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Stephen Bailey
Beyond the façades of Italian architecture
Beyond the façades of Italian architecture
Stephen Bailey

What’s always amazed me about Italy is the abundance of great architecture.

To be in a small town you’ve never heard of before, to be in a village that doesn’t even seem to have a name, and find spectacular buildings there.

Italy doesn’t have a few magical churches and castles to see — the whole country is full of architectural legacy.

The first time I went to Italy, all I did was be astounded and admire the buildings.

The second time, I decided I needed to learn more about Italian architecture.

Because architecture can take you on a journey. For 3000 years, this has been the land that has influenced the rest of the world.

And of course there are the icons — for instance, the legacy of Ancient Rome such as the Colosseum.

But across Italy, it’s easy to find incredible examples of very particular styles, such as cathedrals or archways or villages — architecture that mesmerizes from every angle.

The challenge I found is that there are too many outstanding examples.

If you only have a week in Italy, you can’t see this breadth and abundance of architecture. Even after a few months in Italy, if you can’t complete the list just of the famous buildings.

This is a country with simply too many beautiful buildings to contemplate.

The cathedral in the heart of Florence. Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini. The Doge’s Palace in Venice.

They are astonishing, but there are other great examples of architecture that aren’t as crowded, that aren’t as well-known.

So, the second time I visited Italy, I had a chance to start to understand the different styles, to make sense of when different places were built and how that influenced my visitor experience well as the landscape.

The earliest of course is ancient Roman architecture — the Colosseum, the Roman Forum. And around the country, there are more.

The ruins of Pompeii are incredible — it’s such an enormous site — and I got the sense that “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. Well, no, Rome is way bigger than could ever be built in ten years, let alone a day.

It must have taken centuries to build those old cities, and you can see and feel that.

Then, after the ancient Roman style, came the Romanesque. It’s a similar style, but from quite a few centuries later. Think St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, or Modena’s main cathedral.

Then the Gothic style that came later through Southern Europe — the cathedrals in Ovieto or Siena.

Next, the Renaissance — Florence and Tuscany are the city and region where the Renaissance originated, where much of the architecture is in Renaissance style.

But you can find Renaissance art and architecture in other places in Italy as well.

Then, the Neoclassical style. A lot of what you see in Venice is neoclassical, especially many of the villas.

Later still came Baroque architecture, of which a famous example is the Church of the Gesù in Rome.

Even later, the Avant-garde, that more contemporary style of the fantastic Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II — a shopping mall in Milan from the late 19th century which amazes the eyes.

But it’s possible to go through these styles in a single city.

In Rome, I had a great guide who was able to show me seven very different architectural styles in one day.

I was amazed by that tour, and I started noticing the architectural features of every building I stumbled on in Rome. So later I would come to a new town and, just by looking at the buildings, guess what century it was from.

It was a lot of fun.

So in Rome, of course you start with Ancient Rome: the Catacombs for the glory and grandeur, Trajan’s Market, San Angelo Castle.

Then the Romanesque, which is the foundation style for most Catholic churches in the city, like the Basilica de Santa Maria Maggiore.

For the Gothic style in Rome, climb the steps and explore the interior of Basilica de Santa Maria.

Rome is Italy’s second Renaissance capital — best experienced through the palaces: Palazzo Spada, Palazzo del Quirinale, Villa Farnesina.

Rome was the birthplace of Baroque, and many of the great grand Rome piazzas — the squares — are in this style. Piazza Navona, Piazza Venezia, Campo di Fiori.

One really fascinating building to me was St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome — where the Baroque and Renaissance come together. It’s a building that’s halfway in between, an example of how the styles were merging over time.

Moving forward, I remember a cup of cappuccino — it was afternoon, I ordered a cup of cappuccino and the guide told me off. I shouldn’t have a cup of cappuccino in the afternoon, an Italian wouldn’t do that — but I remember having a cappuccino on the neo-classical Piazza Della Repubblica. Again, a completely different style.

And then the crowning glory — one I hadn’t imagined before going to Italy, and I’m sure you’re probably not imagining it either — is fascist architecture.

It’s not that I like the style, but it’s very interesting, especially in contrast to all that is gone before. Like Palazzo della Civiltà Italiana and Palazzo della Farnesina.

It’s completely different to what you expect in Italy, but another intriguing experience — another insight into the country’s living history, into its incredible variety of architecture.

Story by Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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