The gallery, founded in 1881, is housed in a building designed by Bazzani to house the exhibition (1911) celebrating the 50th anniversary of Italian unification. The collection, representing regional and foreign schools acquired at national exhibitions and the Venice Biennale, represented the best of 19th-century Italian art. It was expanded by donations and bequests (e.g. of Celentano and Balla) and acquisitions of Macchiaoli, Divisionists, Modigliani, Burri and Fontana. Under the direction of Venturi, Bucarelli and Argan it acquired international prestige thanks to a broader museography, with Picasso, Mondrian and Pollock exhibitions.
Although the advent of the Ministry of Culture deprived it of independence, acqusitions of the Transavanguardia movement and the promotion of young artists made it a museum of the 19th and 20th centuries.