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La bella Italia

Issue 1 · Winter 2014/15
Words by Damon Syson · Illustration Dermot Flynn

Scott Dunn's well-connected man in the know can help unlock Italy's cultural treasures, just for you

Fabio Luciani doesn’t like being called a tour guide. “A tour guide gives you information about a specific building or place, but doesn’t take into account the context,” he explains. “When I show people around Rome I try to create a kind of web – because every building in this city is connected to the others. That way, each stone talks.”

An archaeology graduate and born-and-bred romano, Luciani describes himself instead as a “cultural guide”, offering thematic tours of his home city that trace, for example, the architectural bloodline from Trajan’s Column to the Sistine Chapel: “You can’t fully appreciate the Sistine Chapel unless you understand the evolution of the city from ancient Rome to Michelangelo and how the ideals and culture of the ancient Romans were used by the Popes.”

Luciani is also the man to call if you want to unearth Rome’s “hidden gems” – cultural experiences that are not normally accessible to the public. With the help of his Vatican connections, for example, you can visit the Sistine Chapel after hours, when the tourists have departed, and potentially explore more obscure areas of the Vatican Museum.

Like most things in Italy, accessing these cultural wonders is largely a question of having the right contacts. “The Vatican has all kinds of hidden treasures that people don’t know about, and there are various ways to access them,” Luciani explains. “Of course, like everyone else, I need to request an official permit and get authorisation from the Swiss Guard [the Vatican’s de facto army] – but I know where to go and whom I need to speak to. Let’s just say I have the right phone numbers.”

In Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning film La Grande Bellezza there’s a character who guards the keys to all Rome’s great artistic and architectural treasures. Does Luciani have his number? “Those guys really do exist,” he nods. “I know a couple of them – and if I need something specific they will help me open up some private or patrician part of Rome. But in general the most famous hidden gems are reachable by everyone if you have the right connections and the money to pay.” Of course Italy’s numerous hidden cultural treasures aren’t exclusive to Rome, and Luciani has colleagues who offer a similar service in all the destinations that would once have been stops on the Grand Tour, notably Venice, Florence and Naples (specifically Pompeii and the surrounding areas). For Days Like This, he suggests 10 unmissable off-the-beaten-track cultural experiences around Italy.


To book a private tour with Fabio Luciani or for more information call Scott Dunn Italy Consultants on 020 8682 5080

Rome

Subterranean Rome

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One of the best ways to get an alternative view of Rome is to explore its underground spaces. Not many visitors are aware, for example, that Rome has a pyramid built into the ancient walls of the city. Constructed in the 2nd century BC by a wealthy trader, Caius Cestius, it was built as a tomb – just like the pharaohs’ pyramids – and filled with paintings and frescoes. These are currently being restored, and the pyramid is due to reopen soon. There are other burial sites dotted around the city, as well as Mithraea: cave-like temples from the Roman cult of Mithraism. It’s not easy to gain access to these places – you need to apply weeks ahead, pay in advance and give precise timings – but it reveals a totally different aspect of the city.

Rome

The Vatican Museum

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The Vatican Museum has a number of areas that are normally private but which you can arrange to have opened for you and your guests simply by paying a fee. Some of these are very significant places. One is the most impressive is the Bramante Staircase (1512), which was designed by Bramante, the favoured architect of Julius II, the pope who commissioned the construction of the Vatican Museum in early 16th century. This architectural masterpiece is believed to have inspired the famous staircase at the Château de Chambord in France, which is possibly the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Visiting the Sistine Chapel after closing time is expensive but well worth it, because it offers you the chance to enjoy one of the true wonders of the world alone or almost alone for two hours. In addition, it may also be possible to gain access to other, rarely seen areas of the Vatican Museum. One of these is the Pope’s private chapel, built in the 1400s and adorned from floor to ceiling with amazing 15th century frescoes.

Venice

A cruise on the Eolo

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While most visitors are heading for the canals, a more original way to experience Venice is to explore the lagoon. By far the most pleasurable way to do this is by taking a cruise on the Eolo, an old fishing boat built in the late 1940s that has been restored to look like an ancient Venetian ship, complete with traditional colourful sails. It’s owned and run by a Venetian who goes every morning to the markets for fresh produce to cook on board that day – typical local dishes paired with wines from the region. It’s the classic Italian slow-food experience. The Eolo takes up to 15 people, and it isn’t cheap, but it’s a wonderful way to spend the day.

Florence

The Vasari Corridor

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One of Florence’s most impressive attractions is the Vasari Corridor, which is accessible only by appointment. It was commissioned by Grand Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici in 1564 and designed by Giorgio Vasari to allow the Medicis to enter the Uffizi (offices) without being seen. You can enjoy some magnificent views over the city from its windows, and the passageway contains more than 1,000 paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as an important collection of self-portraits by the likes of Andrea del Sarto, Bernini, Rubens, Ingres and Delacroix. 

Near Naples

The Piscina Mirabilis

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The Piscina Mirabilis is a Roman freshwater cistern on the Bacoli cliff at the western end of the Gulf of Naples, built to provide the Roman imperial fleet at Portus Julius with drinking water. Despite being a major archaeological site, to see it you have to call in advance and arrange an appointment with the custodian. This often involves knocking on the door of a lady (who is usually in the middle of cooking her lunch) who then arrives with the keys and lets you in. Yes, this kind of thing really does happen in Italy.

Florence

Palazzo Corsini

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A wonderful example of Florentine baroque architecture, the rarely-opened private palace of the Corsini family has one of the most extensive private art collections in Italy, featuring paintings and sculptures by Signorelli, Botticelli, Bellini, Pontormo and Giordano.

Rome

Casino dell'Aurora

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Located near the Quirinale, the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic, this exquisite palazzo is one of the best-preserved Baroque houses in Rome. It was built at the beginning of the 17th century by celebrated patron of the arts Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, who involved some of the most famous architects and artists of the day in its construction. The owners of the palazzo still live there, so a visit must be arranged on a private basis. Best of all, the families who have owned the palace through the centuries miraculously managed to keep its art collection almost intact, so when visiting you really do have the impression of stepping back into the past.

Florence

The Opifici

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The Opifici are the official workshops of Florence’s museums, where the city’s most important works of art are restored. Right now – strictly by appointment only, of course – it is possible to watch them restoring works by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael, as well as one of Lorenzo Ghiberti’s famous gates to the Duomo. While there, you can talk to the restorers, who will explain the techniques they’re using as they work. It really is an extraordinary experience.

Rome

Palazzo Doria Pamphilj

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Located near the Quirinale, the official residence of the President of the Italian Republic, this exquisite palazzo is one of the best-preserved Baroque houses in Rome. It was built at the beginning of the 17th century by celebrated patron of the arts Cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, who involved some of the most famous architects and artists of the day in its construction. The owners of the palazzo still live there, so a visit must be arranged on a private basis. Best of all, the families who have owned the palace through the centuries miraculously managed to keep its art collection almost intact, so when visiting you really do have the impression of stepping back into the past.

Rome

Galleria Colonna

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Marcantonio Colonna was the admiral who led the Catholic fleet against the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The Galleria Colonna, complete with frescoes depicting of the epic story of the Colonna family – one of Rome’s most prominent dynasties – was built to celebrate this victory. Containing a number of important works, only certain areas are open to the public and only for a few days a year. The most beautiful areas are not normally open. You have to apply directly to the family and they can open them up to you – assuming you know the right phone number to call. With this type of visit it’s also possible to see the private apartments of the Princess Isabella, who lived here until her death 30 years ago. 

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