In a class of their own

The best mu­se­ums in Italy are not nec­es­sar­ily the most fa­mous

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - EITHNE NIGHTIN­GALE

Italy is full of world-class mu­se­ums and gal­leries. From Gal­le­ria Borgh­ese in Rome with mas­ter­pieces by Bernini and Raphael to Museo Arche­o­logico in Naples, brim­ming with Greek and Ro­man arte­facts; from Florence’s Ac­cademia, with Canaletto’s sweep­ing Vene­tian land­scapes, to the Museo del Nove­cento in Mi­lan, from where Mus­solini would ha­rangue his fol­low­ers.

The guide­books are full of high­lights, must-sees and es­sen­tial view­ing. The Vat­i­can Mu­se­ums in Rome have the world’s largest art col­lec­tion. The Uf­fizi in Florence has the world’s great­est col­lec­tion of Re­nais­sance paint­ings. They are the two most vis­ited mu­se­ums in Italy. Uf­fizi’s web­site even states, “The long lines at the mu­seum en­trance are al­most as fa­mous as its mas­ter­pieces.”

But what if you ab­hor queues and pre­fer a more in­ti­mate ex­pe­ri­ence? Per­haps you rel­ish some­thing dif­fer­ent or cut­ting edge and are pre­pared to wan­der off the tourist track to find it. What if your in­ter­ests lie be­yond, or out­side, art? In Mi­lan I am tempted to visit old friends — Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper in the church of Santa Maria delle Gra­zie or Da Volpedo’s The Fourth Es­tate of strik­ing work­ers in the Museo del Nove­cento. But I meet a cu­ra­tor hot foot­ing it from the Venice Bi­en­nale. “Ev­ery­body is talk­ing about Fon­dazione Prada,” she says, ad­just­ing her Prada sun­glasses. It is the open­ing week­end.

I take the metro to Lodi sta­tion and fol­low large bill­board signs along a rail­way track. The build­ing is a jux­ta­po­si­tion of 1910 dis­tillery ware­houses with white con­crete, glass and alu­minium con­struc­tions. The Haunted House, hous­ing in­stal­la­tions by Louise Bour­geois and Robert Gober, is cov­ered in gold leaf. Within min­utes I move into what could be a garage show­room. But one ve­hi­cle is cov­ered in tar and feath­ers and another has a chrome beam, shot like an arrow through its wind­screens. A young woman in­spects Sarah Lu­cas’s burntout cars with as much rev­er­ence as a Rubens.

Con­crete slabs, par­ti­tion­ing off a long nar­row ware­house, al­low un­in­ter­rupted view­ing of in­di­vid­ual works. There are pieces by Man Ray, David Hock­ney, Wil­liam Co­p­ley (a late Sur­re­al­ist and pre­cur­sor to Pop Art) and Ital­ian con­cep­tual artist Gi­ulio Paolini. The space works well but I have to scrunch my eyes to read the Lil­liputian la­bels.

The Fon­dazione Prada will no doubt set the con­tem­po­rary art world alight and de­servedly so. But it is The Seven Heav­enly Palaces, by Anselm Kiefer, in the Hangar Bic­occa gallery, that ex­cites and moves me. I strain my neck to read the He­brew words on one of the tot­ter­ing tow­ers of re­in­forced con­crete, re­flect­ing the ru­ins left by World War II. This con­tem­po­rary gallery, opened in 2004 in a for­mer Pirelli fac­tory in an equally un­re­mark­able part of Mi­lan, has an ex­cel­lent al fresco bar and res­tau­rant.

In Turin I can’t stop walk­ing down cob­bled me­dieval streets, past Baroque churches and through art nouveau ar­cades. There is lit­tle time to visit mu­se­ums — Museo Egizio, with its fine Egyp­tian an­tiq­ui­ties; Museo d’Arte Con­tem­po­ranea, ex­hibit­ing post-war Ital­ian art in the Castello di Rivoli; Museo Nazionale dell’Au­to­mo­bile and the 19th and 20th-cen­tury mas­ter­pieces in Lin­gotto, the re­designed for­mer Fiat fac­tory.

I de­cide on Mole An­tonel­liana, ded­i­cated to Ital­ian cin­ema, but there are scores of tourists out­side. I turn into Via Po and stum­ble across Fon­dazione Ac­corsi-Ometto, a mu­seum of the dec­o­ra­tive arts. Laura, who came to Turin to study art history and never left, gives me a per­sonal tour in English. She tells me how, in the last cen­tury, Pi­etro Ac­corsi rose from hum­ble ori­gins to be­come a renowned col­lec­tor of 18th-cen­tury Euro­pean dec­o­ra­tive arts. As his wealth in­creased, he started to fur­nish his own house, recre­ated in this el­e­gant palazzo, his for­mer of­fice.

“So what is your favourite item?” I ask. “The works by Pif­fetti,” says Laura. “He was a ge­nius.” She points to a cab­i­net, a ta­ble, even a safe. I pre­fer the Chi­nese paint­ings on rice pa­per in­te­grated into the fur­nish­ings and decor.

Genoa is full of el­e­gant palaces that be­longed to the Ge­noese no­bil­ity in the 16th cen­tury. I love the daz­zling Hall of Mir­rors in Palazzo Reale, once the home of the Savoy royal fam­ily. I linger over the paint­ings by Car­avag­gio in Palazzo Bianco. But the sea beck­ons. I make my way to Galata Museo del Mare, which traces the evo­lu­tion of this bustling port from the Mid­dle Ages. I pick up a pass­port and fol­low in the steps of 29 mil­lion Ital­ians who em­i­grated in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies. I fall lucky. A vir­tual cus­toms of­fi­cer tells me I am the fa­mous singer Eleonora Duse. He gives the farm work­ers from Lig­uria a much harder time.

I board the steamer Citta di Torino and en­ter the third-class women’s dor­mi­tory. As I sit on a bunk bed I lis­ten to har­row­ing sto­ries of my cramped and un­healthy quar­ters. In New York another vir­tual of­fi­cial quizzes me about my sta­tus, wealth and health. In 1973, more mi­grants ar­rived in Italy than left its shores. I in­spect a mi­grants’ boat from Lampe­dusa and watch footage of a res­cue from the Mediter­ranean Sea. I lis­ten to sto­ries of peo­ple ar­riv­ing from Sene­gal, Nige­ria and Afghanistan. I place hairdry­ers, gar­den­ing and con­struc­tion tools on an in­ter­ac­tive dis­play to dis­cover what jobs mi­grants have ful­filled in Italy to­day.

Mean­time, Palazzo Do­ria Pam­philj boasts one of Rome’s rich­est pri­vate art col­lec­tions. There are many high­lights, in­clud­ing Ve­lazquez’s por­trait of Pope In­no­cent X, who grum­bled the de­pic­tion was “too real”. But it is Jonathan Do­ria Pam­philj, the present heir, through his ex­cel­lent au­dio-guide, who brings the place alive. In front of the bust of Donna Olimpia Pam­philj, his com­men­tary tells me how the sis­ter-in-law and ru­moured lover of In­no­cent X ran a pro­tec­tion racket around the city’s broth­els. It was the du­bi­ous earn­ings of Jonathan’s dis­tant rel­a­tive that pro­pelled In­no­cent X to power. But I also learn more re­cent fam­ily anec­dotes. As chil­dren, Jonathan and his sis­ter used to roller skate through the halls of this splen­did Ro­coco palace.

For the wow fac­tor, head to Palazzo Reale in Palermo, Si­cily, once the jewel of the Arab-in­flu­enced Nor­man Em­pire. The high­light is Cap­pella Palatina, the pri­vate chapel of Roger II, who be­came king of Si­cily in 1130. Ev­ery inch of the cupola, apses and nave are ablaze with mo­saics cre­ated by Ortho­dox monks from Byzan­tium. It is mag­nif­i­cent. I look up at the wooden painted, hon­ey­combed Ara­bic ceil­ing made by Is­lamic artists from abroad. A lo­cal guide points out the Ara­bic script, lions, ea­gles, a game of chess and even danc­ing, which is sur­pris­ing given the Is­lamic dis­cour­age­ment of hu­man rep­re­sen­ta­tion, but this in­tri­cate work of art re­flects the in­ter-faith tol­er­ance of the time. Palermo’s Chris­tian, Is­lamic and Jewish her­itage, de­cay­ing in parts, is more hid­den than in many other Ital­ian cities. In my book, this adds to the ex­cite­ment. So get off the tourist track, search out the new, pick up an au­dio-tour, be­friend a knowl­edge­able and pas­sion­ate lo­cal guide, join in the in­ter­ac­tiv­ity and stroll the back streets un­til you drop. • fon­dazioneprada.org • hangar­bic­occa.org • fon­dazioneac­corsi-ometto.it • galata­museodel­mare.it • do­ri­a­pam­philj.it/roma/en/

fon­dazionefed­eri­cosec­ondo.it

Clock­wise from main: Fon­dazione Prada ex­hi­bi­tion spa­ces in Mi­lan;

at the Hangar Bic­occa gallery in Mi­lan; a fresco on the ceil­ing of the Uf­fizi mu­seum in Florence; and the Hall of Mir­rors in the Palazzo Reale in Genoa

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