In the summer after my third year of university, I signed up for a 6-week travelling course in Italian Renaissance Art History. Little did I know how that experience would change my life. Two weeks in Florence, a week in Rome, stops everywhere from Milan to Naples… and in that time I fell in love with this place, the language, its culture and most of all, its art. With this post, I want to recreate that trip. Sure, few adults can ever have six whole weeks to travel through Italy, but if you love Renaissance Art, maybe you’ll try to follow some of the parts of this itinerary, and over a few trips, you will have seen a lot.
Should we do our Renaissance art itinerary in chronological order, or rather see things from North to South? I feel I should start in Florence, as our course did, for a full two weeks. That is where the Renaissance, as an artistic and cultural movement, was born, plus it’s an important base for comparison during the rest of your trip. Florence can also be home base for shorter trips to some of the locations I’m going to mention, should you choose to stay here longer term – a month based in Florence would give you time to visit almost everything on this itinerary. One note – I’m not going to be able to mention everything to see in each city, so I’ll provide information about why to visit each city and a few locations or museums not to be missed. This blog has 15 years worth of articles about Florence and Rome to search through, so I’ll provide links to some relevant articles as well.
Florence: the birthplace of the Renaissance
Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance and, as such, it’s a city rich with must-see art for the Renaissance art-lover. This makes it all but impossible for me to write a short paragraph here on what to see! It’s been ages since I’ve written a Florence itinerary because I find it hard to limit myself in a city I know so well, though back in 2011, I published this 3-day Florence itinerary and the historical content there is still perfectly valid.
That said, where to start? I think there are three main places you have to visit to get a basic understanding of where the Renaissance began. I always bring first-time visitors to the church of Santa Croce because it’s the earliest of the city’s large basilicas, and it contains two chapels by Giotto (see more about him below, under Padova). Every square meter of this church tells a story about Florence over the span of a few hundred years.
Then I like to walk over to Piazza delle Signoria because this is the seat of the medieval city’s republican government. Here, too, you don’t just look at one historical moment, but witness a few hundred years of changes, so it’s a long story to tell. If my visiting friends are still alive after all that history, I like to show them Orsanmichele because that is where Renaissance sculpture really took off, in the decorations of the exterior niches commissioned by the city’s guilds. Of course, we could go on for days – from Orsanmichele, I’d walk over to the Duomo, and visit the Opera del Duomo Museum, but I’ll save that for another day.
Read more Florence on this blog:
- The church of Santa Croce in Florence – art and history
- Piazza della Signoria and late medieval politics in Florence
- The new Opera del Duomo Museum
- The Bigallo in Piazza Duomo: Early Florentine social services (on The Florentine)
Milan: mostly for the Last Supper
Milan is one of the few Italian cities that I have yet to warm to, though some people love it. My brother and sister-in-law live there with their two kids, so I’ve been many times, but most of the time we just spend our visit doing mundane household tasks rather than seeing its more interesting historic sites. Certainly it is home to numerous museums, including some modern and contemporary ones (Fondazione Prada is good fun).
On our Renaissance art tour of Italy, the main thing to visit in Milan is, you guessed it, Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (1498) in the refectory of the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie. The great artist used “experimental” painting methods here in order to try to give the fresco greater luminosity, and this, as well as being executed on a thin exterior wall, contributed to its being in terrible condition only a few decades later. Nonetheless, it has always been recognized as a masterpiece; Vasari points out that the apostles each demonstrate different emotions through their facial expressions, and recounts that Leonardo had trouble painting the face of Jesus, because he felt unable to represent such divinity, and of Judas, for the opposite reason. As this is the top tourist destination in Milan, and entrance is timed and severely limited for conservation reasons, it’s tough to get tickets online by yourself. The best option is to get a Last Supper tour as these tend to be available even last minute.
Padua: worth a stop on your way to Venice
Home to the world’s fifth-oldest university, Padua is much more than a stop on the train line between Bologna and Venice, and certainly worth visiting for a few days – take a look at these 10 reasons to visit Padua.
For Renaissance art buffs, the big must-see here is Giotto’s Arena (Scrovegni) Chapel. Giotto is an artist we usually call “Proto-Renaissance” because he anticipated the naturalism that other artists came up with a bit more than a hundred years after him. Entering the Arena Chapel is, in my opinion, just as exciting and immersive as going into the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo… perhaps even more so because it seems to come out of nowhere. This rich and beautiful fresco cycle dates to 1305. Giotto breaks with medieval tradition in the way he organizes narrative, shows figures in space, and portrays feelings through gestures and facial expressions. In order to visit this gem, you must reserve tickets in advance. Only 25 people are allowed in per visit, and you have only 15 minutes inside to appreciate this masterpiece. Before going in, you’re put in a kind of decompression chamber (with a handy educational video about the fresco), from which sliding doors let you into the temperature-controlled chapel. If 15 minutes isn’t enough for you, in the summertime, there are evening openings that last twice as long and can be purchased at www.giottosottolestelle.it.
Venice: it’s all about the light
The Renaissance in Venice is so completely different from that of Florence. Although I am an honourary Florentine, I absolutely love early Venetian Renaissance painting. If I have to reduce this period to a few lines, the main differences come down to a diverse and more sensitive treatment of light, and a greater dynamism through composition.
If you’ve ever been to Venice, you’ll have observed how the light reflects brilliantly off the water and seems to dance on the buildings, and how everything looks very different in the fog, or as light changes throughout the day. Giorgione, whose works have a smokiness to them, could have only been Venetian. With regard to my comment about dynamic composition, keep an eye out for right triangles, where composition moves from left to right towards a climax, rather than the more common staid isometric triangle composition and you’ll understand what I mean. (I had to Google “triangle shapes” to describe this – I was never a geometry whiz.)
What should Renaissance lovers see in Venice? It’s a tough call, though I would say that I am particularly partial to the church of the Frari. This basilica is home to two works that pretty much exemplify what I just wrote about. I have spent ages sitting in front of Giovanni Bellini’s “Madonna and Child with Saints”: the space that encloses the enthroned Madonna is partially defined by the frame’s semi-circular arch, and is partially a work of trompe-l’oeuil that refers to the golden mosaic domes of San Marco. This painted gold shows an understanding of light and how it reflects that is particular to Venice.
On the left side aisle, on the other hand, is a work whose composition is uniquely Venetian, Titian’s Pesaro Madonna (recently restored and replace in its original location by Save Venice). Here is that right triangle I mentioned — figures leading up to the Madonna on the right side of the canvas – it’s no accident that this is in the left aisle, so that you can observe it well from the center of the church. Titian’s Assumption of the Virgin is on the church’s high altar. While if you only have time for one museum in Venice, I’d pick the Accademia.
Read more Venice articles on this blog:
- 28 authentic Venice artisans
- an art-lovers weekend in Venice itinerary
- Dream of Venice architecture book
Court cities: Mantova and Urbino
Our Renaissance art tour of Italy would have to continue with some of the court cities. While Florence and Venice were Republics, many other cities flourished under enlightened rulers; these city states, best exemplified by Mantova and Urbino, represent yet another important chapter in Italian Renaissance art. The princes at the head of these two Renaissance courts were particularly good at building their self-images through the employment of artists who exploited classical references and naturalism to exalt their patrons.
In Urbino, you can visit the Ducal Palace to see the majestic building, decorations, and some artworks commissioned by Duke Federico da Montefeltro (mid 15th-century), though the most famous image of this man is one you may have seen in the Uffizi – the double-portrait of him and his wife, Battista Sforza, by Piero della Francesca. The palace’s architect Luciano Laurana created a fortified building that grows out of the rock and is defensive in the back, but welcoming and elegant in the front. Its first internal courtyard seems perfectly balanced because the architect took foreshortening into consideration, making it five bays wide but six deep. Inside, all the doors are masterpieces of wood inlay, called intarsia, but the duke’s Studiolo is an immersive experience — a tiny room that is totally decorated in wood, with portraits (now copies) on the upper register. The designs on these cabinets and secret compartments were created by several artists, including Botticelli, and were executed by Florentine craftsmen.
Mantova (Mantua in English) is a charming city and the other court city I recommend visiting – both for the art and for the tortelli di zucca, squash filled pasta! The rulers of Mantova in the Renaissance were the Gonzaga family and their court artists were none other than Leon Battista Alberti and Andrea Mantegna – both fully committed to classical ideals. Like Urbino, Mantova also has a Ducal Palace you’ll want to visit, especially for the Camera Picta, Duke Lodovico Gonzaga’s bedroom-slash-audience chamber. Mantegna frescoed a fun trompe-l’oeuil ceiling here, and walls that depict scenes that of course glorify his patron. It’s so precise and complex that it took him nine years to paint it!
There are two other highlights to visit in Mantova though. The church of Sant’Andrea by Alberti is interesting because it’s one of the first times that the artist designed a full church – façade and interior – that actually got executed, and its form is so classical it’s quite different from anything built in other cities. Then head just outside of town to Palazzo Te, where a later generation’s ruler built a crazy Mannerist pleasure palace to house his horses… and his lover. Both the architecture and the decorative scheme are in line with the function of the palazzo, i.e. just a whole lot of fun!
Rome: the papal city
Wow, Rome. This city has so much history, I can’t possibly sum up the Renaissance part in just a paragraph! In October 2004, while I was a newlywed and in grad school, I spent a month in Rome doing dissertation research. I was looking for instances of putti (those cute baby boys you see everywhere), which were the topic of my studies, and so I methodically set out to see Rome in chronological order, an approach I couldn’t find in any guidebook (they seem to like the more practical way of seeing a large city by area, go figure!). I recorded my visits, opening hours, and photos on a free blog website, and called it “one month Rome”. That was the beginning of this blog, which got renamed “ArtTrav” (for art and travel) when I realized I could continue my work writing about Florence and beyond!
My current favourite things to see in Rome aren’t necessarily Renaissance – for example I love the Medieval mosaics at the Church of Santa Prassede. And while I appreciate the High Renaissance and the masterful frescoes of Raphael and Michelangelo at the Vatican, these aren’t my favourite works either. After all these years, I still don’t know Rome well enough to remember where all the artworks are, so it’s always a fun surprise to run into famous works serendipitously when I visit. You’re going to need more than a few days in Rome to even scratch the surface, but allow me to mention two great destinations for Renaissance art lovers in the eternal city.
The first is Bramante’s Tempietto. I distinctly remember visiting this with my class during that 1997 trip. I knew this building from books, but only seeing it in person made me understand its scale. It’s a tiny, perfect circular chapel, placed within a courtyard. If you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself alone here (try wintertime!), and I recommend sitting there, between its columns and on the bench in front of it, and letting the building talk to your body and your spirit. Personally, I find it very calming and somehow easy to apprehend in a glance.
The Borghese Gallery is the best museum in Rome for Renaissance masterpieces, in my opinion. Its only downside is that you are only allowed 2 hours inside! Do not even try to go without reserving tickets. This museum contains surprises at every turn. Titian’s very famous Sacred and Profane love is located here, and Raphael’s Deposition, which Scipione Borghese literally stole from a church in Perugia. And brace yourself: there are SIX Caravaggio paintings in just one room here.
Read more Rome articles on this blog:
- My Vatican Museums survival guide
- Caravaggio in churches in Rome
- 3 days luxury itinerary in Rome
- Renaissance Roman Palaces
- The Most Important works of art in the Borghese Gallery
Naples: Spanish influence
It would be wrong to end this article without a nod to Naples – the Renaissance didn’t stop at Rome, far from it! The bustling city of Naples is known more for the flamboyant Baroque and the tenebrous late Renaissance of Caravaggio than for the staid and measured Renaissance style, but one does find the occasional tomb or gate from our period.
Palazzo Penna’s rusticated “brick” entryway dates to 1406 and was made for the Angevin King Ladislas’s secretary, whose last name appropriately meant “pen”. The Triumphal arch and entrance gate of Castel Nuovo was built in 1470, some decades later, by Alfonse of Aragon. Its delicate sculpture is in the Florentine style and may be by Giuliano da Maiano.
In the crypt of the Duomo of Naples, a space commissioned by Cardinal Caraffa in 1497. He is depicted praying to the relic of San Gennaro, which Caraffa had brought to the city from a monastery in Avellino. Some attribute the architecture to Bramante, which would account for its exquisiteness, while the sculpture is by Tommaso Malvito.
Our tour of Renaissance Naples wouldn’t be complete without a stop at the church of Sant’Anna dei Lombardi, where the Piccolomini family tomb was sculpted by Benedetto da Maiano and Antonio Rossellino – an example of a harmonious and perfect space in white marble.
Finally, you’ll want to hit up the Capodimonte museum for so many reasons, but if I had to mention just one, I guess it would be the Titian room, with the Danae, the Portrait of a Girl (Lavinia Vecellio), and the Mary Magdalen. So much fleshy, female beauty in one room!
Read more Naples articles on this blog:
That was a rather whirlwind virtual tour! Have you been to these cities? What are your favourite works of Renaissance art in Italy, and have you seen them in person yet?
Disclosure: Please note that some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase after clicking one, I will earn a commission, at no extra cost to you. This helps fund operating costs. I only link quality products (books and tours) that I honestly believe will be useful to you.