Day 2: Bologna to Ferrara, 28 Miles
A 40-minute drive through the green fields of eastern Emilia-Romagna brought us to the petite pearl of Ferrara. Thanks to the d'Este dynasty of astute art patrons, Ferrara contains many beautiful objets, but the genuine masterpiece is the city itself. Half medieval, half Renaissance, the dual cityscape was the vision of oligarch Ercole d'Este, who hired architect Biagio Rossetti to seamlessly meld the newer section to the old. This careful planning earned Ferrara the title of Italy's first "modern city." Today, its captivating, anachronistic ambience is best explored on foot or by bicycle.
Our stroll began atop Rossetti's Renaissance city walls (the views are spectacular), before we dipped into the labyrinth of medieval buildings and tidy streets in the Jewish quarter surrounding the humble synagogue on Via Mazzini. Nearby, we sipped espressos at a café across from the pristine triple-arched façade of the 12th-century Romanesque cathedral before continuing on to the medieval Castello Estense, an ominous reminder to Ferrara's populace that the d'Este—despite their humanistic tastes—were still the Absolute Bosses.
As we crossed Via Cavour onto the Renaissance-era road of Corso Ercole I, we were pitched three centuries forward into the flair of that most influential period of the last millennium. Passing the Corso's elegant houses, we came to the thrill of them all: Rossetti's lavish Palazzo dei Diamanti. Adorned with more than 12,000 rhombus-shaped marble bosses, the palazzo seems constructed of gargantuan white diamonds. Standing before Rossetti's structure, we could almost feel Ferrara's beautiful rarity. In no other Italian city is the distinction between the imposing austerity of the Middle Ages and the enthusiasm of the Renaissance so palpable.
Day 3: Bologna to Rimini, 71 Miles
We set out early for Rimini, a seaside resort town and the birthplace of Federico Fellini. In summer, the city's beaches, lined with hotels and cafés, become a carnival of bons vivants—just the sort of people Fellini would have filmed. But the peaceful historic center contains not only the single surviving triumphal arch of Caesar Augustus, but also one of the most overlooked milestones in Western architecture: the bizarre church known as the Tempio Malatestiano.
Before becoming papal territory in the 16th century, Rimini thrived under the notorious Malatesta ("bad head"), an aptly named family with a sharp taste for art. Sigismondo Malatesta was, indeed, a headache for Pope Pius II when, in 1447, he commissioned the medieval church of San Francesco to be "redecorated," in honor of his mistress. So architect Leon Battista Alberti simply surrounded the edifice with a re-creation of an ancient Roman temple. The result?Perhaps the first truly Renaissance exterior—a strange, yet ingenious concoction of soaring arches encapsulating Gothic walls. And if the exterior isn't eccentric enough, inside, along with a priceless fresco of the "Bad Head" himself (by Piero della Francesca) is an entire chapel covered with marble pagan astrological signs—in a church, no less! Fellini, a horoscope buff, must have absolutely loved it.
Day 4: Bologna to Ravenna, 46 Miles
An hour's drive east from Bologna put us just two miles south of Ravenna at the site of Classis, the long-gone Roman port built by Emperor Augustus. In the late third century A.D., when the empire was crumbling, the western capital was moved from Rome to Milan and then to Ravenna, for a closer view of the advancing hordes. It is fitting that 500 years after Augustus built his port, his empire would end here.
In the following centuries, Ravenna survived under the Byzantine royals, whose legacy shines in a cascade of glorious mosaics. In ancient Rome, mosaics were formed with stone tesserae, but the Byzantines elevated this craft by using glass, piecing together tiny shards into a collective radiance that boggles the mind. Setting foot in the serene, columned nave of Sant'Apollinare in Classe, we were stunned by the shimmering Transfiguration in the apse. Christ the Pantocrator, Moses, the apostles as lambs, and the hand of God radiate over the altar—all "painted" with minute, and brilliantly colored, pieces of luminous glass.
After an hour spent in awe in Classe, a 15-minute drive had us in Ravenna at the double-octagon Basilica of San Vitale. Inside, we found an explosion of sixth-century mosaics that redefine the word "ornate." The entire presbytery, anchored on one wall by the court of emperor Justinian and by his wife Theodora on the opposite—showered by white angels and green and blue birds—is as incandescent and breathtaking a vision as the Sistine.
But the best was last. Out the side door of San Vitale sits the fifth- century mausoleum of Galla Placidia, a remarkable woman whose life would make a terrific movie. Captured by Visigoth king Alaric during the siege of Rome, she married his brother and lived among the Visigoths for six years. Galla later returned to Ravenna as regent, but to avoid the advances of the feeble emperor Honorius, she eventually fled the city for Constantinople. It is fitting that one of the most sublime works in all of Europe would come from such a dynamic life.
The cupola of Galla's tiny mausoleum depicts a fluid theme of redemption in a cloudburst of blue, trimmed in green, with stars scattered among luminous golden angels. Alabaster windows illuminate Peter and Paul, Christ the Good Shepherd, symbols of the apostles, deer, and—most precious of all—doves drinking from bowls of sapphire water.
As we beheld this celestial jewel box, the Last Supper was the last thing on our minds. Ravenna's mosaics are sheer visual luxury—unsurpassed anywhere. And there was nary a Da Vinci Code fan in sight.