Even if you’re not a serious art buff, no visit to Italy is complete without checking out some of the country’s world-class art museums. These are, after all, the kinds of exhibits you’ll be talking about for the rest of your life. “Remember the time we walked into that room full of house-sized Botticelli paintings in Florence? Yeah, that was amazing.” If you are an art lover, however, Italy is a treat just waiting to be devoured.
Some of the best places to visit in Italy for art stand out once you do even a little reading – Florence and Rome come to mind immediately – but others may not be as obvious. Here are some of the best cities in Italy to get a serious arts fix.
Florence is an embarrassment of artistic riches – it is, after all, considered the birthplace of the Renaissance. Visits to the Uffizi and Accademia are musts for just about any itinerary, but don’t overlook the Bargello Museum and the numerous churches in Florence for even more artistic treats. In this city of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo you’ll see works by both men, as well as the aforementioned room full of Botticelli paintings and pieces by Fra Angelico, Filippo Lippi, Giotto, Ghirlandaio, Mantegna, Caravaggio and Durer.
If the only museum in the city limits was the one at the Vatican, Rome would still rank among the top museum cities in the world. There are numerous other museums in Rome, however, that (combined with the Vatican Museums) offer up some of the most important art and artifacts on earth. In Rome’s museums, churches and public squares you can see masterpieces by Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, Titian, Filippo Lippi, Velazquez, Tintoretto and Rubens (among others) – and there are museums dedicated to contemporary art, too.
Busy Milan is most often thought of in association with the worlds of banking or fashion, but there are several very good artsy reasons to visit as well. Easily the most famous is Leonardo da Vinci’s beautiful and fragile “The Last Supper” fresco on the refectory wall of the Santa Maria delle Grazie church. To see it in person, you absolutely need to reserve a spot in advance (and you only get 15 minutes). If that’s too structured for you, head for the Pinacoteca di Brera to spend some quality time with the likes of Raphael, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, Bellini, Rubens, Tintoretto, Caravaggio, Titian and Rembrandt.
Naples’ gritty streets give way to some of Italy’s greatest historic treasures in the National Archaeological Museum. Most of the sculptures, paintings and frescoes on display were pulled from the excavation sites of nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, which gives you a sense of how even the ancient Romans preferred to be surrounded by beauty. Another artistic gem in Naples is in the center of a tiny chapel in the center – “The Veiled Christ” in the Sansevero Chapel is an exquisitely-carved piece that will leave you wondering if the marble is actually a veil of thin cloth.
Most visitors to Italy will be in Rome, Florence, and maybe Naples anyway – but Padua? Only a half-hour from Venice, it’s not on many itineraries. For art lovers, however, it’s worth the side-trip for the Scrovegni Chapel alone. The chapel features what many consider to be Giotto’s best work – a series of frescoes depicting Biblical stories – and was built in 1303 by a family of wealthy bankers whose patriarch had been condemned to hell by Dante himself in “The Divine Comedy.” In other words, the Scrovegni Chapel is as much a literary and historic landmark as it is an artistic one.
If all that classic and historic art is wearing thin, then when you arrive in Venice make a beeline for the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. This modern art museum is housed in Peggy Guggenheim’s former palazzo on the Grand Canal, and represents what was once her private collection. The museum features works by Dali, Picasso, Miro, Ernst, Kandinsky, Mondrian and Brancusi. When in Venice, it’s also worth checking to see if Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” sketch, housed at the Accademia, is on display (it’s not permanently out).
For those who find themselves as far south as Sicily, no visit to Palermo is complete without marveling at the incredible stucco sculptures by 17th-18th century artist Giacomo Serpotta that adorn the interior of many of the city’s churches. Without knowing any better, it’s easy to mistake them for gleaming white marble. Serpotta’s work adorns the walls of the Oratorio di Santa Cita, the Oratorio di San Lorenzo and the Oratorio di San Domenico, to name a few – and you can even make a game out of it by locating Serpotta’s signature snake figure in every one of his works.