A trip to Italy, from museum to museum
Italy has been the cultural destination par excellence ever since the days of the 18th-century ‘Grand Tour’. According to Unesco, Italy’s historical and artistic heritage – rooted in Imperial Rome and elevated in the Renaissance – accounts for about half of all that exists in the world. As a young country (it was formed in 1870) consisting of 20 distinct regions, its personality creates fascinating contrasts ranging from the hilltops of Tuscany to the Alpine peaks of the north and the chaotic streets of Naples, coming to rest in more than 1,500 museums. In fact, Italy’s top exhibition spaces are worthy of a trip all by themselves.
According to Unesco, Florence has the greatest concentration of world-renowned works of art in the world. This accumulation of beauty – which caused Stendhal to swoon in the Church of Santa Croce – finds its epicentre in the Uffizi Gallery, the most visited museum in Italy. This U-shaped palace dating back to 1560 has the largest existing collection of Italian Renaissance art on display. You can stroll through a room containing the masterpieces of Botticelli (such as The Birth of Venus or Primavera) or contemplate the diptych of The Duke and Duchess of Urbino by Piero della Francesca, the Venus of Urbino by Titian and Raphael’s Madonna of the Goldfinch. The other place where tourists go to be amazed is the Accademia Gallery, founded in 1563 as the first European school of the arts. It is home to paintings and wood sculptures, but what draws everyone’s attention is the 5m David sculpted by Michelangelo at the age of 29.
A crossroad in the country’s north, Milan is famous for its financial institutions and fashions – its streets are adorned with tailor-made suits and haute couture. If there is anything that balances this materialistic soul, it is the grandiose beauty of the city’s Duomo (a visit to the top is a must) and its two most delightful museums: the Ambrosiana and Brera picture galleries. The Ambrosiana gallery is home to the stunning collections of Cardinal Borromeo, with paintings by Da Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Tiepolo and Caravaggio. It also has 30,000 marvellous manuscripts, such as a fifth-century illustrated Iliad, works by Leonardo and an early edition of the Divine Comedy. The Pinacoteca di Brera is in an imposing 17th-century building with 38 exhibition rooms displaying works by Della Francesca, Mantegna, Canaletto, Bellini, Tintoretto, Caravaggio and even avant-garde artists such as Modigliani.
In no Italian city are museums as much of a refuge as they are in Naples. The best way to escape from the city’s noise and magnificent chaos is a visit to the Archaeological Museum, where visitors can regain a sense of serenity by contemplating the world’s largest collection of Greco-Roman art located on the decumanus, the area where these two civilisations existed, one succeeding the other. Behind its doors are the most important mosaics and murals rescued from Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as an extraordinary collection of ancient Farnese sculptures.
Rome is so overwhelming that perhaps we can only catch a glimpse of its cultural wealth in its main museums. The world’s oldest public exhibition space (dating from 1471), the Capitoline Museums contain Rome’s history in sculpture, along with masterpieces by Tintoretto, Rubens and Caravaggio. The stunning corridor that connects their two palaces offers unique views of the Forum. The Museum of Roman Civilisation contains reproductions of the greatest archaeological milestones of the Roman Empire. To get some idea of it, the average height of the rooms in this space is ten metres, its recreations are so meticulous that are considered works of art, and its façades are recreated on a scale of 1:1. Another must-see is the Galleria Borghese, a lovely 17th-century villa containing the capital’s most prominent Renaissance works of art. Its treasures include refined surprises such as the fourth-century mosaic that greets visitors and leads to sculptures by Bernini – such as the supernatural Apollo and Daphne – and to John the Baptist by Caravaggio.
Set against a backdrop of Alpine peaks, no one might expect Turin to be the home of the largest collection of Egyptian antiquities after Cairo. The more than 5,000 pieces of the Egyptian Museum located in the Jesuits’ 16th-century Baroque Collegio dei Nobili are an anomaly created by a man from Piedmont in the Napoleonic era. There are documents such as the Turin Royal Canon – which lists the pharaohs and everyday items such as fishing and hunting gear – granite sculptures of the pharaohs and even rebuilt temples. The city where Fiat was founded in 1899 is also home to a stunning Automobile Museum featuring more than 150 unique pieces, such as the first petrol car made in Italy and the 1929 car that Gloria Swanson travelled in when she appeared Sunset Boulevard. Another interesting option is the National Film Museum, which covers the history of Italian and international cinema, early experiments, posters, in excess of 12,000 films and more.
In a city that is in itself a museum, it makes sense that one of the most interesting spaces is the Museo Correr, a municipal exhibition that covers the history of Venice from its creation to its union with Italy in the 19th century. Its rooms include a heart-rending Pietà by Bellini, everyday Venetian scenes painted by Carpaccio and high-heeled shoes from centuries ago. The Gallerie dell’Accademia exhibits Venetian art from the Byzantine to the Rococo eras. Its hundreds of masterpieces include Giorgione’s The Tempest and Veronese’s unusual Last Supper. The International Gallery of Modern Art also deserves a visit if only because of its location in the Baroque palace of the Ca’Pesaro on the banks of the Grand Canal. Its rooms contain works by Morandi, Miró, Kandinsky, Rouault, Matisse and Klee.