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Italy: Cultural Trip

Art and Architecture Lovers

The true devotee of art will want to spend the most time in Florence or Siena. Frankly, those two cities, especially Florence, have grabbed up the greatest art in all of Tuscany, not to mention the world. The city of Siena, its rival, contains collections of great art from the Sienese School of the Middle Ages.

In the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance, artists who wanted to make a living went to Florence or Siena because they depended on wealthy patrons, especially powerful churches or, in the case of Florence, the art-loving Medici rulers. The art stayed where it was created.

That doesn't mean you won't find great art off the beaten trail. You will, as in the case of Arezzo and Sansepolcro , where devotees of Piero della Francesco trek to study his rare masterpieces.

In contrast, even small towns such as Lucignano or Pienza have architecture that will attract aficionados from all over the world.

Day 1: Lucca: Walled City

Leave Florence early in the morning and drive 72km (45 miles) west of Florence on the A11.

Inside its thick swath of Renaissance walls, bordered by gardens, Lucca still follows its medieval street plan. For the devotee of architecture, the city is one of the most richly rewarding cities of Tuscany. Best appreciated for their facades, its Romanesque churches are in the Lombard-Pisan style, richly embroidered with polychrome marble insets and relief carvings. Most of the carvings were by visiting Lombard and Pisan sculptors.

Lucca's main attractions are detailed in chapter 8. They include the Duomo, or Cattedrale di San Martino, with its green-and-white marble facade designed by the architect Guidetto da Como. The exceptionally tall facade of San Michele in Foro is another stellar example of the Luccan-Pisan style. This is one of the most beautiful church facades in all of Tuscany, with its delicately twisted columns and arcades. Dare we suggest it's a poetic confection?

Before the Pisan style of architecture swept Lucca, there was the church of San Frediano in the Lucca-Romanesque style. Its facade is graced with white marble from the ancient Roman amphitheater. The rest of the day is yours as you wander CittȤ Vecchia, the streets of the old town, which are full of Gothic and Renaissance palazzi and other delights, finishing up over a nice dinner.

Day 2: Pisa & Its Leaning Tower

Lucca lies only 21km (13 miles) northeast of Pisa. Take A12 south and follow the signs to Pisa in the morning.

This city introduced the world to the Pisan Romanesque style of architecture and sculpture, a style that flourished from the 11th to the 13th century when the Pisan Republic was a powerful maritime city-state. Gothic sculpture also flourished here thanks to Nicola Pisano (1220-80) and his son, Giovanni Pisano (1250-1315).

Pisa's foremost monuments center around its historic Campo dei Miracoli (the Field of Miracles), so touring is easy. The square of miracles is also known as Piazza del Duomo.

Of course, the Leaning Tower is the most compelling structure. Construction of the white marble tower with its pure Romanesque style began in 1173 and continued until 1350. Six floors of columned galleries wind around the spiral. Stainless steel cables keep the tower leaning instead of falling.

The Duomo is an even greater treasure, particularly the west front with its four tiers of graceful marble columns. The south transept door is graced with fine Romanesque bronze panels from the 12th century. The interior is also an impressive achievement for its nave and four aisles, but mainly for its stunningly beautiful pulpit, the creation of son Giovanni, on which he labored from 1302 to 1311.

The nearby Battistero is another stellar example of the Pisan Romanesque style. The roof is crowned by an unusual Gothic dome with four doorways, each decorated with fine carving. The impressive pulpit inside is from Papa Pisano. If time remains, check out the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. with sculptures removed from the monuments in the Piazza del Duomo for safekeeping. Some from the Romanesque period are masterpieces by unknown artists.

Enjoy an overnight at a hotel in Pisa.

Day 3: San Gimignano & Its Medieval Towers

This city lies 92km (57 miles) southeast of Pisa. To reach San Gimignano from Pisa, head east along the Pisa/Livorno/Firenze autostrada until you near the town of Empoli. At that point, leave the autostrada and head south along SS429 until you come to the turnoff heading southwest near the town of Poggibonsi. San Gimignano is signposted at this point. Cut west on S324 to San Gimignano.

For the architectural enthusiast, wandering into San Gimignano is a journey back to the Middle Ages. This is Italy's best-preserved medieval town, and some one dozen towers remain. These well-preserved towers were more than just defensive strongholds; they were symbols of a family's prestige and worth -- the taller they were, the more powerful the ruling dynasty.

Although San Gimignano is unique in appearance today, in the Middle Ages, towns throughout central Italy looked like San Gimignano. Amazingly, in the heyday of San Gimignano, there were nearly 70 such towers. In some prescient way, it might have looked like a diminutive version of a skyscraper city of the future, such as New York.

Today's visitors who wander through this medieval landscape follow in the footsteps of Dante, Savonarola, and Machiavelli. The "time capsule" streets are beautiful, as are the public buildings -- and those towers are truly awesome.

Day 4: Siena: Homage to the Middle Ages

Our next stopover, the biggest attraction yet, lies 40km (24 miles) southeast of San Gimignano. Head east on S324 to Poggibonsi and take the Firenze/Siena autostrada south to the signposted exits.

Of all the cities of Tuscany, except for Florence, Siena caters more than all others to the lover of both art and architecture -- and does so in great abundance. Although our hurried tour calls for only 1 day here, 2 days is preferable if your schedule can accommodate it.

One of the greatest art cities in all of Italy, Siena once rivaled Florence as an artistic center. But when Sienese artists hung on to Greek and Byzantine formulas longer than Florence, Siena was left behind by the Renaissance.

Duccio and Simone Martini were pioneers in bringing greater realism to the more static Byzantine art. Flowing lines and expressive features were introduced. Gothic arrived in Siena when Giovanni Pisano overhauled the Duomo (cathedral), and Jacopo della Quercia became a towering figure in Gothic sculpture in Siena. The Black Death of 1348 brought a crippling blow to Sienese artistic aspirations.

The great repository of Sienese art, an extensive collection, is housed in the Pinacoteca Nazionale. It's not the Uffizi, but it is a showcase of Sienese masterpieces created between the 13th and 16th centuries. Here you'll see works by all the famous artists associated with Siena, including Duccio and the great Simone Martini. Numerous paintings by the Lorenzetti brothers and the works of many other masters, notably Beccafumi and Il Sodoma, are also on parade.

Some of the city's greatest sculpture is exhibited in the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana, especially sculpture by Duccio and Jacopo della Quercia. The Duomo itself is a great treasure-trove of Tuscan and Sienese art, with Nicola Pisano's masterpiece, a 13th-century pulpit.

After a hard day's sightseeing, unwind over a meal and a good night's rest in Siena.

Day 5: Pienza, the Ideal Renaissance City

The village of Pienza lies 55km (33 miles) southeast of Siena. From Siena, take the SS2 south to the SS146 and follow the signs.

This village owes its overall look to its homegrown son, Pope Pius II, born here in 1405. He set out to transform Pienza into a model Renaissance village -- and succeeded admirably. Bernardo Rossellino, a protȳgȳ of the great Renaissance theorist Leon Battista Alberti, carried out the mandate of the pope, creating a Cattedrale with a Renaissance facade, the Palazzo Piccolomini (Rossellino's masterpiece), and a main square, Piazza Pio II, which remains a Renaissance jewel.

Critics of the Vatican denounced all the money spent on Pienza, calling it "the pope's folly." Sure, it was a bit costly, but this grand achievement remains today, luring all devotees of architecture to Tuscany. Regrettably, the pope died before his dream could be fully achieved.

End Day 5 with an overnight in Pienza.

Day 6: Montepulciano & Its Noble Wine

On the morning of the following day, drive a mere 13km (8 miles) east to Montepulciano following SS146.

The trouble with visiting this idyllic town is that you may never want to leave and will decide to retire here. One of the region's highest hill towns, it opens onto panoramic views of the countryside and is graced with quaint medieval streets and harmonious architecture. Spend a day wandering and discovering its treasures, beginning with the parade of Renaissance palazzi flanking its main street, "Corso."

The chief attractions for the devotee of Tuscan architecture are the Duomo, Palazzo Neri-Orselli, Palazzo Nobili-Tarugi, and Tempio di San Biagio (a masterpiece of High Renaissance architecture), everything centering around the monumental Piazza Grande.

After taking in the attractions and having lunch, you will still have time to explore nearby Lucignano in the afternoon. From Montepulciano, drive east to the autostrada, taking it north toward Florence but exiting at the signs for Lucignano, which lies to the immediate west of the autostrada.

The little town of Lucignano, unique in the annals of Italian hill towns for its street plan, will have you going around in circles. Like a maze, it's laid out in four concentric ellipses, centering around four colorful squares. Visit its Collegiata and its Palazzo Comunale.

Montepulciano makes the best place for overnighting in the area, and it's just a quick drive back.

Day 7: Arezzo/Sansepolcro: The Della Francesca Trail

On the morning of your final day of discovery, leave Montepulciano and drive east to the autostrada, taking it north to the turnoff for Arezzo in the east. The distance is 53km (33 miles).

Arezzo marks the beginning of the "Piero della Francesca trail." Piero della Francesca was a visionary early Renaissance master artist, one of the towering figures of the Italian Quattrocentro. A native of Sansepolcro, he created a dramatic style and explored the geometry of perspective. Born sometime in the early 15th century, he spent his life painting and writing books on geometry and perspective until he went blind at the age of 60.

In the morning at Arezzo you can visit della Francesca's masterpiece, the frescoes depicting Legend of the True Cross (1452-66) on the walls of the apse at the Basilica di San Francesco. Treated with great realism, these frescoes evoke the Renaissance ideals of serenity and, in their subtle lighting, a sense of timelessness.

In the afternoon, head east along Route 73 for 39km (64 miles), following the signs to Sansepolcro, the birthplace of Piero della Francesca.

We like to spend a lazy afternoon here, wandering at leisure through the town's Museo Civico, Via Aggiunti 65 (tel. 0575-732218), returning time and time again to admire the paintings by della Francesca, including Resurrection and his lovely polyptych of the Virgin of Mercy. Art lovers will also find much to admire in other paintings here, including works by Signorelli and Bassano.

Plan to end your week of Tuscan art with an overnight in either Sansepolcro or Arezzo, both of which have suitable if not always admirable accommodations.

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