Look Down: Italy's Most Beautiful Floors

Enter a historic villa, palazzo, or cathedral in Italy, and you'll find that your eyes are almost immediately drawn upwards. Intricate Byzantine mosaics, ornate Renaissance frescoes, and sumptuous Baroque plasterwork cover the ceilings of many of Italy's most important buildings, a symbol of the wealth and power of the emperors, dukes, and popes who commissioned them centuries ago.

piazza-armerina-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

The next time you step into one of Italy's landmark buildings, however, don't forget to look down. Many floors can rival the ceilings, and are artistic masterpieces of complex patterns and prestigious materials that have survived the passage of thousands of feet over time. Here are a few of the most interesting floor types, and where to find them.

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Plautilla Nelli: Florence's First Woman Artist

After centuries of masculine domination, Italy's most important museums are starting to show their feminine side in both boardrooms and exhibition halls. Women have been named to head a number of the country's leading galleries in recent years, beginning with Cecilie Hollberg at the Accademia in Florence and Sylvain Bellenger at Naples' Capodimonte Museum in 2015, and more recently, Barbara Jatta ,who this year became the first woman chosen by a pope to direct the Vatican Museums.

Pained Madonna.png
By Plautilla Nelli - Advancing Women Artists Foundation 2014-02-07 07:30:08, Public Domain, Link(Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to taking the helm in managing Italy's struggling state museums, women have also begun to take center stage as artists in both special exhibitions and permanent collections. A major retrospective dedicated to Artemisia Gentileschi, the greatest female artist of the Baroque age, has been one of the most successful exhibitions in Rome since it opened in December, and Eike Schmidt, director of the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, has made good on his promise to highlight more works by female artists with “Plautilla Nelli: Convent Art and Devotion in the Footsteps of Savonarola”, dedicated to Florence’s first-known female Renaissance painter, open now until June 4th.

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Venice's Peggy Guggenheim Collection

One of the most important and prestigious art collections in Venice has surprisingly little to do with La Serenissima's illustrious history and artistic heritage.

guggenheim-venice-entrance(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Instead, it was bold American heiress and patron of the arts Peggy Guggenheim who amassed a stunning collection of 20th century art and found a home for it in her adopted city of Venice, where it remains among the city's most popular museums today.
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Pistoia: Italy's 2017 Culture Capital

It's a new year, and Italy would like to bring your attention to a new unsung “Cultural Capital” over the next 12 months. Cultural Capitals are small, jewel-like cities that have less star power than Venice or Florence, but offer their own understated beauty and artistic and architectural treasures to discover. Last year, the honor fell to the “Sleeping Beauty” of Mantua, a beautiful Renaissance center and UNESCO World Heritage Site between Milan and Venice, and this year the fêted city is the Tuscan town of Pistoia, just half an hour outside Florence at the foot of the Apennine mountains.

B02 Pistoia panorama(Photo by mksfca on Flickr)

Christened “La Città dei Crucci”, or “City of Sorrow”, by Gabriele D’Annunzio, Pistoia has long had a reputation for being particularly contentious, with its residents embroiled in protracted battles between warring factions and families for centuries. “I love you, city of sorrow, bitter Pistoia,” wrote D'Annuncio, “blood of the Whites and the Blacks, that turns red before your proud people, men of ideology, with ancient joy.” Today, rather than bitterness and blood, you'll find Pistoians harbor a fierce civic pride and enduring affection for their home town.

Pistoia has grown in popularity over the past few years, as visitors to Florence look to escape the crowds in Tuscany's capital city by venturing out to the relative peace of the nearby provincial towns for day trips and overnights. If there was ever a time to visit Pistoia's pretty piazzas, elegant churches, and world-class museums, it is 2017...the calendar is full of special cultural events, exhibitions, and concerts and the center has been spruced up and is ready to receive travelers curious to explore one of the most charming small cities in Tuscany.
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Florence's Museo degli Innocenti

Italy's beautiful Renaissance capital is going through a bit of a modern “rebirth” this year, as a number of Florence's most important museums have been recently renovated or expanded and are now open to the public.

The famed Uffizi unveiled its new Botticelli rooms in October, completely reconfigured to improve the lighting and provide more space to display the early Renaissance masterpieces, marking the final stage of the renovation of the museum's entire second floor. The Museo dell'Opera del Duomo has become one of Florence's crown jewels since its inauguration at the end of 2015, with a renovation that almost doubled its previous size and includes a scale model of the cathedral’s original unfinished façade, dismantled in 1586 and featuring forty statues from the 14th and early 15th centuries. Even the stodgy Palazzo Strozzi exhibition space is hosting a collection of Chinese iconoclast Ai Weiwei's works, and making Florentine tongues wag by hanging a row of his contemporary life rafts on the outside of this landmark of Renaissance architecture.

museo-degli-innocenti-florence
(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Perhaps the most moving renovation, however, is that of the historic Museo degli Innocenti, which documents the history of Florence's Istituto degli Innocenti located in the hospital designed by Filippo Brunelleschi in Piazza della Santissima Annunziata. Founded in 1419 by a donation from the wealthy merchant Francesco Datini and the Florentine Silk Workers Guild, the “Innocenti” was the world's first lay institution dedicated to taking in abandoned and orphaned children and is still providing services to families more than 600 years later.

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“Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Time” Exhibit in Rome

One of the great tragedies of art history is that there have been so few successful female artists over the centuries. The combination of social mores, domestic responsibilities, and institutional obstacles meant that talented women were forced to channel their creative energy into more “female” arts, leaving painting, sculpture, and architecture to generations of studio-trained men.

Gentileschi judith1.jpg
By Artemisia Gentileschi - http://artchive.com/artchive/G/gentileschi/gent_judith.jpg.html, Public Domain, Link


One of the most interesting exceptions is Artemisia Gentilischi, the 17th century Baroque painter who is known for her dramatic, expressive style which was heavily influenced by Caravaggio, and the subject of the “Artemisia Gentileschi and Her Time” exhibit in Rome's Museo di Roma in Palazzo Braschi, open now until May 7th, 2017.

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Caltagirone: Ceramic Capital of Sicily

Much like Deruta in Umbria, the central Sicilian town of Caltagirone is known almost exclusively for its ceramic production. With an artisan tradition stretching over a thousand years, and a name rooted in the Arabic Qal'at Ghiran, or “castle of the vases”, this Baroque hilltown is the unrivaled ceramic capital of Sicily.

Caltagirone_2014 05 29_2643(Photo by Harvey Barrison via Flickr)

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Venice's Palazzo Museums

It happens to almost everyone who visits Italy: as you stroll past a stately palazzo facade, your eyes drift upwards and you catch a glimpse of the “piano nobile” with its sweeping halls, frescoed ceilings, sumptuous artwork, and intricate Murano glass chandeliers. You wonder who may have lived there - or perhaps still does, and wistfully daydream about a chance to view the ornate interiors from close up.

Italy's historic cities are crowded with these noble palazzi, built as ostentatious private residences by everyone from popes to wealthy sea merchants, all of whom needed to demonstrate their economic and political power through prestigious real estate. Though some of these aristocratic palaces are still privately owned and inhabited, many have been sold over the centuries and are now home to banks, government ministries, schools, or divided into smaller private apartments.

DSC03268 _Snapseed(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Luckily for the daydreamers, there are also a number of important palazzi that have been converted into small museums or galleries open to the public, often with the original decor and furnishings partially or fully intact. Rome has a wonderful collection of palazzi museums, as does Venice.

Here are a few of the most interesting museums in Venice housed in La Serenissima's most magnificent historic palazzi:

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Historic Jewish Sites in Italy

This year marks the 500th anniversary of the founding of Venice's historic Jewish ghetto, which has recently undergone a 2 year, multi-million dollar renovation and has been inducted into UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. But Venice isn't the only city in Italy where there are fascinating traces of Italy's historic Jewish population, which is one of Europe's oldest and was founded by early immigrants to Rome when Judea was part of the Roman Empire.

Ghetto ebraico di Venezia 10(Photo by Giovy via Flickr)

Ancient Rome was particularly tolerant of Jews, and as the Roman empire fell and Christianity took hold, Jews who lived closer to Rome were less persecuted by the Papacy than in other European countries, where there were often mass deportations during the Middle Ages. In modern times, more Jews survived the Holocaust in Italy than almost any other country in occupied Europe and historic synagogues and other Jewish heritage sites were largely left intact, even during the harsh reign of Fascism.

Ostia Antica(Photo by Herb Neufeld via Flickr)

Because of this long history of vacillation between tolerance and peaceful coexistence, Italy is home to a number of interesting Jewish monuments and sites, some of which date to the very first Jewish settlements. Among the most interesting Roman ruins are the remains of the Ostia Synagogue in the archaeological site of Ostia Antica. Dating from the 1st century AD, this is believed to be the oldest synagogue ever discovered outside of Israel.Very little of the original building remains, though there are inscriptions referring to a series of Torah arks and there is a carving of a menorah on one of the remaining columns.

Other Jewish sites are better preserved, and many synagogues and neighborhoods are still active in Italy's small but vibrant Jewish community. Here are some of the most interesting to visit:
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Sicily's Stunning Mosaics

Italy is home to a number of important Byzantine mosaic masterpieces, most famously in Rome's Church of Santa Cecilia, Venice's Basilica of Saint Mark, and San Vitale and Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna. The extent of the Byzantine Empire was not limited to mainland Italy in the 6th century AD, however, but extended across the Strait of Messina to include Sicily, as well.

monreale-sicily-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Byzantine influences can be seen in some of the most stunning Norman churches in Sicily, and breathtaking mosaics decorate a number of churches and cathedrals in and around Palermo. The most famous of these are in the Cathedral of Monreale, home to the largest cycle of Byzantine mosaics in Italy. The interior of this imposing Norman church is almost entirely covered with ornate mosaics, and it is estimated that craftsmen from Constantinople used over 2,200 kilograms of gold to make the 100 million tessarae (individual tiles) featured in these magnificent works.
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The Fountains of Rome

When the temperatures soar in Rome each summer, the city's historic fountains are tempting with their cool waters sprinkling and bubbling over intricate stonework and into shimmering pools in the center of torrid, sun-baked piazzas. Don't give in to the urge to take a dip, however, as it is illegal to bathe in the Eternal City's monumental fountains, many of which have been damaged recently by reckless visitors climbing and frolicking on their delicate marble. But do stop to admire these stunning works of art and utility, and even quench your thirst... many have drinking fountains worked into their design!

trevi-fountian-rome-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Here are some of the most famous and beautiful fountains in Rome, from the ornate to the fanciful, which merit a visit (but not a swim):

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Eight “Must See” Art Exibitions in Italy 2016

While 2015 was the year in which the Expo World Fair dominated Italy's event calendar, 2016 is set to be the year of important art exhibitions. From Renaissance masters to modern icons, many of art's most recognized names have shows or installations scheduled during the coming months in Italian cities from north to south.

alternative text(Photo: William Kentridge Triumphs and Laments © Tevereterno)

Many of these shows have already attracted their fair share of publicity and ticket sales, so if you are planning on visiting make sure you have arranged for tickets - or have us make the arrangements for you! You don't want to waste hours standing in long lines or find that tickets are sold out for the dates you are in town. You should also revisit our tips for visiting museums in Italy, which covers everything from beating the crowds to skipping the lines.
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Christo's “Floating Piers” Installation

One of Italy's most interesting and discussed cultural events in 2016 is Bulgarian-born artist Christo's new massive installation, “Floating Piers”, on Lake Iseo in Lombardy.

alternative text(Photo: André Grossmann © 2014 Christo)

This conceptual artist, along with his late wife, Jeanne-Claude, is famous for his large-scale environmental pieces. His best known installations were his wrappings of Berlin's Reichstag, Paris' Pont-Neuf bridge, and the coast of Little Bay in Sydney, Australia, which was the largest single artwork in history.
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Florence with Kids: A Family Friendly Tour

Florence is Italy's most family-friendly major city. The historic center is very compact, and virtually all of the city's major squares, museums, and sights are within walking distance from each other and from the main train station. You can spend days exploring and never have to use public transportation or taxis - something that is not really possible in Rome or Milan. In addition, the large areas of downtown closed to cars and mopeds give kids a longer tether to run around in the piazzas and main streets without parents worrying about them running into traffic or taking an accidental dip, which is a nagging worry when visiting Venice.

Kids enjoying art(Photo by Michael via Flickr)

The vast artistic treasures of this Renaissance capital can be a bit over the top for younger kids, however. As in Rome, many of the most iconic museums and monuments in Florence are best appreciated with a guide who knows how to cherry-pick the works so visits are engaging rather than discouraging. Other sights in the city are fun to explore independently and can be enjoyed by travelers of all ages.
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Arts and Crafts Lessons in Italy

Everyone loves to bring home a unique souvenir from a memorable trip, and travelers to Italy are no exception. Shopping is one of the joys of visiting this country dominated by small, family-run businesses. Everything from food and wine to traditional artisan wares and custom tailored clothing make excellent gifts for loved ones or mementos for yourself.

There is no better souvenir from Italy, however, than the memories of authentic experiences with welcoming locals. We love to arrange personalized tours and visits with local experts and artisans so travelers to Italy can come home with a true understanding of this country's culture and people.

arts-crafts-florence-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

With an arts and crafts lesson, these two aspects are perfectly combined: under the patient guidance of a traditional artisan, you have the opportunity to learn a new skill in its historical and cultural context...and you leave with the most unique souvenir possible: a unique handcrafted item or piece of artwork that you have made yourself!

Arts and crafts lessons and courses have become increasingly popular among travelers to Italy over the past few years for this precise reason, and there are a variety of private lessons and group courses available across Italy to suit a range of interests and skill levels. Here are a few of the most interesting:

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The Palazzi Museums of Rome

Italy is home to so much of the world's great art and architecture. Some are found outdoors in public spaces, visual delights to happen upon while wandering the streets of Florence or Rome, and some are located in the churches and cathedrals for which they were first commissioned centuries ago. But most of Italy's artistic treasures are kept in the country's hundreds of museums.

doria-pamphilij-rome-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Though there are certainly great museums which were built specifically to house the vast collections accrued by princes and popes over the past 500 years, like the Vatican for example, Italy's public museums are often located in repurposed public or private palaces, villas, and palazzi. These are especially interesting to visit, as the artwork is displayed against a backdrop of ornate historical halls and salons, featuring original decor and furnishings, and surrounded by elegant gardens and grounds.

palazzo-barberini-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Nowhere is this more true than Rome, which is home to a number of exceptional museum collections housed in sumptuous buildings which were once private aristocratic, diplomatic, or papal residences and are now owned by the city of Rome, the Italian state, or, in rare cases, the original family. Here are a few of the most interesting, both for the art on display and for the halls in which it's shown:
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Italy's Top Ten Masterpieces

Italy is so rich in artistic masterpieces that it is no exaggeration to say that it would be almost impossible to see the country's vast trove of paintings and sculpture over the course of a lifetime, let alone a single vacation. UNESCO estimates that around 60% of the world's great art is in Italy, and virtually every town of any import - and at least a few otherwise unremarkable hamlets - is home to at least one fresco or artifact that would, in any country with a lower density of treasures, be the crown jewel of an important museum collection.

Though we love to explore the lesser-known and private museums in Italy, there is no denying that Italy's most famous and iconic works are a must-see, especially on a first trip. It's no secret as to which masterpieces shouldn't be missed, but we've listed them here as an easy reference, including their location and importance.
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Rome's “The Power of Ruins” Exhibit

We recently visited the excellent “La Forza delle Rovine” exhibition at Rome's Museo Nazionale Romano in Palazzo Altemps (running through the end of January, 2016), which includes photographs taken by our lead guide in Rome, Alessandro Celani.

power of ruins-rome-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

This group of over 100 works - including sculptures, paintings, engravings, watercolors, antique books, photographs, music, and films - from private and public collections in Italy and across the globe are united around the topic of “ruins”. Visitors are invited to reflect on the meaning relics of the past have had over time, from ancient civilizations to contemporary tourists, including intellectuals, writers, musicians, and film makers through the centuries. Read More...

Italy's 2015-2016 Opera Season

Each winter in Italy, the new opera season kicks off in some of the world's most sumptuous historic theaters in cities from north to south. As professional singers and opera fans, we are always curious to see what trends and news come with each year's season. This year Brian has noticed a few that stand out:

  • Verismo - the style of opera produced in Italy at the end of the 19th century through the 1920’s and one of our favorite genres - is back!
  • Rarities are showing up on a number of theater programs this year
  • La Fenice remains a good venue to see the classics; La Traviata seems to be getting the most play this year

Opera Glasses(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you are interesting in seeing an opera while traveling in Italy this winter, here are some notes regarding the most important theaters:
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Fall Art Exhibits in Italy

Autumn is one of the best periods of the year to visit Italy: the dense summer crowds thin considerably with the beginning of the school year, the torrid temperatures become more humane, some of the county's best culinary products are in season, and in some destinations, accommodations and airlines start offering their shoulder or low season rates. Perhaps one of the only disadvantages to traveling from October to December is the tricky weather, which can often turn on a dime and makes it challenging to foresee what to wear or what to plan from day to day.

This is why it's always wise to have a Plan B in mind for your daily itinerary, just in case the skies open and that stroll through the Forum or Boboli Gardens has to be postponed a few hours. Local museums are good alternatives, especially temporary exhibits that offer something new and engaging to see, even if you've visited and toured the museum itself on previous days or trips.

Palazzo Strozzi(Photo by Federico Pelloni via Flickr)

Fortunately, Italy is thick with excellent art exhibitions running through the fall months in major and minor cities from north to south over the next three months, perfect for a B-list (or even A-list) itinerary, rain or shine.

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Contemporary Rome: MAXXI and MACRO

Rome is where the world goes to see history. From the magnificent ruins of Roman architectural wonders to the transcendental beauty of sculptures and paintings by Michelangelo and Caravaggio, the Eternal City's cultural treasures are, indeed, timeless.

Why then spend time in Rome looking at the future? Because this major European capital isn't a relic, frozen in time centuries ago, but a vibrant, modern city with an active contemporary art scene encompassing both local artists and downtown museums.

Maxxi- Zaha Hadid(Photo by Antonella Profeta via Flickr)

You can get a feel for Rome's quiet contemporary pulse by simply walking the city streets, where you will encounter murals by a number of street artists working in Italy's capital. But you should also make time to check out one of the city's two excellent contemporary art museums, where pieces by modern and contemporary Italian and international artists are exhibited in spaces which are themselves noteworthy.
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The Christmas Story, Artfully Told

Italy is home to so much art (over half the world’s artistic treasures can be found in this relatively small country, according to UNESCO estimates) that it is easy to become inured to this exceptional patrimony, displayed everywhere from world-class museums to tiny country chapels.

Many of these works take on a particularly moving significance when viewed in a specific context, be it a poignant location or a relevant time of year. This is why we love to revisit some of the best Nativity-related paintings in Italy during the Christmas season, when they become more than just another masterpiece and instead a reminder of the message of joy and peace that this holiday represents to millions of Italians (and visitors to Italy).

Here are a few of our favorites, depicting the most important moments in the Christmas story:
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Bologna: The Stopover Worth a Stay

Though Bologna is perfectly positioned as a stopover between Florence and Venice, this bustling university town—the largest in Emilia Romagna—can easily be considered a destination itself.

Street view in Bologna(Photo by Kosala Bandara via Flickr)

Famous for its excellent cuisine, home to the world’s oldest university (and with a history shaped by the millenia-long conflict between the secular academic world and the religious Catholic one), and with an elegant city center offering excellent shopping and sightseeing, take time to spend an overnight here before moving on either north or south.
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A Michelangelo-Themed Walking Tour in Florence

This year marks the 250th anniversary of the death of Michelangelo Buonarroti, one of the greatest artists, architects, and engineers Italy—indeed, the world—has ever known. The mastery and prodigiousness of his work in a number of different disciplines, including painting, sculpture, and poetry, earned him the title of “Il Divino” during his lifetime, and has been the key to his lasting influence on western art and culture.

Michelango Portrait by Volterra.jpg
"Michelango Portrait by Volterra" di Daniele da Volterra - [1]. Con licenza Public domain tramite Wikimedia Commons.


Though he was born in a small town near Arezzo and many of his most famous works are in Rome, Michelangelo spent most of his youth in Florence where he began his long career with his first apprenticeship (under Il Ghirlandaio) at fourteen. We asked our favorite Florence guide and art historian, Elvira Politi, to suggest a Michelangelo walk to celebrate the life and work of this truly Renaissance Man in the most Renaissance of cities. Read More...

Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in Bologna

“Vermeer: The Golden Age of Dutch Art” exhibition, runs in Bologna’s Palazzo Fava until May 25th.

“Vermeer(Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” via Wikimedia Commons) Read More...

Caravaggio in Sicily

If you think that Charlie Sheen has a corner on the bad boy-slash-artistic genius market, think again. Centuries before temperamental Hollywood actors were trashing hotel rooms and scandalizing the morally upstanding,16th century Baroque painter Caravaggio was blazing the trail of high-profile excess and brawling, a route which led from Rome to Naples to Malta to Sicily and back to Naples as he sought to keep a step ahead of the law and his personal enemies. Read More...

Puglia’s Castel del Monte

If, while in Puglia, you can pull yourself away from this southern region’s whitewashed villages, turquoise sea, and heaping plates of orecchiette a cime di rape, consider a visit to Castel del Monte. Read More...

Behind Closed Doors: Visiting Private Museums and Artwork in Italy

Italy is saturated with art, and not only in the big ticket cities like Rome, Florence, or Venice. Virtually every hamlet and hilltown in Italy boasts at least one masterpiece tucked away in the local parish church or dusty municipal gallery which, if it were housed in any city in the New World, would be the crown jewel of a lavish dedicated museum and marketed to its last dab of tempera.

But if your head swims at the thought of the incredible volume of art displayed publicly in Italy, consider the treasures that hide behind closed doors. Centuries of noble families amassing sumptuous private collections mean that there are untold Stendhal moments tucked away in the elegant apartments of Italy’s private palazzi and castles. Many of these are off-limits to visitors outside the family’s close circle, but many others can be quietly and privately seen...if you just know how. Read More...

Piero della Francesca Trail

Italy is so dense with history, art, and—most importantly—incredible food that it’s a gratifying country to simply wander guided by serendipity (and an expert travel planner) rather than an overly precise game plan. That said, themed itineraries organized around a specific artist, food, or historical period are an excellent way to both give a bit of structure and context to your meanders and discover memorable hidden spots that probably wouldn’t have made the A-list classic tour.

One favorite is the Piero della Francesca trail, winding through some of the prettiest towns on the Tuscany-Le Marche border where this Renaissance painter and mathematician lived and worked during the second half of the 1400s. Read More...

Naples’ Christmas Street

Though Christmas decorations have become increasingly international in Italy over the past few decades, traditionally most Italian households, shops, and churches celebrated the season with a single, but often sprawling and elaborate, adornment: the Christmas Nativity scene, or presepe. Read More...

A Magical World Inside a Lucky Store

In just a few days, Italy will celebrate the Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception which falls each year on December 8th and marks the official beginning of the holiday season. In years past, families and merchants spent this day decorating their homes and shops for Christmas, and each town threw the switch on their holiday lights come sundown (though now decorations are often seen at the end of November). Read More...

A Rainy-Day Florence Itinerary: Leon Battista Alberti

Now that autumn is upon us, travelers can expect some wet and blustery days even in the mild Mediterranean climes of Italy. With this in mind, we asked one of our favorite Florence guides, Elvira Politi, to suggest a largely indoor itinerary for those days when plans of lingering over a cappuccino in the city’s outdoor cafés get rained out, and she came up with the wonderful Leon Battista Alberti walking tour to celebrate the recent reopening of his Rucellai Chapel. Read More...

Siena’s Duomo Floor Revealed

The breathtaking floor of Siena’s Duomo, worked in inlaid marble mosaic by about forty artists from between the 14th and 16th centuries, is one of the most splendid of its kind in all of Italy. Read More...

Handmade Italian Textiles from the Masters at Brozzetti

When you reach Giuditta Brozzetti’s Handmade Fabric Museum and Workshop, it’s easy to think you’ve got the wrong place.

The Women’s Church of St. Francis


brozzetti italian textiles
Image © Concierge in Umbria

The street address leads you to an early 13th century church near Perugia's historic center. The atrium (pictured above) could be the office of the convent’s head sister, with its spare but elegant furnishings.

It was here that San Francesco and his disciples made their home while they were teaching in Perugia. And this church – today Perugia’s oldest Franciscan church – was erected on the spot in the saint’s honor. A group of Benedictine nuns then resided there on and off for the next 600 years.

But as you venture into the main church, you find antique looms lined up within each arch of the arcaded aisles.

brozzetti italian textiles loom
Image © Concierge in Umbria

And as textiles historian and Brozzetti co-owner Clara Baldelli Bombelli unravels the history of Umbrian weaving, through one breathtaking sample after another of the workshop’s delicate, colorful recreations of Deruta ceramic-inspired embroidery, veil-like silk and linen curtains, and cashmere- and gold-threaded tapestries, you come to share her belief that the church is the ideal place to honor the region’s traditionally feminine monastic crafts.

The Long Tradition of Umbrian Weaving


brozzetti italian textiles weaving
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Weaving as both a craft and an art form is believed to have developed in Umbria between the 11th and 13th centuries.

But it was in the next three centuries that the industry, and its designs, came into their own.

Umbria-woven linen altar cloths with geometric borders (similar to the Medieval tessuto rustico pictured above) and regal animal figures became in moda throughout Italy. Umbrian griffins, lions, and eagles – based on Etruscan pottery – could be found gracing the vestments of the high-ranking church figures and the tables of the wealthiest Renaissance families.

Unfortunately, after its Renaissance peak, the Umbrian textile industry declined almost to the point of extinction, until, in the early 1900s, a group of Umbrian woman revived interest in the traditional designs.

Giuditta Brozzetti, Clara’s grandmother, was one of those leading the charge, and Brozzetti founded her workshop not only as a production center, but also as a school to further the craft.

Brozzetti’s Work Today


brozzetti italian textiles jaquard plates
Image © Concierge in Umbria

Generation after generation, from mother to daughter, this tradition of education and excellence has continued through today.

If you have a day or a week, Clara and Marta will impart their deep knowledge of the craft’s history through basic weaving courses or in-depth dives into the intricacies of traditional Umbrian motifs. What sets the Brozzetti workshop apart, besides being one of the few wholly handmade cloth workshops left, are these designs (created on the pattern machine above).

Clara’s daughter, master weaver Marta Cucchi, studies paintings from the likes of Simone Martini, Ghirlandaio, and even Giotto and da Vinci featuring Umbrian cloths to uncover Renaissance patterns that have been lost to the weaving community over the centuries.

The Region of Umbria honored Brozzetti in 2004 for this important preservation work, officially including the workshop in its museum system.

Don’t Forget A Souvenir


brozzetti italian textiles weaving
Image © Concierge in Umbria

While you’re busy admiring the antique jacquard looms, skeins of jewel-colored linen, cotton, silk, and cashmere thread lined up like jellies in a candy shop, and Marta swiftly warping and wefting away in the midst of it all, don’t forget to choose a favorite.

We think it’s a sin to miss the opportunity to pick out one of the workshop’s divine creations in person.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

48 Hours: Firenze (Florence)

In a city with more than 70 museums and 2,000 years of history (much of it concentrated in the just under 2-square-mile centro storico UNESCO World Heritage Site) forty-eight hours is just enough time to get a taste of Florence’s charm . . . and start plotting for your return.

FRIDAY


48 hours in florence duomo
Image © Concierge in Umbria

4:00 p.m. Greatest Hits


Start in the Piazza del Duomo, where the sheer mass of the cathedral and its Renaissance engineering masterpiece, the largest brick dome constructed to this day, dwarf the surrounding medieval streets. Continue down Via dei Calzaiuoli and work your way through Piazza Signoria to the Arno River and back east to the Basilica of Santa Croce.

6:30 p.m. Stop and Smell the Vino


Rest your feet and feast your eyes on the Florentine passeggiata, the evening stroll in one of the many medieval tower houses that’s been converted into a wine bar. Where to begin? We’re partial to Antinori’s wines and their restaurant outside the city, and their in-town Cantinetta Antinori is an ideal spot to sample both.

8:00 p.m. Dine like Dante


You’ll find that beyond all of the art and architecture, one of the best things about Florence is its residents. Trattorias showcase both traditional local fare – think pasta with rabbit sauce, 30+ oz. steaks, and hearty vegetable soups – and a vibrant swath of the local population. We love Trattoria I’ Parione, where we had one of our favorite meals of 2011.

SATURDAY


48 hours in florence palazzo pubblico
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7:30 a.m. A Café with a View


At Rivoire, founded by the personal chocolatier of the Savoy family when Florence was the capital of newly united Italy, you can grab a signature hot chocolate or a café and pastry and soak up the local gossip and the singular view of Piazza della Signoria, a site which has hosted the rise and fall of Florentine regimes for centuries.

8:15 a.m. Medici Morning


Dive in when the doors first open to get Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery more or less to yourself. The museum is organized chronologically and grouped by artists, so it offers the perfect chance for a morning’s education on Florence’s pivotal role as a setting for Renaissance artistic development. And what better setting than the place these great artists learned their craft! During the early Renaissance, the Medicis invited artists to study and work among the collection to hone their skills.

48 hours in florence arno river
Image © Concierge in Umbria

11:00 a.m. On the Wild Side


Though it’s just a one-minute walk across the Ponte Vecchio, the Arno’s south shore, the Oltrarno (beyond the Arno) is largely overlooked by tourists. Grab lunch in one of the great-value, locals-oriented trattorias or piadinerias (like a pizzeria for flatbread). Walk it off touring some of the artisans plying ancient trades on the back streets, from bookbinders to furniture makers to stationers. Begin your second Medici encounter of the day at the Palazzo Pitti, Florence’s answer to Buckingham Palace. After all the opulence, treat yourself to a well-deserved respite in the ducal gardens attached to the palace, the Boboli Gardens, or the adjoining, recently reopened Bardini gardens terraced on the hillside.

5:00 p.m.: A Sunset fit for a King


Michelangelo’s David (or at least one of the four versions displayed around the city) enjoys the best view of the city from Piazza Michelangelo in the Oltrarno. As the day cools off, you can reach this spot via car, bus, or foot – the steep steps up the riverside to the piazza are not for those out of shape – for a picnic or aperitivo as the sun sets on the River Arno.

7:30 p.m. Dinner Theater?


No other spot in Chef Fabbio Picchi’s Cibreo empire can compete with Teatro del Sale in terms of pure entertainment value. The dining room is itself a theater, and a performance – from circus acrobatics to lyric opera to stand-up comedy – ends every dinner. But the show is only half the show. Dinner itself, announced with a verbal drumroll from the windows of the adjoining kitchen, is like falling down Alice’s rabbit hole. Only after gorging yourself on the buffet of vegetables, salads, and grilled meats does the soup begin, followed by course after course after surprising course.

SUNDAY


48 hours in florence vista
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9:00 a.m. Small Blessings


Begin in one of Florence’s smaller museum gems. Just behind Piazza Signoria, the Bargello (open the 2nd and 4th Sundays of every month), named for its former function as a prison, is a wonderful alternative to the Accademia with its broad range of sculpture including works by Donatello and Michelangelo. The Museo dell’Opere del Duomo, which houses all of the original art and sculpture from the cathedral, offers an opportunity to get up close with a version of Michelangelo's Pieta. For fashion lovers, Museo Salvatore Ferragamo tells the story of how one man's quest to make perfect custom shoes launched an empire.

11:00 a.m. Sweet Rewards


Reward yourself for an early morning among the maestros with a café and pasta (pastry) at one of Florence’s top bakeries in the eastern part of the city. Try I Dolci di Patrizio Corsi on Borgo Albizi or Dolci & Dolcezze in Piazza Beccaria, home to one of the city’s remaining eighth-century gates.

12:00 p.m. Spoil Yourself


Stroll back through some of the city’s best boutiques on Borgo Albizi as you make your way back to the center of town and Florence’s supreme shopping around Piazza Repubblica, particularly on Via Tornabuoni, home to the family palaces and fashion houses of the Puccis, Guccis, and Ferragamos.

2:00 p.m. Arrivederci Firenze


Refuel on some light fare like the legendary sandwiches at nearly-130-year-old Due Frattelini before bidding your final adieu to the city from its premier panorama spot – the top of Brunelleschi’s dome.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy

Top Italian Music Festivals: Opera in Rome, The Arena di Verona, Umbria Jazz Festival and More

italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user *Debs*

Music has been at the heart of Italian culture since the Romans refined Greek musical drama. Italian composer still dominate opera’s “best of” lists and one of the country’s favorite sons, Giuseppe Verdi, is being feted this year on the occasion of his 200th Birthday (October 10).

As singers and music lovers, we love to share our passion for music with travelers to Italy. Like the country’s great art museums, Italy’s music festivals bring the country’s heritage to life.

Arena di Verona, Veneto


italian music festivals arena di verona
Image by Flickr user Kevin Poh

Opera at the Arena di Verona in Verona brings Italian history from different periods – Roman, baroque, neoclassical, and modern – together in a way you won’t find anywhere else. Set in one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters, performances begin once dark sets in, typically around 9pm in the summer. Candles are passed through the thousands of attendees to light the seating area and paths and imbue the space with an ancient timelessness that provides a lively contrast against the often high-art, hyper-modern set pieces. The Arena season runs from June 14 to September 8 and features 5 Verdi classics including perennial favorite Aida.

Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Umbria


italian music festivals umbria jazz festival
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Since its inception in 1973, the Umbria Jazz Festival has grown into one of the most significant jazz festivals in the world, drawing in the top names in music – Miles Davis, B.B. King, Tony Bennett, Natalie Cole, Elton John, Carlos Santana and Van Morrison to name a few. The original July version of the festival now reaches beyond jazz, hosting some of the world’s top pop artists as well. It has become so popular it now has a winter spin-off, the Umbria Jazz Winter Festival held in December and January in Orvieto. From large stadium concerts to street musicians and small club performances by up and coming jazzistas it is a wonderfully chaotic and vibrant scene in the Umbrian capital during the festival. The 40th Anniversary Season runs from July 5-14 and features performances by John Legend, Diana Krall, Keith Jarrett, Sony Rollins, among others.

Baths of Caracalla, Rome


italian music festivals opera in Rome
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Each summer, Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera decamps from its location in the city to the ancient Baths of Caracalla for summer performances. Active from the 2nd to the 6th century AD, the baths were Rome’s second largest public baths. They remain remarkably intact and provide a suggestive backdrop for music productions. 2013 ScheduleTBA.

Puccini Festival in Torre del Lago, Tuscany


Started by a friend of Puccini’s in 1930 with a production of La Boheme on a stage built right in the lake, the Puccini Festival has grown into one of the world’s top opera festivals. Now in the lakeside town where Puccini spent much of his life and composed many of his operas, a small outdoor amphitheater offers summer visitors the chance to enjoy the composer’s works in the natural setting that inspired them. Last year’s festival also hosted the international opera awards. The 59th Festival Puccini features 4 operas including a new production of Tosca and runs from July 12 to August 24.

Ravello Festival in Ravello, Amalfi Coast


italian music festivals ravello
Image by Flickr user Ell Brown

Another festival overlooking the water, the Ravello Festival is known colloquially as the “Wagner Festival,” due to its origin honoring Richard Wagner’s stay in the town in the 1880s. Over the last six decades, the festival has grown from its Wagnerian origins into a mélange of classical and modern music, as well as other performing and fine arts, with opportunities to meet the artists during the festival’s discussion groups. This year, the festival celebrates its own 60th anniversary along with the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.

Stresa Festival in Stresa, Lake District


italian music festivals stresa
Image by Flickr user Pascal

When it comes to waterside music festivals, the Stresa Festival is the top event for views. All around Stresa, a resort town on Lake Maggiore in the temperate northern Lake District, musicians play in medieval castles and monasteries, Renaissance villas, and baroque palaces overlooking the lake. Confined more or less to one week, the festival packs in a wide gamut of musical styles – from classical to jazz, and groups – from world-renowned artists to up-and-coming student performers. The Stresa Festival begins on July 19 and offers events through the beginning of September.

Rossini Festival in Pesaro, Le Marche


Also commonly called the Pesaro Festival, the Rossini Opera Festival honors the popular opera and chamber music composer in his birthplace, Pesaro. Since 1980, the festival has produced not only his well-known works, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia and La cenerentola (Cinderella), but some of the more obscure of his 39 opera and chamber music compositions. The 2013 festival begins August 10 and features productions of Guillaume Tell, Mosè in Egitto, and L’italiana in Algeri.

Maggio Musicale in Florence, Tuscany


italian music festivals florence maggio musicale
Image by Flickr user MITO Settembre Musica

Florence’s Maggio Musicale is not a single month, as its name would suggest (maggio is Italian for May), but rather two months of acclaimed musical concerts. The festival dates back to 1933, making it one of Italy’s oldest musical festivals. Each May and June, it ties together music and dance concerts and operas often centered on a theme, such as a period, topic, or composer. This year’s festival kicks off with a new production of Verdi’s Don Carlo conducted by Zubin Mehta on May 2.

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Brian Dore and Maria Gabriella Landers | Contact Us
Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy