The Scuola Vecchia di Santa Maria della Misericordia was one of the six Scuole Grandi (literally “Great Schools”, or confraternities) of Venice. The earliest building was erected next to the complex of the Misericordia Augustinian monastery starting from 1310. Later, the first core of the Scuola, which also included a cemetery, underwent ceaseless enlargement and renovation work throughout the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Scuola grew rapidly after its establishment, so much so that it soon began building rooms for the activities of its members, in addition to a cloister and magnificent garden. The confraternity became more and more prominent after the 1380s, when it built a hospice for the poor and elderly; however, it reached its climax in 1411 when a hostel was erected behind the Scuola and a bridge was constructed to connect the Campo de l’Abazia to the Fondamenta della Misericordia. In 1441 the Scuola entrusted Bartolomeo Bon with the decoration of the façade, another sign of the prominence the confraternity had attained. The design of the portal included a wonderfully sculpted lunette depicting the Virgin of Mercy (that is, the Madonna della Misericordia) adored by the members of the confraternity. Unfortunately, only two small angels holding a scroll over the architrave and the foliage capitols remain visible today, while the rest of the artefact was removed in 1612 and later transferred to the Victoria and Albert Museum of London together with other sculptures. By the early sixteenth century, the confraternity had grown even further and, as such, decided to move to a new complex, the Scuola Nuova della Misericordia near the Misericordia bridge. Thereafter, the old Scuola Vecchia suffered a period of slow decline: first it was sold to the Guild of Silk Weavers, then it became a private theatre under Napoleon’s rule before being turned into a warehouse and, finally, a residential building. By the early twentieth century, the Scuola Vecchia had fallen into an advanced state of disrepair until it was purchased, together with the cloister and garden, by the painter and art collector Italico Brass in 1920. After extensive restoration, Brass employed the venue to host his atelier and large art collection. Additions were made to the original building, such as a round tower, an oriental-style liagò balcony and some galleries inside the main hall. The exterior was also modified and enhanced, as Brass redesigned the walled garden by geometrically arranging flowerbeds bordered by hedges which, together with the Gothic colonnade, framed the fifteenth-century well-curb. In 1974, the Brass family sold the complex to the Italian state, which assigned it to the Soprintendenza per I Beni Artistici e Storici di Venezia (Cultural heritage superintendence of Venice) as the site of a cross-disciplinary laboratory specialising in conservation and scientific research. Subsequently, other rooms were acquired in a building nearby to accommodate more laboratories and offices, the restoration work being supervised by the Soprintendenza per I Beni Ambientali e Architettonici di Venezia (Environment and architecture superintendence of Venice). Today, the Scuola Vecchia della Misericordia complex houses the Conservation Laboratories, Diagnostics Laboratory, Photographic Archive, Conservation Archive, as well as several administrative departments (Accounting, Technical, Human Resources) connected to the Gallerie dell’Accademia. Thanks to the support of Wigwam Club Giardini Storici Venezia, the garden and cloister of the Misericordia complex have recently been restored to their former splendour with the creation of flowerbeds featuring a variety of herbaceous perennials. The Laboratories and the garden are not open to the public, however, except for special events.
For more information, please also visit the Conservation and Diagnostics Laboratories page on this website.