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The Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, like the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan and the Accademia in Bologna, represents one of the most significant cases of a nineteenth-century art gallery owing its origin to political circumstances. The birth of our museum as we know it today, in fact, is closely connected to the historical events of the time when Venice, having lost its thousand-year independence, was reduced to a bargaining chip among European powers.
The suppression of Venice’s religious congregations and public bodies started right after the Fall of the Republic of Venice in 1797, and continued after its annexation to Napoleon’s Kingdom of Italy in 1805 (decrees issued in 1806, 1808 and 1810). In the same period, an enormous amount of artwork was confiscated from public palaces and churches. A selection of these masterpieces was sent to Paris, to be displayed at the Louvre among the most significant art from Europe and the world. Another selection, including the works of artists from all of the main Italian painting traditions, ended up in Milan, the newly established kingdom’s capital city, enriching the collection of the local Accademia di Belle Arti (Pinacoteca di Brera). Finally, innumerable paintings were lost after they were sold on the market.
However, many works of the highest quality, belonging especially to the local tradition from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, ultimately found shelter in Venice’s Accademia di Belle Arti. This collection had originally been created for the training of young artists, but it later became historically instrumental in preventing the sale and loss of the most valuable, and most at risk, artwork from civic and ecclesiastic heritages alike.
The Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia was officially established in 1807 by a Napoleonic decree which reformed the existing “Accademia dei Pittori e Scultori”, or Academy of Painters and Sculptors, active since 1750 at the Fonteghetto della Farina in San Marco. The reformed Accademia adopted the same statutes as the academies established in Milan and Bologna, and moved to the “Santa Maria della Carità” complex, which had been cleared out after the suppression of the Lateran canons and the dissolution of the ancient Scuola Grande della Carità.
Until 1811, the complex underwent substantial adaptation and renovation work under the supervision of the architect Giannantonio Selva; then, in 1817, the museum was finally opened to the public, though just a short time, attracting a large number of visitors.
In order to expand the collection, so as to ensure students a wide overview suited to a comprehensive art education, attempts were initially made to acquire works representative of all the major Italian and international painting traditions. However, starting from the end of the nineteenth century, when the interest for teaching decreased, the choice was made to focus on Venetian painting alone. This development led to the creation of the large, uniform collection of masterpieces from Venice and the Veneto region which is the hallmark of the museum even today.
The initial core of the collection came from different sources: a few works and essays donated by students came from the old Accademia; a number of paintings belonged to the Scuola della Carità, where they had been abandoned; finally, Abbot Farsetti’s collection of plaster cast models was acquired by the Austrian government in 1805. Pietro Edwards, who had been in charge of public paintings from 1778 to the fall of the Republic and had successfully worked with all of the different governments that had come to pass, was appointed as the curator and conservator.
In the following years, the collection grew thanks to some paintings returned by France, including Paolo Veronese’s spectacular telèro depicting the Feast in the House of Levi (returned to Venice in 1815), artwork which was pre-emptively retrieved from churches, such as that of San Giobbe, and the first donations by private individuals.
Some of the most valuable paintings found today at the Gallerie were originally intended to decorate private residences and were acquired by the museum thanks to the generosity of illustrious Venetian collectors. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Gallerie received donations of tremendous worth. The legacy of Girolamo Molin (1816) included, among other works, a few interesting early paintings; for instance, Lorenzo Veneziano’s polyptych depicting the Annunciation, Giambono’s Coronation of the Virgin in Paradise and the triptychs by Alberegno and Jacobello del Fiore. The 1833 donation by Felicita Renier (enforceable in 1850) brought to the museum invaluable works like Piero della Francesca’s Saint Jerome and Bellini’s Virgin between Two Female Saints. Furthermore, the sizeable donation by Girolamo Contarini in 1838 consisted of as many as 188 paintings, including masterpieces such as the Virgin of the Alberetti and Madonna and Child Giving His Blessing by Giovanni Bellini and Pietro Longhi’s scenes of Venetian life.
A number of purchases made by the museum also enlarged the original collection in the same period. The acquisition of Giuseppe Bossi’s collection of drawings in 1822 included manuscripts and drawings by Leonardo’s – among them, the universally famous Vitruvian Man; meanwhile, in 1857 Emperor Franz Joseph I purchased a number of fundamental masterpieces from the Manfrin collection (known as “Galleria Manfrin”); for example, Mantegna’s Saint George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s The Old Woman.
Finally, one of the Italian state’s most remarkable purchases was that which led to the acquisition of Giorgione’s famous The Tempest in 1932. The museum was separated completely from the Accademia in 1882. In 1895, then director Giulio Cantalamessa carried out a radical reorganisation of the collection which also introduced, for the first time, a chronological succession in the artwork on display. It was with Cantalamessa that the Gallerie became what it is still today: the ultimate compendium of Venetian painting from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century.
The museum has never stopped adding to its collection and has acquired new works even in recent years.
There exists a profound bond between the Gallerie dell’Accademia and the city of Venice: the halls of the museum, in fact, display some of the greatest masterpieces originally commissioned by churches, confraternities, noblemen and public bodies. Emblematic examples include the cycle of paintings coming from the Sala dell’Albergo (“Hall of the Hostel”) in the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista and, especially, Gentile Bellini’s and Carpaccio’s large canvases portraying the Procession in Saint Mark's Square and the Healing of Man Possessed by a Demon (also known as The Miracle of the Reliquary of the Holy Cross): as we admire these paintings today we lose ourselves in Renaissance Venice.
In some cases, the works featured at the Gallerie are the only survivors from entire monasteries destroyed during Napoleonic times.
A visit to the city is a necessary extension of a visit to the Gallerie, and vice versa.

The Quadreria (“Picture Gallery”)

The Quadreria section of the museum represents a special selection of paintings from the much larger deposits of the Gallerie. For a number of years, before the recent ongoing renovation project, external visitors could admire the artwork on display in the Quadreria, although during limited hours and by appointment only.
This peculiar exhibition originated in the mid-1990s as a part of an experimental project called “From the Museum to the City”, which also involved the renovation of the museum’s lighting and security systems, as well as the restoration of the “Scala Ovata”: Palladio’s famous spiral staircase and a worthy gateway to the selected paintings on view along a corridor which originally led to the cells of the ancient monastery.
The display was designed to serve a dual function: to exhibit paintings to external visitors, as well as to make up an experimental department with which to monitor the state of preservation of a significant body of works from the museum deposit.
The Quadreria hosts a selection of 88 Venetian masterpieces from the late fifteenth to the eighteenth century, including works by Nicolò di Pietro, Cima da Conegliano, Veronese, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Piazzetta, Alessandro Longhi and Hayez.