Category Archives: Italy

• Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites

Visit: 18th February 2017

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After two nights in Rome Natalie and I got up early to catch a train 90 minutes out of the city into Umbria. Our destination was the hill town of Assisi, a site of pilgrimage for followers of the famous 13th century monk St Francis. From the station it is a ten minute bus ride up to the town, where we had a hotel booked in the centre. I had expected hordes of tourists (like us) but it was strangely deserted our entire time there.

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We started out at the city’s main church, the Basilica of St Francis. It sits at the far west end of the town and the promontory on which the town is built. Inside, the basilica is split into two floors, which I found unusual. We entered at the lower level, which is adorned with frescoes – some of them painted by the early Renaissance visionary Giotto di Bondone. I got told off for taking the photo below, but it gives you an idea of what I’m describing.

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In a crypt beneath the basilica’s lower level are the remains of St Francis himself. In case you are unfamiliar with his story, St Francis was a born to a wealthy family but renounced his worldly possessions in order to devote his life to God. He travelled around Italy to preach and went on to form an order of monks who would live a life of poverty as he did. That order is still going strong today, so you see monks and nuns frequently in Assisi.

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Assisi was once a Roman settlement, as the Temple of Minerva (the same goddess once venerated in the City of Bath) on the town’s main square attests. Like the Pantheon in Rome, it probably owes its survival to its conversion into a church, which is Baroque in style on the inside. On the outside we still have the original Roman front complete with tall Corinthian columns.

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From the main square we walked uphill, passing through a multistory car park built among Roman ruins. At the town’s highest point is a castle keep – the command post for the walls that surround the whole of Assisi. I was able to clearly make out the city of Perugia some 20 kilometres away.

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That evening we had a decent meal, though not as good as the previous night in Rome. I ate the local dish of roasted pigeon, which, as the waiter informed me, is meant to be eaten with your hands. The following morning we had to make our way to Perugia San Francesco d’Assisi – Umbria International Airport from which we were flying back to Stansted. There are no bus links between the airport and Assisi so were were reliant on an expensive taxi service. The silver lining was that our driver offered to detour via the Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli, located 5km from Assisi. This was fortunate because the building contains a very interesting artefact and is one of the ‘Other Franciscan Sites’ mentioned in this World Heritage Site’s title.

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The artefact in question is in fact the very site at which St Francis is supposed to have received the word of God. It is a tiny frescoed church, barely large enough for a small group of people to gather in, housed within the more recent basilica. This was well worth coming to see, and – like the crypt in Assisi’s main basilica – felt like a very holy place, and in a different and possibly more special way than the grand cathedrals of Milan, Venice or Rome.

I enjoyed this WHS for its importance in the history of Christianity and its Roman connections, as well as the prettiness of the views over Umbria. We were lucky that it was so quiet when we were there, but I would recommend as a one-night excursion from Rome if you are interested in getting out into the Italian heartland.

• Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura

Visit: 17th February 2017

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This World Heritage Site really takes the biscuit in terms of name length. I don’t write these things – bureaucrats in Paris do. But the general theme of the site is sensible enough: it is the centre of Rome, the Eternal City. Since the Vatican City is located entirely within Rome, we were able to visit both in the same day (though a day is far from ideal for a city that has been at the centre of Western civilisation on and off for the last 3,000 years).

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After fuelling up on pizza in the Vatican we set off on foot to see the sights. In the WHS name you will notice the reference to ‘the Properties of the Holy See … Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights’. This is because the Catholic Church’s Holy See owns a set of buildings outside of the Vatican City proper which enjoy diplomatic immunity similar to that of an embassy. There are at least a dozen buildings dotted throughout the city, as well as a few others elsewhere in Italy that are not subject to Italian law. I planned our route from St Peter’s so we would pass a few of them – and now I will take you on a tour of some of them.

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Palace of the Holy Office – from which Catholic doctrine is promulgated and defended

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Palazzo dei Convertendi – former home of the painter Raphael

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Palazzo Pio – home of Canadian embassy to the Holy See

At this point we have reached the bottom of the Via della Conciliazione and are next to the Castel Sant’Angelo. This is not a Holy See building, but is a 2nd century cylindrical castle built as a mausoleum for the emperor Hadrian. He is becoming a recurring theme in my WHS visits, being the man behind the eponymous wall back home and the luxurious villa complex in nearby Tivoli.

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We didn’t go inside, but instead crossed the Tiber on one of its ornate footbridges. The next sight we saw was another Roman relic, bearing a certain resemblance to the castle, above. This, however, is not a castle but a temple-cum-church: the Pantheon. It, too, is a work of the Hadrian era and consists of a cylindrical structure with a porticoed front and a magnificent dome with a hole in the top.

It is quite remarkable that this building is still in such good condition, and that is due to the fact that it has been in permanent use since it was built in the second century. Originally it was a temple to the Roman gods, but following the decline of the Roman empire in the 7th century it was consecrated as a church and has been one ever since (meaning it is free to enter!). The dome is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The hole in the top is known as an oculus and lets in the sunlight in a concentrated beam that sweeps through the interior throughout the day. The Pantheon was a hugely influential building – inspiring, for example, Thomas Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia that I visited five months earlier.

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Not far from the Pantheon is another extraterritorial building. The Palazzo della Cancelleria is a Renaissance palace that is nowadays the residence of a controversial former Boston cardinal (if you’ve seen the film Spotlight you’ll recall the scandal he was involved in).

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Palazzo della Cancelleria – home of the Papal Chancellery

We then walked via the Colosseum (which Natalie and I had both visited before) back to our hotel near the central station, stopping on the way at the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore – which is another of the Holy See’s properties. This basilica is a fifth century church, its interior decorated with carved wood panels supported by Ionic columns.

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A day’s sightseeing thoroughly done, we were keen to have an authentic but inexpensive Roman dining experience. We were not disappointed by the place we found, located in a student district 20 minutes walk from our hotel. My highlight was a simple pasta primi piatto of pancetta and parmesan.

• Vatican City

Visit: 17th February 2017

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The Vatican City is quite an unusual place in many respects, not least for being the world’s smallest country. At less than half a square kilometre it is 2.6 x 10-8 the size of Russia, the largest country. Despite being so small, there is plenty to keep the visitor occupied.

Natalie and I had talked about going to Rome for a few years and, whilst both of us had been before, we had not visited the city since the Age of World Heritage Site Visiting began. We flew from Stansted to Rome’s low-cost airport, Ciampino, for a very reasonable price and caught a dangerously overcrowded coach into the city centre. We had arrived late at night, so we were able to get up and out into Rome’s rush hour by 9 o’clock the next morning.

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The famous Sistine Chapel is located within the Vatican Museums. I decided it was probably worth paying an extra €4 to pre-book tickets and avoid a seriously long queue, though in the event there wasn’t a massive line. The museums are filled with the Papal art collection, which is one of the finest in the world (quite possibly the best). The galleries and corridors contain masterpieces of the Renaissance and the Baroque as well as hundreds of Roman-era statues. Some of the most impressive include the Belvedere Apollo and the statue of Laocoön and His Sons.

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These are some of the most admired pieces of art the Classical period left us, and they sit perfectly in a small open courtyard in the Vatican. I wondered if the Pope ever walks around on his own after the tourists have left and takes in the magnificence of his domain.

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The closer you get to the Sistine Chapel the more crowded it becomes. For the last half an hour or so we were filing through narrow corridors with thousands of other visitors, traipsing inexorably toward one of the most famous sights in the world. In the process it is easy to miss the fine collection of 20th century artworks, including pieces by Chagall, Dalí and even Francis Bacon.

The chapel itself is well-known enough I needn’t describe it here. As part of Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece, the panel in the ceiling where Adam touches the hand of God is smaller than I expected, but the huge Last Judgement scene on the wall is just as impactful as it could be. Unlike the Last Supper in Milan there is no atmospheric control system, so tourists file through the chapel in perpetuity. If they were to start sending people through in carefully-controlled batches I’m sure the chapel would become almost impossible to visit.

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The gardens of the Vatican deserve a mention. Visitors are allowed in only a small portion of them, but it is easy enough to take in views of most of the rest of them through various windows.

After the Sistine Chapel we foolishly exited the museums in order to join the queue for St Peter’s Basilica in the famous (circular) square. My mistake was not to realise there is a way of getting into the basilica from the museum complex, bypassing the slow-moving line. When we eventually made it inside (there is no entrance charge) we found ourselves inside the world’s largest church. I found it hard to really appreciate the magnitude of the building, as when something is built in the right proportions its size is not necessarily as obvious as you might think. Inside the entrance is Michelangelo’s marble Pietà statue, which is something I have wanted to see for some time.

One of the basilica’s most notable features is its enormous dome, which greatly influenced Sir Christopher Wren’s design for St Paul’s Cathedral in London. Standing beneath it, looking up at the tiny people walking around the inside of the dome finally brought home to me how large the building really is.

Of course it is not just its size that sets the basilica apart. The whole interior and exterior is of a level of ornateness that surpasses most other churches. This is why it is widely acclaimed as the greatest church in all of Christendom.

• Venice and its Lagoon

Visit: 29th May 2016

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Venice is one of the world’s most famous tourist destinations, so it is one of those World Heritage Sites – like the Pyramids, the Great Wall of China or the Taj Mahal – that nobody questions when I tell them I am going to. “A steel works in Germany? – But, what?” … “a Mercury mine in Slovenia? Are you mad?”. But Venice – that makes sense.

And they would be right, because Venice is a city unlike any other. Its origins are in a time of fear and isolation following the collapse of the Roman Empire. That great civilisation which had held most of Europe together under the yoke of one city eventually crumbled and fell away, leaving the forces of barbarism and destruction to wreak havoc across the continent. In Britain it was the Vikings, who came by boat – but in the south of the continent there were other tribes raiding on foot. For this reason the people of Venice sought refuge on a small archipelago of islands off the coast of the Veneto. It turned out to be a wise move, and the settlement prospered. Over time the city was built up, the gaps between the 117 islets forming the basis for what are now canals.

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By the Middle Ages Venice was one of the strongest city states in the world and boasted great riches. It was a staging post for Christian armies heading out on the Crusades and an important centre of trade in goods imported from far and wide. During the Renaissance Venice played a key role as host to various notable artists, such that it even formed its own sub-style. Venetian builders were slow in adopting the principles behind Renaissance architecture, but when they did the city’s buildings greater warmth and splendour than those in Florence or Rome. The effect of sunlight on Venice’s vistas is something artists often strain to capture. We were fortunate after a thunderstorm to really notice the glow of the evening sun, which I think comes across in the picture above. It is surely no coincidence that one of the chief differences between the Florentines and the Venetians was that the former emphasised design in their art whilst the latter preferred colour.

We arrived in Venice by train from Padua. The main Venetian island is nowadays connected to the mainland by a rather ugly causeway with a highway and railway line on it. I would note that it was opened by Mussolini. Upon exiting the station the view is at once striking. We crossed the bridge over the Grand Canal and began to navigate through the maze of alleys to our hotel about 30 minutes on foot from the station.

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After checking into the hotel we headed out to the city’s main art gallery, the Accademia, just in time for a downpour to catch us. The ‘Venetians’ include Titian, Tintoretto, Giorgione and Bellini. We didn’t see any Canaletto, which was odd because he is famed for his scenes of the Venetian cityscape. But there was a notable altarpiece from the disturbing mind of Hieronymus Bosch, which I had not been expecting.

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After the gallery we considered taking a boat somewhere. Gondolas, I was told, are extremely expensive – so we looked into water buses. But these were expensive too, and none were convenient for us anyway. So we spent a whole day and night in Venice without ever travelling by boat about the canals or the lagoon (never more than a few feet deep). I did come here once before, though, with school when I was sixteen. We took a gondola then, and a trip to the island of Murano where they make the (semi)-famous blue glass.

The city is crowded in parts (eg. the Rialto Bridge) but there are still areas that are relatively quiet and seem almost local. The northern neighbourhood of Cannaregio, recommended by Natalie’s friend Chiedza, was one such place. Here we sat and drank wine before having a good meal. The rain really came down again as we were having a ‘spritz’ aperitif but this time we were sheltered inside.

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One of the most popular sites to visit in Venice is the Doge’s Palace – the seat of the city’s historical ruler, the Duke of Venice. Having walked past it earlier in the day we saw just how big the queues could be. But it turns out that the palace has extended opening hours at weekends, keeping its doors open until 11pm on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. This is a great way to avoid the crowds. We almost had the place to ourselves as we walked around some of the most spectacular interiors in the world.

The Doge’s Palace is an example, perhaps surprisingly, of a Gothic building. When I hear Gothic I tend to think of imposing cathedrals such as Cologne and Amiens, covered in gargoyles and flying buttresses. But this later development of the Gothic style from the 14th century is quirkily individualistic outside (above, left) whilst being more characteristic of the period in its internal courtyard (above, bottom right).

The highlight of the palace is the Senate Hall (above, top right), which was made all the more atmospheric on our visit by the bat flying round and round in the dim glow of the evening’s lights. A visit to the Doge’s Palace also includes the Bridge of Sighs, which contains a pair of corridors through which convicts were taken to jail – sighing as they passed through.

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Venice is full of historic churches. I am always impressed by Baroque interiors such as this one at the Church of the Jesuits (which reminded me of the chapel at the Würzburg Residence in Germany). The spiral columns are called ‘Solomonic columns’ after Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, from which the design was traditionally said to have originated (unlikely to be true).

I assume that the most impressive church of all is St Mark’s Basilica, the city’s cathedral. Unfortunately we didn’t manage a visit, but at least got to see the exterior by night as we headed to the Doge’s Palace.

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After one day and one night in Venice we got up early the next morning to catch a train back out to Padua again. I had accidentally booked the Scrovegni Chapel tickets for the wrong day, meaning our weekend itinerary ended up being Venice Airport – Padua – Venice – Padua – Venice Airport. But Padua is such a nice city that we didn’t mind at all.

Venice is on the UNESCO list for fulfilling all six of the man-made inscription criteria, which is quite an achievement. They are:

  1. masterpiece of creative genius
  2. interchange of values
  3. testimony to cultural tradition
  4. illustrating a significant stage in human history
  5. human interaction with environment
  6. associated with ideas of universal significance

• Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico), Padua

Visit: 28th May 2016

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Padua, a historic city in the Veneto region of Italy, is known for its ancient university and its dramatic fresco cycles from the very beginnings of the Renaissance. My plan for this bank holiday weekend was to spend one night here and another in the nearby city of Venice.

We arrived from Gatwick at Venice’s Marco Polo Airport on Saturday afternoon and made our way west to the city known in Italian as Padova. I was at once impressed with its urban landscape as we walked down the main north-south street, Via Roma. Our hotel for the night was close to the botanical garden, just off the famous Prato della Valle. This 90,000 sq-metre ellipse is the largest ‘square’ in Italy, featuring a canal and rings of statues of the great and the good.

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The World Heritage Site here belongs to the city’s university. Dating from 1222, it is the fifth oldest extant university in the world (after Bologna, Oxford, Salamanca and Cambridge). The Botanical Garden at Padua is inscribed on UNESCO’s list for being the oldest surviving example of such a site. It represents the birth of botanical science and the world-changing discoveries that have sprung from that field.

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Founded in 1545, it is laid out in a plan of four squares within a circle. In the sixteenth century 80% of medicines were derived from plants, so you can appreciate how important it was to understand more about them. Medicinal plants were collected from all over the world and brought here. Today the garden is still in use, both as a site of medicinal research and for the collection and preservation of rare and endangered species.

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The garden’s shape represents the world surrounded by a ring of water that stands for the ocean. In 1704 it was redesigned to include a balustrade atop the wall and wrought iron gates. I liked the gargoyles at the bottom of the gate posts which spit out potable water (I tried some). The garden apparently contains some 6,000 species of plant. One of the most notable specimens is the 450-year old Goethe Palm – named after the German philosopher who was impressed with it when he visited Padua.

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The botanical garden received a major extension in 2014 when a large greenhouse was built to house a great number of additional species. It is divided into halls, each showcasing plants from different ‘biomes’: tropical rainforest, sub-humid tropical forest, temperate, Mediterranean and arid.

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There are some fascinating plants here among the 1,300 species showcased. For example, in the picture above the pale green plants hanging from the branch are not part of the tree or indeed connected to the ground at all. They are Bromeliaceae, which entwine their roots around branches and drink water that trickles off other plants in the humid rainforest air.

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In the arid hall are examples of the concept of convergent evolution. There are only a few adaptations a plant can develop to overcome the challenges of living in a desert. That is why cacti and other desert plants like so alike despite evolving across oceans and thousands of miles. Above are plants indigenous to Africa and below from Central America.

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Looking at connections, Padua’s Orto Botanico is the second university WHS I have visited (after Coimbra, which is the world’s tenth oldest). It is also the third botanical garden WHS (after Singapore Botanical Gardens and Kew Gardens).

It is a small but pleasant WHS that could have benefited from some integration with the rest of Padua’s famous university. The UNESCO video on the site talks about the university’s ground-breaking operating theatre – laid out so that as many students as possible could watch the surgeon at work. But that is not included in this inscription, which concentrates solely on the botanical garden.


Tentative World Heritage Site:

Padova Urbs Picta. Giotto, the Scrovegni Chapel and the 14th century painting cycles

Visit: 30th May 2016

Cappella degli Scrovegni

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Whilst in Padua we took the opportunity to see one of Italy’s highlights: the frescoes of Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel. It is considered by those who know such things to be one of the most impressive sights in the world that is not yet designated a World Heritage Site (the other one that always comes up is Bagan, in Burma). It is, however, on Italy’s “tentative list”, which means the country hopes to submit it for approval at a future UNESCO meeting. I read that it is pencilled in for inscription in 2019, so thought I’d write it up in advance and append it to the Orto Botanico post you’re reading now.

The site as proposed by Italy consists of nine sub-sites within the city of Padua – all notable for their early Renaissance frescoes. The Scrovegni Chapel (above and below) is only the most famous of them. The main wall shows a Last Judgement scene. It is full of innovations that were to be borrowed by famous artists. For example, the foreshortening of fallen soldiers was copied by Paolo Uccello in his Battle of San Romano, and the dead soul in Michaelangelo’s own, more famous version of the Last Judgement in Rome.

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When you go for a tour it is like visiting Leonardo’s Last Supper in Milan. Visits must be pre-booked, then you spend some time in a glass ante-room whilst the interior climate is equalised with that of the chapel. Only then are you allowed in for a chaperoned 15 minute period with the frescoes.

Giotto’s fresco cycle was completed in 1305 at the behest of a wealthy Paduan banker. Enrico Scrovegni wanted a chapel in his own name, to be open to the public but with privileged access (via a special private door) for him and his family.

Giotto was the first since the Greeks to paint scenes in the modern sense. For a thousand years the art of representing a scene in a lifelike manner had been forgotten, save for sculpture in the Gothic period. Giotto’s genius was to rediscover this ability, which involved the use of perspective and the technique of foreshortening. This meant he was not “picture writing” – or telling a story in the manner of a cartoon strip, one static image after another. Instead he followed the advice of the preachers to visualise a biblical scene as it must have appeared in real life. It sounds so basic to us, but for a thousand years painters never thought to represent things in a realistic manner – only in a symbolic manner (as in all those altarpieces you see in museums showing isolated figures on gold backgrounds). Giotto was an innovator, and as such he had to answer fundamental questions such as how exactly a man actually stands rather than how conventional wisdom dictated a person should be represented.

Chiesa dei SS. Filippo e Giacomo agli Eremitani

Next door to the Scrovegni Chapel is the Eremitani Church. It was severely damaged by an aerial bomb during the Second World War and most of its structure has been rebuilt.

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Some of the original frescoes remain, including parts by Andrea Mantegna. Restorers have done an excellent job of tracing out the original frescoes from old photographs and fixing on fragments that were picked up out of the rubble in the places where they belong. This one below is in best condition, though.

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Battistero della Cattedrale

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Padua Cathedral (above) is unremarkable from the outside (it was never finished). But its baptistery contains something quite special. Commissioned by the wife of the Lord of Padua, it houses the masterpiece of Giusto de’ Menabuoi. I was very impressed with the dome paintings within the baptistery. You can really understand how people felt the glory of God when craning upwards to look at Jesus Christ surrounded by rings of prophets.

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Giusto de’ Menabuoi was a generation younger than Giotto, and the master’s influence clearly shows. Prior to Giotto artists were not considered ‘celebrities’ but rather like skilled craftsmen whose names were not important. Gombrich explains that they were like tailors or cabinet-makers nowadays: we appreciate their work but do not generally wonder about the person behind it. So it was with artists prior to the Renaissance, which is why pre-Giotto artists are unknown to us and are often referred to after the piece they created – eg. “Master of the Wilton Diptych”.

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The Baptistery is only €3 to get in to, and in my opinion more impressive than the more expensive and difficult-to-book Scrovegni Chapel.

Palazzo della Ragione

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Unfortunately the Palazzo Ragione was closed on the Monday we tried to visit (things often are in Italy). You can see the impressive architecture of the place from the outside, but not the frescoes within. We walked around the food markets beneath the building and had some fine sandwiches and wine for a very fair price.

Basilica del Santo

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The most impressive building architecturally in Padua is the grand Basilica of Saint Anthony. Although not the city’s designated cathedral, it is often mistaken for it. The numerous domes give it a Byzantine appearance – it would not look out of place in Istanbul. As well as an impressive exterior, it contains notable frescoes, and sculptures, including Donatellos.

There are four other sub-sites in Padua that we did not manage to get to. Let’s see if it makes it onto the official UNESCO list in its present form, then I’ll have to think about going back to this beautiful city.

• Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci

Visit: 20th March 2016

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In the city of Milan there is only one World Heritage Site, and it refers only really to one painting – a faded Renaissance wall mural inside a former dining hall of a relatively modest church (by Milanese standards). But the mural in question is one of the world’s most recognisable images, painted by one of its most remarkable geniuses: Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo’s painting is notable for a number of its pioneering features. First is his application of the newly-discovered rules of perspective. During the painting’s restoration there was discovered a hole for a nail in Jesus’s temple, next to his right eye. This marks the centre of the scene, and the rest of the composition flows out along straight lines from this point. It is easy to take these rules for granted, but before the 15th century no artists abided by them, so pictures from before this time look unnaturally flat. The sense of depth in Leonardo’s mural is enhanced by the painting of a landscape through the window to the rear of the diners.

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Leonardo’s arrangement of the figures was also revolutionary. The Last Supper had been depicted before by other artists, but Leonardo heightened the tension and added realism by dividing them into four groups. Jesus has spoken the words, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” We see the Disciples’ reactions varying from the angry disbelief of Batholomew to the melancholy resignation of John the Evangelist (seated next to Jesus on His right side). The latter is sometimes mistaken for a woman, such as Mary Magdalene, but John is traditionally depicted with feminine features to emphasise his purity. Judas – the only man not surprised by Christ’s utterance – leans forward clutching his money pouch as Peter reaches toward John.

From 1495 to 1497, as he worked on his painting, Leonardo went to great lengths to ensure its perfection. He scoured Milan for men with particularly expressive faces whom he could use as models, and even went as far as to procure models for the figures’ hands, too.

Below you can see the context of the painting within the refectory – or dining hall – of the monks of Santa Maria della Grazie.

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Imagine the sensation they must have experienced when they walked into what had hitherto been a plain dining hall only to see it now ‘extended’ into the distance by Leonardo’s Biblical scene. It was as if they were now dining with Christ and the Disciples. For devoutly religious men of the Middle Ages this must have been an awesome experience.

Leonardo was experimenting with paint media at the time, and for The Last Supper he chose to use egg tempera. On the wall of the Refectory this did not prove durable, and signs of deterioration began to appear as early as the 16th century. The mural received numerous overpaintings over the centuries by well-meaning conservators, but it was not until the late 20th century that it was decided the best course of action would be to strip off all of the accumulated paint and expose the original brushwork of Leonardo. This, combined with delicate modern lighting, allows the viewer to appreciate it again in something like its original condition.

At the other end of the refectory is a painting by a different artist of the Crucifixion at Calvary. It is actually older than The Last Supper, but painted in a more durable medium. After it was finished Leonardo added tempera profiles of the donor and his family. These have not been restored, and they have all but disappeared as a result.

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Santa Maria della Grazie is located in the centre of Milan and is notable architecturally for having been extensively rebuilt by the architect Bramante – one of the leading figures of the Renaissance. We visited it on the second day of a weekend break in the city, having redeemed air miles to book flights from Heathrow out to the city-centre Linate airport and back home from the larger Malpensa.

The food was fantastic there. After touching down in Linate we rode a bus to a classically Milanese restaurant in the east of Milan. Here we ordered the city’s signature dish – a Saffron risotto. It’s not the most exciting of risottos, since it contains no chunks of meat, fish or vegetables, but it is loved by the Milanese for its subtle flavours. My second course was a homemade salami with lentils. The third picture above shows a particularly delicious Mortadella panini from the following day. If I had a café like this one near my house I would eat there every day.

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Milan’s most famous landmark is undoubtedly its Duomo, or cathedral. It sits right in the centre of the city and is at once recognisable for its audacious architecture. The cathedral is a bit of a mongrel in terms of architectural style, though the predominant one is Gothic. The space inside is immense, for it is the largest church in Italy (excluding St Peter’s in the Vatican) and the fifth largest in the world by area.

We went up on to the roof, where there is a reasonable view of the city. But Milan is no Florence, and the view is crowded with modern buildings that make it much less picturesque than its Renaissance-era rival to the south.

Nearby is the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II – one of the world’s oldest shopping centres. It contains all the fashion brands you’d expect in Milan, as well as a mosaic in the centre. The Milanese apparently believe that spinning on the bull’s privates provides good luck (although a friend of a friend who is from the city had no idea what I was talking about when I asked him about it!).

We saw a few other sites on our weekend in the city. I had read that some of the old churches were very interesting. The first one we saw, after Santa Maria della Grazie, was the former convent of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. Its interior is covered in frescoes, including a fairly uncommon depiction of a scene we all know well: Noah’s Ark.

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We also went to the Sforza Castle, built in the 15th century by the Duke of Milan, Francesco Sforza. The next Duke, his son Ludovico, was the man who commissioned Leonardo to paint The Last Supper. The castle these days is home to a number of museums and galleries, of which we went into one.

By this time the afternoon was drawing to an end and it was time to head off to Malpensa for the flight home. I bought a selection of Italian foods (mostly from Sicily, it later turned out) to eat on the journey or to use in cooking back home: blood oranges, green olives, capers, garlic and salami.

• Historic Centre of Florence

Visit: 21st-22nd November 2015

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From one Historic Centre in Portugal to another in Italy, Florence was the final World Heritage Site for me in what has been a fruitful year. 2015 saw:

  • 34 new WHSs visited
    • including 17 new sub-sites
  • 3 repeats (City of BathTown of Bamberg and Cologne Cathedral)
  • 13 countries (in two of which I saw no WHSs)
  • and even a whole trip to Ireland that ended without getting to our intended point of interest, Skellig Michael.

Florence is in some ways the classic WHS: world-famous, of unquestionable cultural value and yet still very much a living city. Its airport is not especially well connected, so most fly to Pisa 42 miles away and get a coach to Florence. Since I like to vary my airports and had flown to Pisa last year to see its Piazza del Duomo, I booked flights from the inconveniently-located (for us) London City, which meant a stay in the local Ibis the night before.

We arrived into Peretola airport in the rain and caught a bus to the town centre. We had only one night there, and there is a lot to do in the birthplace of the Renaissance, so after dropping our bags off we headed straight out to get some food at the city’s central market.

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It is a large covered market with stands selling all manner of fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses. It reminded me of the food market I visited with Ross and Louise in Valencia. The colours are wonderful, and some of the vendors offer hot food to eat there and then, which is what we did.

The first artistic site I was interested in seeing was the Palazzo Medici Riccardi – its courtyard pictured below.22630259353_6e16f23583_bThis grim defensive house (on the outside at least!) belonged to that famous banking family and rulers of Florence, the Medici, before transferring into the hands of the Riccardi family some years later. Probably its most notable element is the private Magi Chapel within, its walls frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli.

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Also of note within the miniature palace is the ceiling painting from the 1680s by Luca Giordano. A work of the Baroque, the extensive preparatory paintings for this ceiling are on display in the National Gallery in London (on the lower level, beyond the café). Knowing that we would be able to go and see the completed project in Florence, Natalie and I had visited the National Gallery a few weeks earlier to see how the canvases compared to the palace. The ceiling depicts mythological allegories of various positive character traits, such as fortitude, justice and prudence. The modelli that now hang in London were considered worthy enough to be on display in the palazzo itself until at least 1822.

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Not far from the Palazzo Medici Riccardi is the Galleria dell’Accademia – home to one of the most famous works in all of art. At the end of a long room flanked by unfinished sculptures stands the 17 ft-high Statue of David.

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I haven’t seen Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but I am told that it can be very disappointing because of its small size relative to the enormous crowds taking constant flash photographs. David does not have this problem – its size ensures that it stands out – quite literally – from the crowd, and it is not encased in bulletproof glass. It really is a thing of beauty, and to think that you are looking at something that one of mankind’s foremost geniuses carved from Carrara marble with his own hand is quite something.

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I mentioned above the unfinished sculptures, and I think these are also worth considering as some of the museum’s most important pieces. Michelangelo was a man who always took on more than he could handle. He would accept commissions but often move onto something new before completing what he had started. These particular unfinished works were destined to become part of one of the grandest artistic projects ever conceived of. Pope Julius II was an enlightened man, a sophisticated patron of some of the most important figures of the Renaissance. But he was also an egotist, which is why he commissioned Michelangelo to build for him an enormous tomb adorned with dozens of sculptures. Michelangelo was known to be the fastest sculptor of his time, able to “knock off more chips of a very hard marble in a quarter of an hour than three young stone carvers could have done in three or four”. Yet the tomb design was so grand that even he was never going to be able to finish it. These incomplete blocks that history has handed down to us grant an insight into the great artist’s method, and there is definite beauty in seeing a figure emerging from the marble like this.

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As we exited the Accademia the light was fading and we walked toward the city’s cathedral, Santa Maria del Fiore. The dome, designed by Renaissance master architect Filippo Brunelleschi, is still the largest of its kind in the world. At the time it would have been revolutionary.

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Opposite the cathedral is the baptistry with its gilded bronze doors by Ghiberti. The 20 three-dimensional panels on the so-called ‘Gates of Paradise’ depict episodes from the life of Christ in great detail.

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That evening we went back to our hotel, uncharacteristically skipped dinner and slept for over twelve hours. It seems foolish, given that we were on such a short break there, but we had been up since 5am.

The next morning the weather was much nicer – a clear blue November sky greeted the day. There is an excellent viewpoint to the southeast of the city walls, and after a coffee we walked up the hill to take in the Arno valley vista.

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Down on the river in the picture above you can make out a bridge. That is the famous Ponte Vecchio, which for some reason is covered in jewellery shops. On the north side of the Vecchio is Florence’s most famous museum, the Uffizi.

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Ponte Vecchio

‘Uffizi’ simply means offices in Italian, for that was the original purpose of the building when in 1560 it was begun by architect, artist and most notably art historian Giorgio Vasari. Since then it has been transformed into the repository of works by all of the great Florentine and Renaissance artists, including most famously Botticelli’s Birth of Venus and Primavera.

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Uffizi

Whilst I appreciate Botticelli, I didn’t find his paintings as impressive as others there, such as Caravaggio’s Sacrifice of Isaac or various pieces by Titian (one of my favourite artists). It probably helped that it was November, but the gallery was not at all crowded and we had to endure no queues on the way in. My advice if you go to Florence in low season is not to bother paying a ticket website the exorbitant commission it will charge you in order to pre-book for the major museums.

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Medusa – Caravaggio

I wasn’t always into art. In fact it is something I’ve gotten into only in the past two years or so, after watching the 1969 TV series Civilisation with Kenneth Clark. My neighbour Jeremy recommended a book earlier this year by E.H. Gombrich called The Story of Art, and I am still working my way through it. I took it with me to Florence in order that it might guide our visit in some way, and as you can see I was often looking things up in it.

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Florence really has two World Heritage Sites. The Historic Centre was the main subject of our trip, but the other is known as ‘Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany’, and consists of 14 different sub-sites, mostly in the vicinity of Florence. The most central of these is the Boboli Gardens, which sits in the grounds of the well-known Pitti Palace. Designed as a pleasure garden, it resembled in some ways the garden of the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, with water features and neatly organised paths and hedgerows. We stood for a while and watched a heron catch a fish in an ornamental pool.

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Included in our gardens ticket was entry to the Silver Museum in the Pitti Palace – though not, unfortunately, the Palatine Gallery. Nevertheless I was impressed with the Baroque ceilings, such as this one by Giovanni Mannozzi that is painted to give the effect of a view into the Heavens. Note that it is not just the circle in the centre that is a painting – all of the apparent architectural embellishments around it are simply 2D representations of a 3D world. The ability to produce that effect I find a very impressive skill.

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We had time for one more sight before heading back to the airport for the flight home. Located near to our hotel, the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella is the oldest of the great churches of Florence, consecrated in 1420. Inside hangs an early Crucifix by Giotto, who was really the first great artist connected with the Renaissance.

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More impressive, to my mind, is the so-called Spanish Chapel, with its 14th century fresco cycle depicting the Passion of Christ on one side and personification of the Liberal Arts and Virtues on the other. Unfortunately the main work that I had been led by Gombrich to expect in the Basilica was out for restoration: The Holy Trinity by Masaccio (a nickname which means ‘clumsy Thomas’) was painted in the early 15th century and is one of the first works to demonstrate a knowledge of the laws of perspective – ie. vanishing points constructed in a precise manner.

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Santa Maria Novella

There are many other treasures in Florence that we were unable to fit in. As I find myself saying so often, a return trip is in order. With Florence I think I am certain to be true to my word, since I do very much want to see Brunelleschi’s Pazzi Chapel (the ‘first’ Renaissance building) the Bargello museum and the Palatine Gallery, as well as the 12 other villas and gardens in and around the city that make up the Medici villas World Heritage Site.