an altar-piece and other figure paintings by francesco guardi

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  • An Altar-Piece and Other Figure Paintings by Francesco GuardiAuthor(s): Michelangelo MuraroSource: The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 100, No. 658 (Jan., 1958), pp. 3-10+13Published by: The Burlington Magazine Publications Ltd.Stable URL: .Accessed: 04/12/2014 20:25

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    An Altar-piece and other Figure Paintings

    by Francesco Guardi

    THE exhibition of Ioo Venetian drawings from the Janos Scholz collection, New York, was inaugurated on 2nd August 1957 at the Art Historical Institute, Giorgio Cini Founda- tion, in Venice. One of these drawings (Fig.5) is Francesco Guardi's preparatory study for an overdoor, showing a little bridge beside a half-ruined tower, a few houses and trees, and the usual macchiette beneath a cloudy sky.' The chief interest of this drawing, for students of Guardi's work, lies in the fact that on the reverse is drawn the outline of the frame of an altar-piece, with a note in Francesco's handwriting of certain Venetian measurements in oncie and piedi and this inscription: Vano osia Lume della Palla dell'altare Maggiore dei SS: Pietro, e Paulo nella Parocchia di Roncegno (Fig.4). The first time I saw this drawing and inscription, in New York, I determined to make investigations in Roncegno, although I had little hope of finding the painting in question because of the damage and disturbance caused in the Valsugana during the first World War, and also because it seemed unlikely that a work by Francesco Guardi could have been overlooked, especially in a health resort like Roncegno, much visited for its baths and for its pine woods. The trouble I took to verify the manuscript notes could not have been more highly rewarded: the altar-piece was still there and, one may say, perfectly preserved. In order to make the picture more widely known I at once arranged with the local authorities for it to be shown at the exhibition in Venice, side by side with the drawing which had provided the clue to its discovery, since I was convinced that this painting, perhaps more than any other, could be of valuable assistance in resolving some fundamental problems in the controversial matter of Guardi's

    ouvre. The altar-piece represents the titular saints of the

    Church of Roncegno, St Peter and St Paul adoring the Trinity (Fig.2). Anyone acquainted with the drawings in the Correr Museum will remember the fluted column which appears on the left in the Roncegno painting (Inv. No.603i), and a pre- paratory study for the two cherubs shown almost in the centre of the altar-piece (Figs.3, 7). The figures of the Saints are in the iconographical tradition of Sebastiano Ricci, but the grandeur of their presentation suggests a possible in- spiration from Jacopo Bassano's altar-piece with the same Saints, once in the Church of the Umilta in Venice and now

    preserved in the Galleria Estense at Modena. The group of the Trinity recurs in a small altar-piece by Francesco in Vienna and, perhaps more precisely, in the picture of St. John of Matha which I found some years ago2 at Pasiano di Pordenone, and which I still believe to have been painted in collaboration by Gian Antonio and Francesco Guardi (Figs.6, io).

    Let us consider in some detail the Roncegno picture which, for its size as well (300 by 150 cm) may be considered as one of Francesco's most unusual works. We notice the exquisitely pictorial effect of the red binding which stands out against the white and gilt pages of the open book; the arabesques of black shrubs in the foreground, lit here and there by gleams of white; the reds shimmering into yellows, and the blues of St Peter's robe; the greens shot through with yellow lights and the folds of glowing amaranth in the robes of St Paul, who leans upon an enormous sword, its hilt adorned with gold (Fig.9). The tilt of this sword has obviously been altered by the artist; it originally reached the ground nearer to the Saint's left foot. The gleams in the stormy sky (reminiscent of the Verona Capricci and of other later works by Francesco) contrast with the blue-green of the back- ground, at times but a transparent veil over the underlying burnt-brick priming. The group of the Trinity acquires effects of greater distance through the luminosity of the pale yellows and the transparent blues of the globe and of the drapery. Whereas the two angels' heads near the dove seem woven of light, the two pairs of cherubs at each side of the Trinity are dark and opaque; they were, in fact, added by another hand at a later stage, and will be mentioned again, as a decisive factor in establishing the date of the altar-piece.

    This Roncegno painting presents no single detail which could be quoted as evidence against its attribution to Francesco Guardi. Characteristic are the rosy tipped clouds, the drapery with its angular folds, the high lights of gleaming yellow, the porous quality of the whites which resist the invasion of colour as in other works by Francesco, the mysterious impasti in which every brush-stroke seems to con- tain a fabulous range of colour, and above all, the figure of St Paul (Fig.8), whose ample robe quivers like a landscape - one of the most intense and revealing expressions of Francesco Guardi's art. In this altar-piece the artist has risen to the height of his vast composition, presenting every element in its own restless dynamic force. The superimposed planes of vision overlap in the vibrant atmosphere. The cloud that presses forward and obscures the column, the halo round

    1 M. MURARO: 'Cento disegni veneti della CollezioneJanos Scholz,' Catalogo della Mostra, Venice [1957], No.92, p.53, pl.92 A-B-C. White paper. Drawing in charcoal, pen and brown ink, 1 6 by 215 mm. The outline drawn around the view leads one to suppose it is a preparatory study for the decoration of an overdoor. Signed in the left-hand bottom corner: f' Guardi. On the reverse, notes of measurements written in pen and ink: Piedi 2, onzie 4, 2 oncie, Piedi N.2: On: 3, 2 onzie and the outline of the frame of an altar-piece with a note in Francesco Guardi's handwriting transcribed above. Photo, Negativi fotografici Giorgio Cini 10499-10500. 2 M. MURARO: 'NovitA su Francesco Guardi', Arte Veneta, HI [1949], p.123.


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    Christ's head in which the Cross is lost in a mist of light, are devices for presenting the spectator with ever-receding planes. This superimposing of planes reminds us of the words of Benedetto Marcello, Vivaldi's enemy and the champion of the more conservative style in music, when he parodied the theatrical painters whom he detested: 'The modern painter', he writes, 'need not understand perspective, architecture, drawing, chiaroscuro, etc.: for he arranges his architectural scenes not upon one or two planes, but on four, or even six, adjusting them in various ways, so that the spectator's eye may be all the more gratified by this variety'.3 In just this

    way, Francesco Guardi deliberately multiplies his scenic effects so as to embrace a vision that can no longer be defined as classical or subject to strict perspective laws, but are

    deliberately spatial. The Roncegno altar-piece is unsigned, and I have not yet

    been able to find the contract for its commission. I am still

    looking for it in the Episcopal archives of Feltre, to which diocese the church at that time belonged. However, even if the name of the artist should never come to light in the sur-

    viving documents, there can be no shadow of doubt that the

    painting is by Francesco Guardi, as the Scholz sketch con- firms. Besides being one of the most monumental works he

    painted, it offers the possibility of a precise dating - which makes it particularly important for the student of his work. In fact it must have been painted many years after the death of his elder brother Gian Antonio (22nd January I760), so that in this case there can arise no such controversy as still

    rages around Vigo d'Anaunia and the Church of the Angelo Raffaele.

    The present Church of Roncegno was built through the efforts of the parish priest Francesco Bruni. He is still famous in that region for the way in which he managed to collect the funds necessary for its erection, going around begging through the valleys of the Trentino and even as far as Venice. The grandiose building was certainly more than the village could afford out of its own resources. In fact, when the

    good priest died in 1776 it still seemed impossible to replace the humble, provisiona