THE great collection of Venetian pictures, the most important object to be seen in Venice, after St. Mark’s and the Doge’s Palace, is housed (since the French Revolution) in a building now known as the Accademia delle Belle Arti. But the edifice itself was erected (in great part) far earlier, and for a very different purpose ; and since some of its noble halls still retain their old shape and primitive splendour, while some few of its pictures still occupy their original places, it may be well to know before-hand the history of the building.
The Scuola della Carità (Brotherhood of Charity) was the earliest of the great Venetian Scuole (not Schools, but lay charitable Fraternities and the Scuole di San Rocco, di Sant’ Ursula, and di San Giovanni Evangelista (the two last to be described later) were to some extent imitations of it. The Fraternity was founded in 1260, for the purpose of ransoming Christian captives among the Infidels and for other charitable objects. The larger part of the existing building is late in date, having been erected by the great Renaissance architect Palladio in 1552. In 1807, Napoleon, after his conquest of Italy, turned the place into an Academy of Art, and brought here many pictures from suppressed churches, monasteries, and charitable guilds. The collection has since been increased from various sources, and the building enlarged by recent additions.
The Academy is the best place in which, to form an idea of the consecutive development of Venetian art. It contains few but Venetian pictures ; and in the following description, I lay stress for the most part upon these only, to the comparative exclusion of alien Italian or foreign works. It is only necessary to know beforehand that native painting came later in Venice than elsewhere in Italy, and that for many ages the Venetians were content with Byzantine works which they imported from Constantinople or Mount Athos. When a native school began to arise, it based itself curiously upon four distinct sources ; part of its spirit was Byzantine or Byzantinesque ; part Umbrian, of the school of Gentile da Fabriano, who painted in the old Doge’s Palace ; part Badman, of the classical and formal school of Squarcione ; and part, very singularly, German or Rhenish, being derived from one Giovanni da Allemagna, (or Alamanno, or Vivarini, or da Murano,) an artist who, whether Muranese by birth or not, was clearly trained in the Cologne School, the influence of which we shall abundantly trace through much subsequent Venetian painting.
The official numbering of the rooms is neither chronological nor well adapted for following out the history of Venetian art ; I therefore prefer to take the visitor through the Gallery, in the following brief notes, in an order which seems to me best calculated to give him a connected idea of the evolution of painting in Venice. If he will accept my directions, I think he will gain a better conception of the contents of the Gallery than he could obtain by walking straight through the rooms in the official order.
Do not try to see the whole of the Academy at once ; come here often, and study slowly. If your time is limited, confine yourself mainly to Rooms XX., II., XV., XVI., and XVII., with the Paris Bordons of “The Doge and the Fisherman” in Room X.
The Academy is open on week-days from 9 to 3, I franc : on Sundays from 1o to 2, free. Take your opera-glass.]
The Academy may be reached in three ways : (I) by gondola ; (2) by omnibus steamer, which stops at the door (10 c.) ; (3) on foot, thus : from the south-west corner of the Piazza San Marco, through the Calla San Moise, past the appalling and ugly baroque façade of the church of San Moise, (L.,) overloaded with fly-away ornament, (1668,) including what are meant for camels but look like llamas ; then, by the Via 22 Marzo, past the uglier and still more barbarous façade of S. Maria Zobenigo, (168o obliquely (to the R.) across the Campo San Maurizio, and obliquely (to the L.) across the broad Campo S. Stefano ; thence by the Iron Bridge to the door of the Academy. The view from the bridge, (or still better from the Campo beyond it,) looking back on the russet houses, the red tower of S. Vitale, (S. Vidal,) and the Palazzo Cavalli, recently renovated for Baron Franchetti, (a Murano glassmaker,) is picturesque and striking.
Before entering the Academy, stand in the little Campo della Carità, to the left of the main door, (with Minerva on a lion.) You have here, to the L., the secularised church of the Carità (14th-century Gothic) now sadly ruined by alterations in its windows, and forming part of the Academy, In front of you stands the old gateway of the Scuola della Carità. Notice, centre, the gilt relief of Our Lady of Charity, attended by angels : the Child holds out his caressing hand to members of the Fraternity below. On the L. is St. Leonard (bearing the fetters which are his symbol as patron of captives) with two members of the Brotherhood ; on the R., St. Christopher bearing the infant Christ. These form a charming memorial of the original purpose of the building : dated, 1377.
Pay. Mount the stairs. The first room which we enter, ROOM I.