A Map of Italy’s Most Important Artworks
As the heir of ancient Rome and the epicenter of the Renaissance, the territory we now call Italy dominated western art for centuries. The country now houses some of the most important masterpieces in the world.
Follow this map from north to south to see where you can admire da Vinci's "Last Supper," Michelangelo's "David" and other important Italian artworks.
'The Last Supper' by Leonardo da Vinci
Location: Santa Maria delle Grazie
After the "Mona Lisa," da Vinci's depiction of the Last Supper might be his most famous artwork. The mural depicts the moment in which Jesus tells his disciples that one of them would deny him and another would betray him. Da Vinci catches the emotion of the scene with a mastery that continues to leave people in awe.
Sadly, the work is not well-preserved, as it used an experimental technique that didn't fully hold up. Still, it is a piece you have to see with your own eyes.
Location: St. Mark's Basilica
St. Mark's Basilica is Venice's most visited landmark, and its most impressive feature is the Pala d'Oro. Considered the finest piece of Byzantine art in Italy, the altar retable was commissioned in 976 by Doge Pietro Orseolo and uses gold enamels brought from Constantinople, present-day Istanbul, Turkey.
Many of the leaves used are of 24-carat gold. Besides this, it has hundreds of precious stones and thousands of pearls. It also holds the relics of St. Mark.
'The Birth of Venus' by Boticelli
Location: Uffizi Gallery
Florence's Uffizi Gallery is one of the most important art museums in the world, with works like Caravaggio's "Medusa" and da Vinci's "Adoration of the Magi." But perhaps no work in the gallery is as famous as Boticelli's "The Birth of Venus."
Endlessly recreated, parodied and copied, the classic painting depicts the moment in which the goddess Venus (Aphrodite in Greece) rose from the sea. The work is famous for its rich use of color and light as well as for its soft capture of movement. As the first canvas painting in Tuscany, it also marked an important era in regional history.
'David' by Michelangelo
Location: Galleria dell’Accademia
Michelangelo's masterpiece is the most widely recognized statue on the planet. A representation of a biblical figure who fought and killed the giant Goliath, the David is colossal himself. He stands 17 feet tall on top of a pedestal, making visitors gaze up to admire the intricate details carved from stone.
Considered a symbol of Florentine power, the sculpture's realism is astonishing, even by modern standards. It took Michelangelo a full three years to complete it when he was just 26 years old. Almost 520 years later, the David continues to be unrivaled.
'Scenes from the Life of St. Francis' by Giotto
Location: Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi
While not as well known as other artworks mentioned here, Giotto's frescoes depicting the life of St. Francis of Assisi give us a glimpse of Italian art history. Housed in the Basilica of St. Francis in the same town where the saint spent most of his life, the early 14th-century paintings are one of the best examples of the transition between medieval and Renaissance art.
With hints of depth and realism as well as an emphasis on capturing emotions, these are underrated masterpieces of their time.
'La Pieta' by Michelangelo
City: Vatican City
Location: St. Peter's Basilica
Michelangelo makes the list once again with his second most famous sculpture: the Pieta. Capturing the moment when the Virgin holds Jesus after he is taken down from the cross, the statue holds emotional power. Housed within the awe-inspiring St. Peter's Basilica in Holy See, it is one of the landmark's most visited spots.
It was completed in 1499, six years before the "David," but it is clear that he was already a master in his art.
'Sistine Chapel' by Michelangelo
City: Vatican City
Location: Apostolic Palace
Michelangelo comes up again with his greatest piece of all time: the Sistine Chapel. Though other artists like Boticelli and Perugino also contributed to parts of the chapel's intricate paintings, Michelangelo's parts are the most famous, particularly the ceiling, the "Creation of Adam" and the "Last Judgement."
The artist was apprehensive about taking this commission since he saw himself more as a sculptor than a painter. But his doubts have proven to be unfounded, as this is one of Italy's (and humanity's) greatest treasures.
'School of Athens' by Raphael
City: Vatican City
Location: The Vatican Museums
Also in Vatican City, Raphael's "School of Athens" showcases the Renaissance's reverence — even obsession — with the classical. The painter interposes his own face as well as that of his contemporaries onto a scene of ancient philosophers. Da Vinci has the honor of being Plato, the central figure. As for himself, Raphael chose a more humble representation, making himself part of the crowd in the almost-hidden figure of the young man in a black hat who is looking directly at the audience.
This prelude to breaking the fourth wall is just one of the reasons the piece is considered to be one of the artist's most important.
Villa of Mysteries Frescoes
Location: Villa of Mysteries
Pompeii is better known for the calcified figures of Vesuvius' victims than for art. But before it was destroyed by the eruption, the city thrived in numerous ways. The Villa of Mysteries was an opulent home with one room (thought to be the dining space) whose bright frescoes made it famous.
Using bright colors, the frescoes convey different scenes that follow a single character, a young woman in some kind of initiation. Academics haven't been able to come to a consensus on just what the initiation is, though most people think it was a ritual into the cult of Dionysus, the God of wine and festivities. Made around 60 B.C., the frescoes give us a glimpse of Italian art well before the Renaissance — something travelers often miss out on.
'The Raising of Lazarus' by Caravaggio
Location: Regional Museum of Messina
Our last piece is in Messina, a city located in the northwestern corner of Sicily. Caravaggio is said to have escaped to the island to avoid some trouble he'd gotten himself into. He spent his last few years there but not before giving the world this high Renaissance piece that broke conventions.
Rather than place Jesus as the central figure, he chose Lazarus as the protagonist, a bold move at the time. The high contrast of light and dark is typical of his later work and would inspire artists that came after him. Perhaps because of its location, the painting does not receive as much attention as other Caravaggio paintings, but art historians consider it to be one of his finest works.