Our Guided Tours at the Accademia Galleries of Venice : the Primitives

Five centuries of Venetian painting... With this post we would like to start a series of articles meant to eventually form a small guide to the Accademia Galleries: the idea is to introduce to you some among the most relevant masterpieces of this great museum, and maybe to awaken your desire for a tour among its marvelous rooms with us.

Scuola Grande della Carità and the Accademia Galleries 

Scuola Grande della Carità, a lay Confraternity with social welfare purposes, was founded in 1260 in the area where San Leonardo church stands. Only later was it moved to the place it now occupies. It was the first such brotherhood to acquire the appellative Grande (i.e. Great). The Scuola, with the nearby church and monastery, was dismissed during Napoleon’s domination. It eventually became the seat of the Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1800’s. Previously the Academy had been hosted at the Fontego della Farina (i.e. the Flour Warehouse), close to St. Mark’s area.
On the ground floor of the former Scuola della Carità and of the church the students’ classrooms were organized, while on the second floor of both buildings the art gallery was created.
Today this museum has become one of the largest in Venice: it includes 500 years of Venetian painting. The Academy itself has been recently moved to the former Ospedale agli Incurabili, with a secondary seat on the island of San Servolo.

Scuola Grande della Carità, the façade built in the 1700’s by architect Massari 

The Chapter Hall and the Hostel Room  

The Chater Hall of Scuola Grande della Carità would be used in the past for the plenary meetings of the members. We can still admire some traces of the frescoes that used to decorate it.

Traces of frescoes in the Chapter Hall
The most relevant decorative element, however, is the wooden ceiling, carved, painted and gilt, made at the end of the 15th century by the sculptor Marco Cozzi, one of the most relevant artists in Venice in those days. He was also a member of the Scuola itself.
So beautiful are all the different faces of the cherubs: it seems as if the master wanted to instill some particular personality in every single one….

The wooden ceiling by Marco Cozzi
Quite interesting is also the floor: it consists of an inlay of polychrome marbles projected in the 1700’s by Massari and Maccaruzzi.

The floor of the 17th century
The Hostel Room is the place where the administrators of the Confraternity used to meet. In this room we can find another elegant wooden ceiling, carved and gilt, where, from a stylistic point of view, we can recognize some early elements of the Renaissance. In this place we can still admire some paintings that were commissioned by the members of the Confraternity, exactly in the same spot they have always occupied. One of them is the Presentation of the Virgin Mary to the Temple by Titian. This room still preserves the precious reliquary that was donated to the Scuola by Cardinal Bessarione.

The ceiling of the Hostel Room

The Primitives: Medieval Painting in Venice

The Polyptych of Santa Chiara, painted in the middle of the 15th century by Paolo Veneziano, is one of the most important masterpieces of this collection. It is the first work of art we meet as we enter the Chapter Hall. It consists of different wooden panels which represent the stories of Saint Francis, Saint Chiara and of Jesus Christ. In the center we can see an excellent and refined Coronation of the Virgin Mary. Paolo’s gothic style is combined with the precious decorativism of Byzantine influence and with a great deal of gold leaf, but we can nonetheless perceive a typically western narrative interest in the stories of the lateral panels, as well as a clear influence from Giotto.

Polyptych of Santa Chiara, by Paolo Veneziano, ca. 1350
This grand composition, called the Lion Polyptych from the name of the commissioner, consists of wooden panels inserted into an imposing frame. It was painted by Lorenzo Veneziano in the 1300’s. The central panel contains the representation of the Annunciation of the Holy Mary; at the sides we can recognize several saints, all holding their peculiar symbols. All the figures are quite elongated, elegant, refined, in slightly different postures. The gold leaf casts particular light on the entire masterpiece. We can perceive again some influence by Giotto, who in the early 1300’s had painted amazing frescos in the Capplella degli Scrovegni in the nearby city of Padua, thus tracing the path for the Venetian painting of the following decades.

Lion Polyptych, by Lorenzo Veneziano, second half of the 14th century
Jacobello del Fiore was active both in Venice and in the central Italian regions of Marche and Abruzzo. In 1421 he painted this Venice as Justice between Archangel Michael and Archangel Gabriel probably on commission of the Venetian Republic, for one of the rooms of the Doges’ Palace. Here Venice is represented as a personification of Justice, as she sits on King Solomon’s throne with leonine protoms… however, every time we see a lion around here, we immediately think of Venice itself and of Saint Mark, the patron Saint of the city. Archangel Michael, with his sword and scales, reinforces the symbolism of Justice, whearas Archangel Gabriel hands to the lady represented in the middle, i.e. Venice-Justice, a lily, which alludes to virginity… the Angel and the lady then create a very special Annunciation, where the Virgin Mary is embodied by Justice and by Venice itself.
Jacobello’s gothic style seems to set free from the Byzantine influence: the figures are less thin, they show concrete volume; the golden background now gives way to color and the gold appears only in some details of the clothes and of the halos of the figures, as well as on Justice’s crown.

Venice represented as Justice, between Archangel Michael and Archangel Gabriel, by Jacobello del Fiore, 1421 
Very special attention should be given to the master Antonio Vivarini from Murano and to his workshop. In the triptych The Holy Mary Enthroned with Baby Jesus and Saints, painted in 1446 in collaboration with his brother in law Giovanni from Germany for the Hostel Room, where it can be still admired, the Venetian gothic style reaches its peak and at the same time it opens up to Renaissance influences, although without fully accepting them. It is quite evident that the painters aimed to represent three-dimensional figures and spaces, but nonetheless the characters remain quite hieratic and motionless, and the use of gold leaf on several details shows attachment to the tradition. The colours are really intense and vibrant, which is after all a peculiar characteristic of all the Venetian painting throughout the centuries. It is worth to mention that this was probably the first painting on canvas in Venice.
The architectural structure of the triptych is really interesting, typically gothic: beyond the enclosed space that surrounds the figures we can see a lush garden.

The Holy Mary enthroned with Baby Jesus and Saints, by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Aemagna, 1446
And just think that more or less in those same years another great painter was starting his career… we are talking about Giovanni Bellini, the first great master of the Venetian Renaissance…but this is totally a different story, and we are going to tell you about him in our next post… or maybe directly to you during one of our guided tours of the Accademia Galleries!
We will be waiting for you!

You might be interested in the following tours: 

The Accademia galleries. (section: Classical tours of Venice

From gothic to renaissance. (section: Unusual tours of Venice