Italy — The Memorable Museums of Bologna

Italy — The Memorable Museums of Bologna

Home to the oldest university in continuous operation in the western world (founded in 1088), the northern Italian city of Bologna has remained over the centuries a center of culture and art. In the historic center alone, more than thirty museums illustrate the rich artistic heritage of the city. The following are my personal favorites.

The Archeological Civic Museum

Bust of Nero erected by the people of Bononia as as a sign of gratitude to the Emperor (circa 1st century B.C.).

Founded in September 1881 by merging two separate collections belonging respectively to the University and the City of Bologna, and locating them in the 15th century Palazzo Galvani, a few steps from Piazza Maggiore, the Museo Civico Archeologico (Archeological Civic Museum) holds one of the most important archaeological collection in Italy. It is above all a major witness to the local history, from prehistoric times to the Roman age, as announced by the monumental torso of Nero dominating the central loggia of the internal courtyard. Of exquisite workmanship, the statue, depicts a figure garbed for a triumphal procession, wearing a short tunic, a loose cloak over its shoulder, and an anatomical cuirass decorated with marine creatures and the Gorgon’s head. 

Etruscan cremation crater (circa 450 B.C.) used to receive the ashes of the deceased.

The Etruscan wing constitutes the most important part of the museum. It documents the development of the local culture and especially the religious and funerary rites of Etruria, with Bologna, then known as Felsina, as its capital. A majority of the pieces, dating back from the middle of the 6th to the 4th century B.C., came from the 1869 discovery and subsequent excavation of an Etruscan necropolis on the grounds of the Certosa Cemetery, just outside the limits of the historic city.

The museum also features an interesting Egyptian collection, and for numismatic buffs, the most important collection in Italy of Greek, Roman and Byzantine coins.

The National Gallery of Bologna

Alterpiece by 14th century Bolognese master Jacopino.

To continue the journey through the artistic development of the region, the Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna (National Gallery of Bologna), is an essential next stop. Located in the 17th  century former Jesuit novitiate of St. Ignatius, a few minutes from the Two Towers, it opened to the public in1885.  Entirely renovated in 1997, it is now considered one of the most modern and important National Galleries in the country. Its collection includes works from some of the leading Italian artists of the Renaissance, Mannerism and Baroque periods, such as Raphael, Perugino, Tintoretto, Titian, the Carraccis, Guercino and Reni.

A custom-designed hall in the center of the Pinacoteca holds the Mezzaratta frescoes.

At its core is a unique display of frescoes and sinopias from the decorative cycle of the church of Mezzaratta, a small church just outside the city. Here, the main artists working in Bologna in the 14th and 15th centuries competed, and sometimes cooperated to create a sequence of scenes from the sacred texts.

Polyptych by brothers Vivarini (circa 15tth century).

The frescoes, hidden for many years by plaster and damaged by humidity were detached beginning in 1949 and moved to the Pinacoteca. They are housed in a dedicated hall where one room holds the final masterpieces, while the next room displays the sinopias (preparatory drawings used by artists during the design phase, tracing the elements of composition directly on the first layer of plaster) that were found under the frescoes. The display of these sinopias, allows visitors to appreciate the entire creative process, from conception to final results.

Museum San Colombano

Painted 18th century grand piano from the Tagliavini Collection.

Also a short walk from the Piazza Maggiore, the Church of San Colombano is an ancient monastic complex founded in the 7th century and expended over time. Deconsecrated in 1798 and restored in recent decades, it now houses the collection of musical instruments donated by Bolognese Maestro Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini (1929 – 2017).

Early portable pipe organ.

This unique collection consists of over seventy pieces, mainly harpsichords, spinets, pianos, organs, clavichords and some wind instruments dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. The instruments are still in working order, and used regularly for free concerts. At the time of my recent visit, an artist was practicing on an ancient spinet, while in another part of the complex a  sumptuously decorated 18th century grand piano was being tuned.

A cycle of 17th century frescoes decorates the Oratory.

The Oratory — In addition to the musical treasures on display throughout its various spaces, the complex itself is a peerless work of art. Built in the 1590’s, the upper floor Oratory is decorated with a cycle of 17th century frescoes inspired by the stories of the Passion and the Triumph of Christ by a group of artists led by Ludovico Carracci, including Guido Reni, Francesco Albani and Domenichino.

The chapel was built around a 1399 painting of the Virgin.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Prayer — The chapel was also built in the 1590’s, around an image of the Virgin painted by Lippo di Dalmasio in 1399  on the outside wall of the Church of St. Colombano. The task of frescoing the new chapel was  entrusted to the best pupils of the Carracci brothers.The painted scenes are inspired by episodes from the New Testament.

Detail of the 13th century Christ Crucified discovered in the Crypt of the San Colombano complex.

The Crypt — In 2005, the restoration works of the San Colombano complex revealed the existence of a late medieval crypt. Here, a fresco portraying “Christ crucified between Our Lady and St. John” was the most signifcant discovery. Despite having been severely damaged, the painting is still of high quality, not only for the realism of the subject’s expression but also in the use of colors, all of which survived centuries of underground burial. The work is attributed to Giunta Pisano, a pivotal Italian artist of the 13th century.

The Certosa Monumental Cemetery

The 19th century Neoclassical Seventh Cloister.

Detail of early 20th century Art Nouveau tomb.

Bronze sculpture on mosaic backdrop by Pasquale Rizzoli, the Magnani Chapel is a fine examples of Italian Liberty style.

One of the oldest and largest cemeteries in Europe, the Certosa di Bologna was established in 1801 on the grounds of an ancient Carthusian monastery just outside of the historic city limits. By the 1830’s, in addition to using the remaining structures of the existing monastery, the cemetery began to be enriched with new spaces and cloisters, until it took the labyrinthine aspect of an open-air museum, with exceptional decorations and funeral monuments. 

Not to be missed are the Third and Seventh Cloisters. The Renaissance Third Cloister was the first to accommodate tombs of the new public cemetery. Many of the monuments  here were entrusted to the most respected sculptors and painters of the period. 

Built in the later part of the 19th century, the grandiose Neoclassical Seventh Cloister features a central nave with a soaring barrel-vaulted ceiling. Here the monuments, which memorialize a number of of nationally famous local figures (including the Marconi family), are a comprehensive repertory of 19th and 20th century Bolognese sculpture, and include a number of remarkable Art Nouveau tombs.

Also worth noting at the center of the complex, two monumental stone domes mark the two vast underground circular areas of the Ossuary of the Great War. It contains the remains of 2,906 Italian soldiers (of which about 500 are from the city and province of Bologna) and 140 Austro-Hungarians.

Good to Know

  • Getting there By Air: There are scheduled flights to Bologna International Airport from most major European cities. By train: High speed trains connect the center of the Bologna to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high-speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. By road: The A1 highway efficiently connects the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes. To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting — Museo Civico Archeologico /, Via dell’Archiginnasio 2, 40124 Bologna. Open Wednesday through Monday from  10:00 am to 7:00pm. Closed on Tuesday, May 1, December 25  and 31. Contact: tel. + 39 051 2757211, e-mail . Pinacoteca Nazionale di Bologna, Via delle Belle Arti 56, 40126 Bologna. Open Tuesday and Wednesday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, and Thursday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday and December 25.  Contact: tel. +39 0514209442, e-mail. Museum San Colombano — Collezione Tagliavini , Via Parigi 5, 40121 Bologna. Open Tuesday through Sunday from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:00 to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: tel. +39 05119936366, e-mail. Certosa di Bologna , Via della Certosa, 18 – 40133 Bologna. Open March 1 to November 2 from  7:00 am to 6:00 pm and November 3 to  February 28/29 from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm. Contact: tel. ++39 051 6150840, e-mail.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Bologna, Italy

Italy — The great churches of Bologna

Italy — The great churches of Bologna

Although Bologna is widely recognized as one of most remarkable Medieval cities in Italy, it is also one of the most important centers of the Italian Renaissance period. Nowhere can its historic and artistic evolution be better appreciated than in its many magnificent churches

The churches of Bologna dazzle with Renaissance art works.

Wander along its network of Porticoes, the ubiquitous arcades that have been woven into the fabric of the city since the13th century. They are sure to lead to a picturesque piazza, usually dominated by an ancient church. Here are my personal favorites, all within an ten-minute walk from the central Piazza Maggiore.



Basilica of San Stefano

Early fresco at the Complex of San Stefano.

By far the most fascinating is the Basilica of San Stefano. Reaching back to the 5th century and the early days of christianity in Italy, its origins are controversial. According to the most accepted theory, it was build by Petronius, then Bishop of Bologna (dead circa 450 AD), on the ruins of a pre-existing temple dedicated to Isis — a major Egyptian goddess whose whose worship had subsequently spread throughout the Greco-Roman world.


The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher — The original sanctuary, a reproduction of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, is a small circular space with rising columns, high up arched windows and  a domed brick ceiling. In the center is a carved stone structure, part altar, part tomb, flanked by a spiral staircase, and topped with a simple crucifix.  Upon his death, Petronius was buried there.

A simple crucifix adorns the domed choir of the Church of the Holy Crucifix

Additional sanctuaries were constructed, all in different styles, over the next six centuries.The San Stefano complex became known as “Sette Chiese” (Seven Churches). While the moniker still endures, changes throughout the centuries have resulted in the current four churches, each a striking example of the evolution of religious Romanesque  architecture.



Church of the Holy Crucifix – 16th century frescoes of Saints Vitale and Agricola frame the altar.

Church of the Holy Crucifix — The only entrance to the complex is through the 8th century Church of the Holy Crucifix. Of Lombard origin, it consists of a single nave with a trussed vault and a raised presbytery. At the center of the presbytery, the Crucifix, by Simone dei Crocifissi dating back to about 1380. On the walls, there are 15th century frescoes with the Martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Under the presbytery, at the far end of the crypt, an altar hold two urns containing the remains of local martyrs: Saints Vitale and Agricola (305 AD). On the sides of the altar, a few years ago, two 16th century frescoes were discovered under layers of plaster, illustrating the martyrdom of Vitale and Agricola.

Sarcophagus of San Vitale

Church of Saints Vitalis and Agricola — The oldest of the complex, this simple 4th century basilica-shaped church without a transept, is dedicated to saints Vitale and Agricola, respectively servant and master, the first two martyrs from Bologna. Extensively rebuilt in 12th century, it still hold the medieval sarcophagi that once held the remains of the saints, and on the floor, a mosaic of Roman origin.

The Courtyard of Pilate.

Church of the Trinity — Originally intended by Petronius as a major basilica to duplicate Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, it was never completed (probably due to lack of funds), With the advent of the Lombards, it became a Baptistery, with a remarkable central marble basin and intricate brickworks, in what is now known as the Courtyard of Pilate. Then the Benedictines added a superb cloister with dual storied arcaded loggia (10th -13th centuries). The current church was added in the 13th century, and substantially altered several times since. The church displays statues representing the Adoration of the Magi, also thought to be from the 13th century, and a number of fragments of lovely 14th century frescoes.

Basilica of San Petronio

The ornate base of the facade of the Basilica of San Petronio.

Dominating the Piazza Maggiore and dedicated to Saint Petronius, the patron saint of Bologna, the Basilica of San Petronio is the most imposing  — and the most visited — church in the city. Built between 1388 and 1479, its main facade has remained unfinished ever since.  It is the largest church built of bricks in the world. The facade appears cut in half: the base is an opulent creation of rose and white marble, with steeples and decorative sculptures over the portals, then right above it, it’s just plain brown bricks.

The soaring Gothic nave of the Basilica of San Petronio

The interior, however, is a soaring Gothic extravaganza. Its light-filled nave is lined by 22 side chapels decorated with works by prominent Italian painters and sculptors from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although Petronius was originally buried in the San Stefano complex, a conflict arose after his canonization and the construction of the Basilica of San Petronio, as to the resting place of the saint’s relics. Eventually, the head of the saint was placed in the Chapel of Cardinal Aldrovandi, now Chapel of San Petronio.

Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore

Bentivoglio Chapel -Vision of the Apocalypse (Lorenzo Costa).

Located on Piazza Rossini, one of the most attractive squares in Bologna, the Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore was built in the mid-13th century and renovated at the end of the 15th century, which accounts from its Romanesque exterior and Gothic interior. Its single monumental nave houses a wealth of art treasures, most notably in the 15th century Bentivoglio Chapel, regarded as one of the most significant creations of the early Bolognese Renaissance. In addition to the white marble tomb of A.G. Bentivoglio by Jacopo della Quercia, its walls are covered with artwork by Lorenzo Costa, depicting the family’s victories over other Bolognese dynasties.

The wedding of Saint Cecilia (Francesco Franzia).

Santa Cecilia Oratorio Flanking the Basilica, an elegant Renaissance portico leads to the Santa Cecilia Oratorio, enriched with ten splendid frescoes depicting episodes from the life of the saint and her husband San Valeriano. The paintings were executed in 1504-1506 by some of the most important artists of the Bentivoglio court.




Basilica of San Domenico

The shrine of San Domenico is an early work of Michalengelo.

Another of Bologna’s most notable churches, the Basilica of San Domenico holds the remains of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican Order. The tomb is on a raised white marble shrine by Nicola Fisano and the young Michelangelo. The basilica also boasts a remarkable 102 stalls wooden choir that is an exquisite example of Renaissance carving by Dominican Friar Domiano da Bergamo, and magnificent Baroque ceilings


The tomb of Rolandino de’ Passeggeri on Piazza San Domenico.

The square in front of the church is paved with pebbles, as it was in medieval times. Here, in addition to a brickwork column holding a bronze statue of St Dominic (1627),  two platforms raised on high columns hold the tombs Rolandino de’ Passeggeri by Giovanni (1305) and on the left, adjoining a house, the tomb of Egidio Foscarari (1289), enriched with an ancient Byzantine marble arch with relief works from the 9th century.



Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita

The terracotta figure of Mary Magdalene (Niccolò dell’Arca).

Built in the late 17th century on the foundations of an earlier church, the late Baroque-style Sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita (Church of Holy Mary of Life) is especially notable as the home of Compianto del Cristo Morto (Lamentation over the Dead Christ), This haunting terracotta masterpiece of Italian Renaissance sculpture by Niccolò dell’Arca was created during the second half of the 15th century and has been in the church ever since. It features six life-sized figures hovering over the dead Christ, their faces in various stages of grief and torment. The pathos of the scene is magnified by the howling figure of Mary Magdalene entering the scene with her robe and veil flapping in the wind.

Fragment of ancient fresco at the Basilica of San Domenico

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By Air: Bologna international airport receives scheduled flights from most major European cities. By train or road: Bologna is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. High speed trains connect the center of the city to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. The A1 highway efficiently connect the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes. To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting — San Stefano complex , Via Santo Stefano, 24 – 40125 Bologna, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and  2:30 pm to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday Contact: Tel. +39 0514983423. E-mail. Basilica of San Petronio, Piazza Galvani, 5 – 40124, Bologna is open daily from 8:30 am to 1:00 pm and from 3:00 pm to 6:30 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 051231415. E-mail.  Basilica of San Giacomo Maggiore, Piazza Rossini – 40126, Bologna is open Monday through Friday from 07:30 am to12:00 noon and 3:30 pm to 6.:30 pm, Saturday from 9:30 am – to 12:30 pm and 3:00 pm to  6:30 pm, Sunday and holidays from 8:30 am to 3:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 6.:30 pm. Contact: Tel. +39 05 122 5970. E-mail. Church of Santa Maria della Vita, Via Clavature, 10 – 40124, Bologna is open  Tuesday through Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: Tel. +39 05 119 936385.

Location, location, location!

Bologna, Italy

Italy — The Porticoes of Bologna

Italy — The Porticoes of Bologna

The Etruscans called it Felsina, then it became Bona under the Celts and later Bononia under the Romans. By the middles ages, it had become Bologna. An important urban center of Northern Italy since ancient times, it experienced its golden age from the 11th  to the 16th  centuries.

Shaped by its Porticoes

A network of porticoes developed throughout the medieval city.

The center of Bologna owes its grid pattern layout to its Roman past, but it is its sprawling network of porticoes, some 38 kilometers (24 miles) of them in the city’s historic centre alone, that shaped its unique personality. The first ones date back to the 11th century when they were originally conceived to extend the surface area of the upper floors of private buildings over public land. 

The 19th century portico of the Banca d’Italia is decorated by ornamental painter Gaetano Lodi.

Over time, what had started as modest wooden projections gradually increased in size to the point of requiring support columns below to prevent them from collapsing. The practice grew  to meet the expanding need of commercial and artisanal activities generated by the influx of scholars and students at the prestigious University of Bologna. Thus creating the world-famous arcades that remain to this day favorite shopping and socializing spaces for locals and visitors, and an ideal pedestrian environment to explore the rich history of the city.


La Strada Maggiore

The Casa Isolani portico is considered the oldest in Europe.

Bologna’s growth began along the Strada Maggiore, a major axis of the city since Roman times. It is where the development of porticoes from the Middle Ages to the modern era can be best appreciated.  Among them the 13th  century portico of Casa Isolani, with oak beams nine meters (30 feet) in height buttressing the building’s third floor, is considered the most ancient existing medieval portico in Europe.

A wide arcade surrounds the Basilica of Santa Maria del Servi.

A mere five minute walk away, the Basilica of Santa Maria del Servi, a remarkable 14th century Italian Gothic masterpiece, opens onto a small piazza entirely surrounded by a rectangular portico. The arcade is closed on one side by the conventual buildings, but on two sides it is open to the street, and extends along the entire left side of the building. Where the arcade meets the facade, it forms a wide portico of five arches stretching across the front of the church.

A City of Towers

On the Piazza Maggiore, the clock tower of Palazzo d’Accursio.

In the 11th to 13th centuries, as the city was spreading along its porticoes, it was also bristling with towers, as rich families demonstrated their power by constructing their own defensive stone towers, all striving to be the tallest and most grand. Of the more than one hundred that shaped Bologna’s skyline at the time, only twenty two survive today. Located where Via Rizzoli reaches Strada Maggiore, two of them, the Asinelli and Garisenda towers, have become a striking symbol of the city.

The Asinelli and Garisenda Towers.

Dating back to the second half of the 11th century, the Asinelli Tower, the highest ever built in Bologna, still soars to its original 97 meters (318 feet). Next to it, the Garisenda is Bologna’s own leaning tower. Originally about 60 meters (196 feet) high, it started leaning almost upon completion in the early 12th century. It was subsequently cut down to its current 48 meters (158 feet) in 1358. Today the Garisenda, actually leans at a slightly steeper incline than the Tower of Pisa. For obvious reason, it cannot be visited, but the Asinelli can. The panoramic view from the top is said to be breathtaking.

San Petronio Basilica

The lower part of the facade of the San Petronio Basilica.

Another few minutes’ walk, and the shady arcade open onto the vast Piazza Maggiore, dominated by the San Petronio Basilica, dedicated to the patron saint of the city, Saint Petronius, who was Bishop of Bologna in the 5th century. Construction began in 1390 and continued for centuries, a source of ongoing disagreement between the local powers who wanted to make it bigger than Rome’s Saint Peter, and the Catholic Church that wouldn’t have it. In the end, at 132 meters (433 feet) long, 66 meters (216 feet) wide and with a vault reaching 45 meters (147 feet), it is the largest (Gothic or otherwise) church built of bricks of the world. 

The 16th century main altar baldacchino of San Petronio.

Its facade was never completed. The stately lower part is all rose and white marble, with steeples and ornate decorations over the gates by sculptor Jacopo della Quercia of Siena. Then, right above it, it’s just plain brown brick. The interior, however, is a soaring Gothic extravaganza. The main altar baldacchino is by the great 16th century architect Jacopo Barozzi da Vignola, and twenty-two side chapels line the central nave. Over the centuries, the prominent families of Bologna rivaled to lavishly decorate theirs with masterpieces by the most thought-after artists of their time, from Gothic to Baroque to Rococo.

Archiginnasio of Bologna

The atrium of the Archiginnasio.

Just around the corner from the San Petronio Basilica, the Archiginnasio (University) Palace was built in 1562 at the behest of Pope Pius IV. Its purpose was to concentrate in a single space its various schools which, until that time, had been dispersed around the city since the university’s inception in 1088. Along the Via della Archiginnasio, the facade of the two-story palace consists of a thirty-arches portico, its main entrance leading to a central atrium surrounded by two levels of loggias. Two large staircases lead to the upper floor. Throughout the building, the history of the Archiginnasio is told by more than 7,000 coats of arms of former students and professors lining the staircases and hallways, making it the largest heraldic collection in the world.

The Anatomical Theatre

The Anatomical Theater at the Archiginnasio.

On the second floor, the Anatomical Theatre, built in 1637, is the amphitheater where medical school students learned human anatomy. The centre of the theatre features the white table upon which the dissection of human or animal bodies took place. The walls are decorated with statues of famous physician of ancient times. At the head of the room, two male figures, the “Spellati” (skinned) naked and skinless in order to show their muscles, flank the teacher’s chair.

The coffered ceiling of the Anatomical Theater.

Apollo and the signs of the Zodiac are represented in the coffered ceiling — According to contemporary astrological beliefs these symbols were considered connected with the rhythms of the human body.





The Archiginnasio Municipal Library

Rare books collection at the Archiginnasio Municipal Library

The building ended its university function in 1803. Starting in 1838, a major part of it was dedicated to housing the books collected after the closure of the religious orders. Today, the Archiginnasio library boasts some 850,000 volumes and pamphlets, 2,500 incunabula, 15,000 16th century editions, 8,500 manuscripts plus letters, collections of autographs, prints, drawings and archives. All of this important material, handwritten and printed trace the civil, cultural, religious and social history of Bologna  from the Middle Ages to the present.

Good to Know


  • Getting there — By Air: Bologna international airport supports scheduled flights from most major European cities. By train or road: Bologna is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. High speed trains connect the center of the city to Rome, Florence, Milan or Venice in approximately two hours. There are also direct high speed train connections between Bologna and Berlin, Amsterdam, Paris and Vienna. The A1 highway efficiently connect the city with Florence and Milan.
  • Getting Around — The center of Bologna is best explored on foot, following its amazing network of porticoes.  To visit further afield, the city’s bus network is extensive and efficient.
  • Visiting —  The Asinelli Tower, Piazza di Porta, Ravegnana, Bologna, is open daily.  Closed on December 25th. Opening hours vary with the seasons. Consult their  Official Website  for exact times and advanced bookings (required). The Palazzo della Archiginnasio,  Piazza Galvani 1, Bologna, is open year-round, Monday to Saturday from 9.00 am to 7.00 pm, Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm. The Anatomical Theatre is open year-round, Monday to Friday from 10.00 am to 6:00 pm, Saturday from 10.00  to 7:00 pm, and Sunday and holidays from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm.


Location, location, location!


A Little Known Medieval Gem of the Piedmont  — Saluzzo

A Little Known Medieval Gem of the Piedmont — Saluzzo

In the Piedmont, the northwestern corner of Italy, the ancient hillside city of Saluzzo takes visitors along a maze of charming cobble streets, all the way back to the Middle Ages when it was the seat of the independent Marquisate of the same name. For centuries, specifically from 1125 to 1548, its dynasty of fourteen Marqueses were able to keep at bay the aggressive attentions of their much more powerful neighbors: the House of Savoy, the French monarchy and the Holy Roman Empire.

La Castiglia

La Castiglia di Saluzzo.

A military stronghold was required to support such a feat. Built between 1271 and 1286 behind the original city wall and dominating the entire town, the Castiglia di Saluzzo was originally equipped with four bastions, a moat and a drawbridge. However, in 1492,  Marquis Ludovico II (1438-1504) radically renovated the fortress upon the arrival of his French second wife, Marguerite de Foix-Candale (1473-1536). It’s not clear how much  the addition of a garden and the massive round tower rising above its ancient walls improved upon it. Suffice it to say that centuries later, the still foreboding castle served as a prison from 1825 to 1992. 

Today La Castiglia is home to the Museum of Chivalry and the Museum of Prison Memory, which commemorates the two main functions carried out by the building.

The Church of San Giovani

The Flamboyant Gothic interior of the Church of San Giovani.

Until the construction of the cathedral in the early 16th century, la Chiesa di San Giovani was the most important place of worship in the city. Built by the Dominicans in 1330 on the site of a chapel dedicated to Saint John since 1281, it was finally completed in 1504. Its sober exterior, including the square bell tower with five rows of mullioned windows and octagonal spire added in 1376, harmoniously integrates into the mediaeval context of the ancient city. Meanwhile the interior is a fine example of Flamboyant Gothic architecture. Among its most notable elements are the burial chapel of the Marquises, and especially the white marble monument of the Marquis Ludovico II (circa 1508) by French master Antoine Le Mortorier, and the monumental gilded wood tabernacle at the high altar (circa 1610).

The cloister of the Church of San Giovani.

In the adjoining cloister, commissioned in 1466 by Marquis Ludovico I, a terracotta stonework representing the Visitation is placed on the wall next to the entrance. The capitals of the gallery’s pillars feature the coates of arms of the most prominent families in Saluzzo. The cloister also houses the Cavassa Chapel, with the funeral monument of the General Administrator of the Marquisate, Galeazzo Cavassa (1483) and some well preserved frescoes.

Casa Cavassa

The Renaissance loggia of features Grisaille frescoes.

For all the medieval charm of Saluzzo, the city’s undisputed gem is Casa Cavassa, the Renaissance-style mansion that was the residence of Caleazzo Cavassa and his son Francesco, both General Administrators of the Marqueses of Saluzzo. While traces of a medieval building can be found in the basements and in three ogive windows of the facade, Francesco completely redesigned the property in the early 16th century, in the early Renaissance-style that was becoming prevalent in Northern Italy.

View of the city from the rear of Casa Cavassa.

The new construction took advantage of the sloping terrain to extend over six floors, three underground, including cellars, kitchens and servants quarters, while the reception   rooms and private apartments were on the three upper floors. Here the richly decorated rooms feature ornately painted wooden ceilings, frescoed walls and loggias.


Magnificent painted coffered ceilings grace the reception rooms.

The building fell into serious disrepair throughout the following centuries, until it was purchased by Marquis Emanuele Tapparelli d’Azeglio (1816-1890), an Italian diplomat and politician born in Turin. He set out to restore the mansion following the 19th century principle known as “completion according to style”: everything that didn’t date back to the Renaissance was removed and replaced by works of art and antiques dating back to the 15th  and 16th centuries. According to d’Azeglio’s will, the mansion became a museum upon his death, and the property of the town of Saluzzo.

“Our Lady of Mercy” (Hans Clemer. Altarpiece, 1499-1500).

Even today the white marble portal and the sculpted front door (circa 1520’s), attributed to the sculptor Matteo Sanmicheli from Lombardi, bear witness to the splendor of the mansion at the beginning of the 16th century. The walls of the internal loggia still boast Grisaille frescoes by Hans Clemer, a famous Flemish painter who worked in the Marquisate from 1496 to 1511. The paintings (1506-1511) depict seven of the famous Labors of Hercules. Underneath the balcony, above the mullioned windows, a frescoed decorative band portrays the signs of the zodiac. The itinerary of the visit consists of 15 rooms full of  remarkable frescoes, period furnitures and art collections, including the altarpiece “Our Lady of Mercy”, an incandescent masterpiece also by Hans Clemer, painted in 1499-1500.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—By Road: Saluzzo is about 60 kilometers (40 miles) or a 75 minute drive from the center of Turin via regional road SP 139 or SP 663. It is also accessible by bus from the Torino Esposizioni bus terminal with one connection in Villa Franca Piedmonte. There are several daily busses and the route takes approximately two and a half hours.
  • Getting around—Saluzzo is definitely best visited on foot. Comfortable footwear recommended.
  • Visiting—Museo Civico Casa Cavassa, Via San Giovani 5, Saluzzo is open Tuesday through Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm and 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm, and Friday 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Contact: Tel. + 39 0175 41455. E-mail. Confirming opening hours recommended. Note: published website was inoperational at the time of this writing.

Location, location, location!


Italy — The Many Faces of Turin

Italy — The Many Faces of Turin

Set in the shadow of the Alps, at the foot of a wooded hill on the bank of the Pô River in the northwestern region of Piedmont, Turin is the birthplace of many iconic Italian brands. Its varied claims to fame include FIAT cars (which stands for Fabbrica Italiana Automobili di Torino), Olivetti business machines, Lavazza coffee, Martini vermouth and Juventus football club.

The Palatine Gate opens onto an archeology park.

But before the 19th century made Turin the industrial powerhouse of Italy, the city had already been shaped by a rich historical past reaching back two millennia. Founded during the reign of Emperor Augustus (circa 9 BC), Turin has retained the checkerboard plan typical of ancient Roman cities, as well as the imposing Porta Palatina and adjoining remains of its Roman and medieval rampart, which now open onto a park filled with roman ruins.



The Golden Age of the Savoy

The streets pf the historic center are lined with arcades.

Then, in 1563, Emmanuel-Philibert transferred the capital of his powerful Duchy of Savoy from Chambéry to Turin, ushering a golden age for the Piedmontese city. Throughout the 17th and 18th  centuries, Turin grew under the influence of two great architects, Guarino Guarini (1624 – 1683) and Filippo Juvarra (1678 – 1736), who covered the city with grand palaces and imposing churches in a sober style that became known as Piedmontese Baroque. Along the straight streets of old Turin, lined with arcaded buildings (some 18 kilometers – 11 miles – of them), all constructions were required to adhere to a uniformity of style and materials dictated by the court architects. The result of this early urban planning is a unique inner city filled with elegant palazzi and stunning courtyards, remarkable for its discreetly aristocratic charm and serene atmosphere.

Piazza Castello is the centerpiece of Baroque Turin.

At the heart of it all, the Piazza Castello showcases the most emblematic monuments of Turin: the Palazzo Reale, which was the residence of the Dukes of Savoy from the 17th to the end of the 19th century and the Palazzo Madama. The latter, a remarkably heterogeneous building, sums up the city’s past. Here, behind with the sumptuous facade of the 18th century Baroque palace, the rear of the building remains an austere medieval castle anchored to Roman towers. Today the Palazzo Madama houses a rich museum of ancient art of the region..

Palazzo Reale is now a museum complex.

Meanwhile, the Palazzo Reale is now an extensive museum complex including the Royal Apartments, the Museum of Antiquities, featuring the archeology of Turin ,and the Galleria Sabauda, a showcase of the royal art collections amassed by the House of Savoy over the centuries, mainly Italian and Flemish painting (Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Tiepolo, Memling, Rubens, etc.). Also not to be missed is a walk through the spectacular 17-acre  (7-hectare) Royal Gardens.

Museum and Churches

The San Giovanni Battista Cathedral is a rare Renaissance monument in Turin.

Beyond the Piazza Castello, the city center is filled with museums, often housed in historic palaces, and grand churches, starting with the 17th century Church of San Lorenzo. Behind its austere facade, it houses a profusion of Baroque elements and a high cupola adorned with windows that flood the building with light. Behind it, one of the rare Renaissance buildings in Turin, the cathedral San Giovanni Battista and its campanile, is one of the rare Renaissance buildings in Turin. The famous Holy Shroud is kept there. A short distance away on the majestic Piazza San Carlo, reminiscent of Rome’s Piazza del Popolo, Turin has her own set of twin Baroque churches: San Carlo Borromeo and Santa Cristina.

The curved facade of the Palazzo Carignano is built entirely of exposed brick.

A ten-minute walk away, the sumptuous Palazzo Carignano is the most startling Baroque palace in the city. Designed by Guarini as the private residence of the Princes of Carignano, a cadet branch of the House of Savoy, it is entirely constructed in exposed bricks with a unique curved facade and double staircase atrium. The interior is known for its splendid frescoes and stucco decorations. Today it houses the museum of the Italian Risorgimento (Italian Revival), the 19th century period that lead to the political unification of the country. The museum exhibits various weapons, banners, uniforms, printed documents and manuscripts, and artworks of the period.

Another legacy of the greatness of the Savoys is the Museo Egizio (Egyptian Museum). Opened in 1824 and housed in the austere Palazzo dell’Accademia delle Scienze, this Turin institution houses the most important collection of Egyptian treasures outside Cairo.

The Mole Antonelliana

The central hall of the Mole Antonelliana.

Named after Alessandro Antonelli, the architect who designed it in 1863, the Mole Antonelliana is one of the most iconic sights of the city. A soaring 167 meters (550 feet) high, this monumental building has become the visual symbol of Turin. Originally intended as a synagogue, the Mole (pronounced Mo-lay) actually became a monument dedicated to King Vittorio Emanuele II. Today the Mole is internationally famous Museo Nazionale del Cinema (National Cinema Museum). Inside, the rooms are dedicated to various aspects of the cinema industry: cameras, poster collections, legendary directors and movie stars, video installations and much more. And a central glass elevator can take visitors high up the dome for a panoramic view of the city.

The Birthplace of Chocolate

Caffè al Bicerin has been service its chocolate and expresso creation since 1768.

Turin, has a long association with cacao delicacies. Cacao was brought to the city at the end of the 1500s when Catherine, daughter of Filip of Spain, married Charles Emmanuel I, Duke of Savoy. At the European courts of the time, the food was consumed as a drink, vaunted for its invigorating properties. Then in 1776, also in Turin, Frenchman Doret developed the first machine for processing cacao and mixing it with sugar and vanilla. The solid chocolate bar was born. Meanwhile, the Bicerin, a new concoction made of espresso coffee, chocolate and whipped cream was fast becoming a favorite among Italian and European aristocracy and artists. Invented at Caffè al Bicerin in 1763, which sits on a tiny piazza across from the Santuario della Consolata (a minor basilica of central Turin) the drink is still served today to the delight of local and visiting chocoholics.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By Air: Turin international airport supports scheduled flights from most European capitals. By train or road : Turin is easily accessible from all other Italian major cities. It’s about an hour’s drive on good mountain roads to the French border to the north and slightly more to the Mediterranean sea and the southern French border. The A6 Highway connect  Turin to Nice, France, while the A5 runs north to Geneva and Lausanne, Switzerland.
  • Getting around — The center of the city is easily walkable. To explore farther afield, Turin also has an efficient, integrated system of buses, trams and metro.
  • Visiting — Palazzo Reale, including the Museum of Antiquities and the Galleria Sabauda, Piazzetta Reale, 1, 10122 Torino, is opened from Tuesday through Sunday from 8:30 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Palazzo Madama , Museo Civico d’Arte Antica, Piazza Castello, 10122 Torino, is open Wednesday through Monday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm.  Closed on Tuesday. Egyptian Museum, Via Accademia delle Scienze, 6, 10123 Torino, is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:00 am to 6:30 pm and Monday from 9:00 am to 2:00 pm.  It also occasionally offers extended hours indicated on their website. National Museum of Italian Risorgimento, Via Accademia delle Scienze, 5 , 10123 Torino, is opened Tuesday through Sunday from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. Closed on Monday. Mole Antonelliana, Via Montebello, 20, 10124 Torino, is open Wednesday through Monday from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm. Closed on Tuesday.

Location, location, location!


Hidden Gems of the Italian Alps  — Susa, Novalesa and Aosta

Hidden Gems of the Italian Alps — Susa, Novalesa and Aosta

Long before Savoy, the alpine region between what is now France and Italy, was to become an independent state in the center of Western Europe in the 11th century (for the next 700 years), the Romans had already identified its high mountain passes as a strategic route northward for its conquering armies and traders. While the region is now mainly popular with skiers, hikers and mountain climbers, it also offers visitors a surprising number of well-preserved Roman sites, and the timeless little mountain towns that grew from them.

Strategic Susa

The Arch of Augustus celebrates a peace treaty between Rome and the Gauls.

About 30 minutes after road signs indicate that we have crossed the border from France into Italy, we reach Susa. Originally established by the Celts in 500 BC, at the confluence of two mountain streams, it has been a crossroads of many transalpine itineraries between Italy and France ever since. And it is still known for its considerable Roman and medieval heritage.



The Porta Savoia is the point of entry to the Medieval town.

Its most important Roman ruins are the remarkably well preserved Arch of Augustus, built in 8 BC to celebrate a peace treaty between Rome and the Gauls, parts of the adjacent Roman baths, the nearby the amphitheater and aqueduct. The restored 2nd century amphitheater is now used for live performances. The imposing Porta Savoia, also with its origins in Roman times, was substantially rebuilt in the Middle Ages, and remains the point of entry to the Medieval part of the town.



Medieval Memories

The Cathedral of San Giusto has retained outside frescoes,

The Middle Ages also contributed several monuments of note. Joined to the Porta Savoia, the 11th  century Cathedral of San Giusto, the Romanesque church which was once part of an abbey complex, has retained some frescoes on its outside walls, and its remarkable bell tower with six levels of mullioned windows. Inside, it also holds a few artworks from the 14th and 15th centuries and a baptismal font that predates the current church.

The Castle of the Countess Adelaide dominates the old town.

Perched on a rock spur on the west side of town, the 11th century Castle of the Countess Adelaide memorializes the most emblematic figure in the city. Her marriage in 1046 to Oddone (Count of Maurienne and Savoy) marked the beginning of the Savoy dynasty in Italy. Today the castle houses the local Historical Archives and the Civic Museum.




Novalesa Abbey

The Novalesa Abbey remains a working monastic community.

The Saint Eldrado chapel contains a unique cycle of Byzantine-style frescoes.

A short drive north from Susa, the Benedictine Novalesa Abbey was founded in the 8th century on the road commanding the Mont Denis Pass, which had become a major pilgrimage route from Canterbury to Rome. By the 11th century, it was one of the most important abbeys in Europe. 

The complex endured varying fortunes over the next millennium, but it remains an active religious community to this day. It includes a monastic building proper, the abbey church and four medieval chapels scattered on the surrounding grounds. Two of these chapels are open to visitors: the 8th century (restored in the 11th century)  Santa Maria Magdalena chapel with a painting of Mary with the Holy Grail, and the Saint Eldrado chapel.  

The interior of the latter is covered with a unique cycle of late 11th century Byzantine-style frescoes representing the lives of Saint Eldrado and Saint Nicholas. These are among the oldest surviving  images of St. Nicholas. It is considered one the most significant historic and artistic religious works of the Western Alps. 



Roman Aosta

We continue on to  Aosta, the northwestern most city in Italy and the principal city of the Aosta Valley, at the junction of the Great and Little St Bernard Pass routes.

The Roman walls of Aoasta have remained mainly intact.

While most widely known these days for its proximity to the Italian entrance of the Mont Blanc Tunnel (opened in 1965), Aosta has been settled since prehistoric times, and subsequently taken over by the Romans in the 1st century BC.  By 11 BC it was established as the capital of the Grey Alps province of the Empire.

The Porta Praetoria is a double gate flanked by towers.

Its massive defensive walls are preserved almost in their entirety, enclosing a rectangle of 724 by 572 meters (2,375 by 1,877 feet). They are 6.4 meters (21 feet) high, built of concrete faced with small blocks of stone.

Towers stand at the angles of the fortifications and others are positioned at intervals, with two at each of the four gates, for a total of twenty towers. Two of the city gates have remained intact, the most remarkable of which is the eastern gate, known as Porta Praetoria (1st  century AD). It  consists of a double gate flanked by two towers. Of its three arches, the large central one accommodated carriages, with on either side, smaller ones were for pedestrians.

Within the Walls

Roman towers still punctuate the skyline of Aosta.

The Medieval cloister of Santa Caterina.

The rectangular arrangement of the streets is modeled on the Roman plan dividing the town into 64 blocks. The main road, about 10 meters (33 feet) wide, running from east to west, divides the city into two equal halves. This layout makes it clear that the main purpose of the city was to guard the road..

The Roman theatre, of which only the southern façade remains, is 22 meters (72 feet) tall. The structure, dating from the late reign of Augustus, could accommodate up to 4,000 spectators. It was recently restored and has been used for live performances since 2011. A nearby amphitheater was also constructed within the walls under Claudius. However, its only remains are incorporated into the Medieval cloister of Santa Caterina.






The Cathedral

Renaissance frescoes decorate the portal of the Aosta Cathedral.

The Aosta Cathedral was originally built in the 4th century on the southern part of what was then the sacred area of the Roman Forum. In the 11th century, this Palaeo-Christian structure was replaced by a new one, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist. Much of the Romanesque building can still be seen, including the basilica plan with nave and two aisles, the crypt, the two bell towers and the remaining part of a Pre-Romanesque set of frescoes on the church ceiling. Various architectural elements were reconstructed throughout the centuries, resulting in a rather interesting sampler of the evolution of religious architecture over the last millenium, to culminate with the Neoclassical facade we see today.

Good to Know

Getting There — While the route of  the alpine passes between Rome and France may not have changed much since Roman times, they are now broad and well paved modern roadways that make visiting the area by car the most effective solution.

Visiting — The Novalesa Abbey, Borgata San Pietro, 4, 10050 Novalesa (TO), is an active ecclesiastic community. Consult their website to schedule a visit, of  contact: Tel. +39 0122653210 , e-mail.

Location, location, location!


Novalesa Abbey