Anne Hanley glimpses La Serenissima's turbulent side through the works of a lesser-known artist.
Few artists are identified with the image of a city as closely as Canaletto is. His Venice was a crisp vision of fairytale architecture and perfectly composed scenes of simple, Arcadian craftsmen's lives. But he wasn't the only artist who specialised in capturing the appeal of 18th-century Venice. Pietro Longhi and Gabriel Bella focused on the minutiae of La Serenissima's pomp and pleasure-seeking - the outlandish sports, stately processions, dancing lessons and gambling dens.
Perhaps most underrated of them all, however, is Francesco Guardi (1712-93), who offered an altogether more unsettling view of the city. Great banks of storm clouds gather menacingly, billowing smoke darkens horizons and gondolas are tossed on a choppy lagoon. His immense, troubled skies play fast and loose with real Venetian proportions and perspective, presenting a city dwarfed by an approaching storm.
Yet Guardi appears to have been just as bewitched by the beauties of his home town as his contemporaries were. Look beyond the immense skyscapes, and the Venetian fabric is as marvellously detailed as anything Canaletto ever produced. The people are impressionistic afterthoughts, but the bricks and mortar are surprisingly solid. And from now until early January, visitors will have the best-ever opportunity to see the city through his eyes, as more than 100 of Guardi's works are on show at the Museo Correr at St Mark's Square.
They are full of the Venice you can photograph for yourself today: the view across a lagoon full of bustling water-borne traffic to the Doge's Palace; the magnificent Palladian facade of San Giorgio Maggiore rising above the confusion; the mercantile traffic - silk brocades and spice then, ripoff football strip now - around and beneath the Rialto Bridge. His is a city of characters going about their business, the only telltale sign being that they are often doing so amid utter confusion, boats and gondolas going around in circles, on dangerous collision courses.
As a painter of cityscapes, Guardi first stepped in to fill the void left by Canaletto's departure for London in 1746. Early on, the influence of Canaletto was clear. But as Guardi found his feet, his works became much more evanescent, in a style known as pittura di tocco - painting of touch, dots and dashes rather than solid strokes. It was an approach that made him a favourite, 150 years later, with the impressionists.
The Venice that Guardi inhabited was a city in decline. Its position as a major mercantile force had been whittled away gradually over the space of almost two centuries and its once-great empire had shrunk to virtually nothing. But its response to its decline was to sink into ever-more-frantic denial, partying manically as the ship went down. And everyone wanted a piece of the action: Europe's gilded youth - and the not-so-young, too - flocked here for a wild fling before continuing their grand tour in cities such as Rome and Florence that demanded more cerebral commitment.
They were drawn by the elegant ridotti (gambling houses) and famously alluring courtesans. Eighteen theatres enlivened the city's evenings; Antonio Vivaldi's ensemble of female musicians added spice to his stately compositions; and the libertine Giacomo Casanova personified the spirit of a city devoted to unbridled indulgence.
Today, Venice is littered with reminders of these times. A minor local painter, Longhi, shows the antics beautifully in a series of small works that can be seen in the Fondazione Querini Stampalia (querinistampalia.it). In the same charming museum is a room full of scenes by the relatively unknown Bella: bullfights, processions, massive free-for-all punch-ups organised to allow the lower levels to let off steam, rowing races and arcane games that today would bring noisy protests from animal-rights organisations.
Guardi's nephew Giandomenico Tiepolo - son of the more famous Giambattista - painted a tingling series of frescoes for the Tiepolo family villa, of tumblers, harlequins and mountebanks with their accompanying audience of inquisitive well-heeled onlookers, now restored and on show in Venice's Museum of the 18th Century at Ca'Rezzonico (carezzonico.visitmuve.it). Here, too, are works by the 18th-century miniaturist and portrait painter Rosalba Carriera, one of the few women on the art scene and beloved of British grand tourists.
The Guardi paintings on show at the Museo Correr cover the artist's long career, from jobbing junior member of the family workshop to world-weary genius watching as the city-state limped towards the ouster of its last doge by the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte. There are portraits and religious works, caprices and Arcadian landscapes. But it's the Venice-scapes that hold the visitor's eye, presenting familiar scenes in an unsettling historical light.
Grand tourists didn't lap up Guardi's works with quite so much gusto as they did Canaletto's; as souvenirs from a magical city of non-stop hedonism, they didn't quite fit the bill. Today, with hindsight, they're a fascinating bridge between the classic fancy-free picture of 18th-century Venice and the city we see when we visit. But it's the similarities that strike us most.
The Museo Correr (correr.visitmuve.it) is open daily, 10am-5pm, admission €16 ($20).