In a class of their own
The best museums in Italy are not necessarily the most famous
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/
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