The Sistine Chapel’s famous frescoes by Michelangelo are unmatched. But as special as the Sistine Chapel is, it isn’t the only architectural space in Italy where you can find jaw-droppingly vibrant, detailed, and beautiful, not to mention art-history-changing, frescoes.
These are our top picks for places in Italy (some even inspired Michelangelo!). Bonus Each one is worth a visit.
Remember: Moisture and humidity are the most damaging factors to frescos when you visit these amazing spaces. Don’t get too close to the artwork. Your breath can really make a difference. Please, do not touch the artwork. This will allow your children, and their children, to also enjoy these stunning masterpieces.
Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Padua is a short train ride away from Venice and only 25 to 45 minutes from Rome. It boasts a number of attractions, including mythical ties with Troy, the second oldest university in Italy, where Galileo taught )…, and a stunning 14th-century chapel, which is one of Italy’s most popular pilgrimage sites. This is art history pilgrimage.
Enrico Scrovegni built the chapel in 1302, following his father’s practice in lending money at extremely high interest rates. This was so bad that it put the man in Dante’s Inferno. He dedicated it to the “Virgin Of Charity”.
Scrovegni asked Florentine painter Giotto to create the frescoes. It is the first work to be accepted as Giotto’s original hand. It is the basis for art historians to determine if other pieces, such as those found in the Basilica of San Francesco below, were also created by Giotto. Giotto, more than two centuries after Michelangelo, had to figure out how to place his fresco cycles on a barrel-vaulted building. It’s safe to say that he did a good job, just like Michelangelo.
This panel tells the whole story of New Testament, beginning with the tragic Expulsion of Joachim (from the Temple). Joachim, Virgin’s father is literally forced out of the Temple by a priest. Joachim had his offering rejected as he remains childless. The pain on Joachim’s face can be seen.
The story continues to Christ’s life with the famous frescos of the Lamentation or Kiss of Judas.
The Last Judgment is a fantasyland of the terrible tortures that await those who are condemned. Few paintings in the history of art could be more terrifying! This one painting was the inspiration for Michelangelo’s version of The Last Judgment.
You can see why Giotto is so innovative in all the frescoes. He’s also known as one the fathers and founders of Renaissance. Giotto’s understanding of perspective, his use of volume and space, and his two point perspective scheme (which unites architecture and painting in the difficult-to-paint chapel), are both signs of a profound understanding of perspective.
Giotto’s ability to portray emotion in his figures is what really sets him apart. He was the only artist of his time who could paint saints so they look and act like real people. Giotto’s ability and skill to invoke emotion almost 800 years later still amazes.
Piccolomini Library, Siena
One of our favourite churches in Italy is the Duomo of Siena. Hidden in the beautiful, intricate space is another treasure: The Piccolomini Library.
The library’s frescoes, like the Sistine Chapel’s, are a celebration of… themselves, much the same as the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to honor the chapel that his uncle, Pope Sixtus IV, had built. Francesco Todeschini also commissioned Pinturicchio, a famous painter, to paint panels about Pope Pius II’s life in 1502.
Todeschini was actually the uncle of Pope Pius II. He had also raised Todeschini up to the rank cardinal in 1460. Todeschini became pope in 1503, and took the name Pius III… but his death came just 26 days later. (The next pope?) Julius II! ).
These 10 episodes are a remarkable representation of Pius’ life. They have extraordinary clarity, detail and color. Thanks to a recent restoration they are even more vibrant. As if the frescoes were not impressive enough, the ceiling is also covered with paintings with gold leaf accents.
It’s easy to be distracted by all the beautiful painting. But don’t forget the books that give Piccolomini Library their official purpose. These rare, illuminated manuscripts belonged primarily to Pope Pius II. He was well-known for his humanism, and his learning.
Florence is 1.5 hours away by train from Siena. It is a jewel of a medieval town and was once Florence’s main rival. It also hosts the Palio races.
Camera degli Sposi, Mantua
Camera degli Sposi, a room completely covered in frescoes by Andrea Mantegna (Mantua’s artist in residence), is a place where Ludovico Gonzaga served 46 years. The Palazzo Ducale is a 500-room palace that was once the Gonzaga Family Palace. It contains 15th-century frescoes which depict members of the Gonzaga Family. The “meeting scene”, and “court scene,” both celebrate the power and prestige the Gonzaga’s and Mantua.
Mantegna’s fresco painting transformed a small room in the palace’s north tower with color and perspective. The room’s ceiling is the most striking feature. It has the sky painted in the middle of it. This creates the illusion that the space extends forever. Camera Picta was originally called the Camera Picta or painted room. The romantic name Camera degli Sposi, which is Italian for “wedding chamber” or “bridal chamber”, refers to Ludovico’s repeated presence on the walls. It does not suggest that the room was used as a wedding room.
There are many things to see in Palazzo Ducale. The main attraction is the Camera degli Sposi.
Chapel of San Brizio in Orvieto
Before Michelangelo’s Last Judgment at the Sistine Chapel, there were Luca Signorelli’s masterpiece: The Chapel of San Brizio frescoes within the Duomo of Orvieto.
Signorelli began his work at the Duomo of Orvieto around 1499. Like Michelangelo, Signorelli was Tuscan and had already been a painter in the Sistine Chapel. He also painted the Testament and Death of Moses on its side wall. Signorelli’s work with the Chapel of San Brizio made the fresco cycles one of the most important works of art in Italy.
It was also one the most influential pieces of art on Michelangelo. Signorelli studied Signorelli before he began his own Last Judgment, in 1535. It’s clear that Michelangelo wouldn’t have had Signorelli’s amazing compositions of muscular men pulling themselves out of the ground for the Resurrection or the gruesome tortures being administered the damned without them.
Signorelli’s frescoes have a striking quality. They are so vibrant and bright that it’s hard to believe they’re not old. They look like something from a comic or video game, with their bizarre postures and exaggerated muscles and crazy color schemes (like those of the demons of the damned, which have purple, green and blue-colored eyes). The scenes would have appeared more real to 16th century viewers as they would have shown them what to expect on the day, and the terrifying consequences of their sins.
The Chapel of San Brizio is a must-see, whether you’re looking to find inspiration for Michelangelo or simply want to lose yourself in the colorful afterlife scenes. It takes 45 minutes to get from Rome to Orvieto by train. Given its beauty and other attractions, it is a great day trip option from Rome.
The House of Augustus & Livia
The Palatine Hill palace of Emperor Caesar Augustus is one of the most important houses in the world. The house is considered the best example of private art and decoration at the time. However, it was a modest home by today’s standards.
Augustus’s house was small and void of marble. The emperor was well-known for his habit of sleeping in cramped quarters each night. Livia, his second wife, lived in larger apartments with marble floors and pillars. The houses are almost perfect and it is easy to imagine that the residents have just stepped outside for a few minutes, only to return soon to their normal lives.
Augustus’s humble design principles were not followed in the art area. Beautiful scenes of countrysides and theaters were frescoed by the best painters of the time, especially in the Palace’s west wings. The “Room of Masks” has a theater scene on the walls. Masks are painted on the frame. One room is decorated with garlands made of pine needles suspended between thin pillars.
Although the frescoes deteriorated over time, archeologists were still able to gather them and clean them.
You can visit his house only on a guided tour. This gives you a chance to see these paintings as Augustus did them over 2,000 years ago. It also allows for a rare glimpse into the mind of a man who was as cruel and cunning as it is fair and orderly.
Join our local expert guide and us on a walk to the heart and soul of Ancient Rome. This is usually part of the Colosseum tour, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill tours.
Last Supper, Milan
Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan’s Santa Maria delle Grazie Cathedral is the most famous fresco, and it’s as well-known as the Sistine Chapel.
Our blog post provides a detailed guide to how to see da Vinci’s Last Supper.
It measures 15 feet by 29 inches and depicts Jesus’ declaration to his apostles that one will betray him. Each apostle’s expressions are captured in the huge painting. Although it is a Renaissance masterpiece, technically the Last Supper is not a fresco.
Da Vinci’s slow painting style didn’t work well with fresco painting on wet plaster. He couldn’t finish the job before the plaster dried. Da Vinci created a new technique for painting called fresco secco or dry fresco to account for this.
It allowed him to paint in his own time, but it also meant that the painting started to deteriorate almost as soon as it was finished. This “non-fresco”, despite its popularity, is still one of the most beloved and celebrated “frescoes” in Italy.
It is impossible to visit Milan without seeing Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper. Every year, thousands flock to this magnificent masterpiece to witness the incredible detail. It’s a rare opportunity to see this amazing masterpiece, but it is not something you can do overnight. Our small-group tours lead by an expert guide are the best and most informative way to see this magnificent work of art.
Continue reading: Fine Line: Restoring Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper
Basilica of San Francesco and Assisi
The Basilica of San Francesco was built in 1220s in honor of St. Francis. It is one of the most important and beautiful churches in Italy. The basilica was, like the Sistine Chapel 260 years later, designed to be simple, architecturally-speaking — all the better for covering with frescoes. That’s exactly what happened.
The walls of the basilica’s upper section are covered with vibrant frescoes, from floor to ceiling. It is an amazing feeling to see color, light and space everywhere you look.
Each one of these frescoes tells a story, just like all Renaissance frescoes. 32 scenes run along the top of each nave side. They depict stories from both the Old and New Testaments. It is possible that Pietro Cavallini, the Roman master, may have been involved. Below are 28 panels that depict scenes from St. Francis’s life. Don’t miss his interaction with birds! This is often attributed to Giotto, though it has been disputed.
Cimabue is another important Italian early Renaissance painter. The frescoes found in the apse as well as the transept were created by him. The most striking, but also most mysterious, is Cimabue’s Crucifixion Panel. Over time, the panel’s light colors have become darker and lighter through chemical reactions that remain a mystery.
The Lower Basilica is equally stunning, but completely different. It is lined by a number of dimly lit, ornately decorated chapels. One of Giotto’s students has covered the ceiling of the high altar with gold-laden frescoes. These include allegories of Obedience and Poverty, as well as Chastity. Cimabue’s most famous work, Our Lady Enthroned, and St. Francis are located on the transept wall. Giotto and his workshops did the frescoes depicting Christ’s childhood in right transept.
There’s also the tomb of St. Francis, which is located on a lower level in a crypt and often filled with pilgrims who pray as they walk around his tomb.
Assisi is a beautiful town that is worth a visit. It is only a two-hour train ride from Rome or Florence.
You may also like:
These are the 10 Best Things You Can Do in Vatican City