Postcards from Italy

Italy’s New UNESCO Sites

Italy may not have nabbed the most medals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (though they are respectably holding their own in the top ten), but there is one record that Italy has profoundly held for years: the greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, with frescoes by Giotto, 1303-1305 (4)
“Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, with frescoes by Giotto, 1303-1305” by Richard Mortel via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

According to UNESCO, World Heritage Sites are places “of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy.” Italy is currently home to 58 such sites, which range from blockbusters like Pompeii and Venice to lesser-known treasures like the prehistoric nuraghi dwellings at Su Nuraxi di Barumini and the 20th-century industrial city of Ivrea.

Last week, UNESCO announced the two newest additions to Italy’s List: Padua’s 14th-century fresco cycles—most importantly the Scrovegni Chapel—and the porticoes of Bologna. The Tuscan resort town of Montecatini Terme was also listed, though it was an addition to a preexisting serial site (sites set in different locations that are related based on a common history or characteristic) called “The Great Spa Towns of Europe”, so didn’t influence the overall total.

Padua’s 14th-Century Fresco Cycles

Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, with frescoes by Giotto, 1303-1305 (8)
“Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, with frescoes by Giotto, 1303-1305” by Richard Mortel via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Padua is known as a pilgrimage site (home to Saint Anthony of Padua), a vibrant university town, and a strategic military-industrial center that made it first a backdrop for Mussolini speeches and later an Allied bombing target. What the medieval city is most famous for, however, is its clutch of spectacular fresco cycles that date from its 14th-century golden age, when it vied for power with its neighbor to the east, Venice. 

Padua’s newly minted UNESCO site celebrates these frescoes by listing eight religious and secular building complexes in the city’s walled historic center that house fresco cycles painted between 1302, the year Giotto arrived in the city, and 1397, marking the completion of Jacopo da Verona’s fresco cycle in the Oratory of San Michele. The fresco cycles include Menabuoi’s heavenly gathering decorating the city’s baptistry and Titian’s St Anthony in the Scoletta del Santo, but by far the most dazzling is Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel. 

Considered a landmark in the history of painting European art, the Scrovegni Chapel (Cappella degli Scrovegni) frescoes ushered in a new era of humanistic depiction of figures with lively expressions and authentic, recognizable settings…a far cry from the stiff, blank-eyed paintings of the Middle Ages. In addition, Giotto also used singular techniques like impasto to build paint up into three-dimensional forms. 

Visits to the Scrovegni Chapel must be booked in advance (only small groups of visitors are let inside at one time) and include a 10-minute introductory video and a viewing time inside the chapel of about 15-20 minutes. 

While in Padua, visit the city’s other UNESCO-listed site: the Botanical Garden (Orto Botanico). Created in 1545, it was the world’s first botanical garden and still retains its original layout of a circular central plot, symbolizing the earth, encircled by a ring of water. 

Bologna’s Porticoes

Portico in the historic heart of Bologna
“Portico in the historic heart of Bologna” by Richard Mortel via Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Bologna is crisscrossed by the longest stretch of porticoes as any city in the world: 38.5 miles, most of which line the streets of the historic city center. UNESCO highlighted a dozen of the most iconic and historic to list, including the Portico dei Servi and the Portico di San Luca. The latter, which runs between the city center and hilltop Basilica di San Luca sanctuary outside of town, is considered the longest in the world. 

Along with its unfinished Duomo and Due Torre (Two Towers), which list lazily over the cityscape, Bologna’s porticoes are a unique symbol of this bustline Emilian city. “Defined as private property for public use, the porticoes have become an expression and element of Bologna’s urban identity,” declared UNESCO, and Bologna had been promoted their candidacy for years.  

You can’t visit Bologna without ending up strolling under its porticoes to window shop, stopping for an aperitivo or a meal at a portico-covered table, or simply escaping the city’s famously damp weather by ducking under a portico. Just be sure to look both up and down while under these sheltered walkways, as many have prettily frescoed vaulted ceilings and/or vintage terrazzo pavement.

Montecatini Terme

2005-T14  Montecatini Terme
“Montecatini Terme” by Gerry Labrijn via Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The newest entry in the Great Spa Towns of Europe serial site that groups towns that “developed around natural mineral water springs and bear witness to the international European spa culture that developed from the early 18th century to the 1930s,” Montecatini Terme is a charming spa resort northwest of Florence with curative thermal spring waters that have been attracting visitors (including Puccini, an avid fan) for centuries.

Stroll the center of town to admire the Grand Dame spa hotels overlooking the park and be sure to book in a spa session to soak your cares away at one of the local baths. 

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