Francesco Guardi


The first flight of a manned balloon took place in Paris in autumn 1783. Within a few months, crowds gathered in Venice to watch as Count Francesco Zambeccari ascended in a balloon launched from a platform in the Bacino di San Marco. This momentous event was depicted by Guardi in the present drawing and in a closely related painting, now in Berlin. Both images depict the spectacle from beneath the portico of the Dogana da Mar, on the Grand Canal. The domed churches in the distance are S. Giorgio Maggiore and the Zitelle.

Francesco Guardi
Italian; 1712–1793
Ascent of a Balloon in Venice, 1782–84
Pen and brown ink and wash over black chalk


Some of the most typical products of eighteenth-century Venetian artists were the vedute, views of famous buildings and urban prospects, especially of Venice itself, a city whose appearance was unlike any other. Paintings and drawings by Canaletto and Guardi seem to define our image of Venice even today, especially their views of the Grand Canal or across the lagoon, timeless prospects that are largely unchanged since the 18th century. This drawing by Guardi presents, however, not a general view of the city, but rather a specific event. The moment when on April 15th, 1784, Count Francesco Zambeccari launched a hot air balloon over the Venetian Lagoon, the first balloon flight to be witnessed in Italy. This was only a few months after the Montgolfier Brothers first manned flight in Paris, but the craze for air travel had spread quickly across Europe.

Guardi depicts the scene from the Punta della Dogana, contrasting the heavy framing portico of the customs house with the balloon's weightless ascent. The crowd of spectators, the gondolas surrounding the launch platform, and even the domed churches of San Giorgio Maggiore and Le Zitelle in the distance are all rendered in Guardi's remarkable free shorthand of quivering lines and deft touches of wash.