While Italy may be known for its food, wine, fashion, and art, its architecture is among the most monumental and diverse. It is another reason travelers flock to the tri-points of Rome, Florence, and Venice year round. With its rich history, Italy is home to some 100,000 monuments—from archaeological remains to structures, arches, and fountains that vary in style depending on the region and the age in which they were built.
Here, a few of Italy’s teeming architectural wonders, from the postcard-worthy ruins of Imperial Rome, the magnificent basilicas in Florence, to the picturesque palaces that flank the Grand Canal in Venice, retracing ancient influences from the glory of the Renaissance to the present day.
Built in 1565, this palace has been the home of the Venetian Institute of Science, Letters, and Art since 1999. It was created in the Venetian gothic style before being modernized in the 19th century to give it a more Habsburg appearance. The palace has seen many more renovations, including the addition of a grand staircase designed by Camillo Boito in the 1880s for Baron Raimondo Franchetti, who purchased the palace in 1878.
Palazzo Venier Dei Leoni
Along the Grand Canal, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, the former home of Peggy Guggenheim, was meant to be a grand neoclassical palace when it was designed by architect Lorenzo Boschetti and built in the 1750s. But for unknown reasons, construction never went beyond the first story. It was built on the ancestral site of the Venier family, one of the oldest noble Venetian families. It was said that a lion once lived on the grounds, hence its association with “leoni” or lion. But, it could also refer to the Istrian stone lions on the façade of the palace, which can be seen at water level.
The palazzo was acquired by Peggy Guggenheim, the first wife of artist Max Ernst and niece of tycoon Samuel Guggenheim, in 1949, and houses her permanent art collection, which includes works by Pollock, Dali, and Ernst. It is open to the public. Inside, Guggenheim’s elaborate sculpture garden called the Nasher Sculpture Garden, contains works by Consagra, Giacometti, Holzer, Ernst, Arp, Richier, Graham, Hamak, Kapoor, Merz, Miró, Moore, Paladino, Duchamp-Villon, Minguzzi, Calder, Yoko Ono, David Smith, and Takis.
The Ponte della Costituzione is an arched truss bridge with steep steps. Built in 2008, it is the fourth bridge on the Grand Canal and the only one in Venice built in a modernist and minimalist style. Locals call it the Calatrava Bridge, after its designer, Santiago Calatrava.
The Colorful Houses of Burano
Burano, a small island in the Northern Venetian Lagoon known for its lace-making tradition, has colorful homes that are popular with artists. In the past, those who lived on the island had to submit a request to the government if they wanted their homes painted a certain color. Fishermen’s houses were especially colorful, it’s said, so that they could be seen when the men were out at sea.
Faro Di Murano
The Faro di Murano on Murano Island in the Venetian Lagoon is a distinct lighthouse with two bas-reliefs of two Madonnas, one located above the entrance and the other across the lagoon. Created in 1912, it marks the entrance of the channel that leads from the sea to the lagoon.
Basilica Di Santa Croce
The largest Franciscan church in the world is just 800 meters from the Duomo. It houses the tombs of several famous Italian philosophers and artists such as Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo, whose tombs are works of art. The basilica is also known as the Temple of the Italian Glories since these great Italians are buried here.
Frescoes of Basilica Di Santa Maria Novella
The frescoes of the greatest basilica in Florence were made by Gothic and Renaissance masters. In particular, the 14th-century frescoes by Nardo de Cione in the Cappella Strozzi di Mantova are inspired by Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Ponte Vecchio, a medieval closed-spandrel arch bridge with three segments, is located above the Arno River. Before the 16th century, all kinds of sellers, including butchers, fishmongers, and tanners, plied their trade on the bridge. However, a 1596 decree declared that only goldsmiths and jewelers were allowed to sell their wares because organic material caused a stench. Today, Ponte Vecchio still houses a long row of jewelry shops and the bridge itself has become the picturesque focal point of many Florentine postcards.
An impressive cathedral that dominates Florence’s vast skyline, the church of Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Duomo, was built in 1296 by Arnolfo di Cambio. Its egg-shaped dome, later constructed in the 15th century by Filippo Brunelleschi, was, at the time, the largest in the world. During the initial stages of the dome’s construction, Michelangelo was asked his opinion about the sides of the dome. “It looks like a cricket cage,” he said. Construction was halted because of his remark and to this day, seven of the eight sides are still brick. Its characteristic gothic revival façade was incorporated in the 19th century by Emilio de Fabris.
Courtyards inside Palazzo Vecchio
There are three magnificent courtyards inside Palazzo Vecchio (or Old Palace). Built in 1229 and designed by Arnolfo de Cambio (who also designed the Duomo and Basilica di Santa Croce) for the Florentine Priori, or ruling body, the palace and its interiors were meant to represent the importance of Florence as the wealthiest city in the West during its time.
The first courtyard, designed by Michelozzo in 1453, has painted lunettes containing crests of the Church and City Guilds. In 1595, frescoes were added to the walls depicting scenes from the Austrian Habsburg estates. At its center lies a copy of the Putto with Dolphin by Andrea del Verrocchio atop a basin. The grand pillars in the second courtyard were erected by Cronaca in 1494, and the third courtyard housed the city offices. Between the first and second courtyard, a grand staircase built by Vasari leads up to the Salone dei Cinquecento, which was the seat of the Grand Council.
Basilica of Our Lady in Trastevere
One of the oldest basilicas in Rome, which dates back to the 340 AD, is located at the Piazza Santa Maria. It is said to be one of the first churches where mass was openly conducted. Viewing the basilica from the piazza, one’s eyes are drawn to the top of the Romanesque campanile, where the striking 12th-century centerpiece mosaic of the Madonna and Child resides. Mary is depicted nursing the baby Jesus, a popular image during the Renaissance that originated in the Byzantine era. Italian architect Carlo Fontana restored the church’s façade in 1702.
Rome’s largest and grandest Baroque fountain stands 85 feet high and 66 feet across. It was constructed in the 15th century during the Italian Renaissance. It was the ending point of the manmade aqueduct Aqua Virgo, which was erected in 19 BC to supply water to the Roman bathhouses. The fountain we know today was designed by Roman architect Nicola Salvi in the 18th century, who was influenced by an abandoned design that drawn up a century earlier by Italian sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Popularized in the classic films Roman Holiday, which starred Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the fountain has, at the center, a representation of the Greek god of the ocean, Oceanus, riding on a shell-shaped chariot pulled by tritons on seahorses. Flanking him are triumphal arch stands.
When the 21-year-old Michelangelo first visited Rome, he eagerly studied statues of antiquity and was commissioned to create the Pietà for the tomb of the French cardinal Jean de Billheres. Michelangelo’s depiction of the Virgin Mary holding the crucified Christ drew from the Renaissance’s humanist ideals of perfection and beauty. The monumental drapery of Mary’s robe is exquisite in its detail and fuller proportions.
Now at Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Pietà is considered to be Michelangelo’s finest work. He was 24 when the sculpture was completed and it was the only piece of art that he ever signed. This was occasioned by a remark Michelangelo overhead, which said the Pietà was created by another sculptor, Cristoforo Solari. To lay claim to his work, Michelangelo emphatically carved his name across Mary’s sash, an act he later regretted.
The elliptical amphitheater and the largest one built during the Roman Empire had the capacity to seat 50,000 spectators and was originally used for shows called munera—put on by private, wealthy individuals for the public’s benefit. Of these, the most popular were gladiator contests and games put on by the state, which were inspired by classic mythology.
Constructed by the emperors of the Flavian dynasty in 72 AD, its original Latin name was Amphitheatrum Flavium, after Emperor Nero, whose statue once stood near its location. Today, marked by ruin as a result of earthquakes and stone robbers, the Colosseum represents the glory of imperial Rome, and has become one of the city’s most-visited tourist attractions.
Castel Sant’ Angelo
Once a mausoleum for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and later used as a military fortress, Castel Sant’ Angelo is now a national museum. Constructed in 123 AD, it was completed in 139 AD under the reign of Emperor Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius.
In 1227, the mausoleum was acquired by the papacy and used as a secret refuge. It was later named Castel Sant’Angelo after the Archangel Michael, who, after he was said to have appeared atop the mausoleum in 590 AD, was believed to have ended the plague in Rome. Located on the right bank of the Tiber River, the castle is illuminated at night and casts its lights on the Baroque statues of angels flanking its bridge.
This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Vol. 6 2012.