Venice's treasure house of art
For over two centuries, the Gallerie dell' Accademia has been the largest and most marvellous collection of Venetian art in the world. And in April, 2015, just in time for the Biennale, it has doubled in size, from 6,000 square meters to over 12,000.
A brief history
The Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia was founded just as the artistic Republic’s inspiration was petering out, in 1750, with Giambattista Piazzetta as its first director, and Giambattista Tiepolo as its first president.
Its collection of art greatly expanded after 1807, when Napoleon decreed that the Accademia’s collection (at least those paintings he didn’t steal), combined with works from the churches and monasteries he suppressed, be moved to the religious complex he expropriated for the purpose. This included Santa Maria della Carità, a church rebuilt in 1451 by Bartolomeo Bon, the adjacent Convento dei Canonici Lateranensi designed by Palladio and the Scuola Grande della Carità, the oldest of the Great Schools or confraternities, founded in 1260 and housed in a building dating from 1343.
The new museum opened to the public in 1817, and in 1879 it became independent of the art school.
In 2004, the Accademia's teachers and students were relocated to the Zattere's former Ospedale degli Incurabili, freeing up new exhibition space.
In spring 2015 five new ground floor rooms will open, displaying some 200 16th-18th century paintings that have been in storage, as well as a collection of plaster casts by Canova. Another six rooms should reopen soon after, including space for special exhibitions.
Collections are arranged more or less chronologically, beginning in the former refectory of the Scuola (Room I) under a magnificent 14th-century wooden ceiling, recently restored to reveal ranks of cherubic faces smiling down. Note that the final re-arrangement of the rooms may be subject to change.
On the entrance wall, Jacobello del Fiore’s golden Justice and Two Angels is a lovely expression of the Republic’s favourite virtue. The other subjects in the room are all religious, and most of them depict the Coronation of the Virgin, a theme straight from the twilight of chivalry and the Crusades. Although Paolo Veneziano’s early 1300s Coronation of the Virgin, magnificent in its almost Islamic patterns, is not far removed from its Byzantine icon antecedents, you can begin to sense a change a few decades later in his follower Lorenzo Veneziano’s great Annunciation or 'Lion polyptych', in the more relaxed, almost dance-like poses of its figures, and in the worldly interest in things gorgeous, golden, and blonde.
Michele di Matteo’s early 15th-century Polyptych of St Helen and the Cross has a wonderfully detailed predella story (the finding of the Cross), while Jacopo Alberegno’s Scenes from the Apocalypse (1390s) has the most fascinating iconography; in Scene XX, the skeletons look as if they’re reading dirty jokes to each other.
The first real smile in Venetian art appears in Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna, Child, and Donor (1394) when Venice had recovered from the Black Death, the Marin Falier conspiracy and the War of Chioggia. On the left wall is one last Coronation of the Virgin, a mid 15th-century International Gothic piece by Michele Giambono, set in an optimistically crowded scene of Paradise.
Giambono sets the stage for the stupendous changes in Room II, changes so remarkable that it’s easy to understand how the painters of the early Renaissance seemed like magicians in their day. All the works here are large altarpieces: the most sublime, Giovanni Bellini’s Sacred Conversation, better known as the Pala di San Giobbe, after the church where it was orginally hung. Its architectural setting repeats the interior of the church; on the left St Francis invites the viewer to contemplate the scene, accompanied by the timeless music of the angels at the Madonna’s feet.
Carpaccio strikes radically different moods in two paintings: a sweet Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (also originally in San Giobbe) and a Crucifixion and Apotheosis of 10,000 Martyrs on Mount Ararat, full of languid youths suffering a variety of martyrdoms at the hands of Turks in fancy dress. Marco Basaiti’s Agony in the Garden was the third great altarpiece removed from San Giobbe, while his Christ Calling the Sons of Zebedee (1510) is brilliantly coloured, with a watery fantasy background. Cima da Conegliano’s Madonna of the Orange Tree has a softer light, and a more subtle atmosphere.
The highlights of Room III are Cima’s Pietà and Bartolomeo Montagna’s beautifully coloured Madonna and Saints.
Room IV has some of Giovanni Bellini’s loveliest, melancholy and tender brown-eyed Madonnas, with the Child on the table before them, a composition that his patrons never tired of, and one that he managed constantly to vary; outstanding are the Madonna and Child between St Catherine and the Magdalen, wonderfully lit with its dark background, and the Madonna with the Blessing Child, perhaps the sweetest and saddest of them all.
Other works include Jacopo Bellini’s Madonna and Child, which looks like an icon next to his son’s paintings; Hans Memling’s Portrait of a Youth, Cosmè Tura’s typically wiry and lumpy Madonna and Child; and Andrea Mantegna’s St George, set amid antique pillars and garlands of fruit.
The only Tuscan in the room is Piero della Francesca’s youthful study in perspective, St Jerome and Devotee, brown, dry, and austere company for the Venetians; yet the expression on St Jerome’s face couldn’t be better (he looks at the donor, as much as to say ‘It’s all very well to pay Piero to put you in the same painting as me, but it won’t get you any points in the Bank of Grace!’).
Giorgione’s Col Tempo (‘with time’), also known as La Vecchia ('the old woman') has an obvious message with its slightly sinister old woman and her all-too-true warning. But like the artist's more famous Tempest, now relocated further on, it has an uncanny air; it is said that Giorgione invented easel painting to delight the bored patricians of Venice’s decline, but the two paintings here would seem to reflect rather than lighten their restless ennui.
Also in Room V are Giovanni Bellini’s five mysterious Allegories, and three more of his Madonnas, including the softly coloured Madonna degli Alberetti. In his Pietà, the same Bellini Madonna is poignantly alone in an empty brown landscape.
Here the lushly coloured Venetian High Renaissance makes its first appearance, with fine works by Palma Vecchio (Holy Family with Saints) and his pupil Bonifazio Veronese (Dives and Lazarus); and Paris Bordone – his masterpiece, Fisherman Presenting St Mark’s Ring to Doge Bartolomeo Gradenigo, is based on the legend of a fisherman given the ring by the saint, as an amulet to guard the city from a hurricane brewed by Satan himself.
Psychologically light years away is Lorenzo Lotto’s Gentleman in his Study, a remarkably candid portrait of a pale and anaemic fellow caught off-guard with his book, his lizard, and what appear to be torn petals of some 16th-century fleurs du mal.
The Venetian High Renaissance reaches a climax in Room X, not only in art but in size, in Veronese’s masterpiece, Christ in the House of Levi (1573), painted for the refectory of SS Giovanni e Paolo. The setting, in a Palladian loggia with a ghostly white imaginary background, almost a stagedrop, is in violent contrast to the rollicking life and lush colour of the very Venetian feast in the foreground.
With its Turks, cat, big Veronese hounds, midgets, Germans and artist’s self-portrait (in the front, next to the pillar on the left), it could be a scene from a Renaissance Fellini film. Instead, the original title was The Last Supper, and as such it fell foul of the Inquisition, which took umbrage at the animals, dwarfs, drunkards, buffoons – and especially at the Germans, the evil spirits of the Reformation. Veronese was cross-examined, and in the end was ordered to make pious changes at his own expense; the artist, in true Venetian style, saved himself the time and expense by simply changing the title.
Other Veroneses in the room include a Crucifixion, where, in a typically Venetian manner, the clothes and pageantry tend to overwhelm the main event, which is shunted off into the left-hand corner involving only a handful of figures, while prancing horsemen and ladies go about their business; and an Annunciation, Veronese-style, in another Palladian setting, the Virgin gorgeously dressed for the occasion. His Battle of Lepanto, painted shortly after the event, has the Virgin and saints deciding the outcome in the clouds, just as the gods in Homer watched over the battle of Troy.
In the same room Tintoretto checks in with his first major painting, St Mark Freeing the Slave (1548). Inspired by Michelangelo’s handling of form and composition, Tintoretto would often make small wax models of his figures and arrange them in a box, experimenting with lighting and poses. In this painting depicting St Mark’s miraculous delivery of a slave who visited his shrine, St Mark doesn’t walk into the scene, but nose-dives in a dramatic loop-the-loop from the top of the canvas.
Even more compelling is Tintoretto’s Translation of the Body of St Mark, one of the strangest paintings in Venice. The subject is the ‘pious theft’ from Alexandria, complete with the obligatory nonplussed camel, but what are those pale figures on the left, fleeing into a row of doorways, and who are those people sprawled on the ground? The eye is drawn past them all to a boiling orange and black sky.
The two other Tintorettos in the room are slightly more traditional, St Mark Rescuing the Saracen in a dark and stormy whirlpool, and St Mark’s Dream painted with son Domenico (the famous ‘Pax tibi, etc.’ scene, with a dark, wet embryonic Venice in the background).
The last great painting in Room X, La Pietà, was Titian’s last, which he was working on in his 90s (probably for his own tomb) when the tough old man was felled, not by old age but by the plague. Dark and impressionistic and more moving than ten other Titians put together, it was left uncompleted at his death and, as the inscription states, finished by Palma Giovane.
Room XI has more by Tintoretto: his Madonna dei Camerlenghi (‘of the Treasurers’), populated by prosperous-looking Venetians, bringing the Virgin a sack of money; Old Testament scenes of The Creation of Animals (some of these not known in any book of zoology), Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel. Il Ricco Epulone, by Bonifazio de’ Pitati, is imbued with Veneto melancholy, none of which is present in the curved trompe l’œil ceiling panels by Giambattista Tiepolo, all that survived when an Austrian bomb fell on the church of the Scalzi in 1915.
One of the most famous paintings in the Accademia, Giorgione’s The Tempest, has been relocated here. One of the few paintings all art historians agree in ascribing to ‘Big George’, it was innovative for the importance given to atmosphere over detail; it is also arguably the first landscape in Western art. The inexplicable relationship between the soldier and mother in the foreground, the whole air of ambiguity and mystery, are revolutionary in that they were painted without preliminary drawings, and that they exist only for the sake of the pleasure they give. This is one of the first (and best) ‘easel paintings’, serving neither Church nor state nor a patron’s vanity.
Room XIII is devoted to portraits by Tintoretto; Room XIV has more from the 17th century, most of it from foreigners living in Venice, and Room XVI features mythological scenes gone sour after a couple of centuries of respectability, beginning with Sebastiano Ricci’s Diana and Actaeon, a joyless subject to begin with, and here seen as frozen, sickly and bored—even the nymphs are homely. Giambattista Tiepolo’s Rape of Europa is slightly more endearing, with its nonchalant bull and urinating cherub. The star of Room XVIa is Piazzetta’s weird Fortune Teller (1740), the most memorable work to come from the brush of the first director of the Accademia.
Here are paintings from the 18th century, a time when Venice proved one of the few bright spots in Italian art. But, as technically brilliant and innovative as the great painters of the day were, it isn’t hard to sense a loss of the old Venetian spirit: the buildings that proudly featured in the backgrounds of Veronese and Tintoretto are now shown under scaffolding, or crumbling; the bold confidence of the past has dwindled into views, interiors, genre scenes, and an obsession with the picturesque.
There are works by the brothers Guardi (Fire at San Marcuola), Canaletto, and portraits by Rosalba Carriera, whose soft pastels flattered her sitters, though her best piece is a Self-portrait, painted in her old age, with ivy woven through her grey hair, her eyes hinting of the future cataracts that would leave her blind in her last years. Longhi contributes his usually delightful genre scenes, one called L’Indovino, with a fortune-teller speaking through a tube.
Rooms XVIII–XIX and XXIII
Room XVIII, with neoclassical architectural scenes, is the entrance to the upper level of the 15th-century church of the Carità (Room XXIII), where you can take in some first-rate early Renaissance works by Gentile Bellini, including his earliest signed work, the 1445 Portrait of the Blessed Lorenzo Giustiniani – which may have been a processional banner, hence its weathered state—and four triptychs from the workshop of his brother Giovanni.
Their Vivarini rivals get their say here, especially Bartolomeo (Polyptych of the Nativity and Saints) and his nephew Alvise (Santa Chiara). There are also paintings by Lazzaro Bastiani and Carlo Crivelli, a painter of exquisitely drawn Madonnas who left little behind in his native Venice. Next look for more Renaissance art by Marco Basaiti (a beardless Dead Christ, with putti) and Marco Marziale (a very decorative Dinner at the House of Emmaus).
This room is given over to a series of large paintings from the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista, depicting the Miracles of the True Cross, all fascinating for their meticulously accurate depictions of late 15th-century Venice. You have to look hard to find the miracle in Carpaccio’s bustling view of The Patriarch of Grado Curing the Lunatic, set by the old wooden Rialto drawbridge, in a forest of chimney pots and an exotic crowd of Venetians, foreigners and festive gondolas.
The main event in Gentile Bellini’s famous dry, almost photographic view of Piazza San Marco in the Procession of the Relic of the Cross (note San Marco’s original mosaics on the façade) is the man kneeling at the relic to implore Christ to cure his son’s fractured skull. Gentile’s other painting here, The Recovery of the Relic at the Bridge of San Lorenzo, chronicles a mischance that occurred during the Relic’s annual rounds—it fell in the canal, but floated to the surface to be recovered by the Grand Guardian of the Scuola; Caterina Cornaro, ex-Queen of Cyprus, looks on from the extreme left, and Bellini himself joins the group in the right foreground (fourth from the left).
Giovanni Mansueti’s Healing of a Sick Child shows the interior of a Venetian palace, while his Miracle of the Relic in Campo San Lio demonstrates just what happens to members of the confraternity who dare to disparage the Relic – it refuses to enter the church for their funerals – and, worst of all, everyone in the neighbourhood knows it.
This room is entirely devoted to Vittore Carpaccio’s delightful Legend of St Ursula series, painted in 1490–96 for the ex-Scuola di Sant’Orsola and recently restored to its original fairytale colours.
The former albergo or board room of the Scuola della Carità, this room preserves its original panelling and 15th-century ceiling with the four evangelists, and a Titian – the Presentation of the Virgin, which he painted for this very room (1538). It’s a charming scene set before Titian’s native Cadore in the Dolomites, with the child Mary walking alone up the great flight of steps to the temple, while her relatives stand anxiously below. Also painted for this room is a mid 15th-century triptych of saints by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna, and a portrait of Cardinal Bessarion, the Renaissance Greek scholar whose collection formed the nucleus of the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.
Hours Mon 8.15am-2pm; Tue-Sun 8.15am-7.15pm; see website for special night openings
Adm Admission is by timed ticket only: book online. Regular adm (without an exhibition, but including the ) €9; under 18 free; €6 students ages 18-25. Plus €1.50 booking fee. Adm includes the Palazzo Grimani. Note that special exhibitions can nearly double the price of admission, even if you don't want to see them.
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