‘Hills’ and ‘Venice’ are not accustomed to finding themselves in the same sentence; sited on (and sometimes under) an estuarial lagoon, elevation above (or below) sea level in Venice is measured in centimetres. But on a clear day a range of hills can be seen rising to the north. On a very clear day the snowy peaks of the Dolomites come into view.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages the proud little communities which populated these hills one by one submitted to the rule of La Serenissima, as did much of northern Italy. Political hegemony was followed by cultural influence, clearly manifested still in the disorientating sight of Venetian-style Renaissance palazzi set against precipitous pine-clad hillsides.
But the cultural forces did not flow only in one direction. As is often the case with an artistically flourishing metropolis, many of the creators were outsiders. Titian was born in the rugged Cadore mountains, Cima from the gentler hillside town of Conegliano, Marco Ricci from hilltop Belluno. These and many other artists enjoyed successful careers in Venice, but most kept in contact with their natal towns, accepting commissions for, or donating paintings to, their parish church.
These hill towns are among the loveliest in Italy, and they are set in ravishing landscapes which range from vine-clad foothills to soaring limestone peaks. Most of them are quite small, but the architectural ambitions of their inhabitants were otherwise: the historic centres are dense with fine buildings and arcaded streets which give protection from mountain downpours and summer sun.
The ostensible theme of this tour is painting of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but other aspects of the art and history of the region will not be ignored. The base is Follina, a tiny community which grew up around a monastery in the mountains.
Fly at c. 1.00pm (British Airways) from London Gatwick to Venice. Drive through the hills to Follina where all four nights are spent.
Vittorio Veneto, Conegliano. The tiny city of Serravalle (now joined with Cèneda to form Vittorio Veneto), occupying a gorge scoured by the River Meschio, has a fine group of mediaeval and Renaissance buildings, 15th-century frescoes in the chapel of S. Lorenzo and a Titian in the cathedral. In the church of Santa Maria in Cèneda there is an exquisite Annunciation by Previtali. Drive to the birthplace of Giambattista Cima del Conegliano, the lovely town from which the artist took his name, that spreads down a hillside below the remains of a castle. Visit Cima’s house and the cathedral to see one of his greatest works (1492).
Pieve di Cadore, Belluno. Titian was born in the little town of Pieve di Cadore; see here the family home and the parish church with paintings by Titian and family. In the afternoon drive north along the valley of the Piave into an ever more dramatic mountain landscape. Sitting athwart a promontory looped by the Piave, Belluno is a beautiful little city with a Renaissance cathedral and Venetian-style palaces. Among the fine paintings is an exquisite Madonna & Child by Cima in the Museo Civico.
Bassano, Feltre. Bassano del Grappa is a highly attractive town in the foothills of the Dolomites with a series of picturesque squares with painted façades. Home of the prolific Bassano family of painters, there are several of their works in the civic museum. Stacked up along the ridge of a hill, Feltre is another architectural outpost of Venice with striking buildings in various styles. See the Rizzarda collection of early 20th-century arts and crafts and the 1802 theatre in the town hall.
San Fior, Treviso. Descend to San Fior, a little town on the densely populated plain at the foot of the hills. Riven by canals and streams, San Fior has an altarpiece by Cima. Once an important fortress city, Treviso has a fine historic centre with imposing public buildings and many painted façades. Selective visits here include the extraordinary frescoes of learned monks in the chapter house of St Nicholas by 14th-cent. painter Tommaso da Modena. Fly from Venice airport, arriving at Gatwick c. 7.00pm.
If combining this tour with Friuli-Venezia Giulia: there is a refreshment break at Venice airport before the coach continues to Udine.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £1,880 or £1,700 without flights. Single occupancy: £1,980 or £1,800 without flights.
The Venetian Hills and Friuli-Venezia Giulia combined
Two sharing: £3,570 or £3,390 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,800 or £3,620 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus A319); travel by private coach; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips for waiters, drivers; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Hotel dei Chiostri: a 4-star hotel in the little hill town of Follina, installed in former abbey buildings.
The tour involves quite a lot of walking, some of which is uphill or in the town centres where vehicular access is restricted. Streets are often cobbled, and the tour should not be attempted by anyone who has difficulty with everyday walking and stair-climbing. Most days involve a fair amount of driving. Average distance by coach per day: 62 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.
'Once again a very pleasant holiday – one comes home very pleased with the overall experience.'
'The historic centres of the hill towns provided one treat after another in location we would not otherwise have accessed.'
'The lecturer was absolutely first class in every way.'
'The lecturer's humour and relaxed manner, his beautifully clear enunciation and passion and knowledge of Titan and the other medieval and renaissance painters made it a real pleasure to absorb so much history, politics and art and architectural knowledge.'