Were Florence to tumble into the Arno and disappear for ever, Tuscany would continue to be one of Europe’s most alluring destinations for the culture-seeking traveller. Such is the profusion of great art and architecture in the surrounding region.
The Renaissance is brilliantly represented, with major works by leading quattrocento artists – Masaccio, Donatello, Ghiberti, Filippo Lippi, Michelozzo, Gozzoli, Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio and others. But in terms of quantity, spectacularity and variety, the Middle Ages predominate – unsurprisingly, as the term encompasses many hundreds of years of creative ferment. Buildings of magnificence and beauty and astonishing immensity abound, while in the field of painting Siennese artists such as Duccio and the Lorenzetti brothers have no equals. Sculpture is particularly important here, with the Pisani family creating some of the greatest works of the Gothic era.
The region is also famous for its landscape, which is among the most beautiful in Europe. Richly textured, consistently undulating, subtly various though invariably punctuated by the black-green uprights of cypress trees, the grey-green bobbles of olive trees and the gold-green striations of vineyards.
Present-day Tuscany is more or less the territory put together by Duke Cosimo I, who achieved absolute power in 1537 and ruled for the next 37 years. Under him and his successors the territory became one of the most significant of the second-tier states in Europe, though despite relentless canvassing of pope and emperor Cosimo failed to be awarded the status of king and had to make do with the title of Grand Duke.
There are two bases for this tour, both utterly lovely and characteristic. Lucca is a small valley-floor city of Roman origin hemmed in by hills, girded by red-brick ramparts and consisting of a succession of enchanting streets and squares. Colle di Val d'Elsa is a little country town on a hill just south of San Gimignano, overlooking the verdant valley of the Elsa River.
San Piero a Grado. Fly at c. 11.30am (British Airways) from London Gatwick to Pisa. Isolated on the coastal plain, the Romanesque basilica of San Piero a Grado has one of the finest sets of mediaeval frescoes to be found anywhere. Continue to Lucca. Within the perfectly preserved circuit of Renaissance ramparts lies one of the loveliest stretches of urban scene in Italy. First of four nights in Lucca.
Lucca. The morning walk takes in enchanting streets and major buildings, including the Romanesque cathedral of S. Martino, home of the extraordinarily beautiful Gothic tomb of Ilaria del Carretto. Walk out to the Villa Guinigi, a rare survival of a 14th-century villa and now a museum housing a choice collection of mediaeval paintings.
Pistoia, Collodi. The exceptionally attractive town of Pistoia has important art and architecture including an octagonal baptistry, a Renaissance hospital with a ceramic frieze by the della Robbia workshop and a pulpit crowded with expressive figures carved by Giovanni Pisano. In the cathedral there is a unique silver altarpiece which took 150 years to complete. Villa Garzoni at Collodi has one of the finest surviving examples of 17th-century gardens, with terraces excavated out of a steep hillside.
Pisa. In the Middle Ages Pisa was one of the most powerful maritime city-states in the Mediterranean, the rival of Venice and Genoa, deriving great wealth from its trade with the Levant. The ‘Campo dei Miracoli’ is a magnificent ensemble of cathedral, burial ground, campanile (‘Leaning Tower’) and baptistery, all of gleaming white marble.
Volterra. A wonderful drive through Tuscan hills leads to Volterra, a rugged mediaeval hilltop town with an art gallery and a Romanesque cathedral, which again has fine Renaissance sculpture. Continue to the picturesque hilltop town of Colle Val d'Elsa for the first of five nights.
San Gimignano. Drive to San Gimignano, which with its fourteen 13th-century, hundred-foot tower houses is an amazing sight. Visit the collegiate church which contains two great cycles of trecento frescoes depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The town hall also has 14th-century frescoes and houses a small art gallery. Study the development of the city in the streets, alleys and squares, and walk along a stretch of the walls.
Siena. The largest of the hilltop towns of Tuscany, Siena is distinguished by architecture and art of exquisite elegance. The scallop-shaped piazza is one of the most beautiful urban spaces in the world; Duccio’s Maestà, housed in the cathedral museum, is the finest of all mediaeval altarpieces. The cathedral is an imposing construction of white and green marble with mediaeval and Renaissance artworks of the highest quality.
Certaldo, Monteriggioni. The point of visiting these little towns is not to see great art, though there are fascinating buildings and pictures, but to relish the picturesque delights of ancient, and still thriving, hilltop communities. Certaldo, birthplace of the 14th-century writer Boccaccio, has a redoubtable little governor’s palace and a small art gallery; Monteriggioni has an exceptionally intact circuit of walls and towers.
Montepulciano, Pienza. Montepulciano is distinguished among hill towns for its number of grand buildings of the 16th century, including the cathedral, though excellent works of art inside survive from its predecessor. The Tempio di S. Biagio (Antonio da Sangallo, 1518) is a major work of the High Renaissance. Pienza provides wonderful views of inimitable rolling countryside; its centre – piazza, palace, town hall, cathedral – was built in the 1460s in accordance with Renaissance principles at the behest of a local boy who made good: Pope Pius II.
Prato. Prato built its wealth on cloth-working. The cathedral has outstanding Renaissance sculpture and painting, notably Donatello’s pulpit with dancing putti and frescoes by Filippo Lippi. Visit also the 13th-century Hohenstaufen castle and the Museo di Palazzo Pretorio, recently reopened after restoration, housing works by Filippo and Filippini Lippi among others. Continue to Pisa for the flight to London Gatwick, arriving c. 9.00pm.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,880 or £2,800 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,220 or £3,140 without flights.
Included: flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 6 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel Ilaria, Lucca: an excellently situated 4-star, within the city walls, with friendly staff. Hotel Palazzo San Lorenzo, Colle Val d’Elsa: 4-star hotel in a historic village near San Gimignano. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
There is a lot of walking, much of it on steep ground and roughly paved streets, as well as standing around in churches and galleries. The tour is not suitable for anyone who has difficulties with everyday walking and stair climbing. Average distance by coach per day: 52 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.
The lecturer's extensive knowledge of the architecture, art and social structures of the period made a very useful contribution to the enjoyment of all our visits. A very plesant and easy going personality allied with a good sense of humour made him an ideal companion.