How the Accademia Gallery in Venice was born
The year the Accademia gallery in Venice was born was devastating. In 1807 Napoleon’s troops looted the city. Guilds and brotherhoods were closed down and spoiled. Church properties were secularised. And wonderful works of art left Venice to be brought to Paris.
At the same time, Napoleon decreed that the Fine arts school would be renamed Accademia delle Belle Arti. Together with a school to study the nude, a statuary hall and a library, the Accademia statute included a painting gallery “al comodo di chi si esercita a dipingere” (to help those who train in painting). Quite ironic to read the final goal was to improve the arts in which “Italians excelled above the other countries” while that art was being looted for the Louvre museum collections.
The return of the rescued art works to Venice
It was not before 1815 when Napoleon was defeated and the Hapsburgs brought back to Venice the plundered art that Leopoldo Cicognara, the president of the Accademia, rearranged a rebirth with an unexpected twist. I guess also for the Austrians.
Cicognara together with Antonio Canova, started working at a very ambitious project, against all odds, involving a young promising painter born in Venice, Francesco Hayez. The Accademia gallery and its school had to become the engine for the promotion of the glorious past of Venice as well as the cradle for contemporary artistic achievements. While arranging a collection of the great masters of the past, Cicognara made sure that young painters would be sent to Rome to be educated, under the supervision of Antonio Canova.
A school and the neoclassical movement
Financial support, working opportunities and more. Canova made sure the scholars, during their years spent studying in Rome, were receiving the necessary aid to grow artistically. The ancient art of the Greek and Roman classical tradition would be the track to follow to design the future of the arts.
But not just. The neoclassical movement was a constant confrontation with the ancient past that went beyond a matter of aesthetics ideals. While in contact with the past art and meeting artists from all over Europe, the young painters in Rome were asked to define a new artistic language that identified Italy. When Italy was not politically there yet.
A political decay and foreign domination, on one side. And two men, Leopoldo Cicognara and the living myth Antonio Canova, and a young artist, Francesco Hayez, on the other side that saw in the cultural promotion of the country a vehicle to re-gain the artistic and possibly political primate that the country had once enjoyed and had lost afterwards.
Promoting Venetian arts and crafts
It’s also quite clear how any chance was taken to promote these artists and the Venetian crafts. When the Austrian Emperor Francis I married with Caroline Augusta of Bavaria, the Venetian regions were asked to pay a large tribute in money. Cicognara offered instead the works by Venetian artists that expressed the excellence of the crafts and artistic production of the contemporary time. Including the Musa Polimnia by Antonio Canova, a table decorated in enamels by Giuseppe Borsato and more. I see some marketing strategy, here!
Not to mention that important art collectors set in Venice, first of all Giacomo Treves dei Bonfili, that belonged to the Jewish elite of the city, did their best to promote contemporary artists as much as invested considerable capital in promoting commerce and economic growth of the city.
A controversial relationship between the Accademia in Venice and Brera in Milan
While Canova and Hayez were in Rome, Cicognara was working hard to make sure the Accademia gallery would feature the best art works. Apparently the creation of the painting gallery was really challenging. Also because the gallery of the Accademia of Brera in Milan kept many of the works originally from Venice. Works by Bellini, Mantegna, Carpaccio and more were not returned. But, it’s quite unclear how comes that a wonderful collection of drawings was instead acquired by the Venetian museum, the Bossi collection.
The Vitruvian Man by Leonardo da Vinci at the Accademia gallery in Venice
Giuseppe Bossi had been the secretary of the Accademia of Brera between 1801 and 1807. He died quite young in 1815 and his collection of extraordinary drawings was not of interest to the Milanese museum, some say, because the museum disliked Bossi. Whatever reason brought Venice to acquire these drawings, Cicognara managed to bring to Venice masterpieces by Raphael, Parmigianino, Andrea Mantegna, Rembrandt van Rijn and the best known drawing by Leonardo Da Vinci, the Vitruvian Man. Too bad that the drawing cannot be exhibited to the Accademia gallery visitors as it’s too fragile, but it seems quite iconic that a drawing about the relation between the ideal human proportions, the architecture classical orders and mathematics has become the invisible image of this museum.
The death of Canova
All this happened in around seven years. Starting in 1815 when the art works came back to Venice till 1822 when Antonio Canova died. Hayez then abandoned Venice and moved to Milan to embrace romanticism. Cicognara left the position at the Accademia Fine Arts School in 1827.
One last work recalls the excellence of those years that definitely prepared the Risorgimento, the uprising for liberty all over the Italian peninsula. And that’s the monument for Canova’s heart in the Frari church strongly promoted by his friend Cicognara in 1827. The arts mourn, the angel turns the torch off but the question if darkness is now to prevail is left open as the door to eternity.
by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy
Till the 2nd of April, 2018 don’t miss the exhibition at the Accademia Gallery in Venice “Canova, Hayez and Cicognara, The Last Glory of Venice”