Lonely Planet review
Hardly academic, these galleries contain more murderous intrigue, forbidden romance and shameless politicking than the most outrageous Venetian parties. The former Santa Maria della Carità convent complex maintained its serene composure for centuries, but ever since Napoleon installed his haul of Venetian art trophies in 1807, there’s been nonstop visual drama inside these walls.
To guide you through the ocular onslaught, the gallery layout is loosely organised by style and theme from the 14th to 18th centuries, though recent restorations and works on loan have shuffled around some masterpieces. The grand gallery you enter upstairs features vivid early works that show Venice's precocious flair for colour and drama. Case in point: Jacobello Alberegno's late-14th-century Apocalypse (Room 1) shows the whore of Babylon riding a hydra, babbling rivers of blood from her mouth. At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is Paolo Veneziano’s 1553–59 Coronation of Mary (Room 1), where Jesus bestows the crown on his mother with a gentle pat on the head to the tune of an angelic orchestra.
UFO arrivals seem imminent in the eerie, glowing skies of Carpaccio’s Crucifixion and Glorification of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mount Ararat (Room 2) – Harry’s Bar was apt in naming its shimmering, raw-beef dish after him. But Giovanni Bellini's Pala di San Giobbe (Room 2) shows hope on the horizon, in the form of a sweet-faced Madonna and Child emerging from a dark niche as angels tune their instruments. The martyrs surrounding them include St Roch and St Sebastian, suggesting that this luminous, uplifting work dates from the dark days of Venice's second plague in 1478.
Lock eyes with fascinating strangers across portrait-filled Room 4. Hans Memling captures youthful stubble and angst with the exacting detail of a Freudian miniaturist in Portrait of a Young Man , while Giorgione's sad-eyed La Vecchia (Old Woman) points to herself as the words 'with time' unfurl ominously in the background.
Venice's Renaissance awaits around the corner in Room 6, featuring Titian and Tintoretto. Tintoretto’s Creation of the Animals is a fantastical bestiary suggesting God put forth his best efforts inventing Venetian seafood (no argument here). Tintoretto's 1562 St Mark Saving a Saracen from Shipwreck is an action-packed blockbuster, with fearless Venetian merchants and an improbably muscular, long-armed saint rescuing a turbaned sailor.
Titian’s 1576 Pietà was possibly finished posthumously by Palma il Giovane, but notice the smears of paint Titian applied with his bare hands and the column-base self-portrait, foreshadowing Titian's own funeral monument.
Artistic triumph over censorship dominates Room 10: Paolo Veronese’s freshly restored Feast in the House of Levi , originally called Last Supper until Inquisition leaders condemned him for showing dogs, drunkards, dwarves, Muslims and Reformation-minded Germans cavorting with Apostles. He refused to change a thing, besides the title, and Venice stood by this act of defiance against Rome. Follow the exchanges, gestures and eye contact among the characters, and you’ll concede that not one Turkish trader, clumsy server, gambler or bright-eyed lapdog could have been painted over without losing an essential piece of the Venetian puzzle.
Now that you've reached the halfway mark of Venice’s contributions to art history, you'll notice a lighter baroque touch and more down-to-earth subject matter. As you enter Room 11, you may feel observed by the gossipy Venetian socialties hanging over balconies in 1743–45 lunettes by Tiepolo. These charming ceiling details originally hung in the Scalzi Church, and were narrowly salvaged after 1915 Austrian bombings.
Rooms 12-18 are currently undergoing restoration to showcase Canaletto’s sweeping views of Venice and Giorgione’s highly charged La Tempesta (The Storm). Art historians still debate the meaning of the mysterious nursing mother and passing soldier with a bolt of summer lightning: is this an expulsion from Eden, an allegory for alchemy, or a reference to Venice conquering Padua in the War of Cambria?
Restored portrait galleries will feature larger-than-life Venetian characters: Lorenzo Lotto’s soul-searching Portrait of a Young Scholar ; Rosalba Carriera’s brutally honest self-portrait; Pietro Longhi’s lovestruck violinist watching a twirling debutante in The Dance Lesson ; and a saucy, fate-tempting socialite in Giambattista Piazzetta’s Fortune-Teller .
Finales don't come any grander than the Accademia's final suite of rooms. Room 20 is currently undergoing restorations to accommodate Gentile Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio's Venetian versions of Miracles of the True Cross , thronged with multicultural merchant crowds. After careful restoration, the original convent chapel (Room 23) is a serene showstopper fronted by a Bellini altarpiece , with temporary shows in the center.
Ornamental splendours were reserved for the Scuola della Carita's boardroom, the newly restored Sala dell’Albergo . Board meetings would not have been boring here, under a lavishly carved ceiling and facing Antonio Vivarini's wrap-around 1441–50 masterpiece, filled with fluffy-bearded saints keeping a watchful eye on boardroom proceedings.
Titian closes the Accademia with his touching 1534–39 Presentation of the Virgin . Here, a young, tiny Madonna trudges up an intimidating staircase while a distinctly Venetian crowd of onlookers point to her example – yet few of the velvet- and pearl-clad merchants offer alms to the destitute mother, or even feed the begging dog.