The Po Valley, or Val Padana, consists of a great alluvial plain formed by the river Po, bounded to the south by the Apennines and to the north by the foothills of the Alps. Its historical development owes most to Roman settlement, when the cities were established and the fertile and well watered land between them was farmed from substantial rural villas. Matters changed with barbarian settlement, and though it is rare to find material from this period surviving, the eighth-century royal nunnery at Brescia stands as one of the most compelling structures of Longobardic Italy.
By contrast, the major Romanesque buildings are twelfth century, and the quality and quantity of work that survives here is impressive. The crucial first step was taken at Modena cathedral, and its combination of architectural scale and narrative relief sculpture exerted a profound influence on later building across the region. Capitals, corbels, arches and stringcourses were embellished with new and unexpected forms – developing into vehicles of mesmerising virtuosity as designers and patrons sought to create buildings of unparalleled richness and expressive power. By the second quarter of the twelfth century public spaces were enlivened by costly and ambitious facades: those at San Zeno in Verona, and the cathedrals of Piacenza and Fidenza ranking among the most exciting essays on the interaction of sculpture and architecture of twelfth-century Europe. And other art forms were not neglected – as is beautifully illustrated by the stunning wall paintings of the baptistery at Parma, while the treasuries of Modena and Brescia house some of Italy’s greatest metalwork.
Full dress Gothic never arrived in the Po valley, though there is another type of building – a rather chaste, elegant, almost modular Renaissance architecture – that constitutes the second of the tour’s main themes, brilliantly realised in the interlocking cloisters of San Giovanni at Parma, the Casa Romei at Ferrara or the magnificent interiors of the new monastery of San Benedetto, Po.
Fly at c. midday (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Milan, then transfer by coach to Parma. First of three nights in Parma.
Parma, Fidenza, Fornovo. Though superb, Parma’s Romanesque cathedral is excelled by its free-standing octagonal baptistry, one of the architectural triumphs of its time (begun 1196) and richly ornamented with sculpture and paint outside and in. Visit the Benedictine Abbey, whose three interlocking cloisters were exquisitely rebuilt towards the end of the 15th century. In the afternoon visit Fidenza, whose cathedral possesses the greatest assemblage of late Romanesque sculpture in northern Italy, and the stunning early Romanesque parish church at Fornovo di Taro.
Piacenza and environs. Situated on a terrace above the southern bank of the River Po, Piacenza was a strategic Roman city and an important bishopric. Visit San Savino, a remarkable parish church with 11th-century capitals. The interior of the 12th-century cathedral vies with Pisa for complexity and majesty. In the afternoon visit the wonderfully well preserved Cistercian monastery of Chiaravalle della Colomba. Continue on to see the delightful complex of hexagonal baptistry and church at Vigolo Marchese and the breathtaking juxtaposition of collegiate church and 14th-century castle (exterior only) at Castell’Arquato.
Modena, Nonantola, San Benedetto Po. Modena cathedral is one of the great buildings of Romanesque Europe, and was highly influential in Lombardy-Emilia; begun in 1099, it possesses the earliest and most famous of the region’s programmes of elaborate relief sculpture, Willigelmo’s magnificent Genesis frieze. In the afternoon visit two Benedictine monasteries to the north of the Po, San Silvestro at Nonantola, reconstructed after the earthquake of 1117, and San Benedetto Po, greatest of the Cluniac houses of northern Italy. Both monasteries were partially damaged in the 2012 earthquake, restoration work is slowly progressing. Continue to Verona where four nights are spent.
Verona. A morning walk leads across the River Adige to the well preserved Roman theatre for views of one of the most architecturally enthralling cities of Europe. Nearby Santo Stefano embodies the standard features of Veronese mediaeval architecture. The ravishing display of Romanesque sculpture on the west front of the cathedral is in exhilarating contrast to the Late Gothic élan of its interior. In the afternoon visit the great Benedictine church of San Zeno, begun c. 1120, which features a dramatic two-tier east end and bronze doors with narrative scenes. See the 14th-century Castelvecchio with an excellent collection of mediaeval painting and sculpture.
Verona. An astonishing clutch of palaces and loggie that housed the organs of mediaeval city government are ranged around a sequence of beautiful squares. Situated in the heart of the city’s mercantile quarters, the churches of the Dominicans at Sant’Anastasia and the Franciscans at San Fermo Maggiore were effectively transformed into funerary basilicas, and their chapels are a virtual primer of Italian late mediaeval painting. The afternoon is free.
Brescia. The historic core of Brescia is perhaps the most extensively excavated of any in Italy, and consequently it is possible to demonstrate the importance of the Roman city, the impact of Barbarian invasions and the re-orientation of the settlement away from the forum and around the cathedral and bishop’s palace. The Museo della Città reveals an 8th-century nunnery built on top of Imperial Roman courtyard houses and displays many precious early mediaeval artworks. Also seen are Vespasian’s Capitoline temple, the centrally planned Romanesque cathedral and its rebuilt predecessor, the mighty Duomo Vecchio.
Ferrara. The outer shell of Ferrara cathedral remains largely of the 12th century, with a majestic portal composition by Master Niccolò, but with its late-mediaeval/early-Renaissance palaces the city brings the tour to a fitting end. The Casa Romei and Palazzo Schifanoia both retain impressive painted interiors, the breathtaking Cycle of the Months at the Schifanoia surviving as one of the most accomplished and intellectually demanding painted interiors of 15th-century Europe. Fly from Bologna, arriving at London Heathrow c. 8.25pm.
Specialist in the Middle Ages and Renaissance – lectures for Oxford University’s Department of Continuing Education. He is Honorary Secretary of the British Archaeological Association, for whom he has edited and contributed to collections of essays on mediaeval cloisters, chantries, Anjou, and King’s Lynn and the Fens. In 2010 he established a biennial series of international conferences on Romanesque visual culture. His most recent effort in this field – Romanesque Patrons and Processes – was published in 2018. He is also author of the Blue Guides to both Normandy and the Loire Valley.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,610 or £2,430 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,040 or £2,860 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 321); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation as described below; breakfasts; 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Hotel Stendhal, Parma: a quiet 4-star hotel, the best located in the middle of the historic centre, run by Mercure hotels. Due Torri Hotel, Verona: luxurious 5-star, excellently located near Piazza delle Erbe. Single rooms throughout are doubles for sole use.
There is a lot of walking, much of it on steep and roughly paved streets: agility, stamina and sure-footedness are essential. Coaches are not allowed into historic centres. Many of the historical buildings visited are sprawling and vast. The tour should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair–climbing. Fitness is essential. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 71 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'Because of the excellent planning and 'insider knowledge', plus the comfortable travelling, good hotels etc. an intensive itinerary was made hugely enjoyable.'
'It was utterly splendid and enjoyable from every point of view.'
'John McNeill was superb on all accounts – knowledge and the ability to make it accessible without devaluing the content.'