After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Italy gradually fragmented into numerous little territories. The city states became fiercely independent and were governed with some degree of democracy. But a debilitating violence all too often ensued as the leading families fought with fellow citizens for dominance of the city council and the offices of state. A common outcome from the thirteenth century onwards was the imposition of autocratic rule by a single prince, and the suspension of democratic structures: but such tyranny was not infrequently welcomed with relief and gratitude by a war-weary citizenry.
Their rule may have been tyrannical, and warfare their principal occupation, but the Montefeltro, Malatesta, d’Este and Gonzaga dynasties brought into being through their patronage some of the finest buildings and works of art of the Renaissance. Many of the leading artists in fifteenth- and sixteenth- century Italy worked in the service of princely courts.
As for court art of earlier epochs, little survives, though a glimpse of the oriental splendour of the Byzantine court of Emperor Justinian can be had in the mosaic depiction of him, his wife and their retinue in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. It is not until the fifteenth century, in Mantegna’s Camera degli Sposi at Mantua, that we are again allowed an unhindered gaze into court life.
Mantua. Fly at c. 8.00am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Bologna. Drive to Mantua where the first four nights are spent. After a late lunch, visit the Ducal Palace, a vast rambling complex, the aggregate of 300 years of extravagant patronage by the Gonzaga dynasty (Mantegna’s frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi, Pisanello frescoes, Rubens altarpiece).
Mantua, Sabbioneta. In the morning visit Alberti’s highly influential Early Renaissance church of Sant’Andrea, the Romanesque Rotonda of S. Lorenzo and Giulio Romano’s uncharacteristically restrained cathedral. In the afternoon, drive to Sabbioneta, an ideal Renaissance city on an almost miniature scale, built for Vespasiano Gonzaga in the 1550s; visit the ducal palace, theatre, and one of the world’s first picture galleries.
Parma, Fontanellato. Parma is a beautiful city; the vast Palazzo della Pilotta houses an art gallery (Correggio, Parmigianino) and an important Renaissance theatre (first proscenium arch). Visit the splendid Romanesque cathedral with illusionistic frescoes of a tumultuous heavenly host by Correggio. Also by Correggio is a sophisticated set of allegorical lunettes in grisaille surrounding a celebration of Diana as the goddess of chastity and the hunt in the Camera di S. Paolo. In the afternoon, visit the moated 13th-century castle in Fontanellato, seeing frescoes by Parmigianino.
Mantua. After a free morning, an afternoon walk takes in the exteriors of Alberti’s centrally planned church of S. Sebastiano, and the houses that court artists Mantegna and Giulio Romano built for themselves. Also visit Palazzo Te, the Gonzaga summer residence and the major monument of Italian Mannerism, with lavish frescoes by Giulio Romano.
Ferrara was the centre of the city-state ruled by the d’Este dynasty, whose court was one of the most lavish and cultured in Renaissance Italy. Pass the Castello Estense, a moated 15th-century stronghold, and the cathedral. The Palazzo Schifanoia is an Este retreat with elaborate astrological frescoes. First of three nights in Ravenna.
Ravenna, Classe. The last capital of the western Roman Empire and subsequently capital of Ostrogothic and Byzantine Italy, Ravenna possesses the world’s most glorious concentration of Early Christian and Byzantine mosaics. Visit the Basilica of S. Apollinare Nuovo with its mosaic Procession of Martyrs. Drive to Classe, Ravenna’s port, which was once one of the largest in the Roman world; virtually all that is left is the great Basilica di S. Apollinare. In the evening, there is a private visit to the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, lined with 5th-century mosaics, and the splendid centrally planned church of S. Vitale with 6th-century mosaics of Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora.
Urbino. Drive into the hills to Urbino, the beautiful little city of the Montefeltro dynasty. See the exquisite Gothic frescoes in the Oratorio di S. Giovanni. In the afternoon, visit the Palazzo Ducale, a masterpiece of architecture which grew over 30 years into the perfect Renaissance secular environment. See the beautiful studiolo of Federico of Montefeltro and excellent picture collection here (Piero, Raphael, Titian).
Cesena, Rimini. The Biblioteca Malatestiana in Cesena is a perfectly preserved Renaissance library established by Malatesta Novello, and contains over 300 valuable manuscripts. In Rimini visit the outstanding Tempio Malatestiano, designed by Leon Battista Alberti for the tyrant Sigismondo Malatesta, which contains superb decoration by Agostino di Duccio and particularly fine sculptural detail. Fly from Bologna, arriving at London Heathrow c. 8.30pm.
Professor Fabrizio NevolaChair and Professor of Art History and Visual Culture at the University of Exeter, specialising in urban and architectural history of Early Modern Italy. He obtained his PhD at the Courtauld Institute and has held fellowships at the University of Warwick, the Medici Archive Project, and Harvard University’s Villa I Tatti (Florence). He has published widely including the award-winning Siena: Constructing the Renaissance City.
Dr Michael Douglas-Scott
Associate Lecturer in History of Art at Birkbeck College, specialising in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. He studied at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College, University of London and lived in Rome for several years. He has written articles for Arte Veneta, Burlington Magazine and the Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,380 or £2,180 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,660 or £2,460 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus A320); travel by private coach throughout; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel Casa Poli, Mantua: a 4-star hotel a short walk from the historic centre. Hotel Palazzo Bezzi, Ravenna: a new 4-star superior hotel, located on the edge of the historic centre. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
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 the historic centres. Many of the historical buildings visited are sprawling and vast. Some days involve a lot of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 88 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.
'A brilliant lecturer whose enthusiasm for his subject was apparent and infectious. He was also extremely congenial and entertaining on the social side of the tour.'
'Highly enjoyable week spent in some beautiful cities. All the party were very good company and I found the whole experience very positive as well as illuminating from an academic perspective.'
'We appreciated seeing places of great interest that we should otherwise have not reached.'
'Extremely interesting with an enormous amount of wonderful things to see.'
'This tour is a good example of how a good organisation and a fine lecturer can greatly surpass what we might do on our own.'
'Thank you for putting together a simply wonderful trip in every way.'
'We had access to towns with absolutely spectacular and beautiful, unforgettable cathedrals, churches, palaces and art.'
'An excellent itinerary, the most perfect combination of cities to visit with plenty of beautiful palaces, churches, baptistries and architecture.'