Want to know here to find the best art in Italy? Look no further!
This is the definitive guide to the best art works and masterpieces in Italy. This guide includes famous paintings, sculpture, and frescos from ancient Rome to the Renaissance to Modern art. I describe the art works and tell you where to find them.
Some of these must see Italian artworks are in Italy’s hotspots like Rome, Florence, and Venice. Others are tucked away in secret museums, off the beaten path towns in Italy, or hidden behind the ornate doors of Italy’s churches.
It could take a lifetime to see all the art and culture Italy offers.
If you’re an art lover, you may want to fashion your Italy itinerary based on where to find the best Italian art. To further that cause, I have several artist trails you can follow — Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Bernini, Caravaggio, etc.
For your convenience, I’ve divvied up the must visit art destinations in Italy by city. And added in some other must visit destinations by region. Let’s take a tour of the best art in Italy, to help you create your own Italy art bucket list.
Must See Masterpieces In Italy
Here’s my expert compilation of the best art Italy for art lovers, based on years of intensive travel and study.
Best Art in Rome Italy
We’ll start off with Rome, the Eternal City. Rome is overflowing with some of Italy’s best art.
Rome is almost head spinning. You can find magnificent art in Rome in the city’s world class museums, secret palace museums, and beautiful churches. In some secret spots in Rome, you may have these masterpieces all to yourself.
Here’s what you can’t miss, art wise, in Rome:
1. Vatican Museums
Vatican City hold one of the world’s greatest art collections. Some of the most famous artworks on the planet are there. If you’re an art or history lover, the Vatican is a must visit attraction in Rome.
The Vatican Museums are the public art and sculpture museums in the Vatican City complex. They’re housed in former wings of the Vatican Palace. The Vatican Museums are one of the world’s most visited sites, attracting millions of visitors annually.
Because there’s no crowd control, visiting the Vatican can be a bit of a dystopian experience. The crowds are oppressive. My best visit was in the dead of winter.
A museum path takes you through the long corridors and wings of the Vatican Museums.
Most of the fine art, as opposed to decorative art, is in the Vatican Pinacoteca, the Pio-Clementine Museum, the Raphael Rooms, the Borgia Apartments, and the Sistine Chapel.
You’ll find amazing works by the holy trinity of the Italian High Renaissance — Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael. The highlight, of course, is the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo painted the ceiling and altar wall in brilliant colors.
2. Borghese Gallery
The magnificent Borghese Gallery is one of my favorite museums in Europe. It’s one of the world’s most perfect small museums.
The museum houses a jaw dropping in situ art collection of some top the best Italian art, housed in a luxurious garden villa. If you’re an art lover, the Borghese should definitely be on your itinerary for Rome.
In the 17th century, Cardinal Scipione Borghese meticulously assembled the densely-packed collection of wonders. The collection is rich in ancient Roman, Renaissance, and Baroque art.
The Borghese boasts major works by Bernini, Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael, Rubens, and Canova. They’re set amid frescoed ceilings and splendidly decorated marble rooms.
In fact, the Borghese owns six rare Caravaggio works. That’s 1/10 of the Caravaggio paintings in existence in the world.
Unlike the Vatican Museums, the Borghese has timed entrances with limited tickets to enforce crowd control. It’s a far superior museum experience.
Advance reservation are mandatory. Here’s my complete guide to visiting the amazing Borghese Gallery. It tells you what masterpieces you can’t miss and gives you tips for visiting.
3. Capitoline Museums
If you love sculpture, especially Greco-Roman sculpture, this wonderful museum in Rome will delight. The Capitoline Museums are Rome’s oldest museum. It gives you a unique up close look at Rome’s ancient imperial history.
The Capitoline Museums sit atop a beautiful square, the Piazza dei Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill. In the 16th century, Michelangelo re-designed the square, transforming it from pagan to papal. In the center is a grand statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback (the original is in the museums).
The Capitoline’s stash of ancient art and artifacts is unparalleled, albeit somewhat disorganized. It boasts an enormous array of ancient Roman, medieval, and Renaissance art — statuary, paintings, and relics.
The objets d’art are staged within gorgeous marbled rooms filled with tapestries and frescoes.
Here’s my guide to visiting Rome’s Capitoline Museums.
4. Rome’s Palace Museums
Want to get of the beaten path in Rome? Rome is so densely packed with treasures that, in a few short days, most visitors can only visit the must see sites in the historic center and the ruins of Imperial Rome.
But Rome really excels with its raft of elegant private palazzos that hold astonishing art collections. Most of these lovelies are hidden gems in a city that is often crowded jowl to jowl with tourists.
If you spread your wings and venture off the beaten path, you may have an aristocratic private palace in Rome all to yourself.
READ: Hidden Gems in Rome
These rarely visited Roman palazzos hide some of Rome’s unmissable masterpieces. They’re set amid dazzling rooms designed and decorated by Rome’s rich and famous.
They are just as splendid as Rome’s other must see sites. And they offer a refuge from Rome’s crowds and the ability to enjoy Rome’s cultural riches in relative privacy. A true art lover will be utterly delighted by these unique museum experiences in Rome.
My very favorite palace-museum is the Doria Pamphilj. The museums holds a princely collection of 17th century works, one of the most impressive private collections in Europe.
The museum is housed in a lavish Roman-Rococo palace. Every inch of the walls and ceilings are decorated with beautiful frescos, tapestries, and glittering chandeliers.
The art collection was meticulously assembled and is still owned by a powerful Italian family, the Doria Pamphilj (pronounced Pom-fee-lee). The museum boasts over 700 works spanning the 15th to the 18th century. There are rare master works by Bernini, Caravaggio, Velazquez, Titian, Carracci, and Bruegel.
I also loved the Palazzo Barberini, Palazzo Colonna, and Palazzo Spada. And you can find amazing secret Raphael frescos at the Villa Farnesina. Here’s my complete guide to Rome’s secret palace museums.
5. Free Churches in Rome
Traveling in any city as large and popular as Rome can be very expensive. And many of Rome’s best museums have hefty entry fees. But, fear not, Rome is essentially a living museum with art sprinkled everywhere.
Most significantly, Rome’s beautiful churches open their ornate doors for free. Inside, you’ll find some of the best art in Italy from the Renaissance and Baroque eras.
There are works by such luminaries as Michelangelo, Raphael, Bernini, and Caravaggio. It also costs nothing to wander in Rome’s piazzas and parks, where you’ll find even more art on display.
The best of these free options, I think, is the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi, or St. Louis of the French. It’s a small church just one block from Piazza Navona. It’s absolutely worth a stop. Inside, is the spectacular Contarelli Chapel, which has three massive paintings by Caravaggio.
Here’s my complete guide to free art in Rome.
Best Art in Florence Italy
Florence is the cradle of art in the Western world, a designated UNESCO site for its cultural and artistic heritage. With more than 16 million visitors annually, Florence is home to scores of museums, palaces, churches, and cloisters that contain incredible masterpieces.
There’s an intense concentration of art work. So intense you might suffer from Stendhal Syndrome.
In the 14th and 15th century, Florence witnessed the birth of one of mankind’s greatest experiments, the Italian Renaissance. Within Florence’s medieval walls, lived the greatest painters of the time.
It was in Florence that Europe’s first museums took shape. They began in family collections, then turned into princely collections.
1. Uffizi Gallery
The Uffizi has the world’s best and most abundant collection of Italian medieval and Renaissance art. It’s a place of pilgrimage for art lovers, who flock in droves to see the best Medieval and Renaissance art in Italy.
The Uffizi is a crowd pleaser, the third most visited site in Italy. It deserves its accolades and should be on your bucket list and itinerary for Florence.
The Uffizi houses seminal works from the 13th to 18th centuries, with a concentration on Renaissance art. Here’s where you’ll find one of the world’s most iconic paintings, Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
Basically, the Uffizi is a nonstop steady stream of masterpieces.
You’ll find works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Lippi, Piero della Francesca, etc. And it’s not just the glorious paintings. There are important statues and beautiful decorated ceilings.
Here’s my complete guide to the must see masterpieces of the Uffizi Gallery, with tips for visiting.
2. Galleria dell’Accademia
Florence’s Accademia Gallery houses what may be the world’s most famous sculpture — Michelangelo’s magnificent David. The 17 foot Renaissance statue is considered the embodiment of male beauty, a Calvin Klein-like model of physical perfection.
People flock in droves to see David. After the Uffizi Gallery, the Accademia is Florence’s most visited museum. Here’s my guide to seeing the marvel of David and, perhaps more importantly, how to skip the line at the Accademia to see the famed statue in person.
Aside from David, you can see Michelangelo’s unfinished Slaves in the Hall of the Prisoners. The slaves have been named The Awakening Slave, The Young Slave, The Bearded Slave, and The Atlas. They were likely intended for the Tomb of Pope Julius II, a project that underwent continual revision.
The Accademia also houses Michelangelo’s sculpture of St. Matthew. And there are paintings by Sandro Botticelli, Paulo Uccello, and Domenico Ghirlandaio, Michelangelo’s teacher for one year.
3. Bargello Museum
The Bargello is, hands down, the best museum in Italy for sculpture. You’ll be dazzled with artworks by Donatello, Michelangelo, and Andrea del Verrochio.
The august museum houses a world class collection of Renaissance sculptures. Despite that, and because Florence is so densely packed with treasures, the Bargello is a hidden gem in Florence.
The Bargello boasts early Michelangelo works, some of Donatello’s most famous sculptures, and works by other famous Renaissance artists like Cellini, Giambologna, and Andrea del Verriocchio. Basically, the Bargello is to Renaissance sculpture what the Uffizi Gallery is to Renaissance painting.
Here’s my guide to the Bargello Museum.
4. San Marco Monastery
This is truly one of my favorite spots in Florence. San Marco Monastery is an extraordinary decorative complex, one of the most unusual things to do in Florence. San Marco is a secret haven of the best early Renaissance paintings and frescos in Italy.
It’s a rare opportunity to see Early Renaissance masterpieces in situ. You can admire art in its original location and understand how contemporary audiences experienced it. This simply isn’t the case at the Uffizi or almost any other museum in Europe.
At this Renaissance convent-museum, you travel back in time to a nearly perfectly preserved 600 year old Dominican monastery.
It was paid for by Medici family money, designed by the stellar architect Michelozzo, and decorated with delicate frescos by one of the most sublime painters of the Renaissance — Fra Angelico. The fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola even lived there.
Here’s my complete guide to visiting San Marco Monastery.
5. Florence’s Duomo Museum
Museo dell’Opera del Duomo is a fabulous treasure box of sculpture. It boasts an unparalleled collection of Medieval and early Renaissance Florentine pieces by artists such as Donatello, Michelangelo, Arnolfo di Cambio, and Nanni di Banco.
The museum is housed in the Piazza del Duomo at the back of Giotto’s Bell Tower, behind the Duomo apse.
Here’s my complete guide to visiting the Duomo Museum.
6. Medici Palaces
There are three palaces in Florence that the Medici dynasty called home: (1) the Medici-Riccardi Palace; (2) Palazzo Vecchio; and (3) the Pitti Palace. Everything the Medici owned, created, and commissioned is gorgeous.
Though somewhat craggy and rusticated on the outside, inside the palaces hold some of the world’s greatest and most opulent paintings, frescos, and sculptures.
The ancient and austere Palazzo Medici-Riccardi is the Renaissance home where it all began. The fortress-like palace was home to the Medici family in the second half of the 15th century and a couple of decades of the 16th century.
Most importantly, it was home to two of the greatest historical figures of the Renaissance, Cosimo the Elder and Lorenzo the Magnificent.
The highlight of the palace is the The Chapel of the Magi . It was a private chapel used exclusively for prayer and devotion. The chapel is decorated with a beautiful series of frescos painted in 1459 by Benozzo Gozzoli.
Gozzoli was trained by Ghiberti and Fra Angelico. He therefore rendered the frescos in a charming narrative style.
In 1540, Cosimo I moved his family from the Medici Palace into the Palazzo della Signorina, now called the Palazzo Vecchio. You first step into the charming courtyard, designed by the famed architect Michelozzo in 1453.
On the first floor of Palazzo Vecchio, you can visit the Hall of the Five Hundred, It’s awash with frescos by Giorgio Vasari.
Vasari was a famed Florentine artist, architect and the world’s first art historian. On the second floor are the sumptuously decorated private rooms of the Medici.
The magnificent Palazzo Pitti is located across the Arno River, in the off the beaten path Oltrarno district that’s now Florence’s trendiest neighborhood.
The palace is one of Florence’s most stunning architecture gems. Built in 1457, it was designed by Brunelleschi and built for the Florentine banker Luca Pitti, a Medici rival.
Inside, there are several museums. The best one is the Palatine Gallery.
The museum has a stunning array of works by Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Caravaggio, and other European and Italian painters. In the five Planet Rooms, there are spectacular ceiling frescos by Pietro da Cortona.
7. Church Museums and Chapels in Florence
Much of the glorious art in Florence is tucked away in churches and chapels. I’ve written a definitive guide to all the best museums in Florence. But the top two absolute must visit churches to visit are the Medici Chapel in the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Basilica of Santa Croce.
In 1519, Michelangelo was commissioned to construct burial chapels for the Medici. The result, the Medici Chapel, is an incredibly unique monument.
It’s a rare architectural space that was both designed and decorated by a single artist. Michelangelo may have intended to paint frescos there as well. But they were never begun.
There are 6 tomb sculptures carved by Michelangelo. Four are allegories of the passage of time. They were intended to convey the message that time destroys everything earthly, that the days of our lives ineluctably lead to our death.
On the tomb of Lorenzo, the effigy of Lorenzo is shown at the top as a brooding introvert, whose face remains in shadow. Below him are the sculptures of Dawn and Dusk. Dawn suggests the emergence of light. Dusk suggests twilight.
On the tomb of Giuliano, Giuliano’s effigy shows him as an extrovert. This is a beautiful sculpture. It’s one of Michelangelo’s most idealized pieces. I mean, just look at his long elegant neck.
The two tomb statues below Giuliano are allegories of Night and Day. Art historians consider Night to be one of Michelangelo’s finest works.
Basilica of Santa Croce
The Basilica of Santa Croce has one of the greatest assemblages of paintings, sculptures, and funereal tombs in existence.
Santa Croce is a place of superlatives. It’s the largest world’s Franciscan church, a fine example of Italian Gothic style, and home to many celebrity tombs, magnificent frescos, and Donatello sculptures.
It’s a place of one stop shopping for Italian culture and a must see site in Florence for art lovers. Santa Croce is also where you’ll find the Vasari-designed tomb of Michelangelo, if you want to pay your respects.
Here’s my complete guide to visiting the Basilica of Santa Croce complex.
8. Sculptures of the Piazza della Signoria
Don’t feel like paying for art in pricey Florence? No problem, head to the Piazza della Signoria. The piazza is the jackpot of street art.
The Piazza della Signoria is the home of Palazzo Vecchio — the seat of Florence’s government and a museum. It’s the center of Florentine life and politics, a meeting spot buzzing with activity.
Many beautiful sculptures by Italy’s greatest artists are on display in front of the Palazzo Vecchio or adjacent to it in the Loggia dei Lanza. There are works by Cellini, Giambologna, Michelangelo (copy), Dontaello (copies), and Bandinelli. My favorite is Cellini’s bronze Perseus.
Best Art in Venice Italy
People don’t usually think of Venice as an art destination. But it definitely is. Most people are just, understandably, too besotted with the picturesque canals to notice.
Venice is the home of the Venetian school of Renaissance paintings and the 20th century works of an eccentric American heiress living in Venice, Peggy Guggenheim.
1. Peggy Guggenheim Museum
Virtually every piece is a seminal work of art. Guggenheim’s collection includes works from the major movements of Cubism, Surrealism, Futurism, and Abstract Expressionism.
The Guggenheim Museum is housed in the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni in Venice’s Dorsoduro neighborhood. It holds one of the finest modern art collections in the world. If you love 20th century art, the golden age of modern art, this museum is a must visit in Venice.
There’s an entire room dedicated to her beloved Jackson Pollack, an artist Guggenheim “discovered.” You can see works by Picasso, de Chirico, Vassily Kandinsky, Joan Miro, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Magritte, Willem de Kooning, Salvador Dali, and Alexander Calder.
2. Galleria dell’Accademia
The Accademia Gallery is the most important museum in Venice and one of the best in Europe. It’s housed in the former Santa Maria della Carita church and convent complex. The museum was built, in part, by famed Italian Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio.
But the Accademia is always empty, even during high season. Venice’s crowds are mostly centered in Piazza San Marco. Given the museum’s vaunted collection, it’s rather shocking. But it may be difficult viewing, if you’re not an art lover.
The Accademia houses the world’s most important collection of Venetian paintings. It has pieces by Veronese, Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Bellini, Canaletto, Mantegna, and Giorgione.
Don’t miss one of the world’s most famous Last Supper paintings, Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi. The Galleria also possesses the world’s most famous drawing, Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (which isn’t often on display).
3. St. Mark’s Basilica
St. Mark’s is an astonishing tour de force of Italo-Byzantine architecture. Consecrated in 1093, it’s one of the world’s most famous churches. Since 1807, St. Mark’s has been the cathedral of Venice.
Inside, is a golden extravaganza of mosaics, 90,000 square feet in total symbolically concentrated high above in the celestial world. In the middle ages, Venice was the leading school of mosaic in, ahead of Ravenna. The oldest mosaics in St. Mark’s date back to 1070, telling Old Testament stories.
It’s worth it to cough up the cash to see the Pala d’Oro, an elaborate Gothic altar panel on a pivot behind the baldachin. It’s made of gold and decorated with 2,000 precious gems, enamels, and ivories. The panel is universally considered the most refined expression of Byzantine art.
Also head upstairs to the Loggia dei Cavalli, or Balcony of the Horses. This is where you’ll find the Triumphal Quadriga — the four beautiful bronze horses of St. Mark. Copies are on an observation balcony, which gives you stunning views over Venice.
4. Doge’s Palace
The Doge’s Palace or Palazzo Ducale, is one of Venice’s most iconic landmarks. Set in St. Mark’s Square, the palace is the very symbol of Venice. This pink and white marble Gothic-Renaissance building was the official residence of the doges, rulers of Venice for more than 1,000 years.
Inside the grand interior are some fabulous pieces of Renaissance and Venetian art. The must see masterpieces are Veronese’s Rape of Europa and The Triumph of Venice, paintings and ceilings by Tintoretto and Veronese, and Tiepolo’s Neptune Bestowing Gifts upon Venice. The Doge’s Palace also has the world’s largest oil painting Tintoretto’s Il Paradiso.
If you buy tickets for the Secret Itineraries Tour, you’ll pass into the private chambers, judges’ chambers, interrogation rooms, and prisons. You’ll see the cell of the infamous ladies’ man Casanova, who made a miraculous escape.
And you’ll walk across the Bridge of Sighs where prisoners took their last glances of Venice through tiny windows and “sighed.”
5. Palace Museums in Venice
As you sail along the Grand Canal, you’ll see Venice’s famous palazzos. Not only are these palazzos handsome examples of Venetian architecture, inside they house some of Venice’s best art.
The Palazzo Rezzonico museum is a shrine to 18th century Venetian artists, a period called the “Age of Decadence.” It’s a beautiful and rare in situ museum, where the art on display was created specifically for the palazzo. You’ll find paintings and frescoed ceilings by Tiepolo, Longhi, Canaletto, Guardi, Molinari, and Lazzarini.
Ca d’Oro is a jewel box museum housing an art collection gifted by Baron Franchetti. The most famous piece is the St. Sebastiano by Andrea Mantegna.
There are also works by Titian, Gordon, Guardi, Van Eyck, and marble sculptures Giambologna and Bernini. The museum also boasts outstanding views of Venice from its first floor loggia.
Ca’ Pesaro is a spectacular 18th century Venetian palace in Venice’s Santa Croce area. It’s a hotspot for modern art lovers with a fabulous collection especially rich in Expressionism and Surrealism.
The collection includes art works by works by Kandinsky, Chagall, de Chirico, Ernst, Matisse, Miro, and Klimt. The absolute highlight is Gustav Klimt’s glittering Gold Period Judith II.
If you prefer classical art, head to the absolutely breathtaking Scuola Grande di San Rocco. The school was the seat of the “scuolo” of the Brotherhood of San Rocco, a social club of wealthy Venetians dedicated to charitable works.
The school is decorated wall to wall by Venetian Renaissance painter Tintoretto. His cycle fresco in the Chapter Room is considered the “Sistine Chapel of Venice.”
Best Art in Milan
Milan is an art lover’s haven, even if you wouldn’t necessarily guess so. Most visitors to Milan fly in and out to see the magnificent Duomo.
1. Leonardo’s The Last Supper in Santa Maria delle Grazie
The #1 site and one of the most visited attractions in Milan is Leonardo’s The Last Supper fresco.
The Last Supper is one of the world’s most iconic paintings, found on the back wall of the refectory in Santa Maria delle Grazie. No painting is so familiar, save for Leonardo’s Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
The billboard size wall painting is a Renaissance masterpiece. It shows the moment when Christ reveals that one of his apostles will betray him. You can see the varying psychological reactions.
You’ve got to be organized and reserve your timed entry slot in advance to see this quasi-restored, yet still beautiful, masterpiece. Advance reservations are mandatory and can be made 2-3 months in a advance.
I’ve written a complete guide to everything you need to know about seeing The Last Supper — what to expect, how to get tickets, and an analysis and history of the painting itself.
2. Pinacoteca di Brera
Its exquisite collection is housed inside the beautiful late 17th century Palazzo Brera. The museum has a magnificent collection of Italian art, especially religious-themed works. It’s one of the best museums you’ve never heard of.
The Pinacoteca di Brera boasts works from the 14th to 20th centuries. It houses important pieces by the likes of Raphael, Caravaggio, Guercino, Bellini, and Titian.
The museum’s must see masterpieces are Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus, Francesco Hayez’s The Kiss, Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ, Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin, and Guercino’s Dead Christ.
But the Brera isn’t just Renaissance art works. It also has an impressive collection of modern art by the likes of Picasso, Modiglianai, Braque, de Chirico, and Morandi.
3. Ambrosiana Museum
The Pinacoteca Ambrosiana is a hidden gem in Milan. It’s a beautiful place to lose yourself in classic Renaissance art.
The museum is a nifty combination of great art, no crowds, and rare Leonardo da Vinci paintings and journals. The pinacoteca was founded in 1618 with a large donation by Cardinal Frederico Borromeo.
Housed in a beautiful library, there’s a large collection of 2000 works donated by the Marquis Galeazzo Arconti in 1637. The museum’s claim to fame is its important cache of drawings, including the Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus in the Reading Room.
The codex is a 12 volume set of drawings and writings Leonardo created between1478-1519.
The other must see masterpieces in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana include Caravaggio’s Basket of Fruit, Titian’s Adoration of the Magi, and Botticelli’s Madonna del Padiglione. Another must see is Raphael’s cartoon (a preparatory drawing) for School of Athens, which is perhaps the most famous fresco in the Vatican Museums.
The Ambrosiana also houses two rare disputed Leonard da Vinci, Portrait of Isabella d’Este and Portrait of a Musician.
4. Castle Sforza
If you prefer castles to museums, head to Castle Sforza on the edge of the Brera district. The Castello Sforzesco is one of Milan’s most stately structures.
It’s a splendid example of Renaissance architecture, the product of mercenary-turned-politician Francesco Sforza. It was the former seat of the Dukes of Milan.
Today, the castle houses various museums: the Pieta Rondanini museum, the Art Gallery, the Archaeological Museum, and the Museum of Decorative Arts. Though the castle courtyards are free, there’s a fee for the museums.
Inside, you’ll find Michelangelo’s moving final (unfinished) sculpture, the Rondanini Pieta.
You’ll also find a restored ceiling fresco by Leonardo da Vinci in the Sala delle Asse. It depicts a garden pergola with 16 mulberry trees bound together by a golden rope.
As with The Last Supper, painted in seco fresco, it was in a state of disrepair. After conservation, it’s now back on display for the first time since 2013.
5. Museo del Novecento
Right next door to the Royal Palace is Milan’s 20th century art museum, the Novecento Museum. The museum is housed in the Palazzo dell’Arengario. The impressive collection is a veritable who’s who of the 1900s, with both Italian and International artists represented.
The collection showcases Futurism, Spatialism, and Art Povera (art made from poor materials). While not as stunning as the Renaissance art Italy is most known for, this is still a worthwhile museum if you’re in Milan for more than one day and/or love modern art.
The must see masterpieces include Giorgio de Chirico’s Philosopher’s Troubles, Arturo Martini’s Thirst, and Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s The Fourth Estate. The museum also boasts a fantastic view of Milan’s flamboyant Gothic Duomo.
6. Galleria D’Arte Moderna di Milano (GAM)
Galleria D’Arte Moderna, nicknamed “GAM,” is Milan’s modern art gallery. Its collection includes work from 1800 to 1900.
GAM is housed in the 18th century Neo-Classical Villa Belgiojoso built at the end of the 18th century by Count Ludovico Barbiano de Belgiojoso.
The artists represented include Boccioni, Canova, Picasso, Modigliani, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cezanne and Manet. The first floor features Italian artists.
The second floor features the Grassi and Vismara collections of European artists, including equestrian statues by Marino Marini.
Best Art in Tuscany
You must have known … I have an extensive article on the must see art in Tuscany, some of it covering Florence destinations noted above. I’ll give you a quick run down of the non-Florence highlights. Even outside Florence, you can find some of the best art in Italy.
1. Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
The Hall of Peace is effectively the oval office of the Palazzo Pubblico.
It’s main claim to fame is the amazing piece of political propaganda adorning its walls, Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government.
This is one of the most marvelous, poignant, and timeless fresco cycles in Italy. It’s the only secular painting of everyday urban and rural life that exists from the middle ages. It’s an incredibly significant work.
The Hall of the Grand Council of the Palazzo Pubblico holds another one of Italy’s greatest works — Simone Martini’s Maesta.
The painting marks the day the Virgin Mary got into politics. Mary had never been used in a civic setting before.
2. Siena Cathedral Museum
Painted by Sienese artist Duccio di Buoninsegna, the Maesta is the most famous Italian painting from the International Gothic period. In fact, it’s and the most precious art work ever created in Siena.
The Maesta is a famous painting in the course of art history. It’s now housed in the museum of Siena Cathedral.
The Maesta was 17 x 16 feet, a massive double sided altarpiece covered in gold and glitter. It was so large it likely served as a rood screen for the cathedral, separating the laity from the common folk.
3. San Francesco Church, Arezzo
Piero della Francesca was a hugely influential artist. His works and early use of perspective (showing Masaccio’s influence) left a profound influence on the Renaissance.
Most of his work lies in the Tuscan Provence of Arezzo.
Della Francesca veered away from the blank gold backgrounds of the Gothic era, adding landscapes and architectural forms to his paintings to put his figures in a realistic space.
Trained as a mathematician, his paintings were incredibly rational with logical compositions, compared to his contemporaries. His cool palette gives his paintings a timeless serenity.
Della Francesca’s greatest masterpieces is happily still in situ. It’s the Legend of the Cross frescos in the Cappella Maggiore of the Church of San Francesco. Most art historians consider it one of the greatest fresco series ever, certainly of the early Renaissance.
4. Field of Miracles, Pisa
Most travelers come to Pisa because of its famously Leaning Tower. But that’s a lesser site on the spectacular UNESCO-listed Field of Miracles, which is a fantastic assemblage of Romanesque architecture.
The real gem of the Field of Miracles is Pisa’s exuberant Duomo. It’s the oldest cathedral in Italy.
Inside, you’ll find mosaics attributed (perhaps erroneously) to the greatest 13th century Italian artist, Cimabue.
There’s also an elaborate pulpit carved by Giovani Pisano in the early 14th century and Renaissance art works by Ghirlandaio and Giambologna.
The other great monument in Pisa is the circular monument in front of the Duomo, the Baptistery. Begun in 1153, there’s still a full immersion baptismal font inside.
There’s also a beautifully carved pulpit, created by Giovani’s father Nicolo Pisano. It’s considered one of the first works of Renaissance art.
In Pisa’s Monumental Cemetery, or Camposanto, ancient statuary, sarcophagi, and delicate Renaissance frescos from the 14th and 15th century line the courtyard walls. Art historians refer to the courtyard as the “Sistine Chapel of Pisa.”
For further information, here’s my complete guide to visiting Pisa’s wondrous must see historic sites and monuments. Here are my essential tips for visiting Pisa.
Best Art in Northern Italy
I’ve covered Milan and Venice. But there are a few other must visit destinations in northern Italy for your Italy art bucket list.
1. Padua: Scrovegni Chapel
The UNESCO-listed Scrovegni Chapel is wallpapered with exquisite frescos by Giotto. It’s one of the world’s greatest art works. Giotto painted a cycle of 39 frescos depicting the lives of Mary and Jesus in 1303-05.
It’s a precious masterpiece of Italian art. The chapel is as stunning in person as the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican Museums.
Giotto was the greatest painter of the 14th century. His Scrovegni frescos were a watershed moment in art history. The chapel is considered one of the first examples of “modern art” and profoundly influenced subsequent Renaissance painters.
Visiting the Scrovegni Chapel can be a complicated affair. But it’s a perfect day trip from Venice and well worth the effort. Here’s my guide to the Scrovegni Chapel, with tips and tricks for planning your visit.
2. Mantua: Renaissance Gems
The town is like a mini-Florence without the constant tourist siege. Mantua is known locally as a “sleeping beauty” that hasn’t changed since the Middle Ages.
There are two must visit sites in Mantua for art lovers checking off their Italy art bucket list: the Ducal Palace and Te Palace.
Mantua’s most famed site is the Ducal Palace, or Palazzo Ducale. It’s the second largest residential building in Europe, after the Vatican. The Gonzaga’s palace is truly enormous.
The Ducal Palace is essentially a private city interconnected by courtyards, corridors, and staircases — nicknamed the “Gonzaga Realm.”
Aside from the opulent royal apartments with fetching frescos, the singular piece of brilliance is the Camera degli Sposi created by Andrea Mantegna.
It’s a magical room with illusionistic paintings. The Camera is a hugely influential masterpiece from the Early Renaissance, considered the first trompe l’oeil in the entire history of painting.
Mantegna effectively transformed the small interior room into an elegant open air pavilion. It depicts scenes from the life of the Gonzaga, reinforcing their power and importance.
There’s a celebrated false oculus, or eye, in the ceiling. It’s a conjured opening in the center of the ceiling, which seems to open to a blue sky.
Here’s my complete guide to Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi.
Te Palace is an extraordinary building, designed and decorated by the talented artist-architect Giulio Romano, a student of Raphael. Te Palace is all about love. Or lust. It was the bling-y summer palace of the Gonzaga family.
Frederico Gonzaga fancied himself a Dionysis type. In Te Palace, he let his fancy run wild, blinging up the palace with sybaritic tongue-in-cheek frescos. Every detail was designed to delight the viewer.
There are three absolutely must see rooms in Te Palace — the Hall of the Giants, the Hall of Cupid and Psyche, and the Hall of the Horses. They’re filled with lavish, almost mind-blowing, Mannerist frescos executed by Romano in 1525-35.
3. Aquileia, Friuli-Venezia Giulia
Lovers of Roman ruins should head to the UNESCO-listed site of Aquileia. The ruins make the perfect day trip from Venice or Trieste.
Aquileia was one of the most important cities of the early Roman empire, reach its peak under Julius Caesar. Thanks to the ruins of the archaeological site, you can get a sense of what a beautiful place it must have been.
There are the remains of a Roman forum, basilica, columns, and mosaics. There’s also an Archaeological Museum to explain it all to you, along with showcasing artifacts from ancient Rome.
Dozza is an incredibly charming and top secret medieval town outside Bologna. Dreamy Dozza is famous for turning itself into an artist’s canvas.
The village is a living museum or open air museum of street art and murals.
The houses are decorated with colorful paintings. And other works adorns the walls, streets, and squares.
In September, Dozza hosts the week long Biennial Exhibition of the Painted Wall, when artists are invited to paint the town.
If you’re an art lover, pencil in the pre-medieval Byzantine mosaics of Ravenna. This small quiet city in the Emilia-Romagna region of northeast Italy is a stunner.
Ravenna isn’t as well known as Italy’s other beautiful towns. But Ravenna is a lovely off the beaten path hidden gem in Italy, a nice stop on the way from Venice to Florence.
Even better, Ravenna is a glittering jewel box of 5th and 6th century mosaic art. The city owns some of the world’s most important Byzantine mosaics. The poet Dante described Ravenna’s mosaics as “the sweet color of Oriental sapphires.”
Ravenna was once the epicenter of the Western World, when the Byzantine Empire made Ravenna its capitol. The Byzantine rulers decorated Ravenna’s churches with gorgeous mosaics.
This artistic legacy rivals, or even surpasses, that of Venice and Istanbul. Ravenna has a whopping 8 UNESCO sites to explore.
Here’s my complete guide to seeing the mosaics of Ravenna.
Vicenza is fantastic and underrated UNESCO-listed town in Northern Italy, where you can take a Palladian journey.
Vicenza was the crucible of the celebrated Andrea Palladio. Palladio was one of the world’s greatest architects. Palladio created elegant buildings.
With their graceful proportions, they looked like Greek temples. Palladio turned Vicenza into a “real museum, open to everyone.”
The must see Palladian architecture includes the Basilica Palladiana, the Olympic Theater, and La Rotunda.
Here’s my complete guide to the best things to see and do in Vicenza.
Best Art in Southern Italy
1. Capidomonte Museum, Naples
Located in the Capodimonte Palace, the Capodimonte Museum houses a collection of fine and decorative arts mostly from Naples. The core of its collection was compiled by the powerful Farnese and Bourbon families.
The Capodimonte Museum has works by Caravaggio, Masaccio, Titian, Raphael, El Greco, Bruegel, and Sebastiano del Piombo (who also decorated the Villa Farnesina in Rome).
The museum’s most famous painting is probably The Gypsy Madonna by Correggio.
2. Archaeological Museum, Naples
The fantastic Naples Archaeological Museum holds one of the world’s best collections of Greek and Roman antiquities. There’s a particularly impressive display of mosaics (Battle of Alexander against Darius) and frescos (the beautiful Flora).
The Farnese Collection, in particular, holds some of the greatest sculptures from antiquity. The Farnese Hercules is a massive hunk of ancient marble like no other. The Farnese Bull is one of antiquity’s most complex sculptural groupings.
Many of the artifacts come from excavations at nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum. They are both well-preserved sites that were buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD.
Pompeii is Rome’s most famous archaeological site, a living museum. In 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the city in 60 feet of ash.
The city was entombed for many centuries. Beginning in 1748, archaeologists began painstakingly excavating the ruins and work is still ongoing.
You can meander through cobbled streets and see how the ancient Romans lived their daily lives. As you nose around the ancient villas, you’ll find stunning frescos and architectural motifs. Perhaps the most famous is the stunning courtyard fresco of Venus in a Shell.
Other highlights at Pompeii are the House of the Vetti, the Villa of Mysteries, the Roman forum, the Pompeii bodies, the brothel, the amphitheater, and the thermal baths.
Following Famous Artist Trails in Italy
Can’t get enough of your favorite Italian artist? Or, do you like to travel with a theme? I have the best artist trails you can follow to see the best art in Italy.
1. Michelangelo Trail in Florence
Michelangelo has been famous for over 500 years. He was a giant of the Renaissance, showing virtuosity in every medium — sculpture, painting, poetry, and architecture.
Dubbed the “divine artist,” Michelangelo was the first sculptor to be hailed as a genius in his lifetime, as early as his 20s.
Michelangelo created some of the world’s most beautiful and revolutionary art. He was a master at creating idealized, technically perfect visions of the human body. Psychological and physical realism had never been portrayed with such panache.
2. Leonardo da Vinci Trail in Milan
Obsessed with the sublime Leonardo da Vinci? Welcome to the club. So is much of society, judging from the lines to view the tourist-industry-gold Mona Lisa at the Louvre.
Leonardo is perhaps the most famous artist in the world. But most people don’t realize just how rare his paintings really are. So few are in existence, they’re like rare diamonds.
The ultra intelligent Leonardo was a towering figure of the Renaissance, a maestro of change who married imagination to the universe. History’s consummate innovator, Leonardo was enviably good at everything, perhaps the most relentlessly curious man in history.
Leonardo spend 18 years as a court painter in Milan. Here’s my guide to finding Leonardo’s art in Milan.
3. Bernini Trail In Rome
Gian Lorenzo Bernini was one of the greatest artists of the Baroque, specializing in sculpture. The Baroque period, covering the entire 17th century, was characterized by exuberance, excess, movement, intensity, and complexity.
Bernini’s works are dramatic and full of movement and immediacy, sometimes like shock theater in the round.
Dubbed the “animator of marble,” Bernini left his artistic stamp everywhere in Rome. He helped define the city you see today. His works are some of Rome’s top attractions.
Here’s my guide to the Bernini trail in Rome
4. Caravaggio Trail in Rome
Are you bitten by the Caravaggio bug? Caravaggio’s paintings are among the most stunning works in the history of Western painting. Caravaggio was a revolutionary. He almost single handedly pioneered the Italian Baroque style.
Caravaggio’s life story is one of talent and turbulence. He acted like a devil, but painted like an angel.
Caravaggio rejected the sanitized idealism that characterized much of the Renaissance era. He repeatedly refusing to adhere to traditional views of what constituted art.
Caravaggio lived and worked in Rome for 15 years. His art can be found everywhere in Rome — in churches, palaces, and art galleries. Here’s my overview of Caravaggio’s cinema-ready life and his 25 paintings in Rome.
5. Piero della Francesca Trail in Italy
Piero is a genius and foundational artist of the Quattrocento or early Renaissance. In his time, he was revered as a monarch. In the 17th century, his sublime works sunk into obscurity.
Piero was only rediscovered with fervor in the mid-19th century, when Americans and Europeans began taking their Grand Tours in Europe.
Time has only enhanced Piero’s reputation, approaching a cult-like icono-mania. Still, you may not have heard of Piero. With only a few exceptions, his work isn’t in the convenient museums in Italy’s major touristic cities of Rome, Milan, Venice, and Florence.
Rather, Piero’s works are found exactly where they were painted. If you want to see them, you’ve got to get off the beaten path in Italy and head to some tiny towns in southern Tuscany and Le Marche.
6. Andrea del Verrocchio Trail in Florence
Andrea del Verrocchio is one of the most important and underrated artists of the mid Renaissance. Unless you’re a Renaissance devotee, he may be the most influential artist you’ve never heard of.
Verrocchio was a painter, sculptor, and goldsmith. He’s best known for his sculpture and as the teacher of Leonardo da Vinci.
One of Verrocchio’s greatest legacies was his powerhouse workshop. Over several decades, he had scores of talented pupils who became towering figures of the Renaissance.
Here’s my guide to Verrocchio’s most famous artworks and sculptures. You’ll find them in some of Florence’s best art spots — the Uffizi Gallery, the Bargello Museum, the Duomo Museum, and Orsanmichele.
7. All of Leonardo da Vinci’s Paintings
If my Leonardo Trail in Milan wasn’t enough for you, don’t despair. As a committed Leonardo-phile, I’ve actually compiled and analyzed all of Leonardo’s paintings (authenticated and disputed), every last one.
There are eight places in the world where you can find them, including many of the world’s best museums. The Louvre has by far the largest cache of Leonardos.
Here’s my guide to Leonardo’s life and paintings.
8. All the Last Supper Paintings From Renaissance Italy
Want to take a deep dive into a Renaissance niche? The Last Supper was an incredibly popular subject matter for Italian artists.
It’s the most famous supper in history, painted over and over. The event captures a dramatic moment in Western hagiography — when Jesus announces that one of the twelve apostles will betray him.
Last Supper paintings were statement pieces. They were generally executed at the pinnacle of an artist’s career. Last Supper paintings appear almost exclusively on the end walls of dining rooms (refectories) of convents and monasteries.
They always highlight, in different ways, the hero (Jesus) and the villain (Judas) through iconography and placement in the scene. Jesus’ best friend, St. John, is usually shown passed out on Jesus.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the best art in Italy. You may enjoy these other travel guides and resources for Italy:
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