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The Art Enthusiast’s Guide to Touring Italy

Vatican Museums hallway

It’s pretty common knowledge that Italy is the world’s top travel destination from an art perspective. The entire country is virtually an open air art museum: ancient ruins, natural beauty, stunning architecture and icons of Christianity pop up everywhere you look. If you’re looking to soak up history, culture and art all in one place, look no further than this amazing Southern European nation.

Italy is never lacking in artistic attractions. In fact, the Vatican museums alone have enough treasures to literally keep you occupied for months if you take the time to look at the pieces for just a minute each. If you add in all the historical sites, churches, galleries and buildings in other Italian cities, you can stay in the country for years and still not see everything its artists have to offer.

Considering the country’s vast artistic attractions, the biggest challenge when visiting Italy is prioritization. Knowing exactly where to go and what to look for is a crucial ingredient in achieving a holistic trip without spending time on every single spot where art is found. Some places are just better than others, and that’s what this article is about. We’re here to give you the art enthusiast’s guide to touring Italy so you can methodically explore the country’s greatest art offerings in a reasonable time frame.

Rome

Italy’s capital city is one of the best places to discover incredible artwork by some of the world great masters at no cost at all.  The city’s many Catholic churches are a great place to start your art appreciation journey. Churches like the Santa Maria del Popolo, San Luigi dei Francesi and Sant’Agostino churches let you  take in the dark and moody works of Caravaggio.

Rome is also filled with the works of Baroque pioneer, Gian Lorenzo Bernini; head to the Ponte d’Angeli leading to the Castel Sant’Angelo, Piazza Navona and Santa Maria della Vittoria for some of the most striking examples of his work. If however, you’re more of a Michelangelo fan, stand at the center of the ancient world in the Piazza de Campolglio designed by the master in the mid-1500s. The statue of Moses inside the church of Saint Peter in Chains was commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1513 and it took him two years to sculpt.

Vatican Museums

If you only have time for one museum in Rome, make it this one. There is more art housed here than you could possibly see in many lifetimes, so it’s well advised to do a bit of research. This allows you to plan on what you wish to see. Depending on what day or time of the year it is, some rooms and exhibits may be closed.

There is so much more here than the magnificent frescoes on the Sistine Chapel, created by Michelangelo at the height of the Renaissance period. There are Etruscan and ancient Roman treasures, too. These items may not be as popular as Renaissance masterworks, but they’re equally fascinating. Also of note is the Raphael room is filled with multicolored frescoes and mosaicked floors. The Gallery of maps is a fascinating look at the different regions of Italy through larger-than-life, centuries-old frescoes.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling’s most famous panel

Often overlooked or sped through on the race to the Sistine Chapel is the contemporary art collection that the museums hold.  Works by Matisse, Van Gogh, and Picasso just to name are on display there, and provide a refreshing counterpoint to the more Renaissance-centric works housed by the many museums.

The Galleria Borghese

Galleria Borghese - Tour Italy Now

Located just inside the green and tranquil Villa Borghese, the Galleria Borgese is a treasure chest of beauty. You will find 4th century mosaics, Bernini sculptures that seem practically alive, a stunning Canova sculpture of Paolina Bonaparte Borghese, and impressive Raphael’s. The floor area of the villa, once owned by Cardinal Scipione Borghese in the 16th century, is a manageable size and has timed tickets that best reserved ahead.

Assisi

If your interest is in art that reflects Italian artistic development then a visit to Assisi is definitely in order. Assisi, which is located in the picturesque Umbrian region, is home to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi. Of particular interest are the frescoes found in the upper basilica.

Assisi, Italy: Basilica of St. Francis

These frescoes have been attributed to both Cimabue and Giotto and are a great representation of the development of Italian art. Provenance aside these frescoes is also an incredible experience that should not be missed.

Florence

The Renaissance city of Florence is one of the world’s greatest art locales. Brunelleschi’s brick-red dome and Giotto’s striking bell tower are just the beginning. In the Piazza Signoria, you can view imposing statues of Hercules,Perseus and Medusa. There is also an exact replica of the David if you are saving your pennies. The sculpture-filled, open air Loggia dei Lanzihas important works from the Renaissance and ancient Rome.

Galleria degli Uffizi

The Uffizi Galleries | Tour Italy Now

This museum holds one of what might be the most important Renaissance art collections in the world. Once the private collection of the powerful Florentine Medici family, the Uffizi became a museum during the late 1500’s. One of the most popular works in the gallery is the spectacular painting, Primavera, by Sandro Botticelli. The labyrinth of rooms filled with works by Lippi, Da Vinci, Giotto and Perugino will leave you breathless. You can make the most of the euros spent on your entrance ticket by downloading the Uffizi Art History app or Kindle guide that provides an explanation and context for each important piece in the gallery.

Venice

The watery city of Venice, with its dilapidated beauty, offers a vast array of exciting contemporary works of art. Inside the striking 18th century canal side palazzo is the Peggy Guggenheim collection, a multitude of 20th century art. If you’re visiting during a Biennale year (the next one will be in 2015), Campos, gardens, churches and palazzos are transformed into installation spaces. It’s not all modern art in Venice. Stop in the Church of San Zaccariato see Tintoretto’s and Tiepolo’s for free. The triple-tiered Ca’ Rezzonico palazzois the only place in Venice where you can see a work by Canaletto. Alternatively, you could seek out the exact spots, most of which are in the Grand Canal, St Mark’s Square and the Rialto bridge where the great artist painted his dreamy interpretations of this incredible city.

Milan

One of the world’s most famous paintings can be found in the fashion and business city of Milan. Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper was painted on an enormous canvas measuring 15 x 29 feet and was completed in 1498. It’s currently located in the  dining hall of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie. Take note of what is arguably the finest example of one point perspective.  Only about 20 people at a time are allowed to view the painting for a brief 15 minutes. Tickets to visit this masterpiece can be booked in advance.

Leonardo's Last Supper - Santa Maria delle Grazie

Naples

This bustling city of Naples in the shadow of the infamous Mt. Vesuvius is where you will find one of the fiendish genius Caravaggio’s most important works. The small Pious Mount of Mercy Church has been the home of the Acts of Seven Mercy since the 1600’s. The Museo Cappella Sansevero is home to the Veiled Truth, a remarkable statue created by the Venetian sculptor Antonio Corradini. It is almost impossible to believe that the transparent veil is carved from solid marble and not a cloth elegantly draped across the sculpture.

Also, an exciting new development is happening underground in Naples.  Some of the metro stations have commissioned well-known contemporary artists to create works down there. The myriad of micro glass tiles in the Toledo station is a blue wonder and it’s a taste of things to come.

On that note, we’ll stop so you can digest everything that was outlined in this post. We’ve only started to scratch the surface on what Italy has to offer as far as art is concerned, but even the most comprehensive of blog posts will fail to do the real thing justice. The best way to really get a feel of Italian art is to take the plunge and visit soon. Use this outline for your trip and we guarantee that it’s one you’ll never forget. Ciao!

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By Priscila Siano (262 Posts)

+Priscila Siano is the Marketing Director of Tour Italy Now, an online tour operator specializing in Italy travel. She's a respected expert on making dream Italy vacations a reality for clients.

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