Francesco Guardi (1712-1793), Museo Correr, Venice

If Canaletto’s snapshot-sharp views make him comparable to a photographer of 18th-century Venice, the dreamy vistas of Francesco Guardi make him its poet.

Both painters employed a camera obscura to obtain the topographical precision which was the signature of Venetian view-painting. But Canaletto used the projections – frequently embellished with fantasy in the style of a latter-day digital snapper – to create a city of crisp, crystalline drama: imperious, monumental and spectacular. Guardi, on the other hand, softened Venice’s architectural contours and seduced tonal extravaganzas out of its seas and skies. His Serenissima is moody, ephemeral and exotic, as much oriental fishing village as Old World cultural jewel. Only Turner better embodied Byron’s description of a city where “structures rise, as from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand”.

Today, few doubt that Guardi’s vision is as valuable, if not more so, than that of his rival. Yet after he died in 1793, he was forgotten for decades. Only in the mid-19th century did his paintings once again find favour.

Museo Correr’s exhibition leaves you in no doubt of his appeal. Bringing together 121 paintings and drawings, it shows a painter who abandoned orthodoxy in favour of a self-expression that put him ahead of his time.

His epiphany came late. Born in 1712 to a family of painters that included his father Domenico and his brothers Nicolò and Antonio, he spent his first decades as a lowly copyist of history paintings. Only at the age of 40 did he branch out into genre scenes of contemporary life. This style had been made popular in Venice thanks to the observational gifts of painter Pietro Longhi, whose portrait of Guardi – on show here – presents the painter in periwig and ruffled shirt yet with an expression so alert all foppishness is vanquished.

The fluid brushstrokes and intense light effects – glimmering candles, the flare of a silk gown, rooms dissolving into shadow – herald the city and lagoon vistas to come. But essentially these paintings – of masked revellers at one of Venice’s dozens of theatres, of diplomats engaged in formal business – reveal more about Venice than the artist.

By the 18th century, La Serenissima was a shadow of its former self. Decadent, self-conscious and claustrophobic, it had sacrificed substance to style. With its eastern colonies almost entirely lost to the Ottoman Empire, tourism rather than trade offered its best chance of revenue.

Little wonder that, from the late 1750s onwards, Guardi turned to view painting. Aiming to capture both the beauty and the bustle of Venice, it was a genre that captivated Grand Tourists as much, if not more, than Venetians themselves.

As with Canaletto, aristocratic British patrons such as Sir Brook Bridges, John Montagu and Richard Milles were among Guardi’s first clients. From the first, however, it was clear that he possessed an imaginative agility that Canaletto, particularly in his more mechanical, later years, would never match.

Painted at night, Piazza San Marco becomes a symmetrical Mitteleuropean-style sweep, its palatial façades lengthened beyond their natural measure and glowing pale gold to match the balcony that stripes the Basilica at the far end. Yet in the painting on loan from London’s National Gallery, the piazza has the air of a village square, its edifices scruffy with washing and the basilica huddled over the scene like the Byzantine cousin of a country church.

In a precursor to the contemporary custom of making paintings from photographs, many of Guardi’s pictures were adaptations of prints of similar scenes. He arrived at one of this show’s masterpieces, the National Gallery’s “The Gate of the Arsenal” (c1758), via a 1741 engraving by Mariele Marieschi.

Guardi shrunk the Arsenal’s intimidating turrets, softened its statues to silky phantoms, swapped a sun-shade for a balcony with a gesturing figure on one of the houses and added a sheet hung out to dry. Bolstered by knots of chattering locals and spritely dogs, the Arsenal is transformed from the naval factory that spawned an empire into a quaint backdrop for neighbourhood gossip.

Guardi, you sense, never took Venice’s airs and graces seriously. Where Canaletto ramped up the pomp and glitter of the official ceremonies that were the republic’s last bid for splendour, Guardi stayed true to his cool colours and eccentric viewpoints. His version of the Ascension Day ritual whereby the doge “marries the sea” by throwing his ring from the Bucintoro – the state boat – reduces the sumptuous vessel to a misty scarlet blur on the horizon. When the doge appears in Piazza San Marco during carnival, Guardi’s brush lingers not on the ducal pulpit but on the men bashing the crowd back with sticks while dogs gambol at their heels.

In his final years, the painter shows himself a precursor to Turner, Whistler and the Impressionists. A magnificent array of late paintings includes a view of San Giorgio Maggiore on loan from Temple Newsam House in Leeds. Showing his flair for late-afternoon light, Guardi summons up a wide sky in scintillating shades of blue, grey, white and a glossy candy-pink that shines back from the darkening waters. Silvery gondola prows chime with the sails of fishing boats splashed on the canvas like spilt cream.

For Venice connoisseurs, the highlight will be the Lisbon loan of “The Giudecca Canal and the Point of Santa Marta”. This rarely visited corner of Venice, home in Guardi’s day to poor fishing communities, is shown just before dusk as the men bend wearily over their clam-nets and a sinister, green-grey light heralds the damp winter night to come.

Guardi’s refusal to collude in Venice’s self-important fantasies may explain why even in his own lifetime he never enjoyed the recognition accorded to Canaletto. Now, as that city struggles as never before to find a viable future tense, his wistful elegies for an empire in decline are more resonant than ever.

Until January 6,

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