In this atmospheric painting, Francesco Guardi commemorated a quintessentially Venetian celebration: the Departure of the Bucintoro (state barge) on Ascension Day. This annual festival dates back to around the year 1000, when Doge Pietro Orseolo II successfully secured the Dalmatian coast against the threat of Slav pirates, ensuring the free passage of Venetian merchant ships and establishing the supremacy of the Venetian Navy throughout the Adriatic. To commemorate the victory (Doge Orseolo’s fleet launched its expedition on the feast day, which celebrated Christ’s bodily ascent into heaven), the doge and other important Venetian dignitaries would sail along the Lido out into the open sea. Over the years, the ceremony grew more elaborate, incorporating the marvelous spectacle known as the Sposalino del Mar (Wedding of the Sea), during which the Doge and his official procession dropped a golden ring into the sea from the extravagantly decorated state barge, the Bucintoro, here visible at the center of the composition.
Guardi choose as his viewpoint a place midway between the Bacino di San Marco and the Island of San Giorgio Maggiore. From the left, one sees the Zecca and the Libreria, both by Jacopo Sansovino, with the Piazza’s iconic Campanile rising behind them. To the right is the Piazzetta with the columns of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore, and across from this the Torre dell’Orologio and the Basilica of Saint Mark. Toward the center, is the Doge’s Palace, with its lace-like, arched columns, followed by the Ponte della Paglia and the Prigioni. Continuing down the Riva, we see smaller buildings, now replaced by the Hotel Danieli Excelsior, followed by the fifteenth-century Palazzo Dandolo, now the Hotel Danieli, and, across the Rio del Vin, a smaller palace. In the distance appear the churches of San Zaccaria and San Giorgio dei Greci.
Guardi painted this view on several occasions throughout his career, including his magisterial Venice, the Bacino di San Marco, with the Piazzetta and the Doge’s Palace sold Christie’s, London, 8 July 2014, lot 19 (£9,882,500). The present painting is closest to his Departure of the Bucintoro in the Museo Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon (see A. Morassi, Guardi, Antonio e Francesco Guardi, Venice, 1973, second edition, 1984, no. 403), which Morassi dates to the 1780s.