Tuscany's stuffed so full of treasures it can be hard for an art-lover to know where to start. To help narrow things down, here are five top unmissable spots
I'm not asking for your sympathy here, obviously, but picking just five unmissable art spots in Tuscany is a bit like nominating my favourite flavour of ice cream. There are so many to choose from, and all have their pluses, so it's very much a matter of taste.
Looked at from south of the Alps, Tuscany was the Renaissance. Venice and Rome took over when things in Florence began to wane, but without the Florentine Renaissance the history of art would look a whole lot different (In fact, there might not even be a history of art: Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists was the first proper work of art history, was also Tuscan.)
Add all that Renaissance painting to the Gothic heritage of Siena, Volterra’s Etruscan past and the unique towers of San Gimignano, and you have a sackful of lovely things for the cultural traveller. If you've spent quality heritage time in Tuscany already, my top five almost certainly won't be your top five... but here they are.
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
No prizes for originality, but art lovers really shouldn't miss the single best repository of Renaissance painting on the planet. Alongside crowd-pleasers like Giotto, Botticelli, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Raphael, there's a fine Sienese room with Simone Martini's 'Annunciation' (1313) and Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 'Presentation at the Temple' (1342). The next room's International Gothic selection stars my favourite menagerie in Tuscan art: Gentile da Fabriano's 'Adoration of the Magi' (1423), which used to hang in Florence's Santa Trínita. One tip to consider: the queues and crowds at the Uffizi can be horrendous. If you're coming in peak season (that's any time except November to February), book ahead. Or plan a late visit: the gallery is generally open one or two weekday evenings all summer.
San Francesco, Arezzo
Good as the Uffizi is, there's nothing quite like seeing Tuscan art in its intended setting. In most cases, that's frescoed on the wall of a church or chapel. Arezzo's San Francesco doesn't look much from the outside, but inside you'll find one of the giants of Western art. Piero della Francesca's 'Legend of the True Cross' was painted between 1452 and 1466, based on apocryphal tales from Jacopo da Voragine's Golden Legend. Piero traces the wood of Christ's cross on 10 set-pieces covering the centuries from the 'Death of Adam' to the 'Annunciation'.
Palazzo Pubblico, Siena
A town hall might not be the obvious stop on an art tour, but when you learn that we're talking about Siena's iconic Gothic town hall and that it now houses the city's Civic Museum, things get a bit clearer. Most of the best art inside pre-dates the Renaissance by a hundred years or so. Simone Martini's giant 1315 'Maestà' dominates the Sala del Mappamondo, while next door is the finest secular fresco cycle ever painted. Covering the walls of the Sala della Pace, where the medieval ruling Council of Nine met, Ambrogio Lorenzetti's 'Allegories of Good and Bad Government' remain a landmark in civic art. The principal aim was to remind the governing elites of the virtues of good government, and the likely consequences of ruling based on vice.
Unlike each of my other four choices, there's a decent chance you'll have Volterra's under-visited picture gallery all to yourself. The best of the action, on the first floor of the Palazzo Minucci-Solaini, traces Tuscan art from the garish gold-leaf altarpieces of Sienese workhorses like Taddeo di Bartolo to the heights of the High Renaissance (including giant panels by Ghirlandaio and Signorelli). But best of the lot is one that came after all that, Rosso Fiorentino's Mannerist (almost Cubist), angst-ridden 'Deposition' (1521). I always find it shockingly modern.
Collegiata, San Gimignano
There's no shortage of fine frescoed chapels in Tuscany, but the last slot in my five goes to one that stands above the rest. First, because the Renaissance architecture of the Cappella di Santa Fina, courtesy of Giuliano da Maiano, provides a perfect counterfoil to the two wall paintings. Second, because of those magnificent frescoes: they were completed in 1475 by Domenico Ghirlandaio and recount two episodes from the life of local Saint Fina. She lay down on a plank of wood aged just 10 to repent her sins, chiefly having once accepted an orange from a boy, and never got up.
Staying and Eating Close to the Culture
The best base for an art and architectural tour of Tuscany is Florence or Siena (or, even better, both in the same trip; they're only an hour or so apart). Florence's Hotel Davanzati (Via Porta Rossa 5; +39 055 286666; www.hoteldavanzati.it) has tastefully converted rooms kitted out with gadgets like flatscreen TVs and a laptop with broadband in every room, all crammed inside a Renaissance palazzo. It's also ideally located between the glamorous shops of Via Tornabuoni and the cultural centres of Piazza del Duomo and Piazza della Signoria. Florence is full of eating options, most of which (away from the crowded tourist piazzas) are pretty reliable. For a flavour of where Florentines eat lunch, my favourites are Le Mossacce (Via del Proconsolo 55r; +39 055 294361), a 5-miniute walk north of the Uffizi, and Da Mario (Via Rosina 2r; +39 055 218550; www.trattoriamario.com), opposite the covered food market. Both are eminently affordable, and serve rustic Tuscan classics to a lively crowd.
Siena has fewer really excellent hotel options in its Gothic centre. Chiostro del Carmine (Via della Diana 4; +39 0577 223885; www.chiostrodelcarmine.com) is set around a former Carmelite cloister, just inside the city gates and 10 minutes' walk from the Campo. It's an atmospheric (and reasonably priced) oasis of tranquility in what can be a hectic little city. For a really special Sienese dinner, I recommend Cane e Gatto (Via Pagliaresi 6; +39 0577 287545). There's no menu at this small, family-run dining room: antipasti, primo, pasta, a main course and dessert are all designed and cooked based on the best available daily ingredients. You'll need to book ahead, and expect to pay around 65€ a head plus wine. If your budget won't stretch, L'Osteria (Via dei Rossi 79; +39 0577 287592) is an excellent, affordable alternative, especially for meat lovers. Again, reserving is wise during the busy season, especially if you want to grab one of the 3 or 4 street tables.