The Complete Guide to Italian art towns

In northern Italy, you don't need to visit a big city to see spectacular art. Harriet O'Brien presents a cultural itinerary of frescos, paintings and sculptures – all off the beaten track


Why not 'art cities'?

From Roman ruins to Renaissance masterpieces and Baroque glories, Italy is so packed with sensational sights and art collections that it is difficult to know quite how to start choosing what to see. So we have stepped away from the big cities and centres such as Rome, Naples, Milan, Florence and Venice and have opted to take in several of the most atmospheric smaller art-venues of northern Italy, which is liberally endowed with amazing masterpieces. Finding a major work of art in a minor town is a fabulous and intrinsically Italian experience.

To narrow down the bewildering range of options, we are concentrating here on decorative art rather than architecture or archaeology – principally the world of paintings, with a nod to sculpture. And we are also visiting a couple of larger centres that are often neglected by tourists. All offer excellent galleries and/or have stunning art that is part of the very fabric of the place: frescos painted into the plasterwork of palaces, churches, chapels and cathedrals, and wonderful works carved in stone.

Take me to Tuscany

For many, Siena is the most beautiful town in Tuscany, if not Italy. Superbly set over three hills, it is a fairytale place of medieval palaces and towers, winding alleys and noble squares. The most sublime of these is Il Campo, paved in medieval brick and surrounded by staggeringly lovely buildings. It is in this square that the famous Palio horse races are held on 2 July and 16 August every year. On the east side the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico houses the Museo Civico (daily 10am-7pm; admission €6.50 (£5.40) where highlights include works by Simone Martini and the celebrated fresco Allegory of Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

You'll see more of Siena's great 13th- and 14th-century masters – Duccio and Cimabue as well as Simone Martini – at the Pinacoteca Nazionale at Palazzo Buonsignori on Via San Pietro (Mon 8.30am-1.30pm, Tues-Sat 8.15am-7.15pm, Sun 8.15am-1.30pm; admission €4.30/£3.60). Siena's cathedral is a treasure trove, with frescos by Pinturicchio, sculpture by Donatello and Michelangelo, a marble pulpit by Nicola Pisano and, most striking of all (but generally only uncovered in September and October), an inlaid marble mosaic covering the floor (daily 9am-7.30pm, free entry; when the floor is unveiled admission is €5.50 (£4.60).

Among those providing trips to Siena, Kirker Holidays (020-7593 1899; www.kirkerholidays.com) offers a three-night break from £460 per person. This is based on two sharing, as are all other prices below.

The cost includes return flights to Pisa from Gatwick, onward rail tickets to Siena and accommodation with breakfast at the charming Pensione Palazzo Ravizza ( www.palazzoravizza.it) which is set in a Renaissance palace near the cathedral. This package is not available during the Palio.

I'd like quiet beauty

Siena makes a good base from which to head out on the trail of one of the Tuscan greats, Piero della Francesca. The artist and mathematician was born in the medieval town of Sansepolcro around 1412. Today this is a dusty little place, its unremarkable appearance belying its riches. Step into the town museum on Piazza Garibaldi (daily 9am-7pm; admission €6.20/£5.20) and you'll find two masterpieces: Piero's Madonna della Misericordia altarpiece and his haunting Resurrection which shows Christ emerging from his tomb amid sleeping soldiers. West of Sansepolcro, the tiny town of Monterchi is home to another bewitching Piero work: the extraordinary Madonna del Parto, featuring a pregnant Mary flanked by angels. Originally painted into a chapel, the fresco is now shown in a modern exhibition-centre (daily 9am-1pm; €5/£4.20), well signposted in the town.

Perhaps most impressive of all, though, are Piero's works at Arezzo, east of Siena. This attractive hill-town boasts a really splendid main square – Piazza Grande – and a fine Romanesque church, Santa Maria delle Pieve, as well as other sights. But it's the plain-looking church of San Francesco that draws most visitors. Here, from the late 1440s to the early 1460s, Piero painted the ethereal fresco cycle of the Legend of the Cross. Timed 30-minute visits must be booked in advance on 00 39 0575 352 727 or www.pierodellafrancesca.it. It opens 9am-6.30pm daily, except Saturdays (9am-5.30pm) and on Sundays 1-5.30pm, admission €6 (£5).

Give me grandeur

Another Piero painting is a big attraction in the majestic town of Urbino, set in splendid isolation in the hills of the Marches. The town is dominated by one of the most stupendous palaces of the Renaissance, commissioned in the 15th-century by Duke Federico da Montefeltro and built of rose-coloured stone. Today the Palazzo Ducale houses the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche (Mon 8.30am-2pm – ticket office closes 12.30, Tues-Sun 8.30am-7.15pm; admission €8/£6.70) where, along with Piero's striking and strange Flagellation you can also see works by Crivelli, Verrocchio and Piero's fellow pioneer of perspective, Uccello.

Over in Umbria...

The province's lively capital, Perugia, is an almost fantastical jumble of Etruscan, Roman and medieval architecture. Extraordinary sights here include San Pietro, a jewel-box of a medieval church coated inside with paintings and frescos (8am to noon and 4pm to sunset; admission free); and an amazing network of escalators. Conveniently set just at the bottom of the escalator is the four-star Sangallo Palace Hotel (00 39 075 573 0202; www.sangallo.it; doubles from €126/£105 including breakfast). Other accommodation options include the small and centrally located three-star Hotel Fortuna (00 39 075 572 2845; www.umbriahotels.com; doubles from €99/£82.50 including breakfast).

Perhaps the best of all Perugia's attractions is the absorbing and extensive collection of paintings and sculpture at the National Gallery of Umbria in the lovely Palazzo dei Priori (Tues to Sun 8.30am-7.30pm; adults €6.50/£5.40). Highlights include works by Fra Angelico and Pinturicchio, while several rooms are devoted to Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino because he spent many years in Perugia. He was a teacher of Raphael and a master of space and harmony.

From Perugia, Inntravel (01653 617906; www.inntravel.co.uk) offers a walking holiday on which you hike through the landscapes Perugino painted, and see frescos by him at the churches of Citta della Pieve, the town where the artist was born. The seven-day Footsteps of Perugino trip costs from £612 per person including B&B accommodation, luggage transfers, and most meals. Flights are not included – the obvious airport is Perugia, served from Stansted by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). Rome is also a possibility, with Fiumicino served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), Alitalia (08705 448 259; www.alitalia.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; www.jet2.com); and Rome Ciampino, served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and Ryanair.

From ancient to modern?

Umbria's best known and most handsome town is Assisi. It boasts a 12th-century fort, an absorbing cathedral and the remains of a Roman temple (now part of the church of Santa Maria). But its finest site is the Basilica of St Francis. He set up a new monastic order in this historic town and died in here in 1226 at the age of 44. Two years later work began on a monastic church-complex in his honour.

Ironically, given his unworldly philosophy, the complex is glorious: the very best 13th- and 14th-century artists were commissioned to decorate it. It consists of two basilicas: a lower church painted with frescos by Simone Martini and the great master Giotto, and a bright upper church adorned with works by Cimabue and a fresco cycle attributed to Giotto.

In 1997 a severe earthquake caused enormous damage, yet the churches and the artworks have been painstakingly restored. This remains one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Italy and tourists here join crowds of devout visitors (lower basilica open 6am-7pm daily; upper basilica open 8.30am-7pm daily; closed for church services; admission free).

Further south, another ancient town offers sumptuous frescos, along with some of Umbria's best food and wine. Orvieto sits magnificently atop an ancient volcano, with the silhouette of its amazing cathedral etched out against the skyline. The façade of this great building (open 7.30am-7.15pm daily, admission free) is coated with glinting mosaics as well as fine tracery and sculptures, work undertaken between the 13th and 18th centuries.

The interior presents one of the greatest fresco cycles of the Renaissance. Head to the fairly recently restored Cappella di San Brizio, to the right of the altar, and you'll see sublime paintings started by Fra Angelico in 1447, continued by Benozzo Gozzoli and Perugino, and completed by Luca Signorelli. The chapel is open 10am-7.15pm, but closed Sunday mornings; admission €3 (££2.50).

After this feast for the eyes, seek out Orvieto's epicurean pleasures: order a glass of Orvieto secco at Foresi wine bar at Piazza Duomo 2, or make for Caffe Montanucci on the main street, Corso Cavour, for coffee and cake.

A town with a sense of celebration?

Due east of Orvieto, the medieval walled town of Spoleto presents a wonderful mix of old and new – the latter represented by modern art. An Alexander Calder sculpture opposite the station sets the tone. Along with Roman remains, Romanesque churches and handsome squares, there's a Gallery of Modern Art (daily 10.30am-7pm; €4/£3.30). Ever since the composer Gian Carlo Menotti founded a festival here in the late 1950s, the town has been a focus of the contemporary art scene, with a two-week celebration of drama, dance and modern installations from the end of June each year ( www.festivaldispoleto.com). Spoleto makes an excellent base for exploring the glories of Umbria. Sunvil (020-8758 4722; www.sunvil.co.uk) offers a seven-night break here at the charming 34-room Hotel San Luca ( www.hotelsanluca.com), set within the town walls. The holiday costs from £560 per person, which includes accommodation with breakfast, flights from Heathrow or Gatwick to Rome and car hire.

Fabulous frescos

A good place to base yourself is Verona, accessible from Gatwick on BA and First Choice (0871 200 7799; www.firstchoice.co.uk). Besides the city's outstanding opera festival, you are well placed to make excursions to two towns that contain outstanding artworks.

Padua has a glorious and vibrant cycle of frescos by Giotto. The entire ceiling and walls of the Scrovegni Chapel (daily 9am-7pm; admission €11/£9.15) were painted between 1303 and 1306 and show 38 scenes from the lives of Christ and the Madonna. The way Giotto conveyed emotion was revolutionary and there is a particularly dramatic Garden of Gethsemane scene, while the depiction of hell in The Last Judgement is especially gruesome. To the south-west, over in Lombardy, the striking town of Mantua presents great courtly riches commissioned in the 15th and 16th centuries by the dukes of Gonzaga.

The imposing Palazzo Ducale (8.45am-7.15pm daily except Monday, admission €6.50/5.40) houses a series of beautifully fresco-ed apartments including the amazing Camera degli Sposi (bridal chambers), the walls and ceiling a masterpiece of perspective painted by Andrea Mantegna over a period of nine years from 1465. A generation later, the Gonzaga's stables beyond the city were redevised as a magnificent villa by the Mannerist architect and artist Giulio Romano. Palazzo del Te (Mon 1-6pm, Tues-Sun 9am-6pm; admission €8/£6.70) is decorated with a riot of frescos from Olympic banquets to giants wreaking havoc.

A great little gallery

Further west in Lombardy, Bergamo is a fine old hill-town with newer development spread below it.

There are cobbled streets, elegant squares and splendid churches. The real must-see, though, is one of Italy's finest art collections, housed the Accademia Carrara, which opened in 1793 and also contains an art school, (10am-1pm and 2.30pm-5.30pm daily except Monday, admission €2.60/£2.15). You feel you might be walking through the entire High Renaissance here, with works by Donatello, Bellini, Canaletto, Mantegna and Raphael.

With direct Ryanair flights to the town from Stansted, Luton and Liverpool, Bergamo is particularly easy to reach, while stylish accommodation is offered at the excellent-value Hotel La Valletta on Via Castagneta (00 39 035 242746; www.lavallettabergamo.it; doubles from €95/£79).

Where can I find more?

The Italian Tourist Board, 1 Princes Street, London W1, (020 74081254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk).

What a performance

Verona's Opera Festival is staged in the world's best-preserved Roman ampitheatre from June until the end of August ( www.arena.it). This lovely Veneto town is now a Unesco site. Its most popular attraction is apocryphal: Casa di Giulietta (Juliet's House), on Via Cappello, is purportedly where Shakespeare's character lived, and is a much restored 13th-century merchant's house, complete with balcony. Still, it's fun to step into the courtyard here (free entry; admission into the house is €3.10/£2.60). For more serious art move on to the Museo Castelvecchio on Via Roma (Mon 1.45pm-7.30pm, Tues-Sun 8.30am-7.30pm; €4/£3.30). This crenellated 14th-century castle houses the town's treasures.

Are there any hidden urban gems?

Italy's northern cities of Genoa and Turin are somehow overlooked by many tourists. Yet each offers beautiful piazzas, magnificent churches and exquisite art galleries.

Genoa's greatest attraction is Via Garibaldi, a street lined with stunning 16th-century palazzos. Three of them – palazzos Rosso, Bianco and Tursi – are open to the public as a composite museum-trail (9am-7pm daily except Mondays; from 10am at weekends; admission €8/£6.70). It takes some stamina to work your way around the vast collection of paintings here – in Palazzo Bianco alone there are more than 40 exhibition rooms with works ranging from Rubens to Murillo and Genoa's Strozzi. Along the way, you also see magnificent frescos and lovely gardens.

Turin presents grand palaces and wonderful architecture by Guarini, notably the church of San Lorenzo and the Chapel of the Holy Shroud in the cathedral (admission free). Its major museum, Fundazione Museo delle Antichita Egizie di Torino (Tues-Sun 9.30am-8.30pm; adults €7.50/£6.25) hosts an extensive Egyptian collection in the huge Palazzo dell'Accademia delle Scienze, designed by Guarini in the 1670s. The same building contains the Galleria Sabauda, which has a stunning range of paintings, from Tuscan masters Fra Angelico and Filippino Lippi to artists of the Veneto such as Tintoretto and Titian. There are also works by Flemish masters, among them Memling and Van Dyck. Hours are complicated. Admission is €4 (£3.30).

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