by Roderick Conway Morris

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Accademia, Venice
The Deposition of Christ by Jacopo Tintoretto, c.1562

Accademia Gallery Opens a New Wing

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 16 December 1995


The Accademia, one of the world's principal picture galleries, seems an unlikely repository for some of Venice's best kept secrets. Yet the preliminary opening this month of an entirely new space, the 'Quadreria' (Picture Room), with 88 panels and canvases, most of them never shown before, reveals that not only do the reserve collections, previously accessible almost exclusively to professionals, contain some real gems, but that the Palladian interior of the wing where they are displayed would justify a visit in itself.

From the early days of the last century the Accademia has shared its premises - the deconsecrated 15th-century Santa Maria della Carita church and 'Scuola', or lay charitable confraternity meeting hall, and adjoining monastery, rebuilt by Palladio in the mid 16th century - with Venice's Fine Arts School, and both institutions (whose administrations were finally separated in 1882) have complained ever since of lack of space to pursue their different activities.

The opening of the 'Quadreria' is also a milestone, therefore, in that it marks the beginning of a process over the next few years, during which the Art School will relinquish its areas of the complex and move to the former Incurabili Hospital buildings on the Zattere, leaving the Accademia with vastly expanded permanent and temporary exhibition spaces. (Of the Accademia's over 2,000 works, there is at the moment only room to show about 360 of them in the main gallery.)

The dual purpose forced on the Accademia complex has, over the years, led to some bizarre architectural adjustments: notably the horizontal division of the 15th-century Venetian-gothic Carita church into two floors to accommodate artists' studios below and an open gallery space above, and the consignment almost to oblivion of Palladio's monastery buildings.

Palladio's original scheme for the restructuring of this, one of the city's most ancient religious houses - where, according to tradition, Pope Alexander III hid from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa for several months before Venice's Doge brokered a settlement between them, thereby winning international recognition for the up-and-coming offshore republic - was ambitious and based on the promise of the demolition of neighboring houses and the loss of a public street. In the end the plan had to be scaled down to fit the existing site, but work began in 1562.

By Palladio's usual canons one might say that his new Carita wing was outside-in, given its chief glories were not its external facades and features, but its inward-looking courts, porticoes and interiors. This, Palladio no doubt considered an appropriate arrangement for a monastery, but he also used the opportunity to recreate the interiors of his ideal conception of an ancient Roman nobleman's house, of the kind that he was to write about in his 'Four Books of Architecture' (1570), using the Carita project in his examples. But an unusual commission, the ultimate completion of only part of the plan, later fire damage and interventions by subsequent architects, mean that it is now easy to pass by the exterior of the Accademia without realizing that Palladio had any hand in it at all.

The interior of the surviving part of his wing is entirely another matter. The new 'Quadreria' is on the third floor, occupying a grand, almost hall-like corridor, off which there were once monk's cells. It is reached by Palladio's long-inaccessible, open-welled oval staircase, which Goethe described as 'the most beautiful spiral staircase in the world'. Also illustrated in the 'Four Books of Architecture', it is a daring piece of engineering, its slender monolithic treads projecting otherwise unsupported from the walls, creating an extraordinary feeling of airiness and grace.

The Quadreria follows the style of the main gallery by showing works in chronological order, beginning slightly later in the early 15th century, and going through to the late 18th. Given the still remaining constraints of space while the separation between Accademia and Fine Arts School progresses, the canvases are hung for the moment pretty densely, recalling the illustrations of the Accademia in the 19th century (though the lighting is clearly now much better).

We are greeted at the door by a splendid St Peter, standing keys in hand in a luminous trompe l'oeil niche, who used to adorn an organ door and has been attributed variously to Giovanni Bellini and Carpaccio. The latter is also represented by a sharply brilliant scene from the apochryphal Book of James. Outstanding in this period, however, is a late Cima da Conegliano (1459-1517) of the 'Archangel Raphael with Tobias and SS Nicholas and James the Great'. The adventures of the boy Tobias and his faithful unnamed dog (which also appears here) constitute one of the Old Testament's quirkiest stories, and this picture, whilst formally beautiful in its figures, coloring and landscape, evokes, too, the convincingly human rapport between Tobias and the older-brother-like Archangel (the Protector of the young and innocent).

Some of the works here have been previously held in reserve because of their delicate state of conservation, but others are characterized by a level of drama, even melodrama, that was perhaps judged by some earlier curators to exceed the decorum expected of an Old Master. Tintoretto is represented by five canvases, including a thunderous 'Deposition of Christ', in which a haggard, deathly pale Virgin Mary has collapsed into a dead faint, her hand limply grasping the foot of her Son; and Titian by a series of ceiling panels of vibrant, boldly-colored panels of putti, evangelical beasts and masks done to accompany the 'Vision of St John in Patmos' (now in the National Gallery of Washington).

Among many striking works by lesser-known artists is an historical curiosity: Charles Le Brun's 'Conversion of the Pharisee with Magdalene at the Feet of Christ', painted originally for the Carmelite Convent in rue Saint Jacques in Paris. It was palmed off on the Venetians in 1815 'in exchange' for Veronese's masterpiece 'The Marriage at Cana', looted by Bonaparte (and recently, notoriously, badly damaged and controversially restored at the Louvre).

The new offerings maintain a good standard into the 18th century. It is a pleasure, for example, to see Tiepolo's 'Moses and Aaron', another wonderful (and sizeable) fragment of the 'Scalzi' Church ceiling blown to pieces during the Austrian bombardment of Venice in 1915 (two surviving parts of which are already displayed in the main gallery); and many visitors may reckon that Piazzetta's 'Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves' (which until a decade ago was displayed in the regular Accademia collection) is superior to 'The Crucifixion' that has since replaced it.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023