Of all the great things that northern Italy has to offer, the best is its geographical diversity. There are days when you can ski the Alps in the morning and sunbathe on the Riviera in the afternoon. It seems like it doesn't get much better than that.

But it does get better. On your way, you can stop off in the valleys of Piedmont and sample some of the world's most prestigious wines and enjoy precious truffles. Farther east in Milan, shopaholics can revel in a fashionista's heaven on earth, while art historians can make the pilgrimage to Caravaggio's home just up the road. Medieval buffs marvel at the castles that outnumber towns in the Tirolean upper Adige, where Italian is a foreign tongue and the lingua francas are ancient dialects of French and German. Pass down through Italy's majestic lakes and vaunted Dolomite resorts, feel Shakespeare's presence at the home of Romeo and Juliet in Verona, stop off to see a Giotto masterpiece, and eat your way through the Po River valley to Venice, one of the most romantic cities in the world. On the south side of the valley, the spectrum ranges from the dreamy canals and Byzantine mosaics of Venice to Cremona, the birthplace of the Stradivarius violin, to the fishing villages and chic resorts along the Ligurian Riviera.

This small and wealthy corner of the world offers a selection of everything that makes medieval Italy seductive, from the grand old port cities of Genoa and Trieste to the graceful, art-rich cities of the Veneto. But northern Italy also represents the sleek, modern Italy that is associated with A-list names like Armani, Alfa Romeo, and Alessio. A mastery of design and fashion are only a logical outgrowth of an efficient culture that once used state-of-the-art canals -- sketched out by Leonardo Da Vinci -- to transport marble to construction projects like the Duomo in Milan, which is now the fourth-largest cathedral in Christendom.

From the iconic architecture of Andrea Palladio to Milan's elegant fashion designs, the history of northern Italy is the story of the visibly irresistible. This chapter will help make sense of the events behind it all, and hopefully shed some light on the northern Italian persona that made this legacy possible.

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