Viewing art in Italy is often a cheek-by-jowl experience, but the province of Emilia-Romagna remains blissfully crowd-free. Peter Weller hits the road to explore some of the country's greatest—and most overlooked—sights.
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.
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.
What to See
Basilica of San Domenico 13 Piazza di San Domenico; 39-051/640-0411; open daily 7:30 a.m-1 p.m. and 3:30 p.m.-7:30 p.m.
Santa Maria della Vita 10 Via Clavature; 39-051/236-245; open Mon.-Sat. from 7:30 a.m.-7 p.m. and Sun. from 4:30 to 7 p.m.
Basilica of San Petronio Piazza Maggiore; 39-051/225-442; open daily from 7:45 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 3 p.m.-6 p.m.
Palazzo dei Diamanti 21 Corso Ercole d'Este; 39-0532/205-844; open Tues., Wed., Fri., and Sat. 9 a.m.-2 p.m., Thurs. 9 a.m.-7 p.m., and Sun. 9 a.m.-2 p.m.
Tempio Malatestiano 35 Via IV Novembre; 39-0541/511-30; open Mon.-Sat. 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m.-7 p.m. and Sun. 9 a.m.-1 p.m., 3:30 p.m.-7 p.m.
Sant'Apollinare in Classe Via Romea Sud; 39-0544/473-569; open Mon.-Sat. 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. and Sun. 1 p.m.- 7:30 p.m.
Basilica of San Vitale Via San Vitale; 39-0544/219-518; open daily 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Galla Placidia Via San Vitale; 39-0544/541-688; open daily 9 a.m.-7 p.m.
Where to Stay
Starhotels Excelsior 51 Viale Pietramellara; Bologna; 39-051/246-178; doubles from $486.
Grand Hotel Baglioni 8 Via Indipendenza; Bologna; 39-051/225-445; doubles from $565.
Where to Eat
Ristorante Diana 24 Via Indipendenza; Bologna; 39-051/231-302; dinner for two $105.
Da Cesari 8 Via de'Carbonesi, Bologna; 39-051/237-710; dinner for two $92.