Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Ten Undiscovered Treasures of Italy

From north to south, 10 undiscovered treasures of Italy
(article by Isa Grassano in La Repubblica travel)

From Vigevano to Cisternino, from Sabbioneta to Massa Marittima, a guide to some beautiful small towns of Italy that deserve more fame and more visits.

"Wow I did not expect this! What a fantastic place!" How many times has this cry been uttered in a piazza by people who did not imagine that it could contain such beauty! There are many such places to discover in Italy, little known or off the big tourist trails. Yet each of them is a marvel! We chose ten sites that boast unparalleled treasures, protected by towers and bastions, surrounded by still-intact walls, not visited as much as they merit, too often hidden along the nameless byways away from the national motorways. All of them treasures waiting to be discovered.

The Piazza Ducale, Vigevano
And one of the most beautiful historical sites of Lombardy, the Piazza Ducale in Vigevano, near Pavia. A Renaissance gem built by Ludovico il Moro, Duke of Milan, as the imposing entranceway to the Visconti-Sforzesco Castle. Today it forms the heart of an ancient and modern town, its living-room, a scenic spot of great harmony. It is said that the maestro Arturo Toscanini, though ill, asked to be brought to Vigevano to sit at a table outside the bar in the Piazza Ducale, which he regarded as a musical symphony, a four-sided orchestral work like the four movements of a symphony. Under the arcades of the shops, once occupied by wool and silk merchants, offering tourists the chance to shop for quality, visit art galleries, or sit at the tables of numerous bars and cafés. The piazza is also still the main access to the Visconti-Sforzesco Castle. A masterpiece that in some cases even escapes those who live in Milan, 25 miles away.

The Piazza Ducale, Sabbioneta
In Lombardy also the outstanding Sabbioneta, 20 miles from Mantua, recently declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For many years it was considered the ideal city, as Vespasian the First of Gonzaga, who commissioned its construction (between 1556 and 1591), transformed it into an urban space expertly built and rationally organized. Within the hexagonal ring of the remains of the mighty star-shaped 16th century fortifications are the two most beautiful piazze, positioned asymmetrically, which time has not robbed of their charm. The Piazza Ducale, the oldest, which is the political, administrative and religious hub, and onto which are grafted, at right angles, the small streets and arcaded alleyways. And the Piazza d'Armi (Parade), with the Gallery of the Ancients (97 metres long, which housed Vespasian Gonzaga's collection of antique marble statues) and the Palazzo del Giardino, devoted to leisure. Nearby is one of the masterpieces of the history of the theatre, the Teatro Olimpico, designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi.

Among the most beautiful fortified towns in Europe, Montagnana, in the midst of the Veneto plain, in the province of Padua. Preserving almost intact medieval walls (up to 8 metres high), reinforced by 24 hexagonal towers and two strong ramparts that surround the town in a vigorous embrace. The magnificent buildings that surround the Piazza Maggiore recall the Venetian architecture of the 18th century.

Massa Marittima
Massa Marittima, in the heart of the Metallifere hills in Tuscany; its charm revolves around the church of San Cerbone (13th century) which looks 'askance' at the tourists in the Piazza della Cattedrale from its white travertine. It almost seems like a theatrical scene where the churchyard forms a double stage. As if the piazza was speaking in two directions at once: the cathedral facade against the sky, the piazza full of people. Stop to observe the different styles of the church (Pisan Romanesque portico, Sienese pillars); a history lesson in the open. Explore the medieval city, enclosed like a shell, through the narrow passageways lined by tall buildings. Should you reach the top, get a broader view that spans the green valley of Marsiliana, the Gulf of Follonica and the Tuscan Archipelago.

In the heart of Lunigiana, between Liguria and Tuscany, Sarzana (near La Spezia), is worth a visit; it seems to have the vocation of 'Athens in miniature' and continues to testify to its religious, military and commercial past. Enclosed by medieval walls, to be discovered slowly, among the collection of noble palazzi and piazzette, like the former Piazza della Calcandola Sarzana, now named after Matteotti. It is also famous for a historical event: 6th October 1306, early in the morning, the great poet Dante received legal authority from Franceschino Malaspina, Marquis of Mulazzo. This facilitated, a few hours later, in the Bishops Palace in Castelnuovo Magra, the conclusion of the treaty that would finally seal the peace between Malaspina's Ghibellines and the Lunigianese clergy. An epigraph by Achille Pellizzari on the facade of the sixteenth century Palazzo Comunale commemorates that event and reveals its grandeur in the final verse: "A decree by Dante is never annulled."

Sant'Arcangelo di Romagna
And at Sant'Arcangelo di Romagna we breathe the essence of the Romagna, with its narrow streets called contrade and its caves carved into the tufa of Jovis hill that pierce the historic centre like lace. Rock basilicas named after the god Mithras? Wine cellars? Catacombs? What is certain is that the caves are unique and of rare architectural beauty. The heart of the village is the Piazza Ganganelli, breathtaking in its size, and the arch of the same name, built in honour of Pope Clement XIV.

And arches surround and protect, like a long umbrella in stone, another beautiful town that deserves to be discovered; Cento, near Ferrara, the home of the painter Guercino. Its centrepiece is the Piazza Guercino, social and cultural heart of the town. There stands the Palazzo del Governatore (which houses the Aroldo Bonzagni Gallery of Modern Art), and in the shadow of the ramparts of this 16th century mansion stands a monument to Guercino. Do not miss nearby the Collegiate Basilica of San Biagio (open only on Sunday mornings), the church so dear to the brilliant 17th century painter.  He attended it every day, always entering through the side door to avoid disturbing the faithful in prayer, himself kneeling on his own personal 'cushion of wood.' He also dedicated a chapel for himself and his family, which portrays the theme of the Crucifixion. It is curious that the figures of St. John, St. Francis and God with a long beard reflect his own name, Giovanni Francesco Barbieri. A little further on stands the imposing castle.

Moving on to Abruzzo, Lanciano is another place often misunderstood, but full of incredible surprises. The hub is the Piazza Plebiscito, in which the quarters of the old town are intertwined with the new and vibrant parts of the community.  Everything unfolds around the old town, which is a real gem of narrow streets, beautiful churches (Santa Maria Maggiore, a jewel of Italian Gothic architecture, and Sts Legonziano and Domitian, scene of the first Eucharistic miracle), unique sights like the hundred steps, with a view over the tower. Below, under the paving on the piazza, an archaeological dig is under way.

Collalto Sabino
Joys are concealed also in Collalto Sabino, one of the most beautiful villages in Italy, where you can enjoy one of the best preserved castles in Lazio: Located nearly 1,000 metres high in the Valle del Turano, it marks the highest point of the old town with its battlements and the slender shape of the towers which contribute to its rather fairy castle aspect. It was built in the 19th century according to the wishes of a Hungarian nobleman. Within the walls is a beautiful park, while from the highest vantage point of the tower the view on a clear day takes in the peaks of Lazio (the Terminillo) and Abruzzo (the Gran Sasso and the Maiella). And it all becomes even more beautiful at sunset when one can see the lights of 34 villages, all around. But the entire historical centre is to be admired: walking along the narrow paved streets, you can admire the beautiful stone doorways of the houses, in an atmosphere that takes you back through the centuries.

The piazza, Cisternino
Finally, Cisternino, in the Valle d'Itria in Apulia, perched on one of the highest hills in southern Murgia, which appears like a drawing in the landscape, with the fantastic architecture of its milky-white houses and inner courtyards lining the cobbled lanes. It preserves an ancient Mediterranean authenticity and the charm of a small casbah which has survived since the time of the Saracen invasions. In the eerie silence of autumn afternoons, it is pleasant to walk on the chianche (the typical paving stones), in the play of light and shade that comes from the narrow alleys, the arches and the underpasses. Dazzling white walls and blue skies: this is the poetry of the south.

(Translation: A Curran)

No comments:

Post a Comment