To achieve a proper appreciation of Italian art and civilization, there can be no better way than immersion in the incomparable cities of Florence and Venice. There are similarities between the two city-states: the simultaneity of their periods of greatness (with consequent rivalry); the extraordinary wealth generated by pioneering commercial and manufacturing enterprise; republican and democratic political systems; and, above all, the brilliance of their material culture, both bequeathing a corpus of painting, sculpture and architecture of incomparable quantity, quality and influence.
And there are differences. Florence, an inland city, is largely built of local rough-hewn pietra forte, a tough brown stone, with columns and arches of pietra serena, grey and severe. Venice, the greatest maritime power of its time, imported coloured marbles and white limestone from around the Mediterranean and brick from its hinterland. Florentine art is tough, linear and monumental, while in Venice primacy is given to colour, gorgeous and evanescent. Venice’s lagoon location and its myriad canals are beyond different: they are unique.
Florence was, of course, the cradle of the Renaissance. Giotto, Brunelleschi, Donatello, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo are some of the great names studied on this tour. Today Florence is a vibrant, contemporary city, but the past is omnipresent: from the medieval city walls and distant vistas of olive groves to the narrow alleyways, expansive piazze and imposing palazzi, all reminders of the vast banking wealth which drove its artistic preeminence. Trade with the East was the source of Venice’s wealth, and the connection has left its indelible stamp, with western styles tempered by a richness of effect and delicacy of pattern redolent of oriental opulence.
Seeing the highlights of these two cities in succession, with enough time in each to enable some depth of experience, provides one of the great aesthetic journeys the world has to offer.
Florence. Fly at c. 8.00am (British Airways) from London Heathrow to Pisa. Transfer to Florence in time for a late afternoon visit to the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi chapel, which has exquisite frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli. First of four nights in Florence.
Florence. In the morning visit Piazza della Signoria, civic centre of Florence with masterpieces of public sculpture, and Sta. Maria Novella, the Dominican church with many works of art (Masaccio’s Trinità, Ghirlandaio’s frescoed sanctuary). Then continue to the church-cum-granary of Orsanmichele, adorned with important Renaissance statuary. The cluster of cathedral buildings occupies the afternoon; the baptistry with its Byzantine mosaics and Renaissance sculpture; the polychromatic marble Duomo itself, capped by Brunelleschi’s massive dome; and the collections in the superbly renovated cathedral museum.
Florence. A Medici morning includes S. Lorenzo, the family parish church designed by Brunelleschi, and their burial chapel in the contiguous New Sacristy with Michelangelo’s largest sculptural ensemble. See also his David and the ‘Slaves’ in the Accademia. Visit the vast Franciscan church of Sta. Croce, favoured burial place for leading Florentines and abundantly furnished with sculpted tombs, altarpieces and frescoes.
Florence. In the morning visit the Bargello, a medieval palazzo housing Florence’s finest sculpture collection with works by Donatello, Verrocchio and Michelangelo. See the Masaccio/Masolino fresco cycle in the Brancacci Chapel, which influenced all subsequent generations of Renaissance artists. The afternoon is devoted to the Uffizi, Italy’s most important art gallery, which has masterpieces by every major Florentine painter as well as international Old Masters.
Florence, Venice. Travel by rail to Venice (first class) for the first of three nights there. Take an introductory walk in the Piazza S. Marco and visit the incomparably beautiful Doge’s Palace with pink Gothic revetment and rich Renaissance interiors.
Venice. The Accademia is Venice’s major art gallery, where all the Venetian painters are represented. In the afternoon cross the bacino to Palladio’s beautiful island church of S. Giorgio Maggiore and then to the tranquil Giudecca to see his best church, Il Redentore. In the evening there is a private after-hours visit to the Basilica of S. Marco, an 11th-century Byzantine church enriched over the centuries with mosaics, sculpture and precious objects.
Venice. Visit the vast Gothic church of SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the early Renaissance Sta. Maria dei Miracoli with its multicoloured stone veneer. In the afternoon cross the Grand Canal to the San Polo district, location of the great Franciscan church of Sta. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari which has outstanding artworks including Titian’s Assumption, and the Scuola Grande di S. Rocco, with dramatic paintings by Tintoretto.
Venice. Cross the lagoon by motoscafo (water-taxi) to the airport. Fly from Venice to London Heathrow, arriving c. 2.30pm.
Dr Michael Douglas-Scott
Dr Michael Douglas-Scott mixes scholarship with accessible discourse, with reasoned opinion, and is highly sought-after as an art history lecturer. He has lectured for New York University (London campus) and Birkbeck College, University of London, specialising primarily in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. He studied at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College 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: £3,190 or £3,080 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,670 or £3,560 without flights.
Suggested train itinerary: London – Paris – Turin – Milan – Venice: c. 13 hours.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 319); private coach for airport transfer to Florence; first-class rail travel from Florence to Venice; a vaporetto pass for the time spent in Venice; travel between Venice airport and the hotel by water-taxi; luggage porterage from Florence to Venice and from the hotel in Venice to the airport; 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 Santa Maria Novella, Florence: delightful 4-star hotel in a very central location. Hotel Splendid, Venice: delightful, quiet 4-star hotel situated half-way between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
The nature of both Florence and Venice means that the cities are more often than not traversed on foot. Although part of their charm, there is a lot of walking along the flat (and up and down bridges in Venice); standing around in museums and churches is also unavoidable.
Between 8 and 18 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.
'Especially we appreciate it when MRT arranges special visits, such as to St Mark' Cathedral at night.'
'I really appreciated the time we were given for each gallery/picture/church. I saw everything I wanted to see and am confident that I was shown the best of those things I was unaware of. I didn't have to be worried about the organisation or quality of anything.'
'Excellent itinerary well balanced between the two cities.'