Travel: The art treasures of Venice

The Palazzo Grassi, where the Damien Hirst show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is on display. Picture: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
The Palazzo Grassi, where the Damien Hirst show Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable is on display. Picture: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images
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August is the bicentennial of Venice’s Gallerie dell’Accademia opening to the public, so there is no better time to marvel at the city’s art treasures, writes Laura Millar

Art is expensive. Not just to buy, but, often, to produce. A case in point: I’m standing in front of a small collection of beautiful, pastel-drawn portraits by 17th century Venetian, Rococo painter, Rosalba Carriera, located in the bowels of her birthplace’s Accademia gallery. They’re warm and sumptuous in tone, depicting noblemen and women staring haughtily out of the frame, dressed in rich fabrics, confident in their wealth. But – “look closer,” entreats my guide, art historian Dr Caterina Nardin. “What’s missing?”

Hands, it turns out. In this particular cluster of likenesses, the subjects’ hands are never shown. “Too costly,” smiles Dr Nardin. “It would have cost more money to buy extra flesh-tinted pastels, and the intricacy involved meant each portrait would have taken longer to complete – and the longer it took, the longer you had to wait to get paid.” One can only assume that Carriera’s fortunes improved in later years, as many of her other portraits do include these particular appendages, but there’s no denying that art has always been a pricey business.

And most of the works on display here, at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, in one of Venice’s oldest buildings illustrate the theory. It’s home to an embarrassment of riches, by a range of some of the most prestigious and revered artists of the last few centuries, featuring names from Tintoretto, Titian and Tiepolo, to Pietro Longhi and Canaletto. Their artistic styles span Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance, and it’s perhaps not an exaggeration to say that many of them ultimately influenced the whole history of European painting.

I’ve come in advance of the anniversary, on 10 August, of 200 years since the Accademia first opened its doors to the public. The grandiose-sounding Accademia di Belle Arti di Venezia – the Royal Academy of Fine Arts – was originally founded in 1750, with the aim of schooling students with promise to become talented artists. But from the early 19th century, when Napoleon invaded the then Republic of Venice, it also became a safe depository for important religious and secular artworks, as the French emperor had started looting his way through the treasures of the city-state’s churches and palaces. As the collection grew, eventually, in 1879, the Gallerie dell’Accademia became an independent entity in its own right.

Today, it’s stuffed with Venetian art – the proviso being that the works were produced by artists who were from, or who lived in, Venice – dating from around the mid 13th century to the 19th. The artworks’ home is a handsome edifice, which used to belong to the Scuola Grande della Carita, one of the city’s six charitable “confraternities,” founded in 1260.

Ascending the stairs to the first, main room – originally the Scuola’s meeting hall – my eyes are drawn upwards to the vast, elaborately carved wooden ceiling, divided into hundreds of panels, each decorated with an eight-winged cherub, covered in gilt.

Commissioned by Ulisse Aliotto, secretary to Venice’s ruler, the Doge, in 1461, the cherubs are actually a pun on his surname – which means, literally, “eight wings”.

More gilt adorns the religious paintings which dot this room, as its shimmer and richness denoted spirituality; one of the most important works here is by Paolo Veneziano, which used to be housed in the church of Santa Chiara. A polyptych, or multi-panelled altarpiece, dating from 1350, it depicts beautifully-detailed scenes from the life of Christ. We move through another couple of rooms displaying works by acclaimed artists Giovanni Bellini, Giorgione, and Paolo Veronese. Brushstrokes are rendered in tempura or oils, colours varying from simple to lush, details from basic to intricate. It’s a magnificent collection, but on leaving the Accademia’s somewhat scholarly environs, I decide seek out a contrast.

My visit coincides with Venice’s 57th Biennale, the two-yearly international art exhibition, founded in 1895, which showcases work by artists from around the world. Most is shown in an assortment of formal pavilions, but several pieces and installations are scattered throughout the city. However, I head to an exhibition that’s not strictly part of the Biennale, but which has garnered so much notoriety – not least for the obscene amount it’s rumoured to have cost – that it demands to be seen.

For the British artist Damien Hirst, money, it would seem, is no object. His ambitious, somewhat excessive, staging, Treasures of the Wreck of the Unbelievable, apparently ten years in the making, imagines a hoard of nearly 200 ancient artefacts salvaged from the bottom of the sea, encrusted with shells and coral.

There are sculptures, statues, coins, elaborate carvings and more, fashioned in a variety of expensive materials, from marble to malachite, gold to bronze, crystal, jade and lapis lazuli. Many of the pieces are certainly striking – the first thing you’re faced with on entering one of the two galleries the exhibition is spread between is an 18m high bronze, headless figure, spanning three storeys, while in one of the rooms is a lifesize depiction of Andromeda, tied to a rock, with a monstrous shark rearing out of the sea to eat her. It’s one of the most eye-popping collections I’ve ever seen. Hirst – the man who spent £14 million creating a skull encrusted with more than 8,000 diamonds in 2007 – reckons he invested more than £50 million into his new project; whether it’s money well spent depends on your own perspective, and taste.

For some less showy, if equally valuable, modern art, head to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, housed in an elegant, white stone palazzo right on the Grand Canal.

Peggy was the socialite niece of the millionaire Solomon R Guggenheim, a collector of contemporary art who opened his first museum in New York in 1939, and she followed in his footsteps. The airy, modern interior of her former home is lined with impressive artworks from 20th century heavyweights such as Max Ernst, Magritte, Mondrian, Jackson Pollock and Picasso, and the gardens are scattered with sculptures – the ideal place to while away an hour or two.

As I make my way back to my hotel, the Venart, a lovingly restored, 16th century waterside mansion, by vaporetto – Venice’s efficient, and picturesque, water bus service – I spot an arresting sight just before the Ca’Doro stop; another public installation, called Support, by Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn, in the form of a giant pair of disembodied white hands, rising out of the canal and seeming to prop up a palazzo. It’s an apt bookend to a fascinating journey through Venice’s magnificent array of art.

Fact box: Three nights at Palazzo Venart including breakfast, return flights from Edinburgh, water taxi transfers and tickets to the Accademia, Guggenheim or Doge’s Palace costs from £1,567pp with Kirker Holidays, kirkerholidays.com; The Gallerie del’Accademia is open daily, €12, ww.gallerieaccademia.org; The Venice Art Biennale runs until 26 November, labiennale.org; Treasures From the Wreck of the Unbelievable runs until 3 December at Palazzo Grassi, palazzograssi.it; an exhibition of Canaletto’s works, Canaletto and the Art of Venice, is currently on display until 12 November at the Royal Collection, London, royalcollection.org.uk