by MAUREEN LITTLEJOHN
Glitz. Glamour. Bling. No matter the era, the lifestyles of the rich and famous are fascinating to those of us with a voyeuristic streak. During the Renaissance, Italy was rife with opulent homes filled with priceless art collections and owners who wanted to show them off. After the Middle Ages came an economic boom and a new reverence for classical culture, art and literature. Princes of the church, popes, noble families, bankers and rich landowners built palaces inspired by classical Greek and Roman designs—square structures filled with columns, rounded arches, painted surfaces and symmetrical shapes. As time went on, other design styles were incorporated, including dramatic Baroque and Rococo flourishes. Today, many are open to the public and function as art museums.
Ca’ Rezzonico, Venezia
One of Venice’s most dazzling Grand Canal structures celebrates 18th century Venetian taste in all its ornamental glory. Giambattista Rezzonico, a banker and fabric merchant originally from Lombardy, purchased the uncompleted palazzo (the former owner ran out of funds) in the mid 18th century. Prestigious architect Giorgio Massari was brought in and added light Rococo touches and frescoes, including those by Giovanni Battista Crosato and Giovanni Battista Tiepolo. After the Rezzonico family died out, portions of the palazzo were rented out to creative luminaries, such as poet Robert Browning and songwriter Cole Porter. These days, it is a public museum, managed by the Fondazione Musei Civici di Venezia.
Palazzo Barberini, Roma
Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini), a passionate patron of the arts, commissioned this famous palazzo known for its false perspectives, stunning frescos and unusual rectangular and oval staircases. An architectural trifecta, it was begun in 1627 by architect Carlo Maderna, who was assisted by his nephew Francesco Borromini. After Maderna died, the commission was awarded to the young prodigy Bernini. The expansive Baroque structure was completed in 1633. It features a complex layout of rooms, secret gardens and state apartments. At the heart of the palace is the two-storey Salone with a ceiling painting—Triumph of Divine Providence—by Pietro da Cortona, exalting the Barberini family. Today, the palazzo houses the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica.
Palazzo dei Diamanti, Ferrara
In Ferrara, a half hour’s drive from Bologna, is the stunning Palazzo dei Diamanti. It was built between 1493 and 1503 as a home for the Este family, rulers of Ferrara for more than 300 years. Court architect Biagio Rossetti designed the palazzo focusing on one of the emblems of the House of Este—diamonds. Two exterior walls are covered with 8,500 marble stones carved into this shape. Positioned with their tips facing up and down, they maximize the light reflected off the building. Now owned by the city, the ground floor is dedicated to rotating exhibits, while upstairs are paintings from the Ferrara school spanning 500 years.
Palazzo Ducale, Urbino
Duke Federico da Montefeltro, a ruler, patron of the arts and military leader during the Renaissance, built this current-day UNESCO World Heritage Site to hold court meetings and proceedings. The turreted, militaristic exterior shields a surprisingly lavish expanse of courtyards and rooms dedicated to displays of the duke’s wealth and appreciation of the arts. Florentine Maso di Bartolomeo took on the construction initially, but the siege-proof, solid-rock hillside presented various challenges, and numerous builders were brought in to complete the structure. Now home to the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, the palace houses one of the most important collections of Renaissance art in the world.
Palazzo Reale di Napoli
Originally built in the 17th century for King Philip III of Spain (for a visit that never took place), the palace became the official royal residence of the Bourbons when Charles III of Spain arrived in 1734. An outstanding feature is its great marble staircase, built in the 1600s then refurbished after a fire 200 years later. When Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies married Maria Carolina of Austria in 1768, the great hall was rebuilt and the court theatre added. During the Napoleonic occupation, Joachim Murat and his wife Caroline Bonaparte (little sister of Napoleon Bonaparte), added Neoclassical decorations and furniture. Currently, the grounds include the Teatro San Carlo and the Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III.