Francesco Guardi emerged as a view painter in the late 1750s, and this hitherto unpublished work is a significant addition to the group of pictures with which he established himself as the vedutista of late eighteenth-century Venice. This view shows the Piazza San Marco, the centre in so many ways of Venetian life, from the west, with the Basilica and the Campanile flanked on the left by the Procuratie Vecchie, with the Torre dell’Orologio, and opposite by the Procuratie Nuove. The Torre dell’Orologio is shown before the addition of an extra storey to the right of the tower in 1755. Guardi, who was to paint many views of the Piazza in later years (A. Morassi, Guardi, Venice, 1973, I, nos. 314-341) was no doubt aware of views of the Piazza from the west by Canaletto, including the canvas from the Fitzwilliam Museum which was engraved by Antonio Visentini in 1742. But Guardi chose a viewpoint slightly to the left, so that the northern side of the Campanile is seen and the Procuratie Nuove are shown at a less oblique angle. And while Canaletto showed the view soon after noon, with shadows cast by the Procuratie Nuove, Guardi records the late afternoon, when the sun is far to the west and the eastern bays of the Procuratie Nuove are in shade cast by the Campanile. Guardi’s carefully observed groups of figures and his dogs – other echoes of Canaletto – are used, not least, to define the scale of the Piazza. The composition, like a number of Canaletto’s views of the Piazza including that engraved by Visentini, is ‘framed’ in the foreground by the shadows cast by the now demolished church of San Geminiano.
The precision of Guardi’s observation as seen in this picture is expressed in his other works of the period, a significant group of which were acquired by English patrons on the Grand Tour in 1757-9 (see F. Russell, ‘Guardi and the English tourist’, The Burlington Magazine, CXXXVIII, pp. 4-11). Six pictures of the same size as this view of the Piazza (Morassi, nos. 315, 353, 401, 552, and 605-6) seem not to be of English provenance, but a pair of the same format in the Fitzwilliam Museum (Morassi, nos. 639 and 658), like the picture under discussion, may well have been supplied to an English patron. That this picture was owned by Lady Northampton, presumably Mary, wife of William Compton, 5th Marquess of Northampton, suggests that it may have been owned by her father, William Baring, 2nd Lord Ashburton 1799-1864) or his second wife, Louisa, Lady Ashburton, who seems to have acquired other pictures by the artist after the Henderson sale at Christie’s in 1882.