Is there a dearth of ancient architecture where you live? Is it all modern efficiency and straight lines, without a hint of beauty, respect, and awe? (perhaps you live in Denver). If so, I beg you to consider Italy for your next vacation, and not just the Italy you’ll see in tourist-heavy Rome or Florence. Travel up and down the peninsula see the tombs, churches, and monasteries that for some reason just don’t get visited all that often (until you go, of course!). A rental car is probably your best bet, as some of these places are off the beaten track. You’ll be working your way south as you travel from Venice to Naples.
In Venice, take a quick trip over to St. Marks Basilica, and make sure you see the top and bottom floors. The ground floor holds most of St. Mark’s large collection of relics (in absolutely incredible cases) while the top floor has the original horses taken from Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade, as well as an original Stradivarius violin.
After that, it’s a short hop over to the Doge’s Palace, where you’ll some of the biggest paintings in the world! Seriously, they’re huge. There’s a section of the tour where they take you up to the roof and show you how the paintings on the ceiling are being displayed. It looks like the built a spider-web out of wood to hold the roof up. After that, I would suggest you wander the town a bit and poke your head in a few of the hundreds of churches Venice has to offer, then get your car and head out on the road to Ravenna.
Find a room in Ravenna, because you have to explore the town to really find the good stuff. Basilicas, churches, and baptisteries are scattered all over. Basilicas aren’t like cathedrals. They were built in a different age, with different values, so you aren’t going to find marble, wood, and statues everywhere. Instead, you’ll find some of the oldest and most incredible mosaics in the world, in a minimalist (yet still huge!) building. I have to admit, I’m typically awed by cathedrals. I generally try to be quiet and respectful. Basilicas, however, are on a whole other level of awe-inspiring. They aren’t nearly as garishly decorated as cathedrals, but the bare walls just make the building look bigger. Nowadays, few congregations meet in these venerable old buildings, and the rows of chairs you might see in the sanctuaries are often pitifully small. However, Italians tend to have a healthy respect for their heritage, so you’ll often have more options than just looking around. I remember a café near one, and gift shop in another, and a hands-on mosaic workshop in the other. The latter was the best; the artist wasn’t very busy that day and he offered to show us how mosaics were made (in heavily-accented English, of course).
Put simply, there’s a lot of hidden gems in these buildings. Find a map, and spend the day wandering from building to building. I would suggest you see the Basilica of San Vitale and the Arian Baptistry. The former contains some of the best mosaics in the world, a shining example of early Christian art (although the art expert with me was fairly certain they had been heavily restored). The baptistery is a something of an enigma, as the doctrine behind its decorations was declared heresy some time after it was built. Fun!
For those who have never been to Ravenna before, it is worth noting that most of the monuments are now around two and half metres below street level, due to the passage of time. Oh, I forget to tell you to pack some boots. You should back up a couple of paragraphs and do that. When you get back, we’ll be in Chiusi, an old Etruscan town. Since then, it hasn’t had a whole lot going for it. The Lombards moved in for a while but that didn’t really take. However, you’re not coming here for Chiusi’s socioeconomic influence; you’re here for tombs. They’re everywhere.
Unlike the romans, who typically buried their dead in graveyards known as necropoli, the Etruscans were a little more old-school. They preferred to dig holes and seal them back up again. Luckily for you, many of these tombs are now unsealed. Some are protected, and some you must pay to get into, and some even provide tour guides (and some probably offer all three) but there are supposed to be tombs that are simply unwatched. That means with a good map and a packed lunch you could wander from tomb to tomb all day! Doesn’t that make you just giggle with excitement? Maybe not.
If you’re squeamish (or just bored), head into town to see the Cathedral of San Secondiano. It has Roman Baths, a defense tower in place of bells, and a masterful painting by Bernardo Fugai. What else could any cathedral need?
Next stop is Todi. The name is a little silly, but the place certainly isn’t. An ancient town that’s reinvented itself in recent years, Todi is an interesting mix of new and old. Originally founded in 2000 B.C., the town still has all sorts of monuments, buildings, and walls left over the ancient past. On your way into town, you might pass through a double set of walls. Take a good look at those, as they held off Hannibal. There’s not a whole lot of Etruscan marvels here, but Todi has a lot of (well-maintained) churches and cathedrals. I hope you aren’t put off by religious imagery. The Cathedral has a giant fresco, the “Universal Judgment.” Ever seen a giant fresco? Yeah, you’re going to see this one.
After that, tour through some of the many palazzos in the city. If you still want to head underground, check out the churches named for a saint, as most of them hold their namesake in a tomb underneath the building. By now, you’ll probably be thinking of old tombs and archaeological museums as standard, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying Tarquinia. It boasts just as much Etruscan artwork and architecture as the next town (well, probably a little more). Put simply, there are very few other places in the world you can learn about Etruscan sports from the Etruscans themselves. Cathedrals, towers, palaces, and churches round out the sights of the town. Strap yourselves in, kiddies, as we’re going to be rolling like the Romans. The Etruscans might figure in there, somewhere.
Palestrina (or Praeneste, as it was known) is our first stop. Once opposed to Rome itself, Palestrina was eventually conquered and made part of the empire. Bombing during World War Two exposed an odd structure. Excavations determined it was built to house a temple and a forum, along with rooms for shops and stalls. I’m fairly certain this was the ancient equivalent of a shopping mall. The building itself (The Temple of Fortuna Primigenia) is open for viewing, while most of the art and small moveable items have been placed in the nearby museum, a worthy trip.
Itching to see another Imperial villa? Especially one decorated with painting after painting about Odysseus? You’re in luck! Tiberius built himself a villa here, in Sperlonga. The town is actually named after one of the grottoes (which, if you ask me, is kind of embarrassing). There are, of course, spectacular statues everywhere, and there is a beautifully decorated cave on the grounds. Legend has it that Tiberius was almost killed by a rock falling from the ceiling.
The Villa Oplontis was one of several towns buried under the eruption that covered Pompeii. Nero built a house here for his wife, called the Villa Poppaea. Unfortunately, he followed that up by killing her. Shame. Still, the house is in great condition, as the roof never fell in. Apparently, they were doing a little redecorating when the volcano blew, as most of the statuary had been removed. However, a lot of frescoes and the basic structure of the house remain intact. Try to imagine what your home would look like with some of those paintings, eh? (Doesn’t everyone want rows of columns painted onto their walls?).
A visit to Paestum is a visit to another world (ok, an ancient, dessicated, dead one). Once a thriving Roman town surrounded by marshes, the site has become a barren, dry plain dotted with temples and forums. Great! Good sightlines. The temples are built in the traditional Greek “surround-it-with-columns” style, and of three two are dedicated to Hera. Athena gets the short end of the stick with only one temple. If the ancient temples don’t do much for you, head over to the amphitheatre to see where a particularly foolish civil engineer decided to pave over an ancient structure to build a road.
Drop your car off in Naples and catch that flight home. If you’ve got a little time before it leaves, check out the National Archaeoogical Museum. I’m fairly certain that this building holds some of the most important and incredible Roman artifacts, including some from Pompeii and Herculaneum. It’s a great way to top off a journey through the old stuff.
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