Frommer's Italy (2015)

Rome’s Colosseum.

As with any destination, a little background reading can help you to understand more. Many Italy stereotypes are accurate—children are fussed over wherever they go, food and soccer are treated like religion, the north–south divide is alive and well, bureaucracy is a frustrating feature 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 land so steeped in history—3 millennia and counting—Italy has only a short history as a country. In 2011 it celebrated its 150th birthday. Prior to 1861, the map of the 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 onto and out of 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, Turin rather than Naples. (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 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 will help you understand why.

ITALY TODAY

As in most of the Western world, the global financial crisis—known here as the crisi—had a disastrous effect on Italy’s economy, causing the deepest recession since World War II. Public debt had grown to alarming levels—as high as 1,900 billion euros—and for a decade economic growth has been slow. As a result, 2011 and 2012 saw Italy pitched into the center of a European banking crisis, which almost brought about the collapse of the euro currency.

Populism has become a feature of national politics, and a party led by comedian Beppe Grillo—the MoVimento 5 Stelle (Five Star Movement)—polled around a quarter of the vote in 2013 elections. Center-left politician Enrico Letta was installed as prime minister heading a grand coalition of left and center-right. That shaky alliance soon collapsed, partly amid infighting between Letta and his political kin, Florence mayor Matteo Renzi. In early 2014, Renzi became Italy’s youngest prime minister, at 39 years of age, heading a coalition of the center-left. Among his first significant acts was to name a governing cabinet made up of equal numbers of men and women—a ratio unprecedented in Italy. What happens next, of course, is anyone’s guess.

A Roman deli.

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. Italy doesn’t have the colonial experience of Britain and France, or 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—the Letta government appointed Italy’s first black minister, Cécile Kyenge, and black footballer Mario Balotelli is the country’s biggest sports star. But it is coming too slowly for some.

A “brain drain” continues to push young Italians to seek opportunities abroad. The problem is especially bad in rural communities and on the islands, where the old maxim, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know,” applies more strongly than ever in these straitened times. By 2014, however, indications were that the worst of the economic turmoil might be behind the country. From top to toe, highlands to islands, fingers are firmly crossed.

THE MAKING OF ITALY

Prehistory to the Rise of Rome

Of all the early inhabitants of Italy, the most extensive legacy was left by the Etruscans. No one knows exactly where they came from, and the inscriptions that they left behind (often on graves in necropoli) 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.

From their base at Rome, the Latins remained free until they were conquered by the Etruscans around 600 B.C. The new overlords introduced gold tableware and jewelry, bronze urns and terracotta statuary, and the art and culture of Greece and Asia Minor. They also made Rome the governmental seat of Latium. “Roma” is an Etruscan name, and the ancient kings of Rome had Etruscan names: Numa, Ancus, and 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 the former rulers’ manners and beliefs remained, and became integral to what we now understand as “Roman culture.”

The Greeks predated both the Etruscans and the Romans, and built powerful colonial outposts in the south, notably in Naples—founded as Greek “Neapolis.” Remains of the Agora, or market square, survive below San Lorenzo Maggiore (p. 477), in the old center of the city. The Greeks have left behind crumbling stone monuments above ground too, including at the Valley of the Temples, Agrigento, Sicily (p. 538).

Rome’s Museo Nazionale Etrusco (p. 124) and the Etruscan collection in Rome’s Vatican Museums (p. 98) are a logical start-point if you want to see the remains of Etruscan civilization. Florence’s Museo Archeologico (p. 187) houses one of the greatest Etruscan bronzes yet unearthed, the “Arezzo Chimera.” There are also fine Etruscan collections in Volterra, Tuscany (p. 227) and Orvieto, Umbria (p. 263).

Vespas are ubiquitous in major Italian cities.

CUISINE AROUND THE COUNTRY

Italians know how to cook—just ask one. But be sure to leave plenty of time: Once an Italian starts 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 many ways. On a Rome visit, 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 (artichokes cooked with herbs, such as mint and garlic), and a dish that’s become ubiquitous, spaghetti alla carbonara—pasta coated in a white sauce made with egg and pecorino romano (ewe’s milk cheese), with added cured pork (guanciale, cheek, if it’s authentic).

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, adored 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 ewe’s milk cheese, pecorino, made most famously around the Val d’Orcia town of Pienza. Meat is usually the centerpiece of any secondo: A bistecca alla fiorentina is the classic main dish, a T-bone-like wedge of meat. An authentic fiorentina 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, also known as cantuccini); and the miele (honey) of Montalcino.

Probably the most famous dish of Piedmont and Lombardy is cotoletta alla milanese (veal dipped in egg and breadcrumbs and fried in olive oil)—the Germans call it Wienerschnitzel. Osso buco is another Lombard classic: shin of veal cooked in a ragout sauce. Turin’s iconic dish is bagna càuda—literally “hot bath” in the Piedmontese language, a sauce made with olive oil, garlic, butter, and anchovies, into which you dip raw vegetables. Piedmont is also the spiritual home of risotto, particularly the town of Vercelli, which is surrounded by rice paddies.

Venice is rarely celebrated for its cuisine, but fresh seafood is usually excellent, and it figures heavily in the Venetian diet. Grilled fish is often served with red radicchio, a bitter lettuce that grows best in nearby Treviso. Two typical nonfish dishes are fegato alla veneziana (liver and onions) and risi e bisi (rice and fresh peas).

Liguria also turns toward the sea for its inspiration, as reflected by its version of bouillabaisse, burrida flavored with spices. But its most famous food is pesto, a paste-sauce made with fresh basil, garlic, hard cheese, and crushed pine nuts, which is used to dress pasta, fish, and many other dishes.

Emilia-Romagna is the country’s gastronomic center. Rich in produce, its school of cooking first created many pastas now common around Italy: tagliatelle, tortellini, and cappelletti (made in the shape of “little hats”). Pig also comes several ways, including in Bologna’s mortadella (rolled, ground pork) and prosciutto di Parma (cured ham). Served in paper-thin slices, it’s deliciously sweet. The distinctive cheese Parmigiano-Reggiano is made by hundreds of small producers in the provinces of Parma and Reggio Emilia.

The cookery of Campania—including spaghetti with clam sauce and pizza—is familiar to North Americans, because so many Neapolitans moved to the New World. Mozzarella is the local cheese, the best of it mozzarella di bufala, made with milk of buffalo, a species first introduced to Campania from Asia in the Middle Ages. Mixed fish fries (a fritto misto) are a staple of many a lunch table.

Sicily has a distinctive cuisine, with strong flavors and aromatic sauces. One staple primo is pasta con le sarde (with pine nuts, wild fennel, spices, chopped sardines, and olive oil). In fact, fish is good and fresh pretty much everywhere (local swordfish is excellent). Desserts and homemade pastries include cannoli, cylindrical pastry cases stuffed with ricotta and candied fruit (or chocolate). Sicilian gelato is among the best in Italy.

The Roman Republic: ca. 510–27 B.C.

After the Roman Republic was established around 510 B.C., 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 the obligation of military service. Citizen colonies were set up as settlements of Roman farmers or veterans—including both Florence and Siena.

The stern Roman Republic was characterized by a belief in the gods, the necessity of learning from the past, the strength of the family, education through reading and performing public service, and most important, obedience. The all-powerful Senate presided as Rome defeated rival powers one after the other and came to rule the Mediterranean. The Punic Wars with Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia) in the 3rd century B.C. cleared away a major obstacle, although it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Republic. Carthaginian general Hannibal (247–182 B.C.) conducted a devastating campaign across the Italian peninsula, crossing the Alps with his elephants and winning bloody battles by the shore of Lago Trasimeno, in Umbria, and at Cannae, in Puglia. Rome eventually prevailed.

No figure was more towering during the late Republic, or more instrumental in its transformation into the Empire (see below), than Julius Caesar, the charismatic conqueror of Gaul—“the wife of every husband and the husband of every wife.” After defeating the last resistance of the Pompeians in 45 B.C., he came to Rome and was made dictator and consul for 10 years. Conspirators, led by Marcus Junius Brutus, stabbed him to death at the Theater of Pompey on March 15, 44 B.C., the “Ides of March.” The site (at Largo di Torre Argentina) is best known these days as the home to a feral cat colony.

The conspirators’ 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 marriage, however, didn’t prevent him from also marrying Cleopatra in 36 B.C. The furious Octavian gathered western 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 seduce his successor and thus retain her rule of Egypt, followed suit with the help of an asp. The permanent end of the Republic was nigh.

Many of the standing buildings of ancient Rome date to periods after the Republic, but parts of the Roman Forum (p. 108) 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. 106). The greatest exponent of political oratory in the period was Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.), who wrote widely on philosophy and statesmanship, and was killed after expressing outspoken opposition to Mark Antony in his “Philippics.”

The view from Rome’s Capitoline Hill.

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. 108) and admire his statue in the Vatican Museums (p. 98).

By now, Rome ruled the entire Mediterranean world, either directly or indirectly, because all political, commercial, and cultural pathways led straight to Rome, the sprawling city set on seven hills: the Capitoline, Palatine, Aventine, Celian, 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 countervailing power 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, and for every good emperor (Augustus, Claudius, Trajan, Vespasian, and Hadrian, to name a few) there were three or four cruel, debased 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 intrigues and poisonings. A series of murders and purges 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.)

Excesses ruled the day—at least, if you believe surviving tracts written by contemporary chroniclers infused with all kinds of bias: Caligula supposedly committed incest with his sister, Drusilla, appointed his horse to the Senate, lavished money on egotistical projects, and proclaimed himself a god. Caligula’s successor, his uncle Claudius, was poisoned by his final wife, his niece Agrippina, 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 son. The disgraceful Nero, an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians, committed suicide with the cry, “What an artist I destroy!”

By the 3rd century A.D., corruption 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 his mother, former empress Julia Domna.

Constantine the Great became emperor in A.D. 306, and in 330, he made Constantinople (or Byzantium) the new capital of the Empire, moving the administrative functions away from Rome altogether, partly because the menace of possible 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 words 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 that’s remembered by Rome’s triumphal Arco di Costantino (p. 104). Constantine ended the persecution of Christians with the Edict of Milan (A.D. 313).

EARLY ROMAN EMPERORS

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

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 (p. 107) and lived as husband-and-wife with a freed slave, Caenis

Domitian (r. A.D. 81–96): Increasingly paranoid authoritarian and populist 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 Rome 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 (p. 116) 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 (p. 106)

ALL ABOUT VINO

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” means 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.

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 best 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 usually accompanied by biscotti that you dunk into your glass.

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

Piedmont: The finest reds in Italy probably hail from the vine-clad slopes of Piedmont, particularly those made from the late-ripening Nebbiolo grape in the Langhe hills south of Alba. The big names—with big flavors and big price tags—are Barbaresco (brilliant ruby red with a delicate flavor) and Barolo (also brilliant ruby red, and gaining finesse when it mellows into a velvety old age).

The South and Sicily: From the volcanic soil of Vesuvius, the wines of Campania have been extolled for 2,000 years. Homer praised Falerno, straw yellow in color. The key DOCG wines from Campania these days are Greco di Tufo (a mouth-filling, full white) and Fiano di Avellino (subtler and more floral). The wines of Sicily, once called a “paradise of the grape,” were extolled by the ancient poets, and table wines here are improving after a drop in quality (though not quantity). Sicily is also home to Marsala, a fortified wine first popularized by British port traders and now served with desserts; it also makes a great sauce for veal.

It was during the Imperial period that Rome flourished in architecture, advancing in size and majesty far beyond earlier cities built by the Greeks. 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 advance in building prowess was down 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. 108), the Colosseum (p. 107), and Hadrian’s Pantheon (p. 116), among many others. Elsewhere in Italy, Verona’s Arena (p. 358) bears witness to the kinds of crowds that the brutal sport of gladiatorial combat could draw—Ridley Scott’s 2000 Oscar-winning movie “Gladiator” isn’t all fiction. Three Roman cities have been preserved, with street plans and, in some cases, even buildings remaining intact: doomed Pompeii (p. 480) and its neighbor Herculaneum (p. 482), both buried by Vesuvius’s massive A.D. 79 eruption, and Rome’s ancient seaport, Ostia Antica (p. 141). It was at Herculaneum that one of Rome’s greatest writers perished, Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79). 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.

The surviving Roman art had a major influence on the painters and sculptors of the Renaissance (see p. 23). In Rome itself, look for the marble bas-reliefs (sculptures that project slightly from a flat surface) on the Arco di Costantino (p. 104), the sculpture and mosaic collections at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (p. 127), and the gilded equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Musei Capitolini (p. 106). The Florentine Medici were avid collectors of Roman statuary, some now at the Uffizi (p. 174). Naples’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale (p. 470) houses the world’s most extraordinary collection of Roman art, preserved for centuries under the lava at Pompeii.

The Fall of the Empire through 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 Emperor Diocletian, welcomed the invaders. And then the pillage began.

The unfinished Gothic facade of the Basilica di San Petronio, Bologna.

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 it was ruled nominally from Ravenna by an Exarch from Byzantium (aka Constantinople).

   A Growing Taste for Beer

Italy will always be known, and adored, for its wine, but one gastronomic trend to watch out for as you travel is the growth in 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 was well over 400 by 2014, and rising fast. You’ll even find quality beers on the hallowed shelves of the occasional wine vendor.

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 (and enthusiastic) persecution by the Romans. The best way today to relive the early Christian era is to visit Rome’s Appian Way and its Catacombs, along the Via Appia Antica (p. 129). According to Christian tradition, it was here that an escaping Peter encountered his vision of Christ. The Catacombs (p. 129) were the first cemeteries of the Christian community of Rome, and housed 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 very stylized and static, but also ornate and ethereal. The most accomplished examples of Byzantine art are found in the churches of Ravenna (p. 291), and later buildings in the Byzantine style include Venice’s Basilica di San Marco (p. 331).

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

A ravaged Rome entered the Middle Ages, its once-proud people scattered and unrecognizable in rustic exile. A modest population lived in the swamps of the Campus Martius. The seven hills, now without water because the 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, he was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. 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 temporal affairs.

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 northeastern Lombardy and, in turn, were defeated by an increasingly powerful Venice. This was the great era of Venetian preeminence 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. 335) were built. The Lion of St. Mark—symbol of the city’s dominion—can be seen as far afield as Bergamo (p. 384), close to Milan.

Rome during the Middle Ages was a quaint backwater. Narrow lanes with overhanging buildings filled many areas that had once been showcases of imperial power. The forums, mercantile exchanges, 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. Between 1378 and 1417, competing popes—one in Rome, another “antipope” in Avignon—made simultaneous claims to the legacy of St. Peter.

Normans gained military control of Sicily from the Arabs in the 11th century, divided it from the rest of Italy, and altered forever the island’s racial and ethnic makeup. The reign of Roger II of Sicily (r. 1130–54) is remembered for its religious tolerance and the multiethnic nature of the court—as well as its architecture. The Palazzo dei Normanni (p. 531), in Palermo, and nearby Monreale (p. 533), are just two among many great projects the Normans left behind.

In the mid–14th century, the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing perhaps a third of Italy’s population; the unique preservation of Tuscan settlements like San Gimignano (p. 221) and Siena (p. 204) owes much to the fact that they never fully recovered after the devastation dished out by the 1348 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. Architects built large churches with wide aisles to accommodate the masses. Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli (1153–1360s; p. 237) 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 myths and motifs of local pagan traditions that were being incorporated into medieval Christianity. The 48 relief panels of the bronze doors of the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore in Verona (p. 359) are among Italy’s greatest remaining examples of Romanesque sculpture. The exterior of Parma’s Baptistery (p. 297) sports a series of Romanesque friezes by Benedetto Antelami (1150–1230).

As the appeal of Romanesque and the Byzantine faded, the Gothic style flourished from the 13th to the 15th centuries. In architecture, the 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 the Gothic age continued to be religious, many secular buildings also arose, including palaces designed to show off the prestige of various ruling families. 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. 221), in Tuscany, has a preserved Gothic center. Milan’s Duomo (p. 373) is one of Europe’s great Gothic cathedrals.

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. 354); 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 Metropolitana (p. 215), influenced Sienese painters for centuries. Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted the greatest civic frescoes of the Middle Ages—such as his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico (p. 214)—before he succumbed to the Black Death, along with almost every great Sienese artist of his generation.

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 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 story of Italy from the dawn of the Renaissance in the early 15th century to 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 fields, and great churches and palaces were built with the stones of ancient Rome. Cows grazed on the crumbling Roman Forum. The city’s construction boom did more damage to the ancient temples 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 that it’s a miracle anything is left.

Milan was a glorious Renaissance capital, particularly under the Sforza dynasty and Ludovico “Il Moro” (1452–1508), patron of Leonardo da Vinci. Smaller but still significant centers of power included Gonzaga Mantua (p. 387) and Este Ferrara (p. 281).

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 5). Slowly but surely, the Medici family rose to become the most powerful of the city’s ruling oligarchy, gradually usurping the powers of the guilds and the 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 (as well as other powerful Florentine families), innovative young painters and sculptors went in pursuit of a greater degree of expressiveness and naturalism. Donatello (1386–1466) cast the first freestanding nude since antiquity (a bronze now in Florence’s Museo Nazionale del Bargello, p. 177). Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455) labored for 50 years on two sets of doors on Florence’s Baptistery (p. 169), 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. 186).

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,” now in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie (p. 378), and an “Annunciation” (1481), now hanging in Florence’s Uffizi (p. 174) 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 37 short years.

Michelangelo’s “David.”

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. 187) in Florence is the world’s most famous statue, and the Sistine Chapel frescoes have lured millions to the Vatican Museums (p. 98) 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 great Venetian painters Gentile Bellini (1429–1507), Giorgione (1477–1510), and Vittore Carpaccio (1465–1525). Many of their masterpieces can be seen around Venice (see chapter 8).

As in painting, Renaissance architectural rules stressed proportion, order, classical inspiration, and mathematical precision. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), in the early 1400s, 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 that 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 San Lorenzo (p. 183). 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. 96).

The third great Renaissance architect—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.

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. It’s 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. 123) and Santa Maria della Vittoria (p. 127). Baroque architecture is especially prominent in the South: in the churches and devotional architecture of Naples (p. 458) and in Siracusa (p. 510), Sicily. Turin (p. 405) under the Savoys was remodeled by the baroque architecture of Guarino Guarini (1624–83) and Filippo Juvarra (1678–1736).

In music, most famous of the 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 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 dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures. The period produced many fine artists, notably Caravaggio (1571–1610). Among his masterpieces are the “St. Matthew” (1599) cycle in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi (p. 114) and “The Acts of Mercy” in Pio Monte della Misericordia (p. 475), Naples. The baroque also had an outstanding female painter in Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652): Her brutal “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (1620) hangs in Florence’s Uffizi (p. 174).

Frothy, ornate, and chaotic, rococo art was the baroque gone awry—and has few serious proponents in Italy. Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770) was arguably the best of the rococo painters, and specialized in ceiling frescoes and canvases with cloud-filled heavens of light. He worked extensively in Venice and the northeast. For rococo building—more a decorative than an architectural movement—look no further than Rome’s Spanish Steps (p. 119) or the Trevi Fountain (p. 122).

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 enlightened princes, between the noble and the merchant classes. The 19th century witnessed the final collapse of many of the 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.

   The A-List of Italian Novels Available in English

Alessandro Manzoni, “The Betrothed” (1827)

Alberto Moravia, “The Conformist” (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

Political unrest became a fact of Italian life, some of it spurred by the industrialization of the north and some by the encouragement of 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 its 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 of the newly formed country, after the city was retaken 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 historic depths in art and architecture. Among the more notable practitioners 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. 123). Tuscany also bred a late–19th-century precursor to French Impressionism, the Macchiaioli movement; see their works in the “modern art” galleries at Florence’s Palazzo Pitti (p. 190).

If art was hitting an all-time low, music was experiencing its Italian golden age. It’s bel canto opera for which the 19th century is largely remembered. Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) was born in Pesaro, in the Marches, and found fame 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 perhaps 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 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, now the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the aftermath of war, Italians suffered with rising unemployment and horrendous inflation. As in Germany, this deep political crisis led to the emergence of a dictator. On October 28, 1922, Benito Mussolini, who had started his Fascist Party in 1919, knew the country was ripe for change. He 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 government 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.

Fresh tomatoes for sale at a Roman market.

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 (p. 129), especially its “Square Colosseum,” the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro. In a city famed for Renaissance works, Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station (1934) is also a masterpiece—of modernism. The station has a plaque commemorating the Jews who were sent to their deaths in Nazi Germany from the terminus.

The era’s towering figure in music was Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924); his operas “Tosca” (1900) and “Madame Butterfly” (1904) still pack houses worldwide.

After defeat in World War II, Italy’s voted for the establishment of the First Republic—overwhelmingly so in northern and central Italy, which helped to counterbalance a southern majority in favor of 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, and 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 industrially prosperous north and the 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 the state to shady Masonic lodges to the CIA was accused of involvement in what became in effect an undeclared civil war. The most notorious incidents were the kidnap and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 and the Bologna station bombing, which killed 85 in 1980. 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 became respected for its innovative directors. Federico Fellini (1920–93) burst onto the scene with his highly individual style, beginning 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.

In the early 1990s, many of the country’s leading politicians were accused of corruption. These scandals uncovered as a result of the judiciary’s Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) investigations—often dubbed Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”)—provoked a constitutional crisis, ushering in the Second Republic in 1992.

Other resonant events in recent Italian history have centered on its religion. As much of the world watched and prayed, Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, at the age of 84, ending a reign of 26 years. A Vatican doctrinal hard-liner next took the papal throne as Pope Benedict XVI. He was succeeded by the surprisingly liberal Pope Francis in 2013, after Benedict became the first pope to resign since the 1400s.

WHEN TO GO

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

Cheese for sale in Pienza.

August is the worst month in most places: Not only does it get uncomfortably hot, muggy, and crowded, but seemingly the entire country goes on vacation, at least from August 15 onward—and 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, you will have many urban places almost to yourself if you visit in August—Turin and Milan, in particular, can seem virtual ghost towns, and hotels there (and in Florence and Rome) are heavily discounted, Just 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 less likely if you are visiting the cities. Many family-run restaurants take a week or two off sometime between November and February; spa and beach destinations become padlocked ghost towns.

Weather

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

The rainiest months pretty much everywhere are usually 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); December 26 (Santo Stefano, or St. Stephen’s Day). You’ll also often find businesses closed for the annual daylong celebration dedicated to the local saint (for example, on January 31 in San Gimignano, Tuscany).

Italy Calendar of Events

JANUARY

Festa di Sant’Agnese, Sant’Agnese Fuori le Mura, Rome. In this ancient ceremony, two lambs are blessed and shorn; their wool is used later for palliums (Roman Catholic vestments). January 21.

FEBRUARY

Carnevale, Venice. At this riotous time, theatrical presentations and masked balls take place throughout Venice and on the islands in the lagoon. The 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.

Festival della Canzone Italiana (Festival of Italian Popular Song), San Remo, Liguria. At this 6-day competition, major artists perform previously unreleased Italian songs. www.sanremo.rai.it. Late February.

MARCH

Festa di San Giuseppe, the Trionfale Quarter, north of the Vatican, Rome. The heavily decorated statue of the saint is brought out at a fair with food stalls, concerts, and sporting events. Usually March 19.

APRIL

Holy Week, nationwide. Processions and age-old ceremonies—some from pagan days, some from 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; sometimes at the end of March but often in April.

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. At this ancient observance, 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 from the altar. Easter Sunday.

MAY

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. www.maggiofiorentino.it. Late April to end of June.

Mille Miglia, Brescia, Lombardy. Vintage and classic cars depart Brescia and spend 4 days parading around the towns and cities of northern and central Italy as part of the annual “1000 Miles.” www.1000miglia.eu. Mid-May.

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

JUNE

Festa di San Ranieri, Pisa, Tuscany. The city honors its patron saint with candlelit parades, followed the next day by eight-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, the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Late June.

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

Arena di Verona Opera Festival, Verona, Veneto. The 20,000-seat remains of Verona’s Roman-era amphitheater is the venue for Italy’s most famous outdoor opera season, now over 100 years old. www.arena.it. Late June to early September.

La Biennale di Venezia (International Exposition of Contemporary Art), Venice. One of the most famous regular art events in the world takes place every two years (in odd-numbered years). www.labiennale.org. June to November.

JULY

Il Palio, Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany. 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.

Umbria Jazz, Perugia, Umbria. One of Europe’s top jazz festivals always attracts top-class artists. www.umbriajazz.com. Mid-July.

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

AUGUST

Il Palio, Piazza del Campo, Siena, Tuscany. See July for event description. August 16.

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. Although many seats are reserved for jury members, the public can attend, too. www.labiennale.org/en/cinema. Late August to early September.

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. www.regatastoricavenezia.it. First Sunday in September.

Festa di San Gennaro, Naples, Campania. The cathedral is the focal point for this celebration in honor of the city’s patron saint. Twice a year a solemn procession is followed by the miraculous “liquefaction” of the holy blood. September 19, December 16, and 1st Sunday in May.

Palio di Asti, Asti, Piedmont. Riders race for Italy’s “second” Palio around the central square of a provincial Piedmont town. Expect medieval pageantry and daring horsemanship in an event with 800 years of history. www.palio.asti.it. Third Sunday in September.

DECEMBER

La Scala Opera Season Opening, Teatro alla Scala, Milan. At the most famous house of them all, the season begins each December 7, the feast day of Milan’s patron, St. Ambrose. It runs into the following July, then September to mid-November. Even though opening-night tickets are close to impossible to find, it is worth a try. www.teatroallascala.org.

Christmas Blessing of the Pope, Piazza di 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.