I have recently returned from traveling in Northern Italy, and I've observed two things. Firstly, cultural tourism is widely participated in, and is making somebody (really, a lot of somebodies) quite rich. It would be great if we could round up our nation's leaders and drop them off in the line to get into the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, a two- or three-hour wait at peak times. Even if the art was lost on them, they would have the opportunity to multiply the 18,000-lire admission fee (about $10) by the seemingly undiminishing 300-person line, and then maybe they would stop trying to kill the National Endowment for the Arts for spurious budgetary reasons.
But secondly, I noticed that you need to travel only slightly off the beaten path to completely evade your fellow cultural tourists and view art, masterpieces, in fact, almost by yourself. I've heard a theory that the throngs pressing their way in to the Florence Academia to lay their eyes on Michelangelo's David finally see it as a monument, not a work of art. To them, the David is merely the Florentine Grand Canyon: beautiful, old, and really big. It's a disingenuous view, but it starts to make sense after you see the endless procession of people having their picture taken in front of the darned thing.
Here, then, is a recently-tested Italian itinerary, tailor-made for the genuine art lover. It emphasizes the skipped-over gems and minimizes the feeling that you're touring through some kind of highbrow, foreign Disney World.
Florence: Bypass the crowds outside the Uffizi, cross the Ponte Vecchio (literally,
old bridge, which spans the Arno and is the only over-water bridge which has people living on it in permanent structures) and stroll down a few blocks to the Palazzo Pitti. Here the Pinacoteca holds several Raphael portraits, a Caravaggio, some Rubens, a Botticelli, and a remarkable number of other Renaissance and Baroque masters.
Pisa: the famed, accursed bell-tower is part of a larger cathedral complex, and the other structures are just as interesting. Breeze by the Americans chanting a chorus of
Wow, it's really leaning and go to the Cemetery, which has been decorated with an eponymous work by an artist known only as the Master of the Triumph of Death. This fresco covered four walls of a fifty-foot long hall before the Allies bombed it. But about sixty percent of it has been restored, including a depiction of various 14th-Century types experiencing the onset of the Black Death, a Last Judgment, and a horrendous scene of souls being tortured and devoured in hell. It's a heartbreaking rendering of actual and psychological life during the Plague, and may be one of the scariest paintings in Western art. Pisa also has a beautiful, sparsely attended National Museum with a collection of late Medieval and early Renaissance work, including a Ghirlandaio and a lovely egg tempera of the Virgin Mary by Benozzo Gozzoli, who was sort of a lesser but competent Botticelli.
Bologna: You would think that one of the true heirs of Cezanne's painterly investigations and one of the strongest painters of the 20th Century would be renowned, but the Morandi Museum seems to be unknown even to the Bolognese. Giorgio Morandi's life and work are commemorated here; the collection is an embarrassment of riches, and includes his private art collection (he owned a few Rembrandt etchings) and a reconstruction of his studio/bedroom where he lived and worked.
Venice: Not far from the pigeon- and tourist-ridden Piazza San Marco is the Church of San Zaccaria, which houses an enormous work by Giovanni Bellini. A Mary and Child flanked by saints is set in an architectural fantasy that would be a masterpiece by itself. The figures are painted with extraordinary sensitivity, and it's not too much to say that every great quality of pre-modern large-scale oil painting was put to effective use in this one work.
Arezzo: The town where
Life is Beautiful took place has a church with an unmarked fragment of a Piero della Francesca fresco. The lone female figure is a vision of order, staring into eternity with consummate dignity. The house which belonged to Giorgio Vasari, author of the interesting if somewhat fact-averse
Lives of the Artists and a great painter in his own right, has been preserved, and the rooms he decorated according to his humanist philosophy are on view to the public for free.
Rome: far from the cattle-drive of tourists into the Vatican Museums is the Galleria Doria Pamphili. Here admission buys a nifty, self-guided audio tour through a collection which includes the famous portrait of Pope Innocent X by Velásquez and two Caravaggio's, one of which is a Penitent Magdalen painted with such colossal skill that you can almost feel her falling teardrop on your own cheek. It's a painting that would compensate the endurance of any crowd, and there is none.