Behind Closed Doors: Visiting Private Museums and Artwork in Italy

Contributor: Rebecca Winke

Italy is saturated with art, and not only in the big ticket cities like Rome, Florence, or Venice. Virtually every hamlet and hilltown in Italy boasts at least one masterpiece tucked away in the local parish church or dusty municipal gallery which, if it were housed in any city in the New World, would be the crown jewel of a lavish dedicated museum and marketed to its last dab of tempera.

But if your head swims at the thought of the incredible volume of art displayed publicly in Italy, consider the treasures that hide behind closed doors. Centuries of noble families amassing sumptuous private collections mean that there are untold Stendhal moments tucked away in the elegant apartments of Italy’s private palazzi and castles. Many of these are off-limits to visitors outside the family’s close circle, but many others can be quietly and privately seen...if you just know how.

If you dream of visiting some of Italy’s privately owned art treasures, there are a number of ways to unlock those doors. Click to tweet

Semi-Private


How private is private? It depends. There are a number of small private palazzi displaying historic family collections that are regularly open to the public, but significantly less crowded than the more famous public galleries. If you have doubts about the quality of these collections, consider this: both the Uffizi and the Vatican museums began as private collections installed in personal residences (the Medici family and the Pope, respectively). Here are a few of the most notable:

640px-Villa_Doria_Pamphili
Rome: Galleria Doria Pamphilj
In this sumptuous palazzo still owned by the aristocratic Pamphilj family, a quiet gallery displays Renaissance masterpieces by the likes of Raffaello, Caravaggio, and Velàzquez. Perhaps the richest private collection in all of Italy, and a well-kept secret.

Florence: Museo Horne
English collector Herbert P. Horne donated his 15th century palazzo and art collection to the state, and visitors to this often overlooked museum can see his early Renaissance paintings from the Florentine and Sienese schools—including Giotto’s Saint Stephen—and sculptures by artists such as Bernini, Desiderio da Settignano, and Giambologna.

Milan: Museo Poldi Pezzoli
Another gift to the state by a private collector, the works amassed by Gian Giacomo Poldi Pezzoli includes a number of important Renaissance paintings by Bellini, Botticelli, and Tiepolo hung in the halls of his private palazzo. The collection also includes precious porcelain, glass, textiles, and, jewelry.

Small, private museums in Italy are often the country’s best kept art secrets. Click to tweet

Private, With Exceptions


There are a number of occasions during the year when private palaces, castles, gardens and art collections are made open to the public for a limited period, and with a bit of planning and itinerary tweaking, visitors to Italy may get a chance to take a unique peek at these treasures.

VillaDellaPortaBozzolo-cameraverde(Photo by Skukifish via Wikimedia Commons)

The most important of these events are those organized by FAI —Italy’s National Trust—which, aside from managing an array of historic villas, castles, abbeys, and gardens, and organizing art exhibitions and cultural events, also holds Le Giornate FAI (FAI Days) over one weekend each spring. During this hugely popular event, privately owned properties across Italy open their doors to the public, offering private tours, concerts, and special events. In 2014, Le Giornate FAI will be the weekend of 22 and 23 March; a full program of sites and events are usually published on their website about a month in advance.

It’s always a good idea to check local events; often private villas and art collections are open to visitors for a limited time each year. Click to tweet

Private, Period

If you’d like to experience the joy of viewing a privately held masterpiece or collection exclusively (with, if your lucky, the added bonus of an explanation by the work’s owner), here’s an occasion where the aid of an excellent local guide is paramount.

We highly recommend local tour guides(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Professional guides, especially those with years of experience and specialized in history and the arts, not only have vast knowledge of their hometowns and regions, but also a sprawling network of contacts who are “in the know” about who has what hanging in their parlor or private chapel, and may welcome appreciative visitors. Let your guide (or, better, your travel planner) know as far ahead of time as possible your dream of swooning in front of a “secret” Titian or Canova, and chances are they will be able to arrange a private visit, where you can immerse yourself in quiet contemplation far away from the museum crowds.

An excellent local guide can be your key to visiting a privately owned work of art, or entire family collection. Click to tweet


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