Walking around in the newly restored rooms of the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice, one is immediately confronted with a distinct smell of oil paint on a freshly gessoed canvas, but this scent comes from instead a specialized mixture of pulverized Istrian stone and latte di calcio to protect its century-old bricks from the lagoon’s abrasive salt and bouts of humidity. It is hard to keep in mind that this space was quite removed from far from the mass of tourists pouring over the nearby, Accademia bridge, seen poetically just outside of its many windows, which was actually constructed by the Austrians centuries later. The building of the Accademia itself dates back to 1343 C.E., when it acted as a Scuola, a charitable and religious organization within the Venetian community. It has a rich history and has served different purposes, especially when Napoleon transformed it into a place of study and encouraged the students to have access to the museum archives in its space.
Accademia Restorations, © Sarah Pierroz 2014
Speaking with the chief restorator of the Accademia, it becomes apparent that those working on it have been faced with many challenges: where to get the funds, how to keep the space financially sustainable after its renovation, how to refurbish found materials in a way which does not destroy them and honours both their memory and function, and how to unravel the stories which the stones tell so that they may also become a part of the space as the art which its archives will eventually come to fill. Combing these ideas with the vision of the modern, architect Scarpa, whose style of grey, geometric lines combined with the Accademia’s interior, its blank slates create an effect similar to placing a Mondrian design over a fresh white surface of possibility.
The challenges here are endless. The courtyard had to be dug out and a chamber below filled with all of the necessary machinery for regulating pumps and humidity guards, so that the building could breath and maintain its temperatures to face the unique problems which the lagoon waters bring. It is the only underground room set in the Venetian lagoon. The restorators also needed to protect the building against the lagoons rising waters, and so they built a secure wall around the perimeter of the structure, safely hidden nestled between its very walls, and they placed metal plates over some areas of brick to protect and preserve it historical surfaces underneath. The flooring also had to work with unique limitations of this environment and its rising salty water, while being easy to clean, nice to look at and preserving an antique look of Venetian artisans.
Ultimately the restoration here is about unraveling the story of the building, which still remain a mystery even after its completion. For example, in this space, Palladio was commissioned to build his first structure within the heart of the city centre. For one whose work was generally pushed to the city’s periphery, as on the Guidecca island, he curiously chose to make his work visible only in the building’s interior. Palladio was not trained as an architect formally, and spent his early years working wtih stone. He didn’t have the network or proper background to be an architect, and although his ideas were innovate, but he often found difficulty introducing them to the Venetian commission for approval. So, it is an elusive matter that now having his first secular commission, he formed a beautiful staircase and interior vaulted spaces but made nothing visible for onlookers from outside of the building. Was it resentment towards a Venice who would not accept him? We can never be sure.
Although one may start to uncover the story of the Accademia’s stones, the next step following the restoration is to understand how to display the gallery’s extensive archives; some of which have been closed up for centuries, and which have yet to be studied, and some which are acclaimed and just not on display, such as da Vinci’s Vitruvius Man. The building will soon pass into the hands of curators, and questions are now raised if they will be able to incorporate the history of the building when they show the works collected here. Will they go beyond the typical methodology of showing works in a chronological order? Will the museum curators be able to match the stones with the art hanging overtop of it? Will they even bother? This space, has many diverse interests to appease and balance. Will it reach a symbiosis of displaying art works and expressing the story and history of the actual buildings and rooms of the space? – a grand challenge for any historical restoration.