So you couldn't get in to see the Last Supper?Well, neither could we. My fiancée and I were in Milan for a whirlwind tour of museums and churches before we had to be back to our house on the Amalfi Coast. But thanks to a certain novel, the rectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie is booked for months in advance. With insufferable queues everywhere else, such is the state of art throughout Italy, even without a best-seller-as-marketing-campaign. For viewing the classical antiquity of Rome, the medieval and Renaissance of Tuscany, or the Byzantine and Gothic of Venice, my advice is: Go in winter!
Or try Emilia-Romagna. The region is rarely on the art pilgrim's radar. But it should be. Extending from north-central Italy between Milan and Florence to the nook of the Adriatic, Emilia-Romagna was absorbed by Rome in 191 B.C. and became, briefly, the seat of the Western Empire. In the mid-fifth century, that empire fell here—in Ravenna—not in Rome. Later, as the focal point of Byzantine attempts to reestablish a stronghold in Italy, the region was populated by tribal kings, pious clerics, and astute laymen—and the artists they patronized. The result of this thorny history is an eye-popping artistic legacy.
So, after "no table" at the last supper, we motored on over to Emilia-Romagna. Using Bologna as a base, we could explore the medieval and Renaissance palaces of Ferrara and the ancient ports of Rimini and Ravenna, where shine the most dazzling mosaics of the Western world.
Day 1: Bologna
One could spend a month shopping in Bologna's arcades and feasting on tortellini—which we did, immediately, at Ristorante Diana on Via Indipendenza. (The city is the caput mundi of stuffed pasta.) But after lunch, we turned to sculptural delicacies. Home to an illustrious university, Bologna also boasts some of Italy's most innovative sculpture—medieval and Renaissance marvels that anticipated the styles of later masters, such as Michelangelo, who took two influential sojourns here.
We began at Nicola Pisano's 13th-century tomb for Saint Dominic in the Basilica of San Domenico. The founder of the Dominican order, Dominic (and Saint Francis of Assisi, his contemporary) delivered Christianity a shot in the arm by spreading the gospel across Europe, not unlike the medieval version of tent revivalists. After his death, an explosion of narrative art portrayed Dominic's deeds. (A picture is worth a thousand words, especially if you're illiterate.) And the sculptor who lit the fuse: Nicola Pisano.
Just as he covered the pulpit of Siena's cathedral with a chronicle of the Passion, Pisano carved a short movie in marble of Dominic's life on all four sides of the saint's sarcophagus. The result is a tour de force of movement in stone. We especially marveled at the front panel, which depicts the resurrection of Napoleon Orsini: an ingeniously orchestrated crowd scene of drapery, figures, and horses, all carved in high and low relief.
The tomb also sports an opulent marble lid, or arca, sculpted in 1473 by Niccolò da Bari, known thereafter as Niccolò dell'Arca. And, be there any doubt that Michelangelo studied the mastery of Pisano and dell'Arca, in front of the lid kneels a marvelous angel, executed by the Florentine in 1494. The angel's face is a forerunner to the famous Delphic Sibyl in the Sistine, just as his Saint Procolo, on the back of the tomb, is a David in the making.
A brief stroll brought us to the diminutive church of Santa Maria della Vita, whose humble exterior belies another dell'Arca treasure within: the terra-cotta Lamentation, Il Compianto. San Domenico's arca may have given Niccolò a name, but this earlier gem is regarded as one of the most imaginative creations in all of Renaissance art.
No solemn pietà of muted reverence here: the event, instead, is a cacophony of angst and grief. Seven life-size figures bend and twist in agony and shock, with Mary Magdalene as the scene-stealer. She rushes forward—mouth agape, arms flailing back, and robes flapping behind—a human airplane ready for takeoff.
Our sculptural quest ended at the porta magna (main door) of the imposing Basilica of San Petronio, where, starting in 1425, Jacopo della Quercia carved a brilliant low relief of Genesis and the Life of Christ. A Sienese prodigy, della Quercia was one of those few virtuosos who bridged the gap between Gothic luxury and Renaissance realism. We could trace the ornate, late-Middle Ages style in the flowing drapery in his panel of Noah's Ark. But it is the sharp definition and movement of della Quercia's classically formed Adam and Eve that inspired Michelangelo—and many other Renaissance sculptors.
Dining that night at the local favorite, Da Cesari, on Via de'Carbonesi, we recuperated from our "mentors of Michelangelo" tour with heaping plates of gramignone verde (green bucatini-style pasta with local sausage). Tomorrow, we were off to see just how far an Italian city had taken this grand transition from medieval to Renaissance.