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Choose your European travel itinerary by choosing the art you want to see

Updated: Sep 13

European capitals are over packed with tourists but instead of following the silly suggestions you read in The Times (like instead of going to Florence, you should go to Lucca) let me suggest another itinerary. Choose art you want to see and then map out which cities to visit. In Rome this summer? What about going to San Luigi dei Francesi to see a Caravaggio (Il martirio di San Matteo)? Writer Donato Carrisi writes about this painting in Il Tribunale Delle Anime.

(Italian) “Per una volta si concesse di guardarlo (il quadro) con gli occhi di un uomo normale. Nella penombra di quella cappella laterale, notò che la luce che illuminava la scena era già dentro al quadro. Invidiò il talento di Caravaggio; scorgere la luce dove gli altri vedevano le tenebre .”

(English) "For once he allowed himself to look at it (the picture) with the eyes of a normal man. In the dim light of that side chapel, he noticed that the light that illuminated the scene was already inside the picture. He envied Caravaggio's talent; see the light where others saw darkness. "


painting by Caravaggio found in San Luigi dei Francesi. Roma
Il Martirio di San Matteo by Caravaggio. San Luigi dei Francesi. Roma

Tired of the overwhelming masses of people in Rome while you are on vacation? Skip the Vatican and go to The Doria Pamphilj Gallery housed in Palazzo Doria Pamphilj and go straight to visit Velasquez portrait of Pope Innocent X. This is the very painting that inspired The Screaming Pope Series by Francis Bacon. Subsequently, Bacon said that he thought the works ‘silly’ and wished he had never done them. He acquired endless reproductions of the Velázquez painting from books, but did not see the original when he was in Rome for 2 months in late 1954. I love the screaming popes by Bacon and was super excited to see the work that inspired them.

painting of Pope Innocent X by Velázquez. The Doria Pamphilj Gallery. Roma
Pope Innocent Xby Velázquez. The Doria Pamphilj Gallery. Roma

I am going to Glasgow this summer to see Salvador Dalí's painting, St. John of the Cross. I got interested in seeing the painting after reading this passage from Pitch Black by Alex Gray. "It was easy to lose oneself inside the painting; the shores of the Sea of Galilee looked so cool, and inviting, the Christ's eyes on the land below, arms stretched out to encompass his little world. You didn't feel the pain, Maggie thought. It wasn't like those paintings designed to horrify with an emaciated figure hanging like a bloodless corpse, with ashen faced women mooning around. No, this was different. It spoke of a triumph over death, the cross almost floating away to heaven as you gazed and gazed."

St. John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí
St. John of the Cross by Salvador Dalí at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Glasgow

Actually this painting is discussed in several pages of the book. I found this paragraph interesting in narrating the history connected with the painting. "Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum had undergone a transformation in recent years with a new educational facility and basement restaurant, not to mention the revamped exhibiton areas. Maggie . . . made her way along the corridor towards the Dalí. It was good to have it back home, she thought. St. Mungo's Museum of Religious Life and Art had given it a glorious place of honor for a few years but Christ of St. John of the Cross belonged here, within the sanctuary of the city's famous old galleries." Incidentally, this painting was slashed by a fanatic a long time ago and was subsequently restored.


Feel you need some inspiration? How about visiting the artworks stolen by the Nazis and subsequently returned? You will not be fighting the crowds, you will be fighting the tears. You could start with The Madonna of Bruges by Michelangelo. The sculpture was removed from Belgium in 1944, during World War II. Retreating German soldiers smuggled the sculpture, wrapped in mattresses, to Germany in a Red Cross truck. It was discovered a year later by The Monument Men in the Altaussee salt mine in Austria. It now sits in the Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium.


Statue of Madonna di Bruges by Michelangelo
Madonna di Bruges by Michelangelo. Church of Our Lady in Bruges, Belgium

You can’t stand the daily crowds that come to Venice, especially during the summer? I suggest you go to Bassano del Grappa to visit the magnificent Antonio Canova collection in the Museo Civico di Bassano. You can be back in Venice in the afternoon when most of the crowd has left Venice and then you can enjoy Venice as you stroll along the canals.

Going to the Louvre? Skip the Mona Lisa unless you want to stand on line to wait your turn to take a selfie with the Mona Lisa and direct your steps toward Death of a Virgin by Caravaggio. Writer Donato Carrisi writes in Il Tribunale Delle Anime: “It has been suggested that the artist was inspired by the cadaver of a prostitute fished out of a river, for this the painting was refused by the commission. Caravaggio took a scene from the horror of daily life and he gave it a sacred meaning. Giving the characters a different role, he would turn them into saints or dying virgins.”

detail of the virgin from painting, Death of a Virgin by Caravaggio
Detail of Death of a Virgin by Caravaggio

These are just suggestions. You choose which cities and which art to see.