ACCADEMIA ART GALLERY, VENICE
If you only make time for one museum in Venice, make it the Accademia. The collections cover the giants of Venetian painting from the 13th to the 18th centuries, and are housed in the gallery space of Venice's Accademia della Belle Arte (Academy of Fine Arts), established in 1750 in the former Scuola della Carità chapter house and convent attached to the (reconsecrated) Santa Mariadella Carità church.
Since this is, technically, an art school (its second director was late baroque master of the swirling-heavenly-clouds ceiling fresco, Giambattista Tiepolo), and since chronologically is how they've long taught art, that means your visit to the galleries starts off in the 14th century with the likes of Paolo Veneziano's Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece, continues through Giorgione's weirdly lit The Tempest, and Giovanni Bellini's many Madonna and Child, and ends with Carpaccio's intricate Cycle of St. Ursula and Titian's late Pietà.
Tintoretto's The Stealing of St. Mark commemorates the Venetian merchants who, in 828, spirited the body of the famed saint and Evangelist away from Alexandria during an era when acquiring bona fide saints was vouge for relic hunters and Italy's hyper-competitive maritime capitals competed to see who could steal the best saint then build a cathedral around his bones.
(In 1087 Bari, in Apulia, countered by nicking the 4th century Turkish bishop St. Nicola di Myra, a.k.a. St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus. In 1206, Amalfi entered the fray by taking home the bones of St. Andrew after the Sack of Constantinople.)
The Tintoretto painting is, obviously, a bit fanciful, depicting the long-dead saint as a fresh, rather muscular corpse being borne in the arms of the Venetian thieves—er, "borrowers." The real story is a bit grislier.
According to legend, the merchants smuggled the Evangelist's remains in a barrel of pickled pig parts—cleverly banking on the fact that Muslim proscription against even touching pork would help them slip through inspections. (check out the mosaics on Saint Marks Church to see another example of the story)
Here's another fun art anecdote at the Accademia: When Paolo Veronese unveiled his enormous painting The Lord's Last Supper in 1573, it was shocking not only for its size (at 42 feet long, one of the largest canvases of the 16th century), but also for its rather racy depiction of our Lord and Savior and his buddies. The artist had portrayed this holiest of moments as a rousing, drunken banquet that resembled paintings of Roman orgies.
The rising puritanism of the Inquisition had a conniption, and the church promptly charged the painter with irreverence—and threatened to indict him on the very serious charge of heresy. Veronese quickly re-titled the work Feast in the House of Levi—a scene that still had Jesus in it, but a Jesus surrounded by secular guests who were free to engage in acts of gluttony—and the mollified censors let it pass.
Tips for visiting the Accademia Galleries
Check to see if they have reintroduced the combined "3 Museums" admission ticket for €11 covering the Accademia (normally €6.50), Ca' d'Oro (€5), and the OrientalArt Museum in Ca' Pesaro (€5.50). That third one is only of minor interest, but the other two are top sights, and the combo ticket saves you even if you just visit those two—consider the Asian art a freebie bonus. (If you're booking ahead of time, as explained to the left, you can specify this ticket). This was suspended in late 2010, but may resurface.
- Planning your day: It'll take you a good 90 minutes to three hours to peruse this vast collection of masterpieces by color-obsessed Venetian artists. Note: The last entry to the museum is at 6:30pm (1:15pm on Mondays).
- Book ahead: Fire regulations mean they limit the number of visitors inside, which can sometimes translate into long waits to get in—especially in summer when you can might wait in line for anywhere from 20 to 45 minutes. That makes it well worth the €1 fee to reserve your entry time, either by calling the main number (above to the right) or via the official website www.gallerieaccademia.org.
- They'll force you to check your daypack—officially only if is it's more than 10x30x15 cm (4x12x6 inches), but in my experience they flag anything larger than a small purse—and charge you €0.50 for this "service."
- European citizens under 18 and over 65 get in free; those age 18–25 at half-price.
- Audio tours are available for €5; two can save by sharing a tour (with two headsets) for €7.