ITALY IN CONTEXT - Frommer's EasyGuide to Rome, Florence and Venice 2017 - Stephen Keeling, Melanie Renzulli, Donald Strachan

Frommer's EasyGuide to Rome, Florence and Venice 2017 - Stephen Keeling, Melanie Renzulli, Donald Strachan (2016)


By Donald Strachan

As with any destination, a little background reading can help you to understand more. Many Italy stereotypes are accurate—children are feted wherever they go, food and soccer are treated like religion, the north-south divide is real, and bureaucracy is part of daily life. Some are wide of the mark—not every Italian you meet will be open and effusive. Occasionally, they do taciturn pretty well, too.

The most important thing to remember is that, for a place with so much history—3 millennia and counting—Italy has only a short history as a country. Only in 2011 did it celebrate its 150th birthday. Prior to 1861, the map of this peninsula was in constant flux. War, alliance, invasion, and disputed successions caused that map to change color as often as a chameleon crossing a field of wildflowers. Republics, mini-monarchies, client states, Papal States and city-states, as well as Islamic emirates, colonies, dukedoms, and Christian theocracies, roll on and off the pages of Italian history with regularity. In some regions, you’ll hear languages and dialects other than Italian. It’s part of an identity that is often more regional than it is national.

This confusing history explains why your Italian experience will differ wildly if you visit, say, Rome rather than Venice. (And why you should visit both, if you can.) The architecture is different; the food is different; the important historical figures are different, as are many of the local issues of the day. And the people are different: While the north-south schism is most often written about, cities as close together as Florence and Siena can feel very dissimilar. This chapter tries to help you understand why.


The big Italian news for many travelers is the favorable movement in exchange rates. The 2015 edition of this guide lists the U.S. dollar/euro exchange rate at $1.37. At the time of writing this chapter, it’s $1.13, making everything in Italy almost 20% cheaper for U.S. visitors. (Canadian are less fortunate, with only a minimal move in the right direction—from $1.49 to $1.43.) So, if the U.S. dollar is your currency, congratulations: You picked a great time to visit.


Italians know how to cook—just ask one. But be sure to leave plenty of time: Once Italians start talking food, it’s a while before they pause for breath. Italy doesn’t really have a unified, national cuisine; it’s more a loose grouping of regional cuisines that share a few staples, notably pasta, bread, tomatoes, and pig meat cured in endless ways. Rome can be the best place to introduce yourself to Italian food, because it has restaurants from every region. On a Rome vacation, you’ll also encounter authentic local specialties such as saltimbocca alla romana(literally “jump-in-your-mouth”—thin slices of veal with sage, cured ham, and cheese) and carciofi alla romana (tender artichokes cooked with herbs, such as mint and garlic), plus a dish that’s become ubiquitous, spaghetti alla carbonara—pasta coated in a white sauce of cured pork (cheek, if it’s authentic), egg, and Pecorino Romano (sheep’s milk cheese).

To the north, in Florence and Tuscany, you’ll find seasonal ingredients served simply; it’s almost the antithesis of “French” cooking, with its multiple processes. The main ingredient for almost any savory dish is the local olive oil, feted for its low acidity. The typical Tuscan pasta is wide, flat pappardelle, generally tossed with a game sauce such as lepre (hare) or cinghiale (boar). Tuscans are fond of their own strong sheep’s milk cheese, Pecorino, made most famously around the Val d’Orcia town of Pienza. Meat is usually the centerpiece of the secondo: A bistecca alla fiorentina is the classic main, a T-bone-like slab of meat. An authentic fiorentina steak should be cut only from the white Chianina breed of cattle. Sweet treats are also good here, particularly Siena’s panforte (a dense, sticky cake), biscotti di Prato (hard, almond-flour biscuits for dipping in dessert wine), and miele (honey) from Montalcino.

Venice is rarely celebrated for its cuisine. Fresh seafood is usually excellent, however, and figures heavily in the Venetian diet. Grilled fish is often served with red radicchio, a bitter lettuce that grows best in nearby Treviso. Two classic nonfish dishes are fegato alla veneziana (liver and onions) and risi e bisi (rice and fresh peas). The traditional carbohydrate up here isn’t pasta but risotto (rice), flavored with seasonal vegetables or seafood.

One gastronomic trend to watch out for as you travel is the booming popularity of artisanal beer, especially among the young. Although supermarket shelves are still stacked with mainstream brands Peroni and Moretti, smaller stores and bars increasingly offer craft microbrews. Italy had fewer than 50 breweries in 2000. That figure is now around 500, and still rising fast. Craft-beer consumption has more than tripled since 2012, according to data released by brewers’ association, Unionbirrai.

Many Italians have not been so lucky. One reason for the euro’s plunge is a stubbornly slow European recovery from the global financial crisis—known here as the Crisi. It had a disastrous effect on Italy’s economy, causing the deepest recession since World War II. Public debt grew to alarming levels, and 2011 and 2012 saw Italy pitched into the center of a European banking crisis, which almost brought about the collapse of the euro currency. Just as many Italians in 2015 were beginning to see light at the end of their dark economic tunnel—a little, at least—stagnation returned in 2016. Italy has, in effect, experienced zero GDP growth for well over a decade. Plus the country’s stark north-south divide lingers: The south’s economy shrank faster during recession, unemployment rose quicker, and economic recovery has been somewhere between marginal and invisible. Unsurprisingly, net migration from south to north continues.


Fresh seafood and al fresco dining in Italy.

Populism has become a feature of national politics. A party led by comedian Beppe Grillo—the MoVimento 5 Stelle (M5S; 5 Star Movement)—polled around a quarter of the vote in 2013 elections. In 2014, Matteo Renzi swapped his job as Partito Democratico (PD; Democratic Party) mayor of Florence to become Italy’s youngest prime minister, age 39, heading a center-left coalition. Voters remain cautiously positive about the Renzi government: Opinion polling through mid-2016 showed Italians still favoring its reformism over rivals’ policies, but with just a slim lead over M5S.

Italy’s population is aging, and a youth vacuum is being filled by immigrants, especially those from Eastern Europe, notably Romania (whose language is similar to Italian), and Albania, as well as from North Africa. In a number of high-profile tragedies, overloaded boats coming from Africa have sunk in the Mediterranean Sea, with appalling loss of life. Italy had scant colonial experience, unlike Britain and France. Nor does it have the “melting pot” history of the New World; tensions were inevitable, and discrimination is a daily fact of life for many minorities. Change is coming—but too slowly for some. The plight of refugees arriving from North Africa and Syria through 2016 has added yet another layer of complication to Italy’s relationship with immigration.

Prospects for everyone will improve if and when Italy puts the worst of its economic turmoil behind it. From top to toe, highlands to islands, fingers are firmly crossed that the good times are coming round again.


Etruscans & Villanovans: Prehistory to the Rise of Rome

Of all the early inhabitants of Italy, the most significant legacy was left by the Etruscans. No one knows exactly where they came from (though evidence points to origins in what is now modern Turkey), and the inscriptions that they left behind (often on graves in necropolises) are of little help—the Etruscan language has never been fully deciphered by scholars. Whatever their origins, within 2 centuries of appearing on the peninsula around 800 B.C., they had subjugated the lands now known as Tuscany (to which they left their name) and Campania, along with the Villanovan tribes that lived there. They also made Rome the governmental seat of Latium. “Roma” is an Etruscan name, and the mythical ancient kings of Rome had Etruscan names: Numa, Ancus, even Romulus.

The Etruscans ruled until the Roman Revolt around 510 B.C., and by 250 B.C. the Romans and their allies had vanquished or assimilated the Etruscans, wiping out their language and religion. However, many of their manners and beliefs remained, and became integral to what we now understand as “Roman culture.”

Rome’s Museo Nazionale Etrusco (p. 117) and the Etruscan collection in Rome’s Vatican Museums (p. 89) are a logical start-point if you want to see the remains of Etruscan civilization. Florence’s Museo Archeologico (p. 195) houses one of the greatest Etruscan bronzes unearthed, the “Arezzo Chimera.”

The Roman Republic: ca. 510-27 B.C.

After the Republic was established around 510 B.C.—it’s impossible to be precise—the Romans continued to increase their power by conquering neighboring communities in the highlands and forming alliances with other Latins in the lowlands. They gave to their allies, and then to conquered peoples, partial or complete Roman citizenship, with a corresponding obligation of military service. This further increased Rome’s power and reach. Citizen colonies were set up as settlements of Roman farmers or veterans, including both Florence and Siena. The all-powerful Senate presided as Rome defeated rival powers one after the other and came to rule the Mediterranean.

No figure was more towering during the late Republic, or more instrumental in its transformation into Empire (see below), than Julius Caesar, the charismatic conqueror of Gaul—“the wife of every husband and the husband of every wife,” according to scurrilous rumors reported by 1st-century historian Suetonius. After defeating the last resistance of the Pompeiians in 45 B.C., he came to Rome and was made dictator and consul for 10 years. Conspirators, led by Brutus, stabbed him to death in the Senate on March 15, 44 B.C., the “Ides of March.”

Their motivation was to restore the power of the Republic and topple dictatorship. But they failed: Mark Antony, a Roman general, assumed control. He made peace with Caesar’s willed successor, Octavian, and (after the Treaty of Brundisium, which dissolved the Republic) found himself married to Octavian’s sister, Octavia. This didn’t prevent him from also marrying Cleopatra in 36 B.C. A furious Octavian gathered legions and defeated Antony at the Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 B.C. Cleopatra fled to Egypt, followed by Antony, who committed suicide in disgrace a year later. Cleopatra, unable to retain her rule of Egypt, followed suit with the help of an asp.

Many of the standing buildings of Ancient Rome date to periods after the Republic, but parts of the Roman Forum (p. 98) date from the Republic, including the Temple of Saturn. The adjacent Capitoline Hill and Palatine Hill have been sacred religious and civic places since the earliest days of Rome. Rome’s best artifacts from the days of the Republic are housed inside the Musei Capitolini (p. 101).

The Roman Empire in Its Pomp: 27 B.C.-A.D. 395

Born Gaius Octavius in 63 B.C., and later known as Octavian, Augustus became the first Roman emperor in 27 B.C. and reigned until A.D. 14. His autocratic reign ushered in the Pax Romana, 2 centuries of peace. In Rome, you can still see the remains of the Forum of Augustus (p. 97) and admire his statue in the Vatican Museums (p. 89).

By now, Rome ruled the entire Mediterranean world, either directly or indirectly, because all political, commercial, and cultural pathways led straight to Rome, a sprawling city set on seven hills: the Capitoline, Palatine, Aventine, Caelian, Esquiline, Quirinal, and Viminal. It was in this period that Virgil wrote his best-loved epic poem, “The Aeneid,” which supplied a grandiose founding myth for the great city and empire; Ovid composed his erotic poetry; and Horace wrote his “Odes.”

The emperors brought Rome to new heights. But without the counterbalance of the Senate and legislatures, success led to corruption. The centuries witnessed a steady decay in the ideals and traditions on which the Empire had been founded. The army became a fifth column of unruly mercenaries, the tax collector became the scourge of the countryside, and for every good emperor (Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Vespasian, and Hadrian, to name a few) there were several cruel, debased, or simply incompetent tyrants (Caligula, Nero, Caracalla, and many others).

After Augustus died (by poison, perhaps), his widow, Livia—a shrewd operator who had divorced her first husband to marry Augustus—set up her son, Tiberius, as ruler through a number of intrigues and poisonings. A long series of murders ensued, and Tiberius, who ruled during Pontius Pilate’s trial and crucifixion of Christ, was eventually murdered in his late 70s. Murder was so common that a short time later, Domitian (ruled A.D. 81-96) became so obsessed with the possibility of assassination that he had the walls of his palace covered in mica so that he could see behind him at all times. (He was killed anyway.)


Augustus (ruled 27 B.C.-A.D.14): First, “divine” emperor to whom all later emperors aspired

Tiberius (r. A.D. 14-37): Former general whose increasingly unpopular reign was gripped by fear and paranoia

Caligula (r. A.D. 37-41): Young emperor whose reign of cruelty and terror ended when he was assassinated by his Praetorian Guard

Claudius (r. A.D. 41-54): A sickly man who turned out to be a wise and capable emperor, as well as the conqueror of Britain

Nero (r. A.D. 54-68): The last emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty was another cruel megalomaniac who killed his own mother and may have started the Great Fire of Rome (A.D. 64)

Vespasian (r. A.D. 69-79): First emperor of the Flavian dynasty, who built the Colosseum and lived as husband-and-wife with a freed slave, Caenis

Domitian (r. A.D. 81-96): Increasingly paranoid populist and authoritarian who became fixated on the idea that he would be assassinated—and was proven right

Trajan (r. A.D. 98-117): Virtuous soldier-ruler who presided over the moment the empire was at its geographically grandest scale, and also rebuilt much of the city

Hadrian (r. A.D. 113-138): Humanist, general, and builder who redesigned the Pantheon and added the Temple of Venus and Roma to the Forum

Marcus Aurelius (r. A.D. 161-180): Philosopher-king, and the last of the so-called “Five Good Emperors,” whose statue is exhibited in the Musei Capitolini

Excesses ruled the day—at least, if you believe surviving tracts written by contemporary chroniclers who were infused with all kinds of bias: Caligula supposedly committed incest with his sister, Drusilla; appointed his horse to the Senate; and proclaimed himself a god. Caligula’s successor, his uncle Claudius, was poisoned by his final wife—his niece Agrippina the Younger—to secure the succession of Nero, her son by a previous marriage. Nero’s thanks were later to murder not only his mother but also his wife (Claudius’s daughter) and his rival, Claudius’s 13-year-old son, Britannicus. Also an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians, Nero supposedly committed suicide with the cry, “What an artist I destroy!” By the 3rd century A.D., corruption and intrigue had become so prevalent that there were 23 emperors in 73 years. Few, however, were as twisted as Caracalla who, to secure control, had his brother Geta slashed to pieces while Geta was in the arms of their mother, former empress Julia Domna.


Trajan’s Column, Rome.

Constantine the Great became emperor in A.D. 306, and in 330, he made Constantinople (or Byzantium) the new capital, moving the administrative functions away from Rome altogether, partly because the menace of barbarian attacks in the west had increased. Constantine was the first Christian emperor, allegedly converting after he saw the True Cross in a dream, accompanied by the legend, IN THIS SIGN SHALL YOU CONQUER. He defeated rival emperor Maxentius and his followers at the Battle of the Milivan Bridge (A.D. 312), a victory remembered by Rome’s triumphal Arco di Costantino (p. 94). Constantine ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313).


Musei Capitolini, Rome.

It was during the Imperial period that Rome flourished in architecture. Classical orders were simplified into types of column capitals: Doric (a plain capital), Ionic (a capital with a scroll), and Corinthian (a capital with flowering acanthus leaves). Much of this development in building prowess was due to the discovery of a form of concrete and the fine-tuning of the arch, which was used with a logic, rhythm, and ease never before seen. Some of the monumental buildings still stand in Rome, notably Trajan’s Column (p. 98), the Colosseum (p. 96), and Hadrian’s Pantheon (p. 107), among many others. Elsewhere in Italy, Verona’s Arena (p. 293) bears witness to the kinds of crowds that the brutal sport of gladiatorial combat could draw—Ridley Scott’s movie “Gladiator” isn’t entirely fiction. Three Roman cities have been preserved, with street plans and, in some cases, even buildings remaining intact: doomed Pompeii (p. 138) and its neighbor Herculaneum, both buried by Vesuvius’s massive A.D. 79 eruption; and Rome’s ancient seaport, Ostia Antica (p. 136). It was at Herculaneum that one of Rome’s greatest writers, Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23-79), perished. It’s thanks to him; his nephew, Pliny the Younger; the historians Tacitus, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, and Livy; and satirist Juvenal that much of our knowledge of ancient Roman life and history was not lost.

Surviving Roman art had a major influence on the painters and sculptors of the Renaissance (see p. 90). In Rome itself, look for the marble bas-reliefs (sculptures that project slightly from a flat surface) on the Arco di Costantino (p. 94); the sculpture and mosaic collections at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (p. 119); and the gilded equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Musei Capitolini (p. 101). The Florentine Medici were avid collectors of Roman statuary, some now at the Uffizi (p. 181).

The Fall of the Empire, Byzantine Italy & the “Dark Ages”

The Eastern and Western sections of the Roman Empire split in A.D. 395, leaving the Italian peninsula without the support it had once received from east of the Adriatic. When the Goths moved toward Rome in the early 5th century, citizens in the provinces, who had grown to hate the bureaucracy set up by Diocletian, welcomed the invaders. And then the pillage began.


Italy is the largest wine-producing country in the world; as far back as 800 B.C., the Etruscans were vintners. However, it wasn’t until 1965 that laws were enacted to guarantee consistency in winemaking. Quality wines are labeled “DOC” (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). If you see “DOCG” on a label (the “G” stands for Garantita), that denotes an even better-quality wine region. “IGT” (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) indicates a more general wine zone—for example, Umbria—but still with some quality control.

Below we’ve cited a few of the best Italian wines around Venice, Rome, and Florence. Rest assured that there are hundreds more, and you’ll have a great time sampling them to find your own favorites. Sometimes you don’t want the marquee labels: A pitcher of the local vino della casa (house wine) to wash down lunch in a trattoria can be a delight.

Tuscany: Tuscan red wines rank with some of the finest in world. Sangiovese is the king of grapes here, and chianti from the hills south of Florence is the most widely known sangiovese wine. The premium zone is Chianti Classico, where a lively ruby-red wine partners a bouquet of violets. The Tuscan south houses two even finer DOCGs: mighty, robust Brunello di Montalcino, a garnet red ideal for roasts and game; and almost purple Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, which has a rich, velvet body. End a meal with the Tuscan dessert wine called vin santo, which is often accompanied by hard biscotti to dunk in your glass.

The Veneto: Reds around Venice vary from light and lunchtime-friendly Bardolino to Valpolicella, which can be particularly intense if the grapes are partially dried before fermentation to make an Amarone. White, garganega-based Soave has a pale amber color and a peachlike flavor. Prosecco is the classic Italian sparkling white, and the base for both a Bellini and a Spritz—joints that use Champagne are doing it wrong.

Latium: Many of Rome’s local wines come from the Castelli Romani, the hill towns around the capital. These wines are best drunk when young, and they’re most often white, mellow, and dry. The golden wines of Frascati are the most famous.

Rome was first sacked by Alaric I, king of the Visigoths, in 410. The populace made no attempt to defend the city (other than trying vainly to buy him off, a tactic that had worked 3 years earlier); most people fled into the hills. The feeble Western emperor Honorius hid out in Ravenna the entire time, which from 402 he had made the new capital of the Western Roman Empire.

More than 40 troubled years passed. Then Attila the Hun invaded Italy to besiege Rome. Attila was dissuaded from attacking, thanks largely to a peace mission headed by Pope Leo I in 452. Yet relief was short-lived: In 455, Gaiseric, king of the Vandals, carried out a 2-week sack that was unparalleled in its savagery. The empire of the West lasted for only another 20 years; finally, in 476, the sacks and chaos ended the once-mighty city, and Rome itself was left to the popes, though ruled nominally from Ravenna.

Although little of the detailed history of Italy in the post-Roman period is known—and few buildings survive—it’s certain that the spread of Christianity was gradually creating a new society. The religion was probably founded in Rome about a decade after the death of Jesus, and gradually gained strength despite early Roman persecution. To relive the early Christian era, visit Rome’s Appian Way and its Catacombs, along the Via Appia Antica (p. 122). According to Christian tradition, it was here that an escaping Peter encountered his vision of Christ. The Catacombs were the first cemeteries of the Christian community of Rome, and they house the remains of early popes and martyrs.

We have Christianity, along with the influence of Byzantium, to thank for the appearance of Italy’s next great artistic style: the Byzantine. Painting and mosaic work in this era was stylized and static, but also ornate and ethereal. The most accomplished examples of Byzantine art are found in Ravenna, but later churches in the Byzantine style include Venice’s Basilica di San Marco (p. 261).

The Middle Ages: From the 9th Century to the 14th Century

As a ravaged Rome entered the Middle Ages, its people were scattered in rustic exile. A modest population continued to live in the swamps of the Campus Martius, while the seven hills—now without water because aqueducts were cut—stood abandoned and crumbling.

The pope turned toward Europe, where he found a powerful ally in Charlemagne, king of the Franks. In 800, Pope Leo III crowned him emperor. Although Charlemagne pledged allegiance to the church and looked to Rome and its pope as the final arbiter in most religious and cultural affairs, he launched northwestern Europe on a course toward bitter opposition to the meddling of the papacy in affairs of state.

The successor to Charlemagne’s empire was a political entity known as the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806). The new Empire defined the end of the Dark Ages but ushered in a long period of bloody warfare. Magyars from Hungary invaded Lombardy and, in turn, were defeated by an increasingly powerful Venice. This was the great era of Venetian reign in the eastern Mediterranean; it defeated naval rival Genoa in the 1380 Battle of Chioggia; its merchants reigned over most of the eastern Mediterranean, and presided over a Republic that lasted for a millennium; great buildings like the Doge’s Palace (p. 265) were built.

Rome during the Middle Ages was a quaint, rural town. Narrow lanes with overhanging buildings filled many areas that had been showcases of Imperial power. The forums, markets, temples, and theaters of the Imperial era slowly disintegrated. As the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, the state was almost completely controlled by priests, and began an aggressive expansion of Church influence and acquisitions. The result was an endless series of power struggles.

In the mid-14th century, the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing perhaps a third of Italy’s population; the preservation of Tuscan cities like San Gimignano (p. 219) and Siena (p. 211) owes much to the fact that they never fully recovered after the devastation dished out in 1348 by this plague. Despite such setbacks, Italian city-states grew wealthy from Crusade booty, trade, and banking.

The medieval period marks the beginning of building in stone on a mass scale. Flourishing from A.D. 800 to 1300, Romanesque architecture took its inspiration and rounded arches from Ancient Rome. Its architects concentrated on building large churches with wide aisles to accommodate the masses. Pisa’s Piazza dei Miracoli (1153-1360s; p. 216) is typical of the Pisan-Romanesque style, with stacked arcades of mismatched columns in the cathedral’s facade (and wrapping around the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa), and blind arcading set with diamond-shaped lozenges. The influence of Arab architecture is obvious—Pisa was a city of seafaring merchants.

Romanesque sculpture was fluid but still far from naturalistic. Often wonderfully childlike in its narrative simplicity, the work frequently mixes biblical scenes with the motifs of local pagan traditions. The 48 relief panels on the bronze doors of the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore in Verona (p. 293) are among the greatest remaining examples of Romanesque sculpture in Italy.

As the appeal of the Romanesque and Byzantine faded, the Gothic style flourished from the 13th to the 15th centuries. In architecture, Gothic was characterized by flying buttresses, pointed arches, and delicate stained-glass windows. These engineering developments freed architecture from the heavy, thick walls of the Romanesque and allowed ceilings to soar, walls to thin, and windows to proliferate.

Although life in the Gothic age continued to be dominated by religion, many secular buildings also arose, including an array of palaces designed to show off the prestige and wealth of various ruling dynasties. Siena’s civic Palazzo Pubblico (p. 212) and many of the great buildings of Venice (see chapter 8) date from this period. San Gimignano (p. 219), in Tuscany, has a remarkably preserved Gothic center.


Detail of the Baptistery of St. John in the Piazza dei Miracoli, Pisa.

Painters such as Cimabue (1251-1302) and Giotto (1266-1337), in Florence, Pietro Cavallini (1259-ca. 1330) in Rome, and Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255-1319) in Siena began to lift art from Byzantine rigidity and set it on the road to realism. Giotto’s finest work is his fresco cycle at Padua’s Cappella degli Scrovegni (p. 290); he was the true harbinger of the oncoming Renaissance, which would forever change art and architecture. Duccio’s 1311 “Maestà,” now in Siena’s Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (p. 180), influenced Sienese painters for generations. Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted the greatest civic frescoes of the Middle Ages—his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico (p. 212)—before he succumbed to the Black Death, along with almost every great Sienese artist of the time.

The medieval period also saw the birth of literature in the Italian language, which itself was a written version of the Tuscan dialect, primarily because the great writers of the age were all Tuscans. Florentine Dante Alighieri wrote his “Divine Comedy” in the 1310s. Boccaccio’s “Decameron”—kind of a Florentine “Canterbury Tales”—appeared in the 1350s.

Renaissance & Baroque Italy: The 1400s to the 1700s

The story of Italy between the dawn of the Renaissance in the early 15th century and the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries is as fascinating and complicated as that of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

During this period, Rome underwent major physical changes. The old centers of culture reverted to pastures, and great churches and palaces were built using the recycled stones of Ancient Rome. This construction boom did more damage to the temples of the Caesars than any barbarian sack had done. Rare marbles were stripped from the Imperial-era baths and used as altarpieces or sent to limekilns. So enthusiastic was the papal destruction of Imperial Rome, it’s a miracle anything is left.

This era is best remembered because of its art, and around 1400 the most significant power in Italy was the city where the Renaissance began: Florence (see chapter 6). The Medici family rose to become the most powerful of the city’s ruling oligarchy, gradually usurping the powers of the guilds and republicans. They reformed law and commerce, expanded the city’s power by taking control of neighbors such as Pisa, and also sparked a “renaissance,” a rebirth, in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Christopher Hibbert’s “The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici” (2001) is the most readable historical account of the era.

Under the patronage of the Medici and other powerful Florentine families, innovative painters and sculptors pursued a greater degree of expressiveness and naturalism. Donatello (1386-1466) cast the first free-standing nude since antiquity (now in Florence’s Museo Nazionale del Bargello, p. 184). Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378-1455) labored for 50 years on two sets of doors on Florence’s Baptistery (p. 175), the most famous of which were dubbed the “Gates of Paradise.” Masaccio (1401-28) produced the first painting that realistically portrayed linear perspective, on the nave wall of Santa Maria Novella (p. 193).


A lion holds Florence's coat of arms, Museo Nazionale del Bargello.

Next followed the brief period that’s become known as the High Renaissance: The epitome of the Renaissance man, Florentine Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), painted his “Last Supper,” in Milan, and an “Annunciation” (1481), now hanging in Florence’s Uffizi (p. 181) alongside countless Renaissance masterpieces from such great painters as Paolo Uccello, Sandro Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, and others. Raphael (1483-1520) produced a sublime body of work in his 37 short years of life.


Annunciation by Leonardo da Vinci in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Skilled in sculpture, painting, and architecture, Michelangelo (1475-1564) and his career marked the apogee of the Renaissance. His giant “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia (p. 194) in Florence is the world’s most famous statue, and his Sistine Chapel frescoes have lured millions to the Vatican Museums (p. 89) in Rome.

The father of the Venetian High Renaissance was Titian (1485-1576); known for his mastery of color and tonality, he was the true heir to Venetian painters Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), Giorgione (1477-1510), and Vittore Carpaccio (1465-1525). Their masterpieces can be seen throughout Venice (see chapter 8).


Whole libraries have been written on the Renaissance. The most accessible introductions include Peter and Linda Murray’s “The Art of the Renaissance” (1963), Michael Levey’s “Early Renaissance” (1967), and Evelyn Welch’s “Art in Renaissance Italy 1350-1500” (2000)—it’s certainly worth acquainting yourself with some of the themes and styles before you visit. Giorgio Vasari’s “Lives of the Artists” was first published in 1550, and it remains the definitive work on the Renaissance artists, written by one who knew some of them personally. It’s also surprisingly readable. On the buildings, Peter Murray’s “The Architecture of the Italian Renaissance” (1969) is a good read. In “The Stones of Florence” (1956), Mary McCarthy mixes architectural insight with no-holds-barred opinions.

As in painting, Renaissance architectural rules stressed proportion, order, and classical inspiration. In the early 1400s, Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446) grasped the concept of “perspective” and provided artists with ground rules for creating the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. Ross King’s “Brunelleschi’s Dome” (2000) tells the story of his greatest achievement, the crowning of Florence’s cathedral with its iconic ochre dome. Michelangelo (1475-1564) took up architecture late in life, designing the Laurentian Library (1524) and New Sacristy (1524-34) at Florence’s Basilica di San Lorenzo (p. 192). He moved south (just as art’s center of gravity did) to complete his crowning glory, the soaring dome of Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica (p. 87).

The third great Renaissance architect—and the most influential of them all—was Andrea Palladio (1508-80), who worked in a classical mode of columns, porticoes, pediments, and other ancient temple-inspired features. His masterpieces include fine churches in Venice. His influence is felt in capitol buildings all over the United States, and much more.

In time, the High Renaissance stagnated, paving the way for the baroque. Stuccoes, sculptures, and paintings were carefully designed to complement each other—and the space itself—to create a unified whole. Its spiritual home was Rome, and its towering figure was Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), the greatest baroque sculptor, a fantastic architect, and no mean painter. Among many fine sculptures, you’ll find his best in Rome’s Galleria Borghese (p. 115) and Santa Maria della Vittoria (p. 119).

In music, the best known of many baroque composers is Venetian Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), whose “Four Seasons” is among the most regularly performed classical compositions of all time. In painting, the baroque often mixed a kind of super-realism based on using peasants as models and an exaggerated use of light and dark—a technique called chiaroscuro—with compositional complexity and explosions of fury, movement, color, and figures. The period produced many fine artists, most notably Caravaggio (1571-1610). Among his masterpieces are a “St. Matthew” (1599) cycle in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi (p. 106). The baroque also had an outstanding female painter in Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1652): Her brutal “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (1620) is in Florence’s Uffizi (p. 181).

Frothy, ornate rococo art was the baroque taken to extremes—and has few serious proponents in Italy. Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) was arguably the best of Italy’s rococo painters, and specialized in ceiling frescoes and canvases with cloud-filled heavens of light. He worked extensively in and around Venice. For rococo building—more a decorative than an architectural movement—look no further than Rome’s Spanish Steps (p. 110) or the Trevi Fountain (p. 114).


The Spanish Steps, Rome.

At Last, a United Italy: The 1800s

By the 1800s, the glories of the Renaissance were a fading memory. From Turin to Naples, chunks of Italy had changed hands many, many times—between the Austrians, the Spanish, and the French; among autocratic thugs and (relatively) enlightened princes; between the noble and the merchant classes. The 19th century witnessed the final collapse of many Renaissance city-states. The last of the Medici, Gian Gastone, had died in 1737, leaving Tuscany in the hands of Lorraine and Habsburg princes. French emperor Napoleon brought an end to a millennium of Republic in Venice in 1797, and installed puppet or client rulers across the Italian peninsula. During the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), which followed Napoleon’s defeat by an alliance of the British, Prussians, and Dutch, Italy was once again divided.


Rome’s Trevi Fountain.

Political unrest became a part of Italian life, some of it spurred by the industrialization of the north and some by insurrectionaries like Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-72). Europe’s year of revolutions, 1848, rocked Italy, too, with violent risings in Lombardy and Sicily. After decades of political machinations and intrigue, and thanks to the efforts of statesman Camillo Cavour (1810-61) and rebel general Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807-82), the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861 and Victor Emmanuel (Vittorio Emanuele) II of Savoy became Italy’s first monarch. The kingdom’s first capital was Turin (1861-65), seat of the victorious Piedmontese, followed by Florence (1865-71).

The establishment of the kingdom, however, didn’t signal a complete unification of Italy, because Latium (including Rome) was still under papal control and Venetia was held by Austria. This was partially resolved in 1866, when Venetia joined the rest of Italy after the Seven Weeks’ War between Austria and Prussia. In 1871, Rome became the capital after the city was taken on September 20, 1870. Present-day Via XX Settembre is the very street up which patriots advanced after breaching the city gates. The Risorgimento—the “resurgence,” Italian unification—was complete.

Political heights in Italy seemed to correspond to creative depths in art and architecture. Among the more notable practitioners of the era was Venetian Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Italy’s major neoclassical sculptor, who became notorious for painting both Napoleon and his sister Pauline as nudes. His best work is in Rome’s Galleria Borghese (p. 115).

Music was experiencing its Italian golden age, bel canto opera for which the 19th century will largely be remembered. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was born in Pesaro, and found success with his 1816 “The Barber of Seville.” The fame of Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), a prolific native of Bergamo, was assured when his “Anna Bolena” premiered in 1830. Both were overshadowed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901), whose works such as “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata” have become some of the most whistled on the planet.

The A-List of Italian Novels Available in English

bullAlessandro Manzoni, “The Betrothed” (1827)

bullAlberto Moravia, “The Conformist” (1951)

bullGiuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, “The Leopard” (1958)

bullElsa Morante, “History: A Novel” (1974)

bullItalo Calvino, “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” (1979)

bullUmberto Eco, “Foucault’s Pendulum” (1988)

bullNiccolo Ammaniti, “I’m Not Scared” (2001)

The 20th Century: Two World Wars & One Duce

In 1915, Italy entered World War I on the side of the Allies, joining Britain, Russia, and France to help defeat Germany and the traditional enemy to the north, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and so to “reclaim” Trentino and Trieste: Mark Thompson’s “The White War” (2008) tells the sorry tale of Italy’s catastrophic (though victorious) campaign. In the aftermath of war and carnage, Italians further suffered with rising unemployment and horrendous inflation. On October 28, 1922, Benito Mussolini, who started his Fascist Party in 1919, gathered 30,000 Black Shirts for his March on Rome. Inflation was soaring and workers had just called a general strike, so rather than recognizing a state under siege, King Victor Emmanuel III (1900-46) proclaimed Mussolini as the new leader. In 1929, Il Duce—a moniker Mussolini began using from 1925—defined the divisions between the Italian government and the pope by signing the Lateran Treaty, which granted political, territorial, and fiscal autonomy to the microstate of Vatican City. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), Mussolini’s support of Franco’s Fascists, who had staged a coup against the elected government of Spain, helped seal the Axis alliance between Italy and Nazi Germany. Italy was inexorably and disastrously sucked into World War II.

Deeply unpleasant though their politics were, the Fascist regime did sponsor some remarkable architecture. It’s at its best in Rome’s planned satellite community, EUR. In a city famed for classical works, Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station (1934) is also a masterpiece of modernism. The station has a plaque commemorating Jews who were sent from the terminus to their deaths in Nazi Germany. The era’s towering figure in music was Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924); such operas as “Tosca” (1900) and “Madame Butterfly” (1904) still pack houses worldwide.

After defeat in World War II, Italy voted for the establishment of the First Republic—overwhelmingly so in northern and central Italy, which helped to counterbalance the south, which favored keeping the monarchy. Italy quickly succeeded in rebuilding its economy, in part because of U.S. aid under the Marshall Plan (1948-52). By the 1960s, as a member of the European Economic Community (founded by the Treaty of Rome in 1957), Italy had become one of the world’s leading industrialized nations, prominent in the manufacture of automobiles and office equipment. Fiat (from Turin), Ferrari (from Emilia-Romagna), and Olivetti (from northern Piedmont) were known around the world.

The country continued to be plagued by economic inequality between the prosperous industrial north and a depressed south, and during the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was rocked by domestic terrorism: These were the so-called Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead), during which extremists of the left and right bombed and assassinated with impunity. Conspiracy theories became the Italian staple diet; everyone from a shadow state to shady Masonic lodges to the CIA was accused of involvement in what became in effect an undeclared civil war. The most notorious incident of the Anni di Piombo was the kidnap and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978. You’ll find a succinct account of these murky years in Tobias Jones’s “The Dark Heart of Italy” (2003).

The postwar Italian film industry gained notice for its innovative directors. Federico Fellini (1920-93) burst onto the scene with his highly individual style, starting with “La Strada” (1954) and going on to such classics as “The City of Women” (1980). His “La Dolce Vita” (1961) defined an era in Rome.


The best months for traveling in most of Italy are from April to June and mid-September to October—temperatures are largely comfortable, rural colors are richer, and crowds aren’t too intense (except around Easter). From July through early September the country’s holiday spots teem with visitors. Easter, May, and June usually see the highest hotel prices in Rome and Florence.

August is the worst month in many places: Not only does it get uncomfortably hot, muggy, and crowded, but seemingly the entire country goes on vacation, at least around August 15. Many Italians take off the entire month. Many family-run hotels, restaurants, and shops are closed (except at the spas, beaches, and islands, where most Italians head). Paradoxically, Florence in August can seem emptied of locals, and hotels there (and in Rome) were once heavily discounted (alas, now less so). Also be aware that fashionable restaurants and nightspots are usually closed for the whole month.

From late October to Easter, many attractions operate on shorter (sometimes much shorter) winter hours, and some hotels are closed for renovation or redecoration, though that is unlikely if you are visiting cities. Many family-run restaurants take a week or two off sometime between November and February; spa and beach destinations become padlocked ghost towns. Deals are often available, assuming you avoid Christmas and New Year.


It’s warm all over Italy in summer; it can be very hot in the south, and almost anywhere inland—landlocked cities on the northern plains and in Tuscany can feel stifling during a July or August hot spell. The higher temperatures (measured in Italy in degrees Celsius) usually begin in May, often lasting until early October. Winters in the north of Italy are cold, with rain and snow, and a biting wind whistles over the mountains into Venice and, less often, Florence. In Rome and the south the weather is warm (or at least, warm-ish) all year, averaging 10°C (50°F) in winter. The rainiest months are October and November.

Italy’s Average Daily High Temperature & Monthly Rainfall


Public Holidays

Offices, government buildings (though not usually tourist offices), and shops in Italy are generally closed on: January 1 (Capodanno, or New Year); January 6 (La Befana, or Epiphany); Easter Sunday (Pasqua); Easter Monday (Pasquetta); April 25 (Liberation Day); May 1 (Festa del Lavoro, or Labor Day); June 2 (Festa della Repubblica, or Republic Day); August 15 (Ferragosto, or the Assumption of the Virgin); November 1 (All Saints’ Day); December 8 (L’Immacolata, or the Immaculate Conception); December 25 (Natale, Christmas Day); and December 26 (Santo Stefano, or St. Stephen’s Day). You’ll often find businesses closed for any annual celebration dedicated to the local saint (for example, on January 31 in San Gimignano, Tuscany).

Italy Calendar of Events


Carnevale, Venice. At this riotous time, theatrical presentations and masked balls take place throughout Venice and on the lagoon islands. Balls are by invitation only (except the Doge’s Ball), but the street events and fireworks are open to everyone. The week before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent.


Festa di San Giuseppe, Trionfale Quarter, Rome. A decorated statue of St. Joseph is brought out at a fair with food stalls, concerts, and sporting events. Usually March 19.


Holy Week, nationwide. Processions and ceremonies—some dating to the Middle Ages—are staged. The most notable procession is led by the pope, passing the Colosseum and the Roman Forum; a torch-lit parade caps the observance. Beginning 4 days before Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunday (Pasqua), Piazza San Pietro, Rome. In an event broadcast around the world, the pope gives his blessing from the balcony of St. Peter’s.

Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart), Florence. A cart laden with flowers and fireworks is drawn by three white oxen to the Duomo, where at the noon Mass a mechanical dove detonates it. Easter Sunday.


Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Florentine Musical May), Florence. Italy’s oldest and most prestigious music festival emphasizes music from the 14th to the 20th centuries, but also presents ballet and opera. Late April to end of June.

Concorso Ippico Internazionale (International Horse Show), Piazza di Siena, Rome. Top-flight international show jumping at the Villa Borghese. Late May.


Festa di San Ranieri, Pisa. The city honors its patron saint with candlelit parades, followed the next day by 8-rower teams competing in 16th-century costumes. June 16 and 17.

Calcio Storico (Historic Football), Florence. A revival of a raucous 15th-century form of football, pitting four teams in medieval costumes against one another. The matches usually culminate on June 24, feast day of St. John the Baptist. Late June.

Gioco del Ponte, Pisa. Teams in Renaissance costume take part in a long-contested push-of-war on the Ponte di Mezzo, which spans the Arno. Last Sunday in June.

La Biennale di Venezia, Venice. One of the most famous regular contemporary art events in the world takes place during alternate odd-numbered years. June to November.


Il Palio, Piazza del Campo, Siena. Palio fever grips this Tuscan hill town for a wild and exciting horse race from the Middle Ages. Pageantry, costumes, and the celebrations of the victorious contrada (sort of a neighborhood social club) mark the spectacle. It’s a “no rules” event: Even a horse without a rider can win the race. July 2 and August 16.

Festa del Redentore (Feast of the Redeemer), Venice. This festival marks the lifting of the plague in 1576, with fireworks, pilgrimages, and boating. Third Saturday and Sunday in July.


Venice International Film Festival, Venice. Ranking after Cannes, this festival brings together stars, directors, producers, and filmmakers from all over the world to the Palazzo del Cinema on the Lido. Late August to early September.


Regata Storica, Grand Canal, Venice. A maritime spectacular: Many gondolas participate in the canal procession, although gondolas don’t race in the regatta itself. First Sunday in September.


Christmas Blessing of the Pope, Piazza San Pietro, Rome. Delivered at noon from the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica, the pope’s words are broadcast to the faithful around the globe. December 25.