- Vatican Museums (Rome): The 100 galleries that constitute the Musei Vaticani are loaded with papal treasures accumulated over the centuries. Musts include the Sistine Chapel, such ancient Greek and Roman sculptures as “Laocoön” and “Belvedere Apollo,” the frescoed “Stanze” executed by Raphael (among which is his “School of Athens”), and endless collections of pagan Greco-Roman antiquities and Renaissance art by European masters.
- Galleria degli Uffizi (Florence): This U-shaped High Renaissance building designed by Giorgio Vasari was the administrative headquarters, or uffizi (offices), for the dukes of Tuscany when the Medici called the shots round here. It’s now the crown jewel of Europe’s art museums, housing the world’s greatest collection of Renaissance paintings, including icons by Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo.
- Accademia (Venice): One of Europe’s great museums, the Accademia houses an unequaled array of Venetian painting, exhibited chronologically from the 13th to the 18th century. Walls are hung with works by Bellini, Carpaccio, Giorgione, Titian, and Tintoretto.
- Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples): Come to see the mosaics and frescoes from Pompeii and Herculaneum—the original of the much reproduced “Attenti al Cane” (“Beware of the Dog”) mosaic is here, as are the Villa of the Papyri frescoes. Much else waits you, including the “Farnese Bull”—which once decorated Rome's Terme di Caracalla—and some of the finest statuary to survive from ancient Europe.
- Santa Maria della Scala (Siena): The building is as much the star as the collections. This was a hospital from medieval times until the 1990s, when it was closed, and its frescoed wards, ancient chapels and sacristy, and labyrinthine basement floors were gradually opened up for public viewing.
- Galleria Borghese (Rome): One of the world's great small museums reopened a few years ago after a 14-year restoration breathed new life into the frescoes and decor of this 1613 palace. That's merely the backdrop for the collections, which include masterpieces of baroque sculpture by a young Bernini and paintings by Caravaggio and Raphael.
- National Etruscan Museum (Rome): Mysterious and, for the most part, undocumented, the Etruscans were the ancestors of the Romans. They left a legacy of bronze and marble sculpture, sarcophagi, jewelry, and representations of mythical heroes, some of which were excavated at Cerveteri, a stronghold north of Rome. Most startling about the artifacts is their sophisticated, almost mystical sense of design. The Etruscan collection is housed in a papal villa dating from the 1500s.
- Bargello Museum (Florence): Originally built as a fortress palace in 1255, this imposing structure is now a vast repository of some of Italy's most important Renaissance sculpture. Donatello's bronze David is a remarkable contrast to the world-famous Michelangelo icon.
- National Gallery of Umbria (Perugia): Italian Renaissance art has its roots in Tuscan and Umbrian painting from the 1200s. This collection, on the top floor of the Palazzo dei Priori (parts of which date from the 1400s), contains a world-class collection of paintings, most executed in Tuscany or Umbria between the 13th and the 18th centuries. Included are works by Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesco, Perugino, Duccio, and Gozzoli, among others.
- Peggy Guggenheim Collection (Venice): A comprehensive, brilliant modern art collection, assembled by legendary arts patron Peggy Guggenheim, is housed in an unfinished palazzo along the Grand Canal. The collection is a cavalcade of 20th-century art, including works by Max Ernst (one of Ms. Guggenheim's former husbands), Picasso, Braque, Magritte, and Giacometti.
- Brera Picture Gallery (Milan): Milan is usually associated with wealth and corporate power, and those two things can buy a city its fair share of art and culture. The foremost place to see Milan's artistic treasures is the Brera Picture Gallery, whose collection -- shown in a 17th-century palace -- is especially rich in paintings from the schools of Lombardy and Venice. Three of the most important prizes are Mantegna's Dead Christ, Giovanni Bellini's La Pietà, and Carpaccio's St. Stephen Debating.
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