It is known that Francesco Guardi’s training took place within a modest family workshop in which everyone was a painter, from his father, Domenico, to his brothers, Nicolò and Antonio.
It is not certain when exactly he began working as a landscape painter; perhaps it was around 1755, when the painter was over 40 years old and had a less than exhilarating career as a figure painter behind him. His first works echoed the compositions of Canaletto and Marieschi, with fluid, controlled brushstrokes, still a long way from the bubbling, shorthand manner that would make him famous.
His period of greatest success was between the 1760s and 1770s and it was in this period that he painted the 12 canvases of the Ducal celebrations adapted from Canaletto’s own models and engraved by Giambattista Brustolon. Guardi based his paintings, today in the Louvre, on these prints; the result is truly astonishing and reveals the artist’s transfiguring, fantastic skill.
In 1782, Guardi was commissioned to paint four pictures to commemorate the visit of Pope Pius VI to Venice. For the 70-year-old artist, here at last was an official commission, and it was followed by the celebratory paintings of the incognito visit to Venice of the Russian archdukes, who travelled under the name of the Counts of the Nort.
Over time, his highly personal style became increasingly free and allusive; the proportions between the various elements were freely modified, the perspective framework became elastic and was deformed, losing all association with reality. And finally, the figures became simply splashes of colour, a rapid white scribble or black dot traced out with a trembling movement.
After his death in 1793, Francesco Guardi was forgotten. His rediscovery is the merit of 20th-century criticism, and attained a high point in the fine exhibition curated by Pietro Zampetti, held in Palazzo Grassi in 1965.