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A view or a fantasy?

VENICE'S ``Santa Maria della Salute'' is affectionately called by everyone ``La Salute.'' Situated diagonally across and up the Grand Canal from the San Marco center, this picturesque church is equally beloved by Venetians and visitors. It has been photographed innumerable times and portrayed by many artists, evidencing the same majesty today as in Francesco Guardi's 18th-century sketch. Venice fascinated Guardi. With profound intuition, discernment, and a sense of romantic abandon, he arrived at an appreciation of the city's beauty.

This unique city is made up of a large number of small islands united by countless bridges, and completely surrounded by water. It is a place of heavenly quiet: no automobiles, trams, motorcycles, not even bicycles. A short walk, or perhaps a ride in a gondola, will take you anywhere.

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Guardi decided that Venice should be depicted with a feeling for the delicate effects of mist peculiar to the lagoon. At times a mother-of-pearl luminosity diffuses everything: Always there are mysteriously changing reflections and shadows.

He also comprehended that the prestige of Venice's history, the life of its people with their traditional elegance and love of festivities, cast a warm glow on the city's architectural beauty. It was one of the most splendid and luxurious places of the world, in his time still capital of the Republic of Venice, a regime that had endured well over a thousand years.

All this Guardi expressed in his drawing, using vibrant, rapid touches, improvising gleams and explosions of light. He was a forerunner of the Impressionists. His genius is seen both in the chromatic sensibility of his paintings and in the dreamy actuality of drawings whether in a ``veduta'' or a ``caprice'' (an actual view or a fantasy).

For Francesco Guardi, a ``veduta'' became the occasion for convincing evocations of reality. It is interesting to note in our picture how each gondolier, distinct in movement and balance from the others, is individualized by only a wiggle in Guardi's skillful sketching style.

``La Salute'' was drawn with brown ink, now and then used like watercolor, swiftly and seemingly without returns or alterations. Likely, it was a study for the painting now owned by the Norton Simon Foundation in Los Angeles.

Francesco Guardi occupies a glorious place in Venetian art history. Sincere, audacious, independent, he created works of originality and of a penetrating poetry. He had the gift of reducing an image to the essential, lightening it to the extreme. ``La Salute'' partakes of the magic of a mirage (which we well know it is not; we also have painted it).

In 1985, the Giorgio Cini Foundation displayed its 32nd exposition featuring Venetian drawings in the possession of a museum or collection in a foreign country. The latest group of 120 pieces is drawn from the Netherlands. Guardi's ``La Salute'' is the property of the Museum Boymans-van Beuningen of Rotterdam.

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