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17 Mar 2020 - 7 min read

The must-see art masterpieces in Italy

It’d take a lifetime to soak in all the art and culture that Italy has to offer, but there are a few standout masterpieces that you simply MUST see for yourself when you’re in Italy. These awe-inspiring works are displayed in museums, galleries and buildings across the country where some of Italy’s greatest masterpieces were painted directly onto the ceilings and walls.

From Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci, this article covers different periods, mediums and styles of art masterpieces that you can add into your bucket list for your trip to Italy.

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If you’re in Florence, head over to the Uffizi Gallery to look at this painting with your own eyes. Made in the mid-1480s, the painting depicts the goddess Venus emerging from the sea as a fully grown woman after her birth. The seashell she stands on was a symbol in classical antiquity for a woman's vulva. The Venus’ painting was thought to be based in part on the Venus de' Medici, an ancient Greek marble sculpture of Aphrodite.

Why it’s famous: Botticelli was a devout follower of doomsday preacher Girolamo Savonarola and he burned some of his paintings on Savonarola’s famed Bonfires of the Vanities (where Florentines burned their material goods on massive bonfires). But, thankfully, this painting — which is considered as a near-perfect example of the painter’s graceful, idealized style — survived.

Find it here:

Uffizi Gallery

Piazzale degli Uffizi, 6, Firenze

Opening hours: 8.15am – 6.50pm (Closed on Monday)

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David by Michelangelo

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Your trip to Florence is not complete without visiting Michelangelo’s most famous work, David. The life-sized marble statue has been attracting art lovers to The Galleria dell’ Accademia for decades and for good reasons too. The statue represented the Biblical hero David, a favored subject in the art of Florence. It depicts David glaring at his enemy Goliath just before battle. Because of the nature of the hero it represented, the statue stood as a symbol of power and faith of Florentines for over 500 years. The eyes of David, with a warning glare, were fixated towards Rome.

Why it’s famous: Michelangelo’s David was said to surpass all ancient and modern statues, whether Greek or Latin, that has ever existed.

Find it here:

Galleria dell'Accademia

60, Via Ricasoli, 58, Firenze

Opening hours: 8.15am – 6.50pm (Closed on Monday)

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The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Last Supper is so famous that you don’t need to be an art lover to recognize it. The painting depicts a famous scene from Holy Thursday, in which Jesus and his Apostles share a final meal before his death and resurrection. Specifically, The Last Supper depicts the next few seconds in this story after Christ announced that one disciple would betray him before sunrise, and all 12 have reacted to the news with different degrees of horror, anger and shock. Forget what Dan Brown wrote in his book about the Renaissance painting, there are no hidden symbols here!

Why it’s famous: The 15th-century mural is a complex study of varied human emotion, rendered in a deceptively simple composition. The painting has also suffered through multiple bombings, vandalism and extreme humidity. We are probably looking at very little of the original today.

Find it here:

Santa Maria delle Grazie

Piazza di Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milano

Opening hours: 7.30am – 12.30pm, 3.30pm – 8.45pm (Sunday), 7.00am – 12.00pm, 3.00pm – 7.15pm (Monday – Saturday)

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Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo

Credit: Antoine Taveneaux

All roads lead to Rome and all roads in Rome lead to the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Home to two of the world’s most famous works of art — Michelangelo’s ceiling design and Giudizio Universale — you should set aside a few hours to enjoy the breathtaking Sistine Chapel. The most famous Western art, The Creation of Adam, illustrates a bearded God pointing his finger at Adam, thus bringing him to life. Also, be sure to check out Michelangelo’s mesmeric Giudizio Universale (The Last Judgment) that covers the whole altar wall of the Sistine Chapel. It depicts the Second Coming of Christ and the final and eternal judgment by God of all humanity. It was painted 20 years after Michelangelo finished with the ceiling.

Why it’s famous: The Sistine Chapel not only hosts Michelangelo’s finest works, but also other Renaissance masters such as Caravaggio, Leonardo da Vinci, Giotto, Lippi and Perugino. Pictures don’t do it justice. There’s no better museum to witness the best of Italian arts than the Sistine Chapel.

Find it here:

Sistine Chapel, Vatican Museum

Vatican City

Opening hours: 9.00am – 6.00pm (Monday – Saturday), 9.00am – 2.00pm (Last Sunday of the month, entrance is free)

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Giotto’s frescoes at Scrovegni Chapel

Credit: Rastaman3000

Considered as a significant masterpiece of Western art, the frescoes at Scrovegni Chapel depicts events in the lives of the Virgin Mary and Christ which were finished sometime around 1305. Giotto frescoed the chapel’s whole surface, including the walls and the ceiling, it’ll take your breath away. The frescoes here are said to be Padua’s answer to Vatican City’s Sistine Chapel. The fresco cycle is organized along four tiers, each of which contains episodes from the stories of the various protagonists of the Sacred History. Each tier is divided into frames, each forming a scene. The chapel is asymmetrical in shape, with six windows on the longer south wall, and this shape determined the layout of the decoration.

Why it’s famous: Giotto brought an end to the Dark Ages with his 14th-century paintings. The scenes display the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin in the grandest form of religious art in the period, and Giotto's work is unusually large and comprehensive, showing the ambition of the commission.

Find it here:

Scrovegni Chapel

Piazza Eremitani, 8, Padova

Opening hours: 9.00am – 7.00pm (Daily)

Apollo and Daphne by Bernini

Credit: Architas

If you haven’t realized it yet, marble statues are a thing for Italian artists. One of the most magnificent works is Apollo and Daphne by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, located at Borghese Gallery and Museum in Rome. The work depicts the climax of the story of Apollo and Daphne in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. You’ll be mesmerized at how detailed the statue is and how perfectly it encapsulates Bernini’s talent. Fun fact: He was only 24 years old when he worked on the statue! The statue portrays Apollo clutching Daphne as she tries to escape him, precisely at the moment that her father begins her transformation into a laurel tree to save her from his grasp. The transition of her fingers into leaves is intricately beautiful!

Why it’s famous: Sculptures are usually designed to be seen from one particular angle, but you’ll have to walk around Apollo and Daphne for the maximum effect. Art historians describe this cinematic optical effect as a kind of movie in stone where you can see the actual metamorphosis taking place.

Find it here:

Borghese Gallery and Museum

Piazzale Scipione Borghese, 5, Roma

Opening hours: 9.00am – 7.00pm (Tuesday – Sunday)

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