Less well known, and less busy than the Tuscan hot spots of the Italian Renaissance like Florence, the ancient Dukedoms and Principalities that are strung out at intervals along the via Emilia all have great works of sculpture and painting by some of the greatest names in the history of art.


The large collection of artistic treasures at the Galleria Estense still give a sense of the majestic heritage of one of Italy’s oldest dynasties, the d’Este family, originally Dukes of Ferrara and from 1598, Dukes of Modena.

Highlights include two artworks depicting Duke Francesco 1 d’Este – a marble bust by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and a portrait by Diego Velasquez.

The exquisite ‘Modena’ Triptych, is a portable altarpiece by El Greco.

The collection also includes works by Tintoetto, , and local Emilian painters Guido Reni, Correggio and Guercino.

Due to the lack of any suitable stone the city had a Renaissance tradition of sculpture in terracotta and there are some extraordinarily moving works by the two local masters of this medium, Guido Mazzoni and his successor Antonio Begarelli.


In Parma it was the Farnese Dukes who left the city with a stunning collection – including a tiny but very beautiful panel painting by Leonardo da Vinci, of the head of a young woman, La Scapigliata, the woman with the dishevelled hair.

There is also a portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein and many works by local painters Correggio and Parmigianino.


The collection at the Pinocateca Nazionale has some really big names – Giotto’s Polyptych, Raphael’s ‘Ecstasy of Saint Cecilia’ and Titian’s ‘Christ and the Good Thief’.

There is also a good selection of works by the local Carracci family of painters – instigators of the Baroque, and their Bolognese successor, Guido Reni.

Additionally, all these cities have architecturally important and richly decorated cathedrals and churches.

More of a pilgrimage is the discovery of individual towns and buildings of great beauty in the surrounding countryside. The small town of Vignola is a perfect example. Giacomo Barozzi, the man who introduced the oval into Baroque architecture, took the name Vignola from his birthplace and his first works are buildings in the shadow of the castle – including the ‘snail’ staircase in the Palazzo Barozzi. The castle interiors are beautifully decorated with medieval frescos.


Venturing north of the via Emilia, Ferrara is an exceptionally beautiful city with a magnificent Romanesque cathedral and an imposing moated castle.

The Renaissance Palazzo Diamante, named for the fearsome diamond shaped blocks of marble that jut out from the façade, is home to Ferrara’s art gallery which has a collection of mostly local works. The lower floors host contemporary exhibitions.

Photo by Stefano Giustini [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons


Just south of the delta of the River Po, Ravenna was for three hundred years the capital of the Western Roman Empire. It’s best artistic treasures are not in the art gallery though, but the most intricate and beautiful mosaics surviving from Roman times. It has eight early Christian buildings on the UNESCO World Heritage list and all are richly decorated with mosacics.


While actually just across the border in Lombardy, Mantova is around an hour’s drive from Lugara. It is a very complete Renaissance moated city, surrounded by artificial lakes created by damming the Mincio River. In Autumn it’s fogs are legendary.

The Gonzaga Dukes of Mantova built a large Ducal Palace in the centre of the city, with work by Andrea Mantegna, but the most impressive sight is the Palazzo Te – an extraordinary mannerist masterpiece by Guilo Romano. Built as a summer palace it has a series of vividly frescoed rooms of which the most remarkable is the Sala di Gigante, the room of the giants, who appear to be being crushed as the walls of the room collapse on top of them.