The watchword is beyond. Get lost, off the beaten track, leave the marked paths and discover a secret, unusual, unsung Italy. This is an extraordinary country whose immeasurable heritage is still mostly unknown – unless you know where to look and with who. We’ve selected two lesser known treasures in four very known Italian cities to take you with us on a journey to discover l’Italia Segreta.
The Genius of Carlo Mollino
Architect, designer, aircraft pilot, racing car creator, photographer with an obsession for the female body which he often translated into sinuous forms and architectures. Mollino was an all-round artist who was born and lived in Turin all his life. His house, located on the first floor of a late 19th century French-style villa, has remained buried for many years after the artist’s death. It is still shrouded in mystery but gives the measure of the genius of this extraordinary twentieth-century character who is still able to inspire our modern days. Built as an intellectual and spiritual project in the wake of Ancient Egypt, his home was meant to house in soul in his afterlife too. Among the many symbolic references to the Egyptian civilization, there is a boat-shaped nineteenth-century bed and a wall covered with colored butterflies, which represent rebirth from darkness. Mollino’s eclectic genius lies precisely in his innate ability to blend in the same environment references of different inspiration, from surrealist to baroque to Japanese aesthetics. But his house isn’t the only treasure in his native city: Mollino was also commissioned the Opera Theatre in 1965. He refused to follow a philological method and, on the contrary, used a personal and contemporary language which picked up the original baroque spirit of the theatre. Making use of curved and winding lines he conceived the foyer in a stellar shaped manner in brick that recalled the decorative geometries of the nearby Palazzo Carignano and designed the stage and balconies like ribs which originated from the vault. The theatre soon became one of his most important and praised works thanks to the invention of new forms and his audacity to dare, by mixing ancient and contemporary.
The grace of Pontormo and a secret Foundation
Considered by art historians and academics to be one of his greatest masterpieces, the Deposition by mannerist painter Jacopo Carrucci, known as “Il Pontormo” is a work of art of poignant beauty located inside the Capponi Chapel in the Church of Santa Felicita. A few steps away from the crowded Ponte Vecchio but a world away from the crowds, as passersby ignore the existence of this magnificent painting which lies in an oasis of peace and quiet in the very beating heart of Florence. The painting marks a turn in art history as many consider it to be the birth of the mannerist movement. The Deposition is of capital importance as it disrupts for the first time all Renaissance stylistic conventions by subverting it’s two pillars: harmony and balance. The space seems non-existent, the characters are unstable and in unrealistic positions, the balance is precarious. The clothes adhere to the bodies, a mark which will become typical during the Mannerist period, as well as the cold colors, far from the liveliness of the Renaissance hues: blue, light green, pink – the tints that later on will prevail. A suspended, alienated atmosphere in line with the painter’s moody temperament who portrays himself in the work: he’s the blond character with the beard who appears on the right end of the composition.
He’s a world-famous architectural and interiors photographer and he’s Florentine. In 2018, Taschen Publishing House dedicated a monographic volume to his work, titled “The World’s most beautiful libraries”. He has photographed over 3.500 places, such as churches, museums, libraries, castles, mansions, palaces, apartments and villas. Thanks to his father, a journalist and writer, Massimo Listri grew up with an accustomed eye to beauty and observation. His passion for art led him, over time, to form archeological and ancient art collections, drawings and volumes of art history and the foundation in his name. Located in the heart of Florence, inside a building that formerly belonged to the Knights of Santo Stefano, it houses in the various magnificent rooms of the palace drawings and pieces of decorative arts and a mind-boggling collection of twenty thousand volumes, including an ancient nucleus of art history sources. Listri acquired the 16th century palace, which has today become a marvelous cabinet of curiosities filled with treasures he has collected around the world.
A 16th century frescoed oratory and an 18th century frescoed villa
Hidden in the streets of Rome’s historic center is a magnificent frescoed Oratory. The Church of Santa Maria Annunziata del Gonfalone, better known as the Oratorio del Gonfalone, is the seat of the Roman Polyphonic Choir. It was built in the mid-sixteenth century on the ruins of the old church of Saint Lucia, as the Oratory of the Confraternity of the Gonfalone which had its seat in the adjoining building. The term “Gonfalone” means banner/flag and refers to the fact that during their 14th century processions, the Confraternity used to raise the Pope’s Flag (who at the time had been exiled to Avignone, in France) to reaffirm its sovereignty over Rome. The oratory was renovated again in the 17th century and is today a precious treasure thanks to the paintings that adorn it which portray stories of the Passion of Christ, a series of twelve frescoes by the main exponents of Roman Mannerism, such as Federico Zuccari.
Close to Termini Train Station lies another magnificent hidden jewel. It’s the Casino Massimo Lancellotti, also called Casino dei Nazareni. The frescoes inside this 17th century palace are the only paintings of the Nazareni group still visible in Rome. Around 1810, a group of German painters, intolerant to the dictates of academic classicism, moved to Rome with the aim of living in a community dedicated entirely to art. They were called Nazarenes because, inspired by the life of Christ, they grew their beards long. They lived in the monastery of Sant’Isidoro and led a simple life dedicated to painting. They wanted to return to the roots of Italian renaissance painting and were inspired by the old masters, such as Beato Angelico, Perugino and Filippino Lippi. The frescoes of the Casino Massimo were commissioned in 1817 by the marquis Carlo Massimo and depict scenes inspired by the great poems of Italian literature: the Orlando Furioso by Ariosto, the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri and the Gerusalemme Liberata by Torquato Tasso.
An archeological wonder and a mysterious archive
The Piscina Mirabilis is a grandiose water cistern and work of the highest engineering level is a historical engineering feat. It’s an extraordinary Roman archaeological monument in the vulcanic Campi Flegrei area of Bacoli, a short drive from the city center of Naples. The structure is the largest known water tank ever built by the ancient romans during the Augustan age. Its function was to supply water to the numerous ships of the imperial military fleet which were moored and stationed in the nearby port of Capo Miseno. The construction, with a rectangular plan measuring 70 meters in length, 25 in width and 15 in height, stored 12.600 cubic meters of water, which was extracted through the top openings. Upon entering, the first impression is of its vast emptiness. The structure stands as tall as a three-storey building; a forest of pylons on which arches and vaults rest, divided into five large naves, perforated by the light that floods from above in rhapsodic manner. The current name dates back to the late seventeenth century when the Piscina Mirabilis became a fixed destination for the first European scholars, travelers and intellectuals on their Italian Grand Tour, such as Goethe, Mozart and Dumas.
The Banco di Napoli Historical Archive represents the most impressive archival collection of banking documents in the world. Bank documents ranging from the mid-1500s to today are collected and catalogued in approximately 330 rooms. It is located in the headquarters of the Banco di Napoli Foundation in the heart of the ancient town, Spaccanapoli, in the 16th century Ricca Palace and in the adjoining Cuomo Palace. Approximately 80 kilometers of shelves contain 17 million names, hundreds of thousands of payments and detailed motives that reconstruct a living fresco of Naples and the whole of the South of Italy, from 1573 to the present day, a 450-year old treasure trove of memories. There’s even the payment document testifying Caravaggio’s compensation for the magnificent oil painting “The seven works of Mercy” which was made for and is still housed in the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples.