A GOTHIC church Romanized, a Renaissance monastery and cloister modernized, this, largely, is the composite structure called the Accademia delle Belle Arti at Venice. In the city of architecture etherealized, a combination like this stands little chance of being considered beautiful. Indeed, except for the importance of its contents, it is probable that no tourist and hardly a sojourner of months would pay much attention either to its imperfections and lack of cohesion as a whole, or to its very lovely bits of detail.
These bits of detail include the unburned portion of Palladio’s famous cloister of the convent and three Gothic reliefs on its entrance wall, so exquisitely pure in style and so original and unafraid in treatment that Ruskin does not hesitate to call them ” three of the most precious pieces of sculpture in Venice.” But who can stop to pick out such stranded excellences, when all about are the ever crowding glories of wholly perfect church and palace? At its best, the Venice Academy is the result of a manifest and none too successful attempt to transform antagonistic architectural elements into a something homogeneous but entirely contrary to the initial purpose of any of its component parts. Perforce, therefore, the mechanism of its construction, its humanness, so to say, is the most evident thing about it. It is this very humanness, this persistent betrayal of the ” hand of man,” that alone would relegate it to an art far removed from that which created the golden façades that line the Grand Canal.
For it is not alone poets or painters who have called the palaces and churches of Venice fairy-built domains or the architecture of a poet’s dreams. No traveller, surely, but has felt the intangible loveliness of those pilastered fronts, so delicate they seem like petrified lace, those windows and balconies with tracery of spiders’ weaving, those golden, ivory, rose-toned marble stairs that slip with iridescent sparkle into the lapping greenness of the waves about their base. And in it all, whatever else one finds, the hand of the builder is never on view.
The most literal soul must feel it difficult to realize that these mansions and palaces and churches were reared brick by brick, stone by stone, cut and hammered and cemented, only day by day growing into a splendour that so completely blinds us to its builder’s hands. Only the Arabian Nights’ sort of achievements make a Venice seem possible.
How can one ascribe its ethereal beauties to grimy mason and builder? Rather was it planned on Olympus, and Apollo sang its formation. ” Frozen music,” as triumphs of architectural art have been called, never seems so exquisitely appropriate a phrase as in Venice. That is what this Queen of the Adriatic most truly is. As if in sooth the god of music had sent to earth some rarest song that as it fell note by note turned into stone, and Venice rose, song incarnate, visible, undying melody.
No wonder, then, that anything less beautiful than the general beautiful average of Venetian building seems wofully out of place. Not only is the Academy below this average architecturally, but one of the principal approaches to it, the great modern iron bridge which crosses the Grand Canal and reaches nearly to its entrance, is perhaps the ugliest blot in the entire city. Nothing could make it worse unless they should run over it an American line of trolley-cars. Compared with such blatant modern ironmongery, the Academy not only shows favourably, but, historically especially, it has much to interest the student.
A map of Venice looks not unlike two clasping mittened hands, with the Grand Canal marking the inner outlines of the two. The Academy is placed on the inside curve of the thumb of the under hand, with the Salute at the tip of the same thumb. On the outer curve of the other thumb is the Piazza San Marco, not far from the line of the wrist and almost opposite the Salute. Thus the Academy is directly west of San Marco, separated from it by the width, and also by some little length, of the Grand Canal.
The Campo della Carità, as is called the little Square of the Academy, got its name from the conventual church, Santa Maria della Carità, which was erected here about the middle of the thirteenth century by the Scuola della Carità, the first of the great brotherhoods to be founded in Venice. This Scuola had for its object the ransoming of Christian prisoners from the Turks or other heathen.
By this time Byzantine art was beginning to lose its hold in Venice, and here and there the city was showing signs of an individual art of her own. Probably because of the almost continual feuds between her and Florence, she drew her architects rather from Lombardy than from the Tuscan city.
Whoever the architect of the Carità, he built it in the Gothic style, and, unlike most of the subsequent architects of Venice, he was uninfluenced by the Roman or Grecian art. Made of brick, it was not till generations after that its Gothic windows were torn out and Romanesque ones substituted. The introduction of these Romanesque openings was doubtless the result of an attempt to bring into better conformity the old church with the newer convent placed against it. It has only made the patchiness of the entire structure more noticeable.
At the time when the church was first built, Venice was already on the highroad of her prosperity. ‘ Not yet under the dominion of the fateful Ten, she was governed by a council actually elected by the people from the people. It was not till 1297 that this council had to be chosen from among the descendants of those who had once had seats in the body. She was still in fact what for fourteen centuries she was in name, a republic.
The practical aim of this first Scuola of Venice was characteristic of the Venetian’s religious life. He was much more ready to fight for the Church or even to give great sums to its treasury than to adopt fasting and prayer, seclusion and abstinence as signs of his devotional life. Life, life in all its fulness, its joys, its excesses, was, even in the thirteenth century, typical of Venice. Yet she was a loyal daughter to the Church, serving her with a stout right arm when needed, or with keen-witted craft when blows were of no avail. Fairly representative is the story of how she forced Frederick Barbarossa to seek pardon from Pope Alexander III., whom the Emperor had shortly before driven out of Rome. It is best not to inquire too deeply into the chronology or historical date of the legend. Such as it is, it shows the proud spirit of the Venetians as well as if it could be accepted literally.
When Frederick Barbarossa expelled Alexander from Rome, the old man took refuge in Venice. Here, the legend goes on to say, he arrived, a mendicant in rags, and his first night he spent sleeping on the ground near the Church of S. Apollinare. After this he wandered about the narrow twisting alleys till he reached the monastery of the Cârità. Here he stayed for six months, serving the brother-hood in the capacity of scullion. Finally, a Venetian who had been in Rome recognized him, sent word to the Doge, and the Pope was led forth from his hiding-place to receive the homage of the city. When Frederick swore that unless the Venetians gave up the pontiff he would plant his Eagles in San Marco, the city answered by sending a fleet which defeated the Emperor’s son, made Otto prisoner, and ultimately compelled the German Emperor to bow in abject submission to the rein-stated Pope. A very effective tale, with certain amusing elements. For unless the Scuola della Carità existed nearly a century before the date of its founding, 126o, Alexander could hardly, in 1175, have taken refuge within its walls !
Until 1552 the Gothic church, with what adjacent buildings it owned, remained practically unchanged. Venice herself had gone from one triumphant splendour to another. Still a republic in name, she was actually the most unrestrained of oligarchies. The will, the caprice of the secret Three, the inner circle of the Ten, was ” All the law and the Prophets ” for a city that was already beginning to show signs of the wreck her profligacy was to make of her. And yet, as Sismondi states, even while she destroyed every liberty at home, she helped those who strove for it abroad. She upheld Henry VIII. against the Pope; a century later she was an ally of the Dutch ; she publicly sup-ported the German Protestants during the thirty years’ war; she assisted Bethlen-Gabor and Ragot-ski in Hungary; she aided the Prince of Piedmont against Philip III. of Spain, as well as the Protestant house of Savoy against the Catholics ; she declared for Henry IV. against the. League, and even lent him money for which she would accept no bonds in return, It has been said of Venice that ” for a thousand years she fought for life; for three hundred years she invited death ; the battle was rewarded, the call was heard.” If, in 1552, her death was already presaged, few of her own citizens could have believed it. Not only were magnificence, profusion of wealth, every gorgeous splendour characteristic of the life of her nobles, but there were practically no poor within her borders. And it is certainly true that ” if her people had not liberty, they had order, law, and a species of justice. Their taxes were light and equally imposed, and they were economically expended for the glory of the country.” A motto of the state was, ” Justice in the Palace and bread in the Piazza.”
Her power had swept far beyond her own boundaries, and by the end of the fifteenth century she stretched toward the sea to Dalmatia and Crete and inward to Padua, Vicenza, Verona, Brescia, and Bergamo, and was almost at the very gates of Milan. These cities she acquired by conquest during the fifteenth century, and in the market-place of each was set up the Lion of San Marco, a visible emblem of their subjection.
The Republic’s aggrandizement was typical of both private and institutional life in Venice. Nothing was too rich, too costly, too gorgeous, for city or noble, for church or Scuola. It is probably due to the late adoption by Venice of the Renaissance order of architecture that the Scuola della Carità had not a century before built anew. As it was, in 1552, they called the architect then most famous throughout Italy, and gave him orders to construct a convent worthy of their own importance and of his genius.
Palladio was born in Vicenza, a town near Venice, in 1508. There is little known of his family or of his first studies. But however else he may have acquired his architectural knowledge, he was undoubtedly largely indebted to his visits to Rome for much of his later success. Gio. Giorgio Tressino, a countryman of his, took him to Rome three different times, the last of these trips ending in 1547. While there he spent uncounted hours in measuring the ancient buildings and making sketches of everything he could use to advantage in his profession. After his return to Vicenza his fame spread all through Italy, and when Paul III. was Pope he invited him to Rome once more for consultation about the works in progress at St. Peter’s. Back at Vicenza again, he was fairly overwhelmed with orders, but of a private rather than public character. By far the larger part of Palladio’s work was the construction of palace and mansion, for which his materials, of course, were largely of brick and terra-cotta. He had few of the chances showered upon Sansovino to show what he might have done with great public edifices where his materials could be chosen from richest stone and marble. He seems, however, to have gloried in the very restriction of his means, proving again and again that not material but design, not imposing show but artistic appropriateness, are what make a really exquisite building. No one, it has been said repeatedly, ever used brick so perfectly, with so thorough an appreciation and understanding of its tremendous possibilities.
He has been extraordinarily praised by many noted critics, and condemned by many others. Today, perhaps, the feeling is against rather than for him. It has been claimed, with undoubted reason, that he not infrequently let his windows break into architraves; that he enclosed windows within friezes, that he made doors lower than windows, and that he was often guilty of having both deco-rated and undecorated windows in the same building. His pediments, the critics aver, were frequently too heavy, his intercolumniations too wide, and there were not seldom a hardness and monotony of detail. In spite of these or more faults, it can be said that he made an earnest and not unsuccessful attempt to return to the simplicity and classic lines of Greece. He was a classicist of the classicists, and his ideal was found in the rules of Vitruvius.
About 1550 he was called from Vicenza to Venice, where Sansovino was getting old and infirm. His first commission was to construct a monastery for the Lateran Canons della Carità, and this order was followed by others, the most important of which made him the architect of San Giorgio Maggiore and Il Redentore. That Palladio him-self greatly liked his designs for the convent of the Carità Brotherhood is shown by the fact that he uses them as illustration in one of his great volumes on architecture. With it he gives complete explanation of all its parts. Critics have generally agreed that these designs for this monastery of the first Brotherhood of Venice were of real beauty, of stateliness, and of charm. Unfortunately, the building itself was never finished, and of the part which he did complete little enough remains to-day. Be wrote of it that he wished to make it, so far as possible, like a dwelling of the ” Ancients.”
It faced the Grand Canal and was joined to the old thirteenth-century church, with the lines of which, of course, it had scarcely anything in accord. In general plan it consisted of a large and smaller court about which the cloister and conventual apartments were built. The outer atrium, or vestibule, was Corinthian in style. On each side of it he placed four columns of the Composite order, and at the left and right of the vestibule was an irregularly shaped room, called a tablino. The one on the left was used as the Sacristy, and is the only one now standing. Beyond this vestibule, with its side arms of tablini, came the great court, its three stories separated by the columns of different orders, Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. Above this last line were windows which gave light to cells lining the sides. The columns supported the wall of the building which separated the chambers or cells of the galleries. By the side near the church at the left of the entrance next the Sacristy, was a winding staircase, the beauty of whose curves and decorations Goethe praised so enthusiastically. With the exception of the right arm of the cloister and that opposite the vestibule entrance, this was all actually finished by Palladio. He had also completed the little piece which still exists today, –the archway spanning the public alley by the side of the convent, and connecting it with the building opposite it. The façade on the Grand Canal was planned to be practically as we see it to-day, a marble front, severely classic in its lines, with four Corinthian columns across its face and two smaller ones flanking each side of the doorway. This, how-ever, was not built from Palladio’s designs, but from Giorgio Massari’s, an architect living and working a century later.
On November 16, 1630, the larger part of the work of the architect of Vicenza was burned to the ground. Palladio had erected for the brotherhood a little wooden theatre in the vestibule of the con-vent, and it is thought that the fire started there. To-day the only parts of the building which are Palladio’s own, are the entrance to the winding staircase at the left, the Sacristy at the left of the vestibule, that side of the convent bordering the Canal St. Agnes, and the line of pillars on the same side of the cloister.
Up to 1797, though the completion of Massari’s façade was practically the only attempt made to restore the ravages of the fire of 163o, the Brother-hood of the Carità continued to use it as their official residence. Lack of money very likely was the reason for not attempting any restoration. For if, during the century preceding her fall, Venice threw money like a desperate bankrupt bound for one long debauch before the end of all things, she no longer spent it for the relief of Christian captives. No longer, even, did she spend it to maintain the political and territorial supremacy she had enjoyed for so many generations. From the Peace of Passarowitz, terminating the War of the Suc-cession, a war in which Venice took no part, she having refused to fight against Austria, from that time began the oppression by Austria of the once dauntless Queen of the Adriatic. Her first humiliation was when she was forced to return Morea to the Turks, the prize captured for her by Morosini. Peace was made in 1719, and from then, for eighty years, Venice, who for centuries had conquered all her enemies, made no war and was insulted by all the belligerents of every side. This astounding apathy was caused by the rottenness of her government, by the weakness, sloth, and wickedness of her nobles, by the unparalleled debauchery of her whole public and private life. The last days of Venice are synonymous for license, for voluptuousness, for horrible indecency, and for the worst form of oligarchical government. At the end of the eighteenth century the reign of Venice even in her own borders was practically over. If it had not been Napoleon, some other would have swept her into his domains. That other undoubtedly would have been Austria, as indeed later on it was. From 1798, when she fell before the French armies, till 1866, when she finally became a part of United Italy, Venice was the prey first of France, then of Austria, once more of France, and again of Austria. Then for a short fifteen months, by hard-earned victories, she took her historic title as a republic, only to be reconquered by Radetzky and once more joined to Austria, under whose rule she was held till United Italy claimed and won her.
During all these changes the old convent of the Carità remained what Napoleon had turned her into. As early as 167o some Venetian gentlemen had started art classes within its walls, and a century later a regular art school was established there under the control of the state. This existed up to the last days of the Venetian Republic. During Napoleon’s investiture of Venice his troops used the building as barracks. Perhaps because of the school which he found there the general chose the building as a permanent museum of art. Something much more in the Corsican’s line than monastery or convent ! Everywhere after his conquering armies followed the trail of closed monastery, con-vent, and church. When he entered Venice he found more than a hundred churches. He destroyed or put to other uses almost half of these last, and, with the exception of that of the Armenians, sup-pressed every convent and monastery in the city. Into this of the Scuola di Santa Maria della Carità he brought such pictures from other closed churches and convents as, for one reason or another, he did not choose to send to France. So was opened the Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia. It may thus be said to owe its origin to Napoleon’s dislike for monastic life and his distrust of too great power of the Church.
Up to 1829 practically nothing was done to make the half-burned building more worthy of the treasures within its walls. Even the ravages made by the troops that camped there had hardly been re-paired. Finally, in that year, the work of rebuilding, under the direction of Francesco Lazzari, was commenced. No effort was spared to make it as nearly as possible as Palladio had planned and partially built it. So earnest was Signor Lazzari to accomplish this that he had his brick and terracottas made and cut by a man who was a master cutter of stone, one Antonio Risegatti, while over him, to see that each piece was exact, was put Signor Antonio Mauro. It was extremely difficult to get these bricks and terra-cottas of the consistency, construction, and colour of Palladio’s, for, since 1700, the old method of manufacturing them had largely disappeared.
When the work was finished, in 183o, the old monastery, though no longer used by its disbanded brotherhood, was in the main what Palladio, the Renaissance architect, had meant it should be : ” A building in the style of the Ancients,” classic in its spirit, in its lines, and in its measurements. Less successful were the alterations of the buildings connected with it, especially of the old Gothic Church of the Carità. To lead from the reincarnated Palladian structure into this, it was necessary to sacrifice many of its Gothic characteristics. One of the most lamentable acts was transforming the tall, narrow Gothic windows into low, Romanesque ones.
It is easy to see how little outward homogeneity there can be in such a conglomerate mass of buildings. The classic façade of the old-time convent suffers from its joining to the Gothic church with which it is connected no less than the church itself. Within, the fine proportions and the beauty of the columns of the cloister, the splendid decoration and noble lines of some of the rooms, make less keenly noticeable the incongruity of the whole. On the outside, too, are the three relics of the Gothic days whose charm no Palladian façade can dim. These are the marble reliefs which Ruskin, for once agreeing with his brother critics, praises so highly. They were executed in 1370 and 1379, and, Gothic as they are, are three of the very earliest examples of Venetian art when it was first beginning to break away from its Byzantine traditions.
In the centre, over the Gothic doorway which was one of the early entrances to the Scuola, is the relief representing the Madonna and Child, with attendant angels, set in a high-arched framing. The baby Jesus has his little hands extended as if in greeting. St. Leonard is at the left of the entrance with the Gothic cusped framing coming slightly above the upper curve of the door. The saint, who was the patron of captives, is represented with his fetters, and by him are two members of the Brotherhood of the Carità. On the other side is St. Christopher, bent under the weight of the Christ. That none of these figures really stands, and that their construction in general is full of archaisms, perhaps only makes more pronounced the deep religious feeling shown in them all.
It was long after the restoration of the building before the pictures were hung with any regard for lighting, school, or date of execution. As the years went on the original collection placed there by Napoleon was greatly augmented. Some of the newly acquired canvases were obtained by purchase, but a large number were gifts. Among those most generous in their donations were Girolamo Molin and Bernardo Renier. But it was not till 1895 that they were at length hung with some regard for system and chronology. As the gallery stands to-day it consists of twenty rooms, two corridors, and one so-called loggia. These are all in that part of the building once used as monastery except for two rooms which are in the church. The lower part of Santa Maria della Carità is now taken for the Academy art school.
In spite of the rearrangement of 1895, that there is still something to be done toward its betterment is evident. The unaccountable introduction of much earlier pictures into rooms containing principally works of the late Renaissance is evidence of the incompleteness of the scheme of placing. At the same time, if there is ever any excuse for the disregard of school and time in the hanging of a gallery, it is to be found here, rather than in almost any other of the world’s noted galleries. The Academy, to be sure, has pictures not only by paint-ers from all parts of Italy, but the Flemish, the Dutch, the German, and even the French schools are all represented. Yet it is safe to say that most students of art, as well as almost all travellers, pay scant attention to any but one of these schools. And this is not wholly because the foreign painters are in the main very poorly represented. Rather it is because the greatest painters of the Venetian Renaissance are here in the plenitude of their powers. And be the student’s or traveller’s stay in Venice ever so long there is never time for even the greatest of their masterpieces alone. Only in Venice can the Venetian painters be truly known, and only in the Academy can so many of them be seen together. If some of their supremest works are in the Ducal Palace, the Frari, San Giorgio Maggiore, or other church and palace, many of these in the Academy are hardly less beautiful, and in their variety and quantity furnish a truer estimate of the real scope of the art of their creators.
Like the city whose name christens this marvellous art of North Italy, the collection here is unique. It must be judged by different standards from those applied to the other schools of the Renaissance, as truly as Venice can be compared with no other city in the world. Like the Queen of the Adriatic herself, its beauty is its own beauty, transcending even in its limitations, enslaving even in its imperfections, till one forgets Michelangelo the giant, Leonardo the wizard, Raphael the pure spirit.
Paraphrasing St. Victor’s homage to Venice, it is, perhaps, not too much to say that the other schools have their admirers, the Venetian its lovers.