One of the few paintings that can be placed chronologically in Giorgione’s catalogue (ca. 1506) is the portrait of the Old Woman.
On a dark background there is an old woman, turned towards the observer, illuminated by warm light that comes from the left and separated from the real space by a railing.
All these characteristics, the background, the railing, the extreme realism of the figure, the posture, the scroll, the light, are clearly attributable to the Flemish tradition, which was interpreted by Giorgione, probably influenced by Antonello da Messina.
The psychological analysis is outstanding, and this was a novelty in Renaissance portraiture, in which the Venetian school distinguished itself particularly well.
The half-figure woman is represented with wrinkled skin and she is wearing a shabby pink dress, fringed white shawl and a cap with a few strands of white hair falling on the side of her face.
These details clearly suggest the humble origins of the character. The Old Woman is looking directly at the observer and she seems like she wants to say something: her mouth is half-open, the teary expression and the gesture of her right hand resting on her chest symbolizing “mea culpa”, referring to her pain, which is known thanks to the scroll on her hand.
The text says “col tempo” which can be seen as a warning about the destructive force of the time and the absoluteness of beauty’s transience. Certainly, this is one of the most frequent topics in the early 16th century Venetian lyric poetry and a debated philosophical theme in the refined elitist intellectual circles which Giorgione attended. In 1979 Ballarin suggested an alternative and more positive explanation.
According to the art historian, this was a sort of eulogy of the old age, a moment when all the pretention of the youth has vanished and turned into wisdom. However, this hypothesis didn’t receive great attention and the criticism still usually interprets the work as an allegorical portrait, a reflection of fading and the passage of time, where the woman is symbolizing the old age.
The subject seems distant to Giorgione’s production and it was initially attributed to another Venetian painter, Francesco Torbido (1482-1562). This modest attribution kept the work out of the eyes of criticism for years.
Only in 1949 the work was rediscovered, and by observing the technique, the splendid tonality which was typical of Giorgione and the stylistic similarity to the Tempest, the real origin of the canvas began to unfold, and it was confirmed by other important documentations.
For a while the work was thought to represent Giorgione’s mother because an inventory (1569) of the Vendramin collection mentioned the “portrait of the mother de Zorzon de man de Zorzon”.
The work is preserved in its original frame, although the coat of arms of the first owners (the Vendramin family) is not visible anymore, and it arrived to Gallerie dell’Accademia in 1856 through the Manfrin collection.
Giorgio da Castelfranco was born in the countryside of Castelfranco Veneto, near Treviso, in 1477.
Little is known of this artist known as Giorgione and his artistic career of which only 15 years has been scantly documented due to scarce resources of biographical information.
He arrived in Venice at young age and started to study in Bellini’s workshop, who were the most important painters of Venice at the time. His style was influenced by neo-classical Bolognese painting of Lorenzo Costa and Francesco Francia as well as the works of Pietro Perugino and Albrecht Dürer, who was staying in Venice between 1494 and 1495. Other than painter,
Giorgione was also a musician and poet and he attended the most cultural Venetian artistic circles. In these circles Giorgione met his most important clients who commissioned him works and portaits. Giorgione was ordered to carry out many public works such as the Sacred Conversation of Cathedral of Castelfranco Veneto in 1502. The altarpiece was surely influenced by Bellini, but it also represents the independent debut of the painter in his hometown after returning from Venice.
Giorgione became famous as a painter of large frescoes on walls or ceilings. He realized a painting for the Hall of Audiences in the Palazzo Ducale of Venice, which nowadays has been lost, and decorated with frescoes the façade of the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, which was commissioned by the Lordship of Venice, completed in December 1508. Today, the only remaining work of these frescoes is the so-called Nude, now kept in the Gallerie dell’Accademia of Venice.
The landscape always played an important role in Giorgione’s compositions. The series of Paesetti, small landscapes (Musei Civici of Padua, the National Gallery of Art and the Phillips Collection of Washington) are a perfect example of his skills. Other masterpieces of this period are the Tempest (1502) of the Gallerie dell’Accademia of Venice and the Sunset (1505-1508) of the National Gallery in London, works of uncertain meaning, where the characters are inserted in an idyllic natural landscape with bright and full colors. Among his works with complex meaning is also the Three Philosophers from 1505. The difficulties with interpretation are related to the complex demands of the buyers, who often ordered works with hidden symbols that would only open to them.
Most of his subjects are inspired by ancient mythology and literature. In 1506 he made his first and only autographed work, a portrait of a young woman called Laura (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna). Double portrait, first attributed to Pietro Bempo and then to Giorgione, is among the various portraits of young people still under discussion and conserved in the museums of Berlin and Budapest.
In 1508 Giorgione started to paint the Sleeping Venus for Girolamo Marcello, which was completed by Titian after Giorgione’s death. Today it is kept in Gemäldegalerie of Dresden. The canvas represents the sleeping goddess lying on a white blanket and surrounded by a landscape. This type of composition became very successful among the artists after him and it was used by great masters such as Titian, Lorenzo Lotto and Dosso Dossi.
Giorgione died of plague at young age in 1510.
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.