Once you’ve checked out the well-known works Italy has to offer, it’s time to hunt down the hidden masterpieces.
Venice: On the Campo San Zanipolo, look out for the rounded pediments that adorn the elegant 15th-century façade of Scuola Grande di San Marco, by Pietro Lombardo and Mauro Codussi. Marble reliefs of lions gaze out at the incomparable 1480’s equestrian statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni by Verrocchio, teacher of Leonardo da Vinci. turismovenezia.it.
Padua: Giotto’s 1305 fresco cycle in the Scrovegni Chapel, 30 miles from Venice, is perhaps the seminal narrative of Western art. Depicting the lives of Mary and Jesus, the fresco is the world’s first “major motion picture”—a brilliant frame-by-frame study in emotion and action. cappelladegliscrovegni.it; reservations required.
Mantua: In the 1520’s Italian painter Giulio Romano transformed a stable into the mind-blowing Palazzo Te, in Lombardy. Architectural whimsy is matched by the miasma of frescoes of Duke Federigo II’s horses, as well as the Hall of Psyche and the Hall of the Giants—two of the Renaissance’s most dazzling rooms. palazzote.it.
Ferrara: This town, northeast of Bologna, is the pristine pearl of Europe. The medieval center is separated from the Renaissance quarter by a tree-lined boulevard; cross the street to travel from one era into the next. artecultura.fe.it.
Ravenna: Even in a city filled with the world’s most exquisite mosaics, the fifth-century mausoleum of Galla Placidia stands out. Sunlight streaming through alabaster windows illuminates a golden cascade of early-Christian images, including bowls of blue water sipped by white doves. ravennamosaici.it.
Siena: While crowds in the Duomo are admiring Nicola Pisano’s matchless 13th-century pulpit, duck into the Piccolomini Library to take in Pinturicchio’s early-1500’s fresco cycle. The painted homage to humanist Pope Pius II is a Renaissance jewel box. terresiena.it.
Benevento: Northeast of Naples, the Arch of Trajan is a tribute to peace and prosperity. Finished around A.D. 117, the splendidly baroque high reliefs of warriors, senators, children, and dogs comprise the finest-preserved edifice of the Roman Empire. comune.benevento.it.
Paestum: South of Salerno, eat fresh mozzarella di bufala amid three staggering Greek temples—the oldest dating to the sixth century B.C.—surrounded by ancient Roman ruins in a field of oleander by the Tyrrhenian Sea. infopaestum.it.
Reggio Calabria: The Riace Bronzes stand in Palazzo Tommaso Campanella, on the toe of Italy’s boot. The two early-classical Greek warriors, almost seven feet tall with eyes and teeth intact, are the most perfect bronze antique statues in existence. bronzidiriace.org.
The Guide: Rocky Ruggiero, Cultural Programs for the Arts
Florence-based Ruggiero, one of Italy’s leading art connoisseurs, runs cultural programs and traveling seminars on topics ranging from Michelangelo to Roman art, in addition to teaching at American universities, including Syracuse. 39-335/522-0317; weeklong programs from $826.