One French traveller had quite a different, and rather more critical opinion, finding them "roguish, debauched and hypocritical". But the Frenchman had probably hired a public gondola, and cheating foreigners was practically a point of honour among hired gondoliers.
The gondoliers in the foreground wearing blue coats and hats with dangling gold coins were probably arsenalotti. They alone were permitted to row the bucintoro, or to steer the doge's peote.
The arsenalotti had a special role at all state ceremonies: it was they who carried the newly elected doge on their shoulders around St. Mark's Square; and it was they, too, who held the torches at his funeral, or who stood guard between the death of one doge and election of the next, a time when the doge's palace was especially vulnerable to thieves. On the eve of Ascension Day, the masters and foremen of the arsenalotti were invited, together with the members of the government, to take part in a festive repast at the doge's palace.



From harsh reality to the illusion of beauty


Francesco Guardi
The Departure of the Doge on Ascension Day

Those who did not accompany the bucintoro by boat stood at the edge and watched. Many of the spectators wore traditional white masks which covered only the upper part of the face, preserving anonymity while allowing the wearer to speak freely. One function of the masks, aided by capacious coats, scarves drawn over the head and three-cornered hats, was to obliterate gender and class difference. Social barriers seemed to vanish; tourists, too, looked much the same as Venetians.
But it was not the unusually prolonged Carnival alone that made Venice such a "must" on the "grand tour" itinerary of aristocrats and art-obsessed, middle-class travellers. Goethe, for one, was lavish with praise: "Everything around me is imbued with dignity, a great work of collective human power, worthy of the respect due to a splendid monument, not to a ruler, but to a people", he wrote, continuing, "even if its lagoons gradually silt up and its foul swamps exhale the ague, even with its merchant trade grown weak and former power sapped, the visitor will find the physical and spiritual consitution of the Republic none the less venerable. For, like all temporary phenomena, Venice too is subject to the passage of time."
Understandably, Venice was a place that inspired the traveller to take home some souvenir of his visit. It was this need, too, that provided the impulse for the painting of vedute, realistic "views" of landscapes and cities. Vedute were cherished for their accuracy, as well as for their small format. The latter quality meant they could be easily stowed in a traveller's luggage, which in turn encouraged sales. The veduta had its origins in 17th-century Rome and spread to Venice in the 18th century. The first Venetian vedutisti were Antonio Canaletto, followed by Guardi, probably one of his pupils.
Francesco Guardi (1712-1793) worked for many years in a workshop he shared with his brother Antonio (1698-1760), and historians of art often have difficulty in telling their work apart. Francesco was not elected to the Venetian Academy until relatively late in life, for the veduta was not as highly regarded as the more traditional, figural genres such as mythologies, histories and Biblical subjects. Guardi sold his work at his workshop or in the marketplace, unless, of course, they had been commissioned, such as his series of twelve canvases showing the festivals of the doges.
Guardi's vedute differ from those of Canaletto in placing less emphasis on line. Line in Guardi dissolves, while atmosphere replaces the sobriety of Canaletto's realism, the latter's attention to detail yielding to Guardi's fields of colour. The dramatists of the day were turning away from reality, too, with Goldoni gradually eclipsed by Carlo Gozzi: Goldoni was a realist whose work contained scenes from everyday Venetian life, whereas Gozzi favoured fables and fairy-tales, luring his public into a world of phantasmagoric grotesqueries.
Evidently, neither tourists nor the Venetians themselves wished to be accosted with images of real life, whether in paintings or on the stage. Instead, they took refuge in fantasy, preferring not to look behind the outward semblance of beauty. Art, like the Carnival, was there to help them forget the harsh realities of everyday life. The grand ceremony of Venice's marriage with the sea, too, was nothing more than an extravagant expression of wishful thinking. In the last decades of the Republic it was painted more than ever before.



Francesco Guardi
Outward Voyage of the Bucintoro to San Nicolo del Lido
Oil on canvas, 50 x 80 cm
Private collection


Francesco Guardi
The Doge on the Bucentaur at San Niccolo del Lido
Oil on canvas, 67 x 100 cm
Musee du Louvre, Paris

see collection:

Francesco Guardi



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