From the Romanesque to the Renaissance Part 1: from Parma to Assisi


The following itinerary takes us to the cities of Central Italy which contributed to the development of those architectural and figurative forms from which the Renaissance was born. Although it may seem to have come about all of a sudden thanks to some hidden force, this movement was actually prepared over a period of centuries as, little by little, form was achieving a profound spiritual equilibrium and, at the same time, was being freed from the stylistic rigidity which had set in over the centuries.

It is astonishing to note how, despite the difficult communications of those times, the ruggedness of the Apennines presented no barrier to the spreading of artistic knowledge. In the course of our journey we shall follow the path by which the Lombard and other Northern artists descended by way of the mountain passes of Liguria and the Garfagnana into the northernmost part of Tuscany, bearing the message of the new Romanesque art and spreading its less on throughout the ancient land of the Etruscans.

During the Renaissance, Tuscany was to return the gift, when its artists moved north, into Romagna and elsewhere. The thoughtful and painstaking visitor, considering the fifteen important, and the (at least) equal number of lesser centers, cannot fail to be amazed by the extraordinary concentration of artistic life flourishing within this restricted area, on either side of the Apennines.

The itinerary:
Our itinerary shall start in Parma, that we will visit the first day.

Leaving Parma, we lake the road which crosses the Apennines to La Spezia (77 miles). Fifteen miles away, is Fornovo, with an 11th century church of S. Maria Assunta (fine Romanesque relief). Climbing through mountain scenery to the Cisa Pass (3,415 ft.), we pass by Berceto, where there is another outstanding Romanesque church. After the pass, we descend rapidly to Pontremoli and, following the valley of the Magra, reach Aulla; from there, passing through Santo Stefano di Magra, we soon arrive in LA SPEZIA which overlooks an enchanting bay, flanked on on side by PORTOVENERE and by LERICI on the other.

Vernazza – Photo © Enrico Pocopagni
Vernazza – Photo © Enrico Pocopagni

An extra day should be taken to visit, with a short train ride from La Spezia, the Cinque Terre with their natural park.

At La Spezia we should visit the Cathedral, with its terracotta Altar-piece (The Coronation of the Virgin) by Andrea della Robbia; and the important Luni Archaeological Museum rich in prehistoric, Etruscan and Graec-Roman material.

Seven miles from La Spezia is Portovenere, once a pirate stronghold, but today a splendid fishing village of medieval cast, with tall fortress-houses in the Genovese style, the churches of San Lorenzo and, in an isolated position, San Pietro, dating from the 12th century and the 16th century Castle.

Driving round the gulf and passing throughe La Spezia, we reach (7 miles, from La Spezia) the town of Lerici, with its ancient castle, the most beautiful in Liguria.

It was when sailing back from La Spezia, to Lerici, when he was living of the time, that the poet Shelley was drowned.

On our next day (we have not suggested where to spend the night, since the visitor may prefer to choose for himself between La Spezia, Portovenere or Lerici, which are all so close together) we will leave Lerici and over the 5 miles to SARZANA

SARZANA which contains several magnificent buildings among which are the late Gothic Cathedral of S. Maria (1355-1474), with its splendid Crucifix by Maestro Guglielmo (1138), an Altar-piece by Leonardo da Pietrasanta, and paintings by Crespi and Solimena; and the superb triangular Fortress (1322). From Sarzana, leaving the ruins of the ancient Roman city of Luni on our right, we drive the 10 miles separating us from CARRARA.


Carrara Quarry – Photo © 360
Carrara Quarry – Photo © 360

CARRARA an enchanting city at the foot of the white Apuanian Alps, from which the famous marble is quarried, now as it used to be in antiquity; there is a Cathedral, an extremely fine piece of architecture, a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic, with an austere Longobard interior. About 8 miles from Carrara we come to MASSA.

MASSA, with its handsome 11th century Cathedral, the 18th century Ducal Palace of the Cybo-Malaspina, and the 15th century Rocca (Castle) standing on an isolated hill. There are pleasant and well-equipped beaches at Marina di Carrara and Marina di Massa, which have achieved international fame in recent years. Five miles from Massa, we leave the Via Aurelia and start to follow the wonderful road through the Serchio Valley to Lucca.

After some 27 miles along the frequently steep mountain road which crosses the Apuanian Alps, to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana on its handsome Castle. We carry on towards Lucca, through breath-taking scenery, only making a short detour to see the isolated village of Barga, which its imposing and magnificent Romanesque Cathedral dominated, by an embattled tower and containing an elaborate Romanesque Pulpit and a large 12th century statue of St. Christoper in wood.

From Barga, we come back down the Serchio Valley and, before coming to Borgo a Mozzano, cross a beautiful irregular Romanesque Bridge.

Beyond the town, in the outlying hamlet of Diecimo, we see the austere Pieve di S. Maria, also Romanesque. We are now at the gates of LUCCA.

We should plan to spend a day visiting Lucca.

Leaving Lucca, we go 13 miles until we reach PISA.

One day should be reserved to the visit of Pisa.

From here, beyond the dense pine wood of San Rossore, we take the Autostrada which, after 34 miles, brings us to PISTOIA.

PISTOIA This was an ancient Roman and medieval city and, although unjustly neglected by visitors, is no less enchanting in atmosphere or impressive in architecture than Lucca and Pisa. There is a group of splendid Romanesque and Gothic churches, the most important of which, San Paolo, appears before us as soon as we enter the city and go down Via di Porta Carratica. To the left, in Piazza Garibaldi, stands the 14th century church of S. Domenico (inside, numerous sculptures and 14th century frescoes). Frome here we quickly come to San Giovanni Fuorcivitas (12th century), with its marvelous white and green marble facing and, inside, the famous Pergamo, or pulpit (1270), by Guglielmo di Pisa. Continuing to the left, we pass by the Renaissance church of the Madonna dell’Umilta, with its elegant Porch, and come to Sant’Andrea. The gem of Pistoian architecture, it contains Giovanni Pisano’s masterpiece: a Pulpit (1301) even more beautiful than that in Pisa. We then go to the Piazza del Duomo, with one of the most severe and elegant cathedrals in Italy, and the solid Palazzo Pretorio (1367) standing next to the 14th century Baptistery, before which rises the Bell-Tower (13th century) contrived out of what was once a Longobard tower.

Pistoia, the Cathedral Photo © Giovanni Battista Salvietti
Pistoia, the Cathedral Photo © Giovanni Battista Salvietti

Then there is the Cathedral (12th century), its impressive facade ornamented with arcading and a portico, while inside are numerous sculptures and paintings, the most important being a Madonna by Verrocchio (1485). Across from the Palazzo Pretorio is the handsome Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall), also Gothic, which housed an interesting Municipal Museum (picture gallery, numismatic and archaeological collections) now in Palazzo Marchetti.

Walking through the streets in the center of town, with their beautiful buildings, we come to the Ospedale del Ceppo beyond the Cathedral, with its handsome Florentine Renaissance portal (1514) and its lively terracotta Frieze by the Della Robbias. From here we go on to the church of San Bartolomeo in Pantano to see the exquisite Pulpit by Guido da Como (1250), and then to the former church of S. Pietro with its magnificent doorway. Finally, we leave Pistoia by the provincial highway which, 10 miles later on, brings us to PRATO.

PRATO, an industrial city which, nevertheless, boasts superb works of art. Entering by Via Pistoiese, we immediately see on our right the imposing Gothic church of San Domenico (13th century), containing a Giottesque Crucifix.

From here, we proceed to the Cathedral, with its handsome polychrome facade (14th century), on one corner of which is the famous Pulpit by Donatello (1439).

Inside, we shall note particularly the frescoes by Filippo Lippi, the Pulpit by Rossellino and Mina da Fiesole, and a striking Madonna by Giovanni Pisano (1317).

From the Cathedral, taking Via Manzoni, we come to the Piazza del Comune, dominated by the massive Palazzo Pretoria (inside, a Painting Gallery with a fine group of primitives, paintings by both the Lippi, works of the Bolognese and Napolitan schools, and a series of views by the Flemish artist, Van Wittel). Down Via Ricasoli, we come into the square dominated by the auster facade of the church of San Francesco (13th century), inside there are frescoes and fine sculptures. From here we reach another square where, side by side with the imposing Castle of Frederick II of Swabia, we find the elegant church of S. Maria delle Carceri, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo (15th century). From here, we leave Prato by way of Viale Piave and Piazza San Marco and head for Florence (12 miles), which we reach on the evening.

Two days are the minimum needed to visit Florence.

So ends our visit to Florence. By way of Via Borgo Pinti and Via degli Artisti we leave the center, arriving at Via Alessandro Volta, from which branches off Via San Domenico, linking Florence and Fiesole.

The road winds up to Fiesole through a most beautiful landscape of hills, parks, villas and cypresses. About 3 km. (2 mi.) from Fiesole rises the 15th century Church of San Domenico where the friar painter Beato Angelico, who was parish priest here for some years, left a gentle Madonna, painted op wood, and a fresco of the Crucifixion. A little farther on is the Church of the Badia, which Brunelleschi rebuilt, using part of the former Romanesque facade of polychrome marble in the style of San Miniato.

Fiesole – Photo © hungoverdrawn
Fiesole – Photo © hungoverdrawn

FIESOLE was an important Etruscan city, as the ruins of massive walls show. Sella established a military colony here to punish the people of Fiesole who had taken the side of Marius.

A fine Amphitheatre in picturesque surrounding remains from the Roman period. The Middle Ages left Fiesole with its fine Romanesque Cathedral: nave and two aisles, stone columns and Roman capitals. In the Archaelogical Museum, there is the important Etruscan She-wolf in bronze.

One should not leave Fiesole without going up to the Franciscan Convent, built on the highest point of the city, where the Etruscan Acropolis and the medieval fortress once were.

With the memory of Florence, the view of which from this point is the most evocative of all. We go down to the State Highway for Arezzo (88 km. – 55 mi. from Florence) in the Arno valley.

After Pontassieve, with its fine bridge, Incisa, with its medieval castle and Figline Valdarno with a rare Madonna by Giovanni del Biondo in the Church of San Francesco, one may halt at San Giovanni Valdarno. This was Masaccio’s birthplace; there is a masterpiece by Beato Angelico, the Annunciation, in the Convent of Montecarlo (2 km. – 1 1/4 mi. from the town).

We then reach Siena, where we spend the night and visit the next day.

After our second night at Siena, we must set off on the last days of our journey, to two other enchanting medieval cities, Volterra and San Gimignano. Leaving Siena by the Via Cassia one arrives at Cone Val d’Elsa a medieval city perched on two hills, with fine 13th century churches (Sant’Agostino, San Pietro), a fine Bishop’s Palace and mighty fortifications. Another 7 miles further on (41 from Siena) we come to MONTEPULCIANO

MONTEPULCIANO, another superb town of a Renaissance cast, strung onto along the crest of a hill in a fine open position overlooking two valleys. On one side of the Piazza del Duomo, stands the Renaissance Cathedral and across the square is the splendid Palazzo Tarugi, designed by Antonio da Sangallo. On the other two sides, the 14th century Palazzo Comunale which resembles the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence and opposite, the sturdy Palazzo Contucci, designed by Antonio da Sangallo. We will then walk down through the main streets of the city, all of them filled with astonishing churches, such as those of San Francesco and Sant’Agostino. Before leaving, we shall go and see the Madonna di San Biagio, an architectural masterpiece by Antonio da Sangallo (1518-1545) and one of the most beautiful churches of the Italian Renaissance.

Leaving Montepulciano, we come to Chianciano Terme (5 miles) and from here, passing through CHIUSI (see Itinerary V), and along the shores of Lake Trasimeno, passing through Passignano sul Trasimeno, worth a brief visit, we reach (41 miles) the city of PERUGIA.

We spend the entire day with a visit to Perugia,

On the morning of the next day, we leave Perugia by Via Roma and after a drive of 15 miles come to ASSISI

The itinerary continues the next day with : From the Romanesque to the Renaissance Part 2: from Assisi to Parma
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Itinerary partly courtesy of ENIT