500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights cities, museums, and trips throughout the world that are perfectly suited for parents and children alike. The six destinations below represent the best international art destinations for families.
What: The Uffizi Gallery: Pearl of the Italian Renaissance
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Florence, Italy
Let's face it: Renaissance art can be a hard sell to kids. But my husband and I didn't want to miss the Uffizi Gallery, unquestionably one of the world's great museums, a treasure-trove of -- you guessed it -- Italian Renaissance art. (What else would you expect inside a former Medici palace in Florence?) Fortunately, we found a strategy that clicked: We made our visit to the Uffizi into a treasure hunt.
Here's how it worked: In the earlier rooms, you'll see painting after painting of the classic Madonna and Child pose, each artist giving his own distinctive take. We asked our youngsters to study them all (kids like looking at pictures of kids anyway) to see how through the ages the babies began to look more realistic. We also pointed out the flat, stylized backgrounds of the earlier paintings so that they could see how the scenes became deeper and more natural as painters developed the art of perspective.
A new theme starts in rooms 10 to 14, the Botticelli rooms -- the highlight of the Uffizi for most visitors, me included. In the mid-1400s, classical mythology had become a popular subject, and so we looked for pictures of Venus, the goddess of beauty -- which pointed us straight to the Uffizi's ultimate masterpiece, Botticelli's Birth of Venus. (Consider whether or not you want to tell them its nickname, "Venus on the Half Shell," because once you tell them they won't ever think of it as anything else.) We found ourselves even more engrossed by Botticelli's Allegory of Spring, or Primavera, which depicts Venus in a citrus grove with Cupid hovering suggestively over her head. Before leaving the room, look for Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi, in which many figures are Medici portraits (the man in the yellow robe at the far right is Botticelli); compare it to Leonardo da Vinci's unfinished Adoration in room 15. To carry on the Venus theme, check out the Greek statue Venus of the Medici in beautiful room 18 with its dome of pearl shells, and a couple of voluptuous Titian Venuses in room 28.
In rooms 23 to 25, get the kids to notice how art began to embrace storytelling by looking for episodes in the life of Jesus -- Correggio's Rest on the Flight to Egypt; Andrea Mantagna's Epiphany, Circumcision, and Ascension; and, in room 25, Michelangelo's magnificent Holy Family.
Speaking of Michelangelo, it's too bad you have to pay another admission fee (and wait in line) to enter the Galleria dell'Accademia, Via Ricasoll 60 (tel. 055-2388609), where the only thing the kids will want to see is Michelangelo's colossal statue of David. We cut our losses, looked instead at the inferior copy outdoors in the Piazza della Signoria, and then headed out to St. Mark's Museum, Museo di San Marco; Piazza San Marco 1 (tel. 055-294883). Originally a Dominican convent, its bleak, bare cells are decorated with frescoes by the mystical Fra Angelico, one of Europe's greatest 15th-century painters. You've been telling the kids for years not to write on the walls, but oh, if they could create scenes like these, you'd let them paint their hearts out.
Contact: Piazzale degli Uffizi 6 (tel. 055-23885; www.uffizi.firenze.it).
What: The Last Supper: On the da Vinci Trail in Milan
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: Milan, Italy
Though born in Florence, Leonardo da Vinci spent many years in Milan (1482-99 and 1506-13), under the patronage of the dukes of Milan. The finicky artist produced endless studies and sketches for projects he never finished; one he did complete, however, was a mural that Duke Ludovico commissioned for the convent of Santa Marie delle Grazie church. It just may be the master's greatest painting -- but its condition is endangered. Get your kids here now, because it may not exist when they've grown up.
Set above a doorway in what was once a dining hall, The Last Supper (Il Cenacolo Vinciano) is a huge artwork -- 8.5m wide and 4.6m tall (28x15 ft.) -- depicting one of the most famous meals of all time: Christ's last Passover Seder in Jerusalem, shortly before his arrest. There's nothing static about this scene: Jesus, hands outspread (as if to display his future wounds) has just announced that one of his followers will betray him, and the disciples all lean away, aghast, each in his own manner protesting his fidelity. Ask the kids to pick out Judas -- he's the one with his face in shadow, already clutching the bag of money he was paid to betray Jesus. Christ's sorrowful figure is isolated, the curved pediment of a doorway over his head suggesting a halo; light streams in from the windows behind him, while darkness looms behind the disciples. It's a masterpiece of composition, both technical and dramatic, and no matter how often it's parodied (Mel Brooks, Monty Python, and George Carlin have all had a go at it), the original still takes your breath away.
The kids may be shocked to see how fragile the mural looks, but to me that adds human dimension to da Vinci's artistic achievement. The painting began to disintegrate almost as soon as Leonardo finished it, for he had experimented with risky new paints and application techniques. But it is so clearly a work of genius that over the centuries artists and restorers felt drawn to save it, repainting it in the 1700s, the 1800s, and again quite recently. It's been said that all that's left of the original Last Supper is a "few isolated streaks of fading color" -- everything else was layered on by later hands. So what are we looking at here, and why? If you can get your kids to discuss this paradox, you'll really expand their minds.
Only 25 viewers are admitted at a time (be prepared to wait in line), and you must pass through anti-pollutant chambers before you get your allotted 15 minutes in front of the painting. A lot to go through, but The Last Supper is worth it.
Contact: Piazza Santa Maria delle Grazie (off Corso Magenta; tel. 02-4987588). Reservations required; closed Mon.
What: Paris for Art Lovers
Who: Ages 10 & up
Where: Paris, France
The Musée du Louvre just may be the world's most impressive art museum -- to go to Paris and not visit it would almost be absurd. Yet the collection is so staggeringly huge, you simply can't see everything. And if your adult mind soon starts to whirl, just imagine how children feel.
Don't miss the Louvre, but be smart about it: Avoid the long line at the glass pyramid entrance by using the automatic ticket machines, or order tickets in advance by credit card (tel. 08-92-68-46-94). Skip the 90-minute guided tours; they're pitched over kids' heads, and they make every room they enter instantly crowded. Once you're through the doors, simply pick up a museum map and plan your own visit to loop past the Big Three Masterpieces: da Vinci's La Giaconda (better known as the Mona Lisa), the armless classical sculpture Venus de Milo, and the ancient headless statue Winged Victory.
Everybody else is trying to see them too, so expect to be jostled; the Mona Lisa in particular is a letdown, a small, dark painting you can't get close to. Once you've seen it, hunt for other da Vincis in the surrounding galleries, then cut over to the superb ancient Egypt collection, which the Louvre has been amassing since Napoléon occupied Egypt in 1798. Then spend 40 minutes or so wandering around the Richelieu Wing, which houses northern European and French art; my favorite bit here is the grand salons of Napoléon III.
Now you've done it, you've visited the Louvre -- the children can say they saw the Mona Lisa in person. And having successfully avoided an art overdose, you've got a shot at steering them into three other Paris art museums they'll enjoy more. Across the Seine, the Musée d'Orsay, 1 rue de Bellechasse (tel. 01-40-49-48-14; www.musee-orsay.fr), set in a transformed neoclassical train station, focuses on 1848-1914, which means it has lots of impressionists, pointillists, and realists -- painters such as Van Gogh, Manet, Monet, Degas, and Renoir. Masterpieces include Renoir's Moulin de la Galette, Van Gogh's Starry Night, James McNeill Whistler's Arrangement in Gray and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother, and Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, with its shocking-for-its-time nude woman picnicking.
The Musée National Auguste Rodin, Hôtel Biron, 77 rue de Varenne (tel. 01-44-18-61-10; www.musee-rodin.fr), is set in the great 19th-century sculptor's own mansion, with splendid rose gardens. Stand next to The Thinker and you'll understand how marble comes to life in the hands of a genius.
Musée Picasso, Hôtel Salé, 5 rue de Thorigny (tel. 01-42-71-25-21; www.paris.org/Musees/Picasso), displays the world's greatest Picasso collection, including his fabled gaunt blue figures and harlequins, a career-spanning range of the Spanish artist's paintings and sculptures in a lovely restored mansion. It was my kids' favorite art museum in all of France -- we were glad we saved it for last.
Contact: Musée du Louvre, 34-36 quai du Louvre, 1er (tel. 01-40-20-53-17; www.louvre.fr).
What: Museo del Prado: Where Three Old Masters Reign in Spain
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Madrid, Spain
With more than 7,000 paintings, the Prado is one of the most important repositories of art in the world, based on a royal collection fattened over the years by the wealth of the Habsburgs and the Bourbons. Don't make the kids see everything; on your first visit, concentrate on the three great Spanish masters -- Velázquez, Goya, and El Greco, who can be appreciated here as nowhere else.
One picture they must see: Las Meninas by Diego Velázquez (1599-1660). The figure of a small Spanish infanta in her splendid satin gown is the focal point, her self-possessed gaze as quixotic as the Mona Lisa's. Two figures in the painting look directly at the viewer: the princess and that dark-clothed figure behind her painting the royal family, a self-portrait of Velázquez. The faces of the queen and king are merely reflected in a mirror on a back wall. Then there's that departing figure on the stairs in the back -- Velázquez's virtuoso technique is one thing, but this painting is so dramatically composed, we could barely drag ourselves away.
We love the work of his older contemporary El Greco (ca. 1541-1614), a Crete-born artist who lived much of his life in Toledo. His huge canvases look astonishingly modern, with their impressionistic lights and shadows. The Prado displays several of his rapturous saints, Madonnas, and Holy Families, even a ghostly John the Baptist.
It's also fascinating to see the work of Francisco de Goya (1746-1828) -- note the contrast between his portraits of Charles IV and his family (so unflattering, you wonder why they continued their patronage) and politically charged paintings like the Third of May (1808) and sketches depicting the decay of 18th-century Spain. One pair of canvases, The Clothed Maja and The Naked Maja, make a brilliant contrast -- almost identical portraits, except that in one the woman is clothed and in the other she's nude.
My teenagers also got into Hieronymus Bosch's The Garden of Earthly Delights, The Seven Deadly Sins, and his triptych The Hay Wagon, along with the ghoulish The Triumph of Death by Pieter Breughel the Elder. But we only had 1 day, and we needed to scoot over to the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Santa Isabel 52 (tel. 91-467-5062 or 91-468-3002; www.museoreinasofia.es), the Prado's modern-art sequel, where Pablo Picasso's antiwar masterpiece Guernica is the star, alongside works by Juan Gris, Joan Miro, and Salvador Dalí.
Contact: Paseo del Prado (tel. 91-330-2800; www.museoprado.es).
What: Amsterdam's Museumplein Masterpieces: Dutch Masters & Then Some
Who: Ages 6 & up
Where: Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Maybe it has something to do with the austere northern slant of light, but from Rembrandt van Rijn to Vincent van Gogh, there's a tradition of Dutch painting that other nations can only envy. Realistic scenes of middle-class domestic life, moody polder landscapes with cloud-scudding skies, arresting portraits of shrewd burgers -- it's the sort of art that looks you straight in the face and holds a conversation, and I personally love it. Now I had to turn my kids on to it, too.
The Golden Age of Dutch painting came in the 17th century, the high point of Holland's international power and wealth, and naturally the Rijksmuseum, Holland's national museum, has a rich collection of those Dutch masters. My favorites are the Vermeers, those almost photographic household scenes, bathed in natural light. Compared to his delicately frozen moments, the robust paintings of Jan Steen and Frans Hals look downright jolly. Crowds flock around Rembrandt's immense Nightwatch, a dramatically lit group portrait of a cadre of militiamen checking their weapons before going out on patrol. Even more than Nightwatch, our favorite Rembrandt group portrait was the iconic The Sampling Officials, a cluster of guildsmen in almost identical black suits, square white collars, and brimmed black hats. Rembrandt painted each man staring outward with an arresting gaze that cuts through the centuries like a knife.
We felt a bit let down by the Museum Het Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt House Museum), Jodenbreestraat 4-6 (tel. 020/520-0400; www.rembrandthuis.nl). It was interesting to see inside a 17th-century house, but there weren't many personal possessions -- and Rembrandt himself, so good at revealing the personalities of others in his paintings, remained tantalizingly mysterious, like one of his shadowy self-portraits.
The raw emotion of Vincent van Gogh's painting flares like a comet at the van Gogh Museum, a short walk down Mu-seumplein from the Rijksmuseum. Few painters deserve a solo museum more than van Gogh, whose saturated colors and bold sinuous outlines make neighboring canvases look pallid. More than 200 van Gogh paintings are hung here -- landscapes, portraits, still lifes -- and as we moved through the galleries, arranged in chronological order, we got an eerie sense of the meteoric development in this artist's brief career (1880-90). From the early, brooding Potato Eaters to the vivid late Sunflowers, the evolution was startling enough to bowl over the kids. Mission accomplished.
What: The Hermitage: Art Treasures of the Czars
Who: Ages 8 & up
Where: St. Petersburg, Russia
One thing you have to say about the Russian czars -- they collected some great art over the centuries, especially Catherine II and her grandson Nicholas I. Determined to prove that they were enlightened European monarchs, they spent their imperial fortunes recklessly on paintings and statues, as well as coins, antiquities, and jewelry. And then, of course, in 1917 the Russian revolution came along, and the czars were history. Except for their art -- the savvy Bolsheviks hung onto that all right.
The ghosts of that czarist era still linger in St. Petersburg, nowhere more so than at elegant Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad). Standing under the Alexander Column -- a 600-ton monolith topped by a cross-carrying angel -- imagine all that this asymmetrical plaza has seen, from royal coaches pulling up to the baroque Winter Palace on one side, to Communist solidarity marches in front of the long curved General Staff Building. Through the grand courtyard of the Winter Palace today, you enter the State Hermitage Museum, where, in the absence of the czars, the art has finally taken over. In these extravagantly decorated salons, with their marble columns and parquet floors and dazzling chandeliers, it seems as if every inch of the red walls is covered with artworks in fussy gold frames. And yet, believe it or not, this is only a fraction of the collection.
The Hermitage has an incredible catalog of Renaissance Italian art, including two rare da Vinci Madonnas, and loads of Dutch and Flemish masters (look for Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son and Old Man in Red). Among its Spanish masterpieces are one of my favorite El Grecos, The Apostles Peter and Paul, and Velázquez's arresting portrait of Count Olivares. The Hermitage has so many French artworks -- more than any museum outside of France -- that my personal favorites, the French impressionists and two rooms of early Picasso, have been crowded up to plainer rooms on the third floor, which can be stuffy and crowded in summer. Crowds are thinner in the Antiquities halls on the ground floor, which displays relics from the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians.
Many visitors are so busy squinting at the pictures, they forget to look around them -- and that's missing the point of this great Fabergé egg of a museum. The czars longed so desperately to impress the world with how cultured they were, they probably overdid it. But after the Revolution, did anyone ever again build a place as beautiful as this?
Contact: 1 Palace Sq. (tel. 812/110-9079; www.hermitagemuseum.org). Closed Sun-Mon.