The Galleria dell’Accademia is one of the finest specialist collections of European art, following the history of Venetian painting from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries. With San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, the Accademia completes the triad of obligatory tourist sights in Venice, but admissions are presently restricted to batches of 300 people at a time, so queues can be huge in high season. This situation will change when the gallery takes over the renovated ground-floor and basement rooms of the convent buildings, an expansion which has entailed moving the art college to the nearby Casa degli Incurabili. When this huge rebuilding project is completed, the Accademia will have space not just for the scores of paintings currently held in storage, but also for large-scale one-off exhibitions. The upper-storey galleries of the new Accademia will also have a somewhat different layout than the one given below.

The early Renaissance

The gallery is laid out in a roughly chronological succession of rooms going anticlockwise. The first room at the top of the stairs is the fifteenth-century assembly room of the Scuola della Carità, whose church and convent the gallery now occupies. This has works by the earliest known Venetian painters, of whom Paolo Veneziano (from the first half of the fourteenth century) and his follower Lorenzo Veneziano are the most absorbing.

Room 2 moves on to works from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, with large altarpieces that are contemplative even when the scenes are far from calm. Carpaccio’s strange and gruesome Crucifixion and Glorification of the Ten Thousand Martyrs of Mount Ararat (painted around 1512) and his Presentation of Jesus in the Temple accompany works by Giovanni Bellini and Cima da Conegliano.

In the next room you can observe the emergence of the characteristically Venetian treatment of colour, but there’s nothing here as exciting as the small paintings in rooms 4 and 5, a high point of the collection. As well as an exquisite St George by Mantegna and a series of Giovanni Bellini Madonnas, this section contains Giorgione’s enigmatic Tempest.

The High Renaissance

Rooms 6 to 8 introduce some of the heavyweights of High-Renaissance Venetian painting: TintorettoTitian and Lorenzo Lotto. Room 10 is dominated by epic productions, and an entire wall is filled by Paolo Veronese’s Christ in the House of Levi. Originally called The Last Supper, this picture provoked a stern reaction from the Court of the Holy Office: “Does it appear to you fitting that at our Lord’s last supper you should paint buffoons, drunkards, Germans, dwarfs, and similar indecencies?” Veronese responded simply by changing the title, which made the work acceptable. The pieces by Tintoretto in here include three legends of St Mark: St Mark Rescues a Slave (1548), which was the painting that made his reputation, The Theft of the Body of St Mark and St Mark Saves a Saracen (both 1560s). Tintoretto’s love of physical and psychological drama, the energy of his brushstrokes, and the sometimes uncomfortable originality of his colours and poses, are all displayed in this group. Opposite is Titian’s last painting, a Pietà intended for his own tomb in the Frari.

The eighteenth century

Room 11 contains a number of works by Giambattista Tiepolo, the most prominent painter of eighteenth-century Venice, including two shaped fragments rescued from the Scalzi (1743–45) and The Translation of the Holy House of Loreto (1743), a sketch for the same ceiling. There’s also more from Tintoretto; the Madonna dei Tesorieri (1566) shows facial types still found in Venice today.

The following stretch of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings isn’t too enthralling – the highlights are a trio of small Canalettos, accompanied by Guardi’s impressionistic views of Venice, Pietro Longhi’s documentary interiors and a series of portraits by Rosalba Carriera, all in room 17.

The Vivarinis, the Bellinis and Carpaccio

The top part of the Carità church now forms room 23, which houses works mainly from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, the era of two of Venice’s most significant artistic dynasties, the Vivarini and Bellini families. The extraordinary Blessed Lorenzo Giustinian by Gentile Bellini is one of the oldest surviving Venetian canvases, and was possibly used as a standard in processions, which would account for its state.

There’s more from Gentile over in room 20, which is entirely filled by the cycle of The Miracles of the Relic of the Cross, a cycle of pictures painted around 1500 for the Scuola di San Giovanni Evangelista. All of the paintings are replete with fascinating local details, but particularly rich are Gentile Bellini’s Recovery of the Relic from the Canale di San Lorenzo and Procession of the Relic in the Piazza, and Carpaccio’s Cure of a Lunatic. The next room contains a complete cycle of pictures by Carpaccio illustrating the Story of St Ursula, painted for the Scuola di Sant’Orsola at San Zanipolo (1490–94). The sequence depicts the legend of Ursula, a Breton princess, who undertook a pilgrimage with a company of 11,000 virgins, which ended with their massacre by the Huns.

Finally, in room 24 (the former hostel of the Scuola), there’s Titian’s Presentation of the Virgin (dating from 1539). It was painted for the place where it hangs, as was the triptych by Antonio Vivarini and Giovanni d’Alemagna (1446).