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Italy is home to such a rich variety of historical art pieces it can be overwhelming for the novice art-appreciator.

You can see many of the greatest hits of Italian art in a single day if you want to shuffle along behind everyone else at the Vatican, in Rome, but this is a recipe for Stendhal syndrome: an arguably psychosomatic but nonetheless debilitating malady, caused by exposing oneself to a large amount of sublime art all in one place.

For a more leisurely wander,  the ideal spot to begin is in Padua, near Venice, where the Scrovegni Chapel shows Giotto’s genius at work, as he laboured to unlock the secret of naturalistic painting and perfect perspective. Giotto’s frescoes of the lives of Jesus and his mother were completed in 1305, and his painterly innovations, which drew on the realism and solidity of classical sculpture, paved the way for the great painters of the Renaissance.

Italian art’s greatest moment was the Renaissance, and its nerve centre was Florence. The city’s upper-class had money to burn, splurging much of it on art. The Medici family, who ran Europe’s largest bank, were patrons to some of the greatest Renaissance artists, including Leonardo, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and Michelangelo – all of them Tuscan artists who built their careers in Florence. Their works and those of their contemporaries are dotted all over the city: Michelangelo’s David fixes his steely gaze (and displays his perfect six-pack) in the Accademia; Donatello’s wood-carved Magdalene weeps in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo; Botticelli’s Venus emerges from the sea foam in the Uffizi Galleries; and Brunelleschi’s dome towers over it all.

Like Florence, Rome is a work of art in itself. The wanderer stumbles upon a mind-boggling Bernini at every turn, Caravaggio’s pieces hang about nonchalantly in unpretentious churches and Michelangelo’s great dome of St Peter’s watches over the whole head-spinning collection.

To escape the crowds at the Vatican and the Colosseum, art-lovers should instead head to the Capitoline Museums. Start with a wander through Michelangelo’s magnificently harmonious Piazza del Campidoglio before moving indoors. Here you will find the Etruscan sculpture of Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, suckling at the bronze she-wolf; countless classical masterpieces of unknown authorship like Cupid and Psyche; and in the courtyard, monumental marble feet and hands that hint at the grandeur of Ancient Rome.

Rome’s Renaissance treasures are in the Vatican Museums, which involve ducking and weaving among organised tour groups, resisting the urge to pause in the galleries and map halls, and heading straight to the Raphael Rooms before moving on to Michelangelo’s masterpiece: the Sistine Chapel. The two artists were at work at the same time, and legend has it Raphael honours his rival by painting Michelangelo’s figure – in his own mannerist style – in the foreground of The School of Athens.

Rome really came into its own during the Baroque period, the Catholic Church’s great frothy counter-attack on the Reformation’s pared-down aesthetic. Bernini and Caravaggio are Baroque’s greats, and you do not even have to buy a museum ticket or stand in line to see their best work. Bernini’s glorious sculptures grace the Piazza Navona, St Paul’s Basilica and Piazza di Spagna, just to name a few. But one of his most intimate works is the Ecstasy of St Teresa, which you can visit at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria.

Caravaggio’s realist masterpieces are scattered around town. You can design your own walking tour to take in the churches of San Luigi dei Francesi (The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and The Calling of Saint Matthew), Santa Maria del Popolo (The Conversion of St Paul and The Crucifixion of St Peter), and, loveliest of all, Sant’Agostino, where you will find his Madonna di Loreto. Caravaggio’s gruesome version of Judith Beheading Holofernes is in Rome’s Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica, while at the wonderful Galleria Borghese you can gaze at his luminous portrait of St Jerome before catching Bernini’s Daphne at the very moment she is transformed into a tree.

End your trip in Pompeii, near Naples, where the Ancient Roman city’s ruined homes are dotted with frescoes (many of them decidedly bawdy), offering insight into how art played a central role in the lives of ordinary people.

© 2012 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Explore Italy’s art masterpieces’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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