Thursday, June 5, 2014

The 10 best painted destinations in Italy

Here's my list, based on what I've been able to visit so far. I'm sure there are many more to be added to it, and hopefully I'll be able to go back and see some of them again. 

10 Villa Valmarana ai Nani, Vicenza
Located in the hills above Vicenza, this getaway villa is a decent walk from town, and is on the way to the Villa Capra (La Rotonda), Palladio's masterpiece with murals by Louis Dorigny. While it is not perhaps the most extensively painted villa in Italy, it has the unique distinction of being decorated by both of the Tiepolos (Giambattista the father and Giandomenico the son) and still being owned by the original family that commissioned the work beginning in 1755. It is also furnished with period (and newer) furniture, giving a good idea of the feeling it had, and the lovely gardens and site are open for wandering. Photos are not allowed, but they're not very vigilant either, so if you are careful, you can take plenty.
Chinoise type mural in the guest house of the Villa Valmarana was painted by Giandomenico Tiepolo, the son. 

9 Palazzo Ducale, Mantua
 The Palazzo in this delightful town was once home to the powerful Gonzaga clan, who ruled the area for almost 400 years. During restorations over the last century, various interiors of other sites (churches, etc.) have been installed in the palace, and today create an excellent chronological history of wall painting in Northern Italy from Gothic to Neo-classical, with numerous fascinating and extensive rooms. When I was there in 2013 the Camera degli Sposi, Mantegna's much copied trompe l'oeil ceiling, was closed due to a recent earthquake, but it will probably be restored before long as it is a major tourist draw. In addition to the painting, the palace has many courtyards, levels, and halls, giving an interesting glimpse into just how labyrinthine some of these sites could be. Photography prohibited here, and the guards were calling me on it several times. Meh!

The Sala de Specchi at the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua. Seconds after I took this one I heard, "No photos!" from the other room. 

8 Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, Rome
 Located about one block from the main entrance of the Termini Train Station and the antique Baths of Domitian, the Palazzo Massimo holds some of the finest antique Roman art work from all over the Italian peninsula. Sculptures, mosaics, and a vault that traces the history of money and coins are the warmup. But it is upstairs that you will find the true treasure. Here is the very famous garden fresco mural from the Villa of Livia at Prima Porta, whole rooms from Ostia and elsewhere, and the main attraction for painters, several reconstructed rooms of frescos taken from a house called the Villa della Farnesina, which was uncovered in the 19th century on the grounds of the (Renaissance era) Villa Farnesina in Trastevere during construction of the dikes that hold back the Tiber. These elaborate murals are surely some of the very highest achievements in Roman wall painting (at least of what survives) and they have recently been repositioned and lit with a very nice diffuse lighting system that makes them (relatively) easy to photograph. Photography is allowed in the museum, sans flash. 

Detail of a panel in the Black Dining Room of the Villa della Farnesina, 2nd c. AD

7 Uffizi Gallery, Florence
 One of the first art museums in the world, the Uffizi holds many of European art history's key pieces, set in some very beautiful rooms with good natural lighting. For me though, it is the hallways that are the main attraction, covered as they are with somewhere around 75 fresco ceilings with painted grottesca ornament of the highest order. The south (first) side of the courtyard is earlier work, with designs by Antonio Tempesta and Allesandro Allori that incorporate just about any ornamental, architectural, or mythological motif you could possibly imagine, all in unique compositions that boggle the mind. Photography is banned here, which i can understand in the art galleries, but I sure wish they would loosen up in the halls! Despite its prohibition, I have managed to take around 200 shots of the work there, so it's not impossible. You just have to be subtle about it. Watch out for the snitchy tour guides too- they love to loudly shout "no photos!" to suck up to the guards.

"Spy Cam" shot of one of the ceilings at the Uffizi Gallery. 

6 Palazzo Vecchio, Florence 
A stones throw away from the Uffizi is the Palazzo Vecchio, seat of the government of Florence and for many years the home of the ruling Medici family. From the moment you enter the first courtyard, covered in grottesca ornament from the 16th century, you know it's going to be good. And guess what, photos are allowed!! There are many rooms of varied themes and styles, from Vasari's hyper grandiose Salone dei Cinquecento, to the intimate chapel of Eleonora of Toledo, with exquisite murals by Bronzino. You could easily spend an entire day in here (well, I could.) especially if you are wanting to photograph every square inch of it (as I did!). The so-called Hidden Tour, which take you through Cosimo's Studiolo and up into the attic above the Cinquecento (featured in the Dan Brown story the Inferno) is well worth it, and if you don't mind heights, go up to the top of the tower for a great view of the city. There is also a tapestry restoration lab on the roof that you can peep in if you go up in the tower. 

Part of Bernini's small chapel in the Palazzo Vecchio. 

5 MAN- Pompeii/Herculaneum/ Stabia/Oplontis, Bay of Naples
Kind of cheating to lump all of these together, but all of the work comes to us under the dread shadow of Vesuvius, so that's what unifies it. MAN is the Museo Archeologico di Napoli, the final resting area for many of the finest treasures that were dug up in the early days of Pompeii, Herculaneum and the other sites in the bay of Naples in the 18th century, when the recoverers thought more about treasures than preservation. MAN alone makes a visit to Naples worth it (although it has many other charms worth seeing.) Like Pompeii itself, MAN has been hit by severe budget difficulties, and its hours are a bit funky, so check before you go. Photography is allowed (yay!) and I spent hours taking loads of details. MAN contains most of the treasures removed from the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum, and it also has the infamous Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet), which is where the Roman erotic art was kept away from the eyes of children and women (!) for many years. 

Erotic scene from the Gabinetto Segreto at MAN

As I said earlier, Pompeii has been wrestling with money matters for quite some time now, and the latest strategy seems to be to close off a huge portion of the site to keep it from deteriorating further. When I was there in 2013, I was very disappointed to be unable to see large swaths of the site that had been open in 2007, including whole streets that were blocked from passage, making it very difficult to navigate. It is still worth visiting if you never have, but you might want to consider some of these other sites as an alternative. 
Although access has been severely limited of late, you can still see the Villa of the Mysteries, which was one of the finest houses at Pompeii.

Herculaneum is closest to Naples, and while it is not quite as large as Pompeii, it is generally better preserved and displayed (though parts of it are also closed for restoration purposes.) Herculaneum was covered in mud rather than ash, so the woodwork and upper floors of buildings are better preserved than at Pompeii. There are many beautiful frescos there, and unlike Pompeii, you can pretty much cover every single building there in a half day visit. 

Theatrical wall decoration at the House of the Grand Portal in Herculaneum
Oplontis is just a hair further down the way towards Pompeii (you get off the train at Torre Annunziata- the site is only 3 or 4 blocks from the station). The large house here is thought to have belonged to Nero's wife Poppaea, and it was excavated in the mid-20th century. It was a very grand house, around 20,000 sq ft, and it has loads of really good frescos, and an olympic sized pool in the side yard. It's much less crowded than Pompeii, which allows you to really take in the atmosphere and hear what the ghosts are whispering.

Fresco decorations at the Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis

Lastly, if you go past Pompeii about an hour by train, just before you get to Sorrento, you come to the town of Castellamare di Stabia, where there are 6 or 7 Roman villa sites, two of which are open at present. It took about 45 minutes to walk to the sites, through the faded seaside town and up through some little farms just bursting with peaches and other produce. Again, we had the place totally to ourselves, and again the sites were better preserved than Pompeii, with upper floors and roofs sometimes rebuilt, which lends more atmosphere to the experience, in my opinion. It's quite incredible, as you look off in the distance at the smoldering cone of Vesuvius, to think that they were close enough to have been inundated by its ashes and mud. These were large luxury villas, and as we sat and ate lunch by the pool that ran through the courtyard of the Villa San Marco, we pictured the original occupants doing exactly the same (only the pool would have been full then, and the house would have been right over the sea- the volcanic debris pushed the coast out about a quarter mile now.) Some of the finest bits of murals from these two houses were removed to the MAN many years ago, but in some places they have filled in the voids with digital reproductions, which is better than nothing. 

Pool of the Villa San Marco in Stabia. They know exactly where the trees were (and what kind too!) by making plaster casts of the void left by the roots after they were killed by the ashes.

4 Villa Farnese Caprarola
Located in a quaint town up in the hills above Viterbo, the Villa Farnese is an imposing country retreat built for Alessandro Farnese by famous architect Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, over the foundations of a pentagonal fortress begun years before by da Sangallo. I got to the Villa early in the morning, which I highly recommend. Apart from the cooler temperatures, I also had the place virtually to myself, and had a friendly guard who did not mind at all my leisurely pace taking many photos (they are allowed there, thank god!) There are 17 spectacular rooms of grottesca ornament in the palace, including the grand spiral staircase by Vignola, covered in grottesca by Antonio Tempesta, who also designed ceilings in the Uffizi. The other featured artists are the Zuccari brothers, Taddeo and Federico, and Jacopo Bertoia. There are Zodiacs, Bible stories, Pantheons, and more. Also included is a tour of the gardens, which are original to the design of the house, and the Casino (guest house) with fantastic fountains and a loggia covered in ornament. You should plan on at least a half day to go there and get back to Viterbo; if I went there again, I'd probably book a room in Caprarola, which had lovely crooked medieval streets and a quiet atmosphere.

The rotonda ceiling of Vignola's spiral stair has decorations by Antonio Tempesta and his crew. If you watch the European production of "Borgia" (not "Borgias", with Jeremy Irons) you can see this standing in for the Vatican in a number of scenes. 

3 Palazzo Te- Both the architecture and the artwork of this unique palace were designed by Giulio Romano, who learned his trade at the side of Raphael in the Vatican loggias and stanze. Romano was commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga to create a getaway for himself and his lover to escape the eyes of the court. Funny thing is, the place is only about a half hour walk from the Ducal Palace at the opposite end of town! Romano was a witty artist, and his architecture is a playful take on classicism, as are the rooms he designed, including the Room of the Giants (Sala dei Giganti), where the walls seem literally to crumble inward onto the hapless viewer. The main hall features life size portraits of the Duke's horses in profile, and the spectacular dining room has a complex ornamental structure filled with stories from Ovid's tales revolving around the goddess Psyche, a bacchanalian backdrop for feasting with your lover. Be sure not to miss the Casino dell Grotta, a bath area that is out in the curving exedra, and is covered in beautiful grottesca. Photography is prohibited there unfortunately, so you have to be sneaky about it, except in the Casino, which was unmanned (while I was there.)

The Sala di Psiche at the Palazzo Te has an intricate ceiling structure to contain all of its numerous fables. 

2 Villa Farnesina
Created as a riverside retreat from bustling city life for the Chigi family, the Farnese later bought it and gave it the name it has today. It has six masterpiece rooms by some of the superstars of the Renaissance, including Raphael, Giulio Romano, il Sodoma, and Baldassarre Peruzzi, who also designed the building itself. The quality of the work here is outstanding, with each room featuring different styles and subjects, all of which would be copied by many other artists down the road. As I recall, photography is not allowed, but they seemed to be very lax about it, and I took pretty many while visiting. 

Detail of the ceiling mural of Psyche, by Raphael and his assistants.

1 The Vatican Museums

This is your one stop catalog of the history of the best decorative painting from the Renaissance to the 19th century. Starting with the Borgia Apartments, featuring some of the first grottesca work by Pinturicchio in the 1490's, through the amazing Hall of Maps, on to the extraordinary 19th century trompe l'oeil work in the Galeria dei Candelabri. Oh yeah, and the Raphael Stanze (since you can't really get in to see the Loggias these days). Not to mention the Sistine Chapel, possibly the greatest work of art in the entire Western world. Plan on at least a day for this place, better to figure two or more if you are a glutton like me. If you go around noon there's usually very little of the morning line left. Buon Apetito!

The immense Hall of Maps at the Vatican; 400 feet of ornamental bliss!
Even as I write this my brain is screaming at me, "What about the Museo Correr? And Ferrara?! The Palazzo Pitti and the Medici Villa at Poggio a Caiano?  The Villa Torlonia, for crying out loud!! Let's face it, there's just so much in Italy, just about any city you could choose has several amazing sites. So I guess I'll need to do this again, but for now, I'd better stop!