visit museums and art galleries in italy

Museums of north Italy

Italy has one of the largest artistic heritages in the world, and there are just as many places that guarantee the preservation and exhibition of the works of art that make it up, to the point that the entire peninsula is scattered throughout the country, making it a great museum of eternal beauty. But if we want to put some order into the thicket of galleries and picture galleries waiting to be populated by curious visitors, what are the fundamental stages of the Italian exhibition itinerary?
Milan and Venice will be the first to open the doors of the places where human genius never dies but relives in the eyes of its crowded admirers, glance after glance.

Milan between the Ambrosiana Art Gallery...

Ingresso della Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milano.

Entrance to the Ambrosiana Art Gallery, Milan.

The first obligatory step in the artistic history of Italy is undoubtedly the two well-known Milan art galleries, such as the Ambrosiana and the Brera.

The birth of the Ambrosiana art gallery is inextricably linked to the central figure of Cardinal Federico Borromeo, who was archbishop of the diocese of Milan from 1595 to 1631. He had a different temperament from the previous Borromeo, his cousin Carlo, as he was less inclined towards an extremist application of the Counter-Reformation, but he was nevertheless looked to for his commitment to training the clergy and educating the faithful in Tridentine principles. Like Charles, in fact, Frederick was also concerned with ensuring that the diocese flourished culturally, especially in the field of art, in the conception that the role of images should be ethical and catechetical, capable therefore of transmitting the Gospel message to the masses (and this is what he expounds in his De pictura sacra).

💡 Did you know? The De pictura sacra was published by Borromeo in 1624 with the intention of providing a normative catalogue of the new art in the light of the decisions taken by the Catholic Church at the Council of Trent. Divided into two books, the first deals with general principles such as decorum, verisimilitude, the nude, etc.; the second deals with more specific cases, such as the representation of the Trinity, the Holy Family and the Crucifixion.

On the strength of the intellectual and artistic experience he had gained in Rome, he in turn promoted the creation of modern cultural structures in Milan. In 1609 he founded the Library Ambrosiana (in honour of Saint Ambrose, the city's patron saint), and in 1618 he added - as a twin institution - the Art Gallery, in which he placed his small but sought-after art collection, made available to the students of the Accademia (already active since 1613) so that they would have suitable examples to follow for a correct education in line with the new ecclesiastical dictates. But although the Academy ended its activity on Federico's death (1631), the Library and the Art Gallery continue to be the most significant places in the city today.

💡 Did you know? The Council of Trent was the ecumenical council convened by the Catholic Church to counter the spread of Protestantism. It covered about twenty years (1545-1563) and ended with a session on sacred art, which proclaimed a return to clarity of exposition, purged of any misleading profane motifs.

Among the masterpieces conserved in the Ambrosiana are, for Italian art, Leonardo's Portrait of a Musician, the preparatory cartoon for the School of Athens which Raphael frescoed in the famous Stanza della Segnatura of Julius II in Rome, Caravaggio's Basket of Fruit and, for the Flemish tradition, a rich series of allegories by Borromeo's friend Jan Brueghel of the Velluti.

Raffaello, Cartoon of the School of Athens, c. 1509-1511, detail. Milan, Art Gallery Ambrosiana.

Raffaello, Cartoon of the School of Athens 1509-1511, Milano, Pinacoteca Ambrosiana.

... and the Brera Art Gallery

Inner courtyard of the Brera Art Gallery, Milano.

Inner courtyard of the Brera Art Gallery, Milan.

One of the largest picture galleries in Italy, the Art Gallery in Brera stands on a former medieval convent belonging to the order of the Umiliati.

💡 Did you know? The name "Brera", given to the palace, derives from the term braida or breda, which in late Latinity indicated an uncultivated field located in a suburban area.

This remained the case until 1501, when it was abolished and the building entrusted to the Jesuits, who turned it into an important college (University), making it necessary to enlarge the complex. When the Jesuits were suppressed in 1772, the entire building passed into the hands of Maria Theresa of Austria (the Duchy of Milan had in the meantime become a possession of the Habsburgs at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714), who took care of its completion and the setting up of a library and an Art Academy inside.

💡 Did you know? The order of the Society of Jesus, founded in 1534 by Ignatius of Loyola and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, was one of the main instruments of the Counter-Reformation Church, becoming one of the most powerful and influential orders. The resulting interference led to its suppression in 1772 by Pope Clement XIV.

Nel 1796 Napoleone occupied Milan and, as King of Italy (crowned in the cathedral), made Brera the centre for the collection of all the paintings from the north of the peninsula that had been relocated following the suppression of religious orders, which he himself had ordered. This gave the palace the opportunity to take possession of important Renaissance altarpieces (for example Piero della Francesca's Montefeltro Altarpiece, Mantegna's The San Lucas Altarpiece, Ercole de' Roberti's St. Mary's Altarpiece) and other famous Italian works of art from the same period (Mantegna's Lamentation of Christ (or Dead Christ), Giovanni Bellini's Pietà, Bramante's Christ at the Column, The Marriage of the Virgin by Raffaello).

💡 Did you know? Napoleon also committed himself to the suppression of religious orders, which he gradually applied from France to the conquered territories (including Italy). The proposal came from the bishop of Autun Tayllerand who, in 1789, suggested seizing ecclesiastical property in order to resell it and pay off the French public debt with the profits.

Opened to the public in 1809, it was continually enriched with purchases and bequests from other schools and periods. Unfortunately, five of its works went to the Louvre in 1812 at the behest of the French Emperor and were never returned: the notorious Napoleonic plundering, of which several Italian masterpieces fell victim. As far as Brera is concerned, mention should be made of Carpaccio's The Sermon of St. Stephen.

Piero della Francesca, Shovel Montefeltro, 1472-1474. Milan, Brera Art Gallery.

Piero della Francesca, Shovel Montefeltro, 1472-1474. Milan, Brera Art Gallery

The Accademia Galleries in Venice

Entrance to the Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice.

Entrance to the Accademia Galleries, Venice..

Venice's largest art gallery has its origins in the city's Academy of Fine Arts, which had already been active since its official foundation in 1765. In fact, it was not until much later, in 1809, that the gallery space was set up as a result of Napoleon's reform efforts (Venice also entered the French orbit of Bonaparte's Kingdom of Italy), which led to the closure of palaces, churches and convents and the confiscation of their assets, a large part of which went to considerably expand the original nucleus collected by the Academy in previous years for restoration or educational purposes.

💡 Did you know? Together with the Brera Art Gallery and the Venetian Galleries, the other art exhibition centre created by Napoleon's suppressions is the National Art Gallery of Bologna: it offers a broad overview of Emilian painting from the 13th to the 18th century, together with works by other artists who had contacts with the city.

Galleria and Accademia are situated on a complex of Gothic and Renaissance buildings overlooking the Grand Canal, comprising the church, monastery and Big School di Santa Maria della Carità. Dating from the 12th century, the church and monastery underwent continuous restoration and extension, especially in the 15th and 16th centuries, but the fire of 1630 led to their gradual decline until their closure in 1806. The Big School, founded in 1260 to provide charity and mutual aid to the poor, thanks to the conspicuous donations received by the managing confraternity of the Battuti, was able to embellish its architecture and house prestigious masterpieces such as Tiziano's Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple.

💡 Did you know? The term "School" (Big) refers to the institutions of ancient formation, typically Venetian, of an associative-corporative and lay nature. Divided into schools (for members of the middle class) and Big School (for patricians), each of them chose a patron saint to whom they would consecrate themselves and to whom they would pay homage on their feast day.

When the School closed in 1806, the whole building was subjected by the Napoleonic government to a wide-ranging transformation project entrusted to the architect Giovanni Antonio Selva, who decided to maintain the characteristics of the ancient buildings (for example, the wall built to house the Tiziano presentation remained untouched), dividing the rooms between those dedicated to academic teaching and those used for exhibitions.

💡 Did you know? Giovanni Antonio Selva (or Giannatonio, 1751-1819) was an important Venetian architect linked to Neoclassicism. A teacher at the city's Academy of Art, he soon became well known, especially in the region, for some significant achievements, such as the construction of the "La Fenice" Theatre.

Today, the Accademia Gallery offers the world's richest collection of Venetian painting, leaving little room for works by other schools. Among the big names are Gentile Bellini and Vittore Carpaccio with their well-known teleri of local tradition (the Procession in St Mark's Square and the Stories of St Ursula), Giovanni Bellini and the famous Pietà Martinengo, Giorgione and his enigmatic Tempest, Veronese with the much-discussed Dinner in the Levi House and Canaletto with some of his splendid views.

💡 Did you know? Teleri are large canvases applied directly to the wall and painted in oil. They spread widely in Venice, replacing the fresco decoration, in the rooms of schools and noble and public palaces.

The jewel in the crown is Vitruvian Man by Leonardo, which is only displayed on special occasions.

Tiziano, Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple, 1534-1538. Venice, Academy Galleries (Hotel Hall).

Tiziano, Presentation of the Virgin at the Temple, 1534-1538. Venice, Academy Galleries (Hotel Hall)..

By Vincenzo Canto
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