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Brian Sewell’s Grand Tour: San Gimignano, Siena, Radicofani and Orvieto – #4/10


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In the 18th Century well-bred English gentlemen would undertake a Grand Tour of the Continent for refinement – as well as for drinking, gambling and sexual adventures – before assuming their place in society. Now, Brian Sewell follows in the footsteps of those young aristocrats through Italy, exploring the art and architecture, manners and mores that shaped European civilisation. His journey takes him through Rome, Florence, Venice, Naples, Siena and Milan, with plenty of stops along the way. More than a mere travelogue, this fascinating series showcases the country’s dazzling cathedrals, palazzos, paintings and sculptures while also giving insight into the travels and travails of tourists past.

1 Mont Cenis Pass, Turin and Milan

Sewell embarks on a cultural journey across Italy, following in the footsteps of Englishmen such as Byron and Turner, who explored Europe to broaden their horizons. His first stop is Turin, where he is delighted by the 18th-century architecture and sides with the animal in a ritual boar culling. From there he moves on to Milan, where many Englishmen acquired a penchant for Italian dandyism, and takes the time to view Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

2 Cremona, Parma and Bologna

The art critic’s trip takes him to Cremona, birthplace of the violin, to climb the city’s vast defensive tower and visit a carriage museum. He then moves on to Parma, where he marvels at Correggio’s painting on the inside of the cathedral dome, which can only be illuminated for two-and-a-half minutes at a time. Finally, he explores the churches and palaces of Bologna, where Michelangelo worked before becoming famous.

3 Florence

Sewell’s journey takes him to Florence, where he is awestruck by the beauty of the city, but disappointed by the frescoes inside the cathedral. He also pays tribute to Michelangelo, viewing the statue of David and making a pilgrimage to his tomb. However, he is distinctly underwhelmed by the quality of sculpture adorning the great artist’s final resting place, and decides to calm his mood by visiting the crypts of the Medici grand dukes.

4 San Gimignano, Siena, Radicofani and Orvieto

The art critic embarks on the 150-mile journey to Rome, but stops off at an assortment of towns along the way, sampling some foul-tasting local Chianti and marvelling at Siena’s cathedral. He also takes a break at the post house on the Tuscany border, famed for its uncomfortable accommodation, views Signorelli’s Last Judgement in Orvieto, and visits Bormarzo’s sculpture park and leaning house.

5 Rome

Sewell arrives in Rome, where he marvels at Michelangelo’s Pieta in the Vatican, bemoans the Coliseum’s transformation into a tourist trap, and turns his attention to more modern work by visiting the Trevi fountain made famous by Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita. He also poses for a portrait – but is not impressed with the end result.

6 Naples, Vesuvius and New Pompeii

The second half of Sewell’s journey across Italy begins with a trip to the coastal city of Naples. In addition to examining Roman statues, he meets a local soprano and reveals the story of an English aristocrat who acted as a guide for tourists exploring Mount Vesuvius.

7 Paestum, Todi and Urbino

The critic explores southern Italy, visiting the birthplace of Renaissance painter Raphael and a perfectly preserved ancient Greek building at Paestum. He also re-creates his own youthful exploits by driving a car down the piazza steps in the Renaissance-era town of Todi.

8 Rimini, Ferrara and Mantua

In the 15th century, Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta, a member of the ruling family of Rimini, turned a Franciscan church into a personal, pagan-style temple, complete with elephant motif. Upon his ouster, it reverted to a church. Visiting an olive press, Sewell learns to distinguish “virgin” and “extra virgin” olive oil. Finallt to Mantua, where in the 16th-century Giulio Romano designed and decorated the Palazzo del Te as a monument to the pleasures of the flesh, in honour of Federico Gonzaga’s mistress.

9 Vicenza, Possagno and Padua

Sewell visits Vicenza to marvel at the buildings of architect Andrea Palladio. He then travels to Possagno, birthplace of one of his favourite artists, sculptor Antonio Canova, and Padua, home of 18th-century scientist Giovanni Battista Morgagni – who was famous for anatomical demonstrations and primitive treatments for venereal diseases.

10 Venice

Sewell arrives in Venice just in time for the medieval carnival. In an effort to replicate the grand tour experience, he attends the Casanova masked ball, which he regards as a mockery

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