The painting is considered the first one representing this theme for the artist, depicting a Sacred Conversation, a spiritual dialogue between Madonna with Child and the Saints. The Virgin has Saint John the Baptist by her side, Jesus’ cousin who can be recognized for his long hair and beard, and especially for the long cane with a cross he is holding in his hand which represents one of his attributes. On her left, there is a female saint who can not be fully identified because she has no symbols, but it has been suggested by the critics that she might represent Mary Magdalene or Catherine of Alexandria.
The figures are portrayed in three-quarter size behind a dark marble balustrade, in which the artist has signed the work in the middle, as he often did with his painting. The Baptist has a reclining face with a melancholic gaze, and he is looking at the child who Mary is holding on her knee, as if she wanted to show him to the observer. She also has a reclining head and her eyes, like her sweet features, reflect profound sadness. The saint seems to express the same pain, even if she seems more detached and absorbed in her thoughts. In fact, the three figures show great sadness for the future of little Jesus, destined to the Passion and the supreme sacrifice for the salvation of men, to which the saint refers with her gesture, crossing her hands on her chest, as well as the feet of the Child, which are put in the same position as when he will be crucified.
These solid figures have a river landscape behind them with a fortified city, a port, a village and blue mountains that slowly disappear in the background. It is apparently only ordinary landscape background which some have recognized as the city of Ancona. In fact, there are many symbols of the Virgin in the background, such as the fortress, which symbolizes unassailability, or incorruptibility of the virtues of Mary.
The painting has been estimated to date around 1504, when Bellini had by then abandoned the harsh style of his early works and began to paint solid but at the same time sweet figures, taking example from the works of Venetian painters of the beginning of the century, such as Titian and especially Giorgione. In this work Bellini tries to overcome the 15th-century approach of the figures where they overlap the landscape in a clear way, without yet succeeding to obtain the soft fusion of the two elements, which was typical of Giorgione’s work and Venetian painting of the early 16th century. Bellini finally succeeded in this with the altarpiece of San Zaccaria from 1505 (Venice, Church of San Zaccaria). However, this work is very high quality also for its limpid brightness, created by the low sun on the horizon that brightens the sky and the landscape and the light from another source that illuminates the figures and their brightly colored rich robes.
The work is also known as the Sacred Conversation Giovanelli because it belonged to the princes Giovanelli, who donated it to Gallerie dell’Accademia in 1926.
Bellini was born in Venice probably around 1430. He studied with his brother Gentile and his father Jacopo, who were known artists, but he also showed interest in Vivarini and especially in the work of his brother-in-law, Andrea Mantegna. He went to Padua from 1443 to 1453 where he was influenced by Donatello’s work, which can be seen in his works made in the 1460s with shallow lines in landscapes and figures and with bright and polished colours. Among them are the altarpiece of San Vincenzo Ferreri (SS. Giovanni and Paolo), the Crucifixion and the Transfiguration (Museum Correr), the Prayer in the Garden (National Gallery, London) and juvenile paintings of Madonna and Child and Pietà.
Bellini often softened the forms and preferred less harsh tones of colours, which can be seen in the altarpiece of Pesaro (Coronation of the Virgin, Museo Civico) of 1475. During this period, he also painted the Madonnas of Brera and Santa Maria dell’Orto, the Transfiguration of Capodimonte (1480 - 85) and the altarpiece of San Giobbe (1480) the Triptych of Frari (1488) where you can already see some typical 16th-century influences. The composition is large and solemn, peaceful and sweet, before the works of San Zaccaria (Madonna in the throne with saints, 1505) and San Giovanni Crisostomo (St. Jerome, 1513) where the form and colours are inspired by the works of Giorgione and Titian.
Bellini died in Venice in 1516.
The Accademia of Venice was founded in 1750 and the opening of the Gallerie dell’Accademia was linked to it with primarily educational purpose: in 1803 a decree established the need to adjoin a gallery next to the school that was used by the students who studied painting and sculpting.
In 1817 the gallery was opened also to the public. The gallery is located in the area of Dorsoduro, down by the Accademia bridge, in a complex including the church of Santa Maria della Carità, the Canonici Lateranensi convent and the Scuola Grande of Santa Maria della Carità, all situated in a single floor, divided into twenty-fours and covering 5537 square meters.
The first section of the collection includes the Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple and the Pietà by Titian (1538) and the Triptych of the Madonna della Carità by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1480).
The collection also includes essays by the students of the academy and a collection of plaster casts (hence the plural name, gallerie) which were put on display in the exhibition with success in 1817.
The collection was enriched with the paintings brought from defeated France and with the masterpieces that were left to the museum by great collectors. However, the paintings were always linked to the Venetian culture and this feature was tried to overcome for the whole 20th century. Among these works was the legacy of Felicita Reiner (in 1833, but only formalized in 1850), which included masterpieces such as Piero della Francesca’s St. Jerome, Giovanni Bellini’s Madonna and Child and Saints Catherine and Mary Magdalene. The legacy of Girolamo Contarini (1838) included 180 works, among them Madonna of the Small Trees and the Four Allegories by Bellini, and six paintings by Pietro Longhi.
The emperor Franz Joseph grew the collection with Nicolò di Pietro’s Madonna and Mantegna’s St. George, Memling’s Portrait of a Young Man and Giorgione’s Old Woman. The gallery was radically reorganized in 1895 by the director Giulio Cantalamessa. He excluded all the 19th century artists and for the first time the exhibition was organized chronologically. He coordinated the cycles of the School of St. Ursula by Vittore Carpaccio and the School of St. John the Evangelist by Cima da Conegliano, previously divided in various locations. Under the direction of Gino Fogolari (1905) the museum acquired other fundamental masterpieces, such as the Tempest by Giorgione and the Crucifixion by Luca Giordano and the Feast at the House of Simon by Bernardo Strozzi.
In the post-war period the museum performed various changes, for example Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin, which was supposed to be placed in a specially designed room, was returned to the Frari church in Venice instead. The 19th century works that were already excluded from the exhibition were sent to the deposit at the museum of Modern Art in Ca’ Pesaro and the foreign art in the Galleria Giorgio Franchetti in Ca’ d’Oro. In the 1940s’ Vittorio Moschini and Carlo Scarpa wanted to perform a modern reorganization of the museum, including the 19th century salons, but which resulted quite impractical in the end. In these years Francesco Guardi’s Fire in the Oil Depot of San Marcuola and Montagna’s St. Peter and Donor became part of the collection.
In 1987 director Sciré decided to increase the exhibition space opening the gallery on the fourth floor with the graphic collection and a new deposit was opened on the top floor of the Palladio building. In the same year the collection was enriched with two cherubs and two allegorical figures representing Justice and Patience, taken from Giorgio Vasari’s ceiling in a room of Palazzo Corner on the Grand Canal. Between 2001-2003 the gallery was renovated expanding the exhibition areas and adding modern lightning in the rooms.