Monday, August 5, 2013

Who cares?

Piazza San Marco, by Francesco Guardi (1760)

I've been neglecting my blog. Months eating snails on a yacht with Gwyneth Paltrow (she claims she's vegetarian), and arguing the benefits of being a locavore whilst faffing around the islands have left me vacant. There are important things going on in the world, but I can't think of one for the life of me. I should start a Foundation to alleviate all this intestinal bloating, but I pissed all my cash away on sangria. 

Patsy Cline troubled herself over the decision between "A Poor Man's Roses, or a Rich Man's Gold." At least she had options. I just plugged another $300 into a '95 Saturn. If a rich man offered me gold, I'd be cradling his nuts in a silver spoon.

What the hell am I talking about? I've no idea. Here's another regurgitated diatribe about a topic I've only the scantest understanding of. You're welcome, freeloaders.

Let’s generously acknowledge at the outset that Piazzo San Marco (above) is an early work by Guardi, and that his figures are more “freely handled” than by a master like, say, Canaletto. However, the buildings immediately strike us as being way too small for the scale of the figures. Or maybe it’s the other way around; the figures are too big. Either way something’s wrong. Let’s imagine that Guardi started this painting by drawing the buildings in perspective to set the stage, which is probably what he did.

The detail (above) from his painting shows a small figure in a red cape, standing in one of the arches alongside the left side of the Piazza. The figure still looks a tad big for the arch, but if we assume for a moment that he is scaled correctly [and again, by “correctly” I mean “correctly relative to the main objects – the buildings”], then we can use that figure to create a relative scale for everything else in the painting.

It was pretty hard to find a vanishing point in Guardi’s painting, as the building on the left appears to have a lower horizon line than the building on the right (!). In any case, I began by drawing two green orthogonal lines from the central vanishing point to the top and toe of the red figure in the arch, then continuing them out to the left. You can see that the queue of little black guys on the left all fall inside those same green orthogonal lines. All those little black guys are in correct perspective relative to the figure in the red cape, which is in scale relative to the building. They all adhere to the same perspective scale. So far, so good.

The problem with Guardi’s painting is that his foreground figures are massively out of scale with the buildings. Dragging the left-most little black guy across and into the central foreground, you can see just how off Guardi’s scale is. His main figures are roughly twice as tall as they should be, according to the scale he established with his buildings.

The rule should be obvious: if you’re going to establish a scale by throwing a figure into your painting, then you had better stick to that scale. I threw that in bold because yeah, I'm shouting.

Bernardo Bellotto (above) did a better job placing convincingly scaled figures within his streetscape of the same Piazza.

In case you think I’m being unfair to Guardi (by calling him a hack, completely was unencumbered by talent), check out this next painting. I lost count of the amount of horizon lines. Vanishing “points” are all over the place, orthogonals converging only vaguely at best. If he scribbled this on the back of a napkin after a carafe of cheap hooch, you might be inclined to write it off as merely the onset of alcohol-induced idiocy, but it’s actually on canvas. Why he bothered, I’ve no idea.


  1. Venice is sinking and crooked. Nothing there is straight or as clean as Bellotto would have you believe. And you have my sympathies on your recent bout of existential ennui.

    1. Hah! I was having a bout of urinating in the wind. I'm glad at least one person cares enough to read the stuff we put out ;)

  2. I read it too. :) I was feeling happy that you have human traits like the rest of us. We hold you high esteem as one who pisses in the wind.

  3. How did you manage to have me laughing out loud and still learn something at the same time? Put down the snails and keep posting!

  4. Hmmm... I agree with you, but to nitpick a little bit, wouldn't the leftmost little black guy be closer, and therefore bigger, if he were dragged directly across to the center axis? Not as big as the central painted figures, as you've pointed out, but nevertheless bigger than the little black guy that you placed there.

  5. Hi, Alan - Does anyone ever ask to intern with you? If I were starting out anew, I think that would be a great first entry on my resumé. Could you handle someone taking notes while you shouted?

  6. Do you feel better now, Alan? my blog never gets me offers like that. and Mark, I am pretty sure you meant to say "whilst." *tapping glass* hello, is this on?

  7. I would have intestinal bloating, too, if I'd spent months on a yacht with GP (and I would be arrested for slapping her - so annoying). But...perhaps it was the snails? ? Anyolhoo - there are lots of us lucky freeloaders that read your blog. I, for one, am frequently looking to see if you've posted something new because your musings make me (a.) laugh and (b.) think.

    My brain is hurting from this many lines!! so much mathiness!! arrghhhh...I am like the kid in the Far Side cartoon: (raising hand) "Teacher, can I be excused? My brain is full." Thank you, Alan, for making me think and laugh again. Hope you are feeling much better now. (Try some liquid chlorophyll in a glass of water. Works wonders for all the ol' body organs.)


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