Basilica di San Marco (Venice): No church in Europe is more lavishly decorated, more exquisitely mosaic-covered, more glittering with gold than Venice's San Marco. Built in the 11th century, the church has as its guiding architectural and decorative principles Byzantine style, but more than 7 centuries of expansion and decoration have left behind Romanesque and Gothic touches as well. The interior is encrusted with more than 3,700 sq. m (39,826 sq. ft.) of gold-backed mosaics crafted between the 12th and 17th centuries, some based on cartoons by Tintoretto, Veronese, and Titian. The uneven floor is a mosaic of marble chips in swirling patterns, the Pala d'Oro altarpiece a gem-studded golden trophy from Constantinople. Stairs lead up to a view over the piazza from atop the atrium, where visitors get to see up close both the mosaics and the original Triumphal Quadriga, four massive bronze horses probably cast in the 2nd century A.D.
Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari (Venice): "I Frari" is named for the Franciscan "brothers" who founded this Gothic giant in 1250. It was rebuilt between 1330 and 1453, which made it one of the most art-bedecked churches in Venice, filled with works of art by Donatello, Titian, Giovanni Bellini, and Canova.
Cattedrale di Torcello (Torcello, Venice): Venice's oldest church is pretty much all that remains of one of the lagoon's earliest settlements on the all-but-abandoned island of Torcello, north of what is now the city of Venice. Santa Maria Assunta was begun in the 7th century, its interior slathered with glittering gold-backed Byzantine mosaics in the 11th and 12th centuries, precursors to those that would later decorate Venice's San Marco. The inside of the entrance wall is filled with a massive Last Judgment. This was a common device in medieval churches: placing above the door from which parishioners would exit a scene depicting both the heavenly rewards that await the faithful and the horribly inventive, gruesome punishments for the damned in hell -- sort of a final sermon at the end of the service to remind everyone what was at stake and to keep them holy until the next Sunday. The bell tower offers a pretty panorama over the sparsely populated island and surrounding lagoon.
Basilica di Sant'Antonio (Padua): Think of all the people of Italian descent you know, or have heard of, named Tony. You're starting to get an idea of how popular the 13th-century, Portuguese-born St. Anthony is among Italians. The patron of the lost lived in Padua, and when he died in 1231, the citizenry quickly canonized the man and began building this huge church to honor his remains. It was finished in a remarkably short 76 years. The style in 13th-century Veneto was still largely Byzantine, so the brick basilica is topped by an octet of domes and twin minaret-style bell towers. Donatello, whose Gattamelata (the first large equestrian bronze cast since ancient Roman times) sits out front, even crafted the high altar, but that is virtually ignored by the flocks of faithful in favor of a chapel off the left aisle. This is where a constant stream of supplicants files past the saint's tomb to press their palms against it and leave flowers, small gifts, pictures, and written prayers asking him to help them find everything from lost health to lost love to lost children (some even pray for material objects, but rarely). Il Santo's robes are also preserved here, as are the silver-tongued preacher's miraculously preserved jawbone, vocal chords, and tongue, all kept in a chapel behind the high altar.
Basilica San Zeno Maggiore (Verona): Verona is home to perhaps the greatest Romanesque basilica in all of northern Italy, a stunning example of the early medieval sculptor's art. Between the 9th and 12th centuries, architects raised the church, created the massive rose window in the facade, and hired artists who revived the ancient art of casting in bronze to create magnificent doors set with 48 wonderfully minimalist panels telling stories from the Bible as well as the life of St. Zeno. The stone reliefs flanking them date to the 12th century. The 12th- to 14th-century frescoes inside lead up to Andrea Mantegna's 15th-century altarpiece.
Basilica (Aquilea): Tiny Aquilea was a major town in Roman times and built a church in A.D. 313 just as soon as Constantine the Great declared the religion legal in the empire. The town was a hotbed of early Christianity, hosting a theological conference in 381 attended by the likes of Jerome and Ambrose. Though the church was rebuilt and frescoed in the 11th and 12th centuries, the original flooring has been uncovered and is now on display, a marvelous and precious mosaic of complicated paleo-Christian and pagan iconography. A crypt retains more mosaics from the 4th century, plus even earlier ones from a pagan house dating to the early 1st century A.D.
Tempietto Longobardo (Cividale): This fantastic 8th-century church hollowed out of the cliff face over Cividale's mighty gorge gives us a precious glimpse into true Lombard style, before the High Middle Ages began to mix and mingle the cultural groups of northern Italy. Flanking the entryway are statues and decorations carved directly out of the native limestone in an early Lombard Romanesque style.
Duomo (Milan): The greatest Gothic cathedral south of the Alps, a massive pile of pinnacles and buttresses, was begun in the 14th century and took 500 years to complete -- but it remained true to its original, Gothic styling. It's the fourth-largest church in the world, its cavernous interior peppered with statues and monuments. The highlight, though, is the chance to climb up onto the eaves, weave your way through the statue-peaked buttresses, and clamber up onto the very rooftop to gaze out across the hazy city and beyond to the Alps rising from the lakes north of the Lombard plain.
Certosa (Pavia, outside Milan): Though Milan's Sforza family completed this Carthusian monastery, called a charterhouse, it's really the late-14th-century brainchild of the Visconti clan. The massive building, rich with Lombardesque decorations and sculptures, was commissioned by Gian Galeazzo in 1396 as thanks that his second wife was delivered from illness and bore him heirs. It became the repository of funerary monuments to Milan's greatest rulers and despots. Though Ludovico il Moro and his wife, Beatrice d'Este, boast the finest monument, neither is buried here. Indeed, the repository was never meant to be in Pavia in the first place; cash-poor Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan -- the one with Leonardo's The Last Supper and the home of Beatrice's remains -- sold it to the charterhouse. This is still a working monastery, now hosting a Cistercian community, and you can tour an example of the little houses they occupy (a far cry from the cramped cells one pictures monks enduring) and purchase their own beauty products and liqueurs.
Cappella Colleoni (Bergamo): The mercenary commander Bartolomeo Colleoni, a son of Bergamo, fought so gloriously on behalf of Venice that he was actually given the generalship over the entire Venetian army (unheard of in such a suspicious republic formed of interlocking check-and-balance branches of power). They commissioned Verrocchio to erect a statue in his honor in Venice and gave Colleoni control of his hometown. He was foresighted enough to commission his own tomb, which was created in the late 15th century as a separate chapel in Bergamo's cathedral. Colleoni invited one of the great sculptors decorating the magnificent charterhouse at Pavia to carve on his tomb a complex series of panels and statues whose symbolisms interweave in medieval style grafted onto Renaissance architecture. In the 18th century, Tiepolo was brought in to fresco the ceiling.
Basilica di Superga (Turin): Turin got a taste of the extravagant southern Italian baroque in the early 18th century when Sicilian architect Juvarra set up shop in town. After the Virgin saved the city from French troops, the Savoys dutifully erected a church in her honor and hired Juvarra for the job. He married early neoclassical ideals of proportion with the theatricality of the baroque to build this magnificent balcony overlooking the Alps in the hills above Turin. Vittorio Amadeo II liked his results so much he decided to turn it into the Royal Tomb, wedging monuments to various Savoys into the chapels and the underground Crypt of Kings.
Sacra di San Michele (outside Turin): Its stony bulk, elaborate carvings, and endless staircases, all towering over the valley from a Monte Pirchiriano perch, give this abbey a movie-set air more appropriate to a Tibetan monastery than to a Christian abbey. The gravity-defying way it hangs halfway off the cliff face is all the more remarkable when you consider that the engineering is purely medieval -- started in 983 and rebuilt in the 1100s. Before the Savoys were the bigwig kings they became, their early members were buried here, in rock-carved chapels under the partly frescoed main church interior; today free concerts are held here April through September, with a range of offerings from Gregorian chants and Celtic music to classical pieces and gospel hymns.
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