World ? Europe ? Italy

Italy: The Best Cathedrals

  • St. Peter's Basilica (Rome): Its roots began with the first Christian emperor, Constantine, in A.D. 324. By 1400, the Roman basilica was in danger of collapsing, prompting the Renaissance popes to commission plans for the largest, most impressive, most jaw-dropping cathedral the world had ever seen. Amid the rich decor of gilt, marble, and mosaics are countless artworks, including Michelangelo's PietȤ. Other sights here are a small museum of Vatican treasures and the eerie underground grottoes containing the tombs of former popes, including the most recently interred, John Paul II. An elevator ride (or a rigorous climb) up the tower to Michelangelo's glorious dome provides panoramic views of Rome.

  • The Duomo of Florence: Begun in the late 1200s and consecrated 140 years later, the pink, green, and white marble Duomo was a symbol of Florence's prestige and wealth. It's loaded with world-class art and is one of Italy's largest and most distinctive religious buildings. A view of its red-tiled dome, erected over a 14-year period in what was at the time a radical new design by Brunelleschi, is worth the trip to Florence. Other elements of the Duomo are Giotto's campanile (bell tower) and the octagonal baptistery (a Romanesque building with bronze doors).

  • The Duomo of Siena: Begun in 1196, this cathedral is one of the most beautiful and ambitious Gothic churches in Italy, with extravagant zebra-striped bands of marble. Masterpieces here include a priceless pavement of masterful mosaics, an octagonal pulpit carved by master sculptor Nicola Pisano, and the lavishly frescoed Piccolomini Library.

  • Basilica di San Francesco (Assisi): St. Francis, protector of small animals and birds, was long dead when construction began on this double-tiered showcase of the Franciscan brotherhood. Giotto's celebrated frescoes reached a new kind of figurative realism in Italian art around 1300, long before the masters of the Renaissance carried the technique even further. Consecrated in 1253, the cathedral is one of the highlights of Umbria and the site of many pilgrimages. It took a direct hit from the 1997 earthquakes but has miraculously made a recovery.

  • The Duomo of Orvieto: A well-designed transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles, this cathedral was begun in 1290 and completed in 1600. It sheltered an Italian pope (Clement VII) when French soldiers sacked Rome in 1527. Part of the building's mystery derives from Orvieto's role as an Etruscan stronghold long before Italy's recorded history. The cathedral is known for its great fresco cycles by Fra Angelico and Luca Signorelli.

  • St. Mark's Basilica (Venice): Surely the most exotic and Eastern of the Western world's churches, the onion-domed and mosaic-covered San Marco took much of its inspiration from Constantinople. Somewhere inside the mysterious candlelit cavern of the 1,000-year-old church, which began as the private chapel of the doges, are the remains of St. Mark, patron saint of Venice's ancient maritime republic.

  • The Duomo of Milan: It took 5 centuries to build this magnificent and ornate Gothic cathedral, the third-largest church in the world. It's marked by 135 marble spires, a stunning triangular facade, and thousands of statues flanking the massive but airy, almost fanciful exterior.

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