Continuing with my winter theme ″Why I keep coming back to Italy″ …
You don’t have to be an art historian or even an authority to appreciate the abundance of art treasures found everywhere in Italy. Whether you prefer Greek and Roman sculpture, modern art or the masterpieces of the Renaissance, you’ll find more than you can imagine in Italy. Don’t try to see everything in one visit. This is one reason I keep coming back. There’s so much to enjoy and explore.
Art is everywhere in Italy. Visit any major city and you’ll have a long list of museums, monuments, archeological sites and churches on your itinerary. Walk around the city and enjoy the street art, garden sculpture, fountains and monuments for free. Even the architecture is adorned with art. Almost every piazza is a showcase for public art—whether it’s a major piazza in Rome, such as Piazza Navona with Bernini’s Fountain of Four Rivers or the smaller piazza della Minerva with Bernini’s elephant at the base of an Egyptian obelisk, you are bound to find something wondrous to see.
The popular guidebooks are a good resource for visiting the major museums. Follow their advice about making reservations in advance and consider using the museums cards that most major cities offer. However, if you plan to visit just a few museums, it’s not always worth the price of a card. Use the museum websites to make the best use of your time and reserve your tickets in advance. You don’t want to waste your precious travel time standing in a long line.
Besides the major museums, keep your eyes open for special exhibits in the Palazzos and Villas. The local Tourist Information centers will also have information about these temporary shows. One of my favorite venues is the Palazzo Strozzi in Florence. Opened in 2004, this Renaissance Palace hosts three high quality exhibits each year. I stumbled upon American Impressionists one year. Another time I found an exhibit of John Singer Sargent in a palazzo in Venice. Since these exhibits are not permanent, they won’t be listed in the guidebooks. At these venues you won’t be in a crowded room with tourists—just a few Italians and you.
There are many examples of great art “in situ” in the numerous churches of Italy. Of course St. Peter’s Basilica has many of the masterpieces—Michelangelo’s Pietà and Bernini’s massive Baldachino, the world’s largest bronze structure. If you get there early in the morning, you can avoid the lines.
But many smaller churches have impressive works of art, too—and in most cases, there’s no entrance fee. In Rome, the small Santa Maria della Minerva, near the Pantheon is one of my favorites. Inside you will find Michelangelo’s statue, Cristo della Minerva, several busts and works of Bernini and beautiful frescoes of Filippino Lippi. In the larger Santa Maria del Popolo Church, there are works of Raphael and Caravaggio, whose stark realism and use of light makes him one of my favorites. Close to the Termini Train Station you can find the St. Peter in Chains church with the famous chain replica and the statue of Moses by Michelangelo. Although these churches are not as well lit as a museum, take awhile to acclimate and enjoy these works of art with almost nobody else around.
The major and minor churches in almost any large city are like a small museum with wonderful religious art. But even the churches of the smaller towns are worth a visit. On the tiny island of Ortigia, in Sicily, visit the small church of Santa Lucia to view the wonderful Burial of Saint Lucy by Caravaggio. In southern Italy, don’t miss the intricate mosaic floors of Santa Maria Annunziata in Otranto. In Florence, make the trek to San Miniato for the impressive frescoes and mosaic floors. If you’re a fan of Byzantine art, be sure to spend some time in Ravenna, with the best collection of Byzantine mosaics in Italy. Here’s a post on my time there.
On your first visit to Italy—don’t try to see it all. I rarely visit more than two art venues in a day. A good resource for understanding the various periods of European Art is Rick Steve’s Europe 101 History and Art for the Traveler. I also learn a lot from the Art Blogs listed below. Decide what you like the most and plan your time accordingly. But, also be open to learning something new. Each time I visit Italy, I discover a new artist or art movement. Just another reason why I keep coming back to the bel paese.