The Accademia is the essential one-stop shop for Venetian painting, and one of the world's greatest art treasure houses. At the time of writing - and possibly for another year or two - it is also a hive of construction and restoration work; though the gallery will remain open throughout its grand makeover, visitors should be prepared to find hanging arrangements changed and some rooms closed completely.
The gallery is located inside three former religious buildings: the Scuola Grande di Santa Maria della Carità (the oldest of the Venetian scuole, founded in the 13th century), the adjacent church of the Carità, and the Monastery of the Lateran Canons, a 12th-century structure remodelled by Andrea Palladio.
It was Napoleon who made the collection possible: first, by suppressing hundreds of churches, convents and religious guilds, confiscating their artworks for the greater good of the state; and second, by moving the city's Accademia di Belle Arti art school here, with the mandate both to train students and to act as a gallery and storeroom for all the evicted artworks, which were originally displayed as models for pupils to aspire to. The art school moved to a new site on the nearby Zattere in 2004; the freed-up space is now being restored and will eventually provide new exhibition space, with the number of works on show expected to rise from the current 400 to around 650.
In its current layout, the collection is arranged chronologically, with the exception of the 15th- and 16th-century works in rooms 19-24 at the end. It opens with 14th- and 15th-century devotional works by Paolo Veneziano and others - stiff figures against gold backdrops in the Byzantine tradition. This room was the main hall of the scuola grande: note the original ceiling of gilded cherubim. Rooms 2 and 3 have devotional paintings and altarpieces by Carpaccio, Cima da Conegliano and Giovanni Bellini (a fine Enthroned Madonna with Six Saints).
Rooms 4 and 5 bring us to the Renaissance heart of the collection: here are Mantegna's St George and Giorgione's mysterious Tempest, which has had art historians reaching for symbolic interpretations for centuries. In Room 6, the three greats of 16th-century Venetian painting - Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese - are first encountered. But the battle of the giants gets under way in earnest in Room 10, where Tintoretto's ghostly chiaroscuro Transport of the Body of St Mark vies for attention with Titian's moving Pietà - his last painting - and Veronese's huge Christ in the House of Levi.
Room 11 covers two centuries, with canvases by Tintoretto (the exquisite Madonna dei Camerlenghi), Bernardo Strozzi and Tiepolo. The series of rooms beyond brings the plot up to the 18th century, with all the old favourites: Canaletto, Guardi, Longhi and soft-focus, bewigged portraits by female superstar Rosalba Carriera.
Rooms 19 and 20 take us back to the 15th century; the latter has the rich Miracle of the Relic of the Cross cycle, a collaborative effort by Gentile Bellini, Carpaccio and others, which is packed with telling social details; there's even a black gondolier in Carpaccio's Miracle of the Cross at the Rialto.
An even more satisfying cycle has Room 21 to itself. Carpaccio's Life of St Ursula (1490-95) tells the story of the legendary Breton princess who embarked on a pilgrimage to Rome with her betrothed so that he could be baptised into the true faith. All went swimmingly until Ursula and all the 11,000 virgins accompanying her were massacred by the Huns in Cologne (the initial 'M' - for martyr - used in one account of the affair caused the multiplication of the number of accompanying maidens from 11 to 11,000, M being the Roman numeral for 1,000). More than the ropey legend, it's the architecture, the ships and the pageantry in these meticulous paintings that grab the attention. Perhaps most striking, amid all the closely thronged, action-packed scenes, is the rapt stillness and solitude of The Dream of St Ursula.
Room 23 is the former church of Santa Maria della Carità: here are devotional works by Vivarini, the Bellinis and others. Room 24 - the Albergo room (or secretariat) of the former scuola - contains the only work in the whole gallery that is in its original site: Titian's magnificent Presentation of the Virgin.
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