Masterpieces you may have missed

Each year, many Australians set off overseas for their chance to see some of the world’s finest masterpieces and historic sites, only to be met with throngs of eager cultural connoisseurs. Today, Tom Neal Tacker shares his favourite alternative European art wonders – without the crowds.

Been to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre? Sistine Chapel? The David statue in Florence?

Good for you! Everyone else did as well and no doubt you felt it the day you went, the crowds were so overwhelming.

Europe is brimming with masterpieces and places to visit. There’s more art on display than sale signs after Christmas.

While some artworks get the lion’s share of publicity (such as those listed above), others merit comparable attention – without the crowds.

Here’s a short list of five overlooked masterpieces and historic sites:

The most famous face in art is Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The Louvre in Paris is lucky to have her. From my point of view, Da Vinci’s The Lady with the Ermine in Krakow’s Vavel Castle (where she has her own room in the Czartoryski Museum) is equally mesmerising.

The day I visited her, it was late, about an hour before 5pm when the museum shuts its doors. During my hour with this masterpiece I was alone, except for a single grumpy Polish guard. Ms Grumpy pointedly looked at her wristwatch whenever she caught my eye, in case I overlooked closing time.

lady with ermine

Photography is prohibited inside the room where the exquisitely dressed young lady, holding a little white weasel tentatively in her arms, gazes into space as if she ruled it, mysterious as her sister-in-fame, the Mona Lisa. A well-written history of the painting, its inception, subject, and how it came to Krakow is in the adjacent room. Photography is allowed there.

Comparing triptychs: three painted panels packed with iconography. First, Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights in Madrid’s Museo del Prado museum is justly famous. ‘Bizarre’, ‘unworldly’ and ‘anti-religious’ are adjectives frequently used to describe his fantastical triptych. I believe seeing it is a truly internationally inspired religious experience. The constant crowds from around the world agree with me. 

the last judgement

Then there’s Lucas van Leyden (1494–1533) of Leiden in the Netherlands who painted his masterpiece of religious art, The Last Judgement triptych, for the Leiden church altarpiece in approximately the same decade that Bosch painted his triptych. If this is last judgement, it’s a scary place. Hell hath no fury as an artist imagining carnivorous demons and fire-breathing dragons. While a young artist growing up in Leiden, Rembrandt viewed it as inspiration. It takes pride of place in the small Museum de Lakenhal in Leiden, which is undergoing renovation, scheduled to reopen in August 2018. Until then, it can be seen in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour.

Rembrandt’s renowned The Night Watch is at one end of this gallery. Lucas van Leyden’s masterpiece is in an anteroom at the other. No guesses where the crowds are. I had van Leyden’s masterpiece almost to myself while it was standing room only with The Night Watch. I can only imagine the crowds in the Museo del Prado lining up to see the Bosch triptych.

Ah, Venice, a victim of its own success. If a Renaissance Disneyland exists, surely this is it. Twenty-five minutes away by frequent fast train is Padua, a university city. Now I never stay anywhere else when visiting Venice. Some 75,000 students call it home.

giotto scrovegni chapeo padua

Full of inexpensive family trattorias, good value small hotels and funky student budget-minded wine bars, Padua is the polar opposite to Venice’s sad assortment of tourist rip-off restaurants, grotty hotels and expensive bars. It’s also home to Giotto’s masterpiece, the Scrovegni Chapel frescoes. If you’ve seen Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, you understand the powerful impact of fresco.

Giotto is considered the father of the Renaissance. He was the first to paint character into portraits; emotion was his template. It’s a miracle the Scrovegni Chapel survives today. Next door is the church of Saint Filippo, also part of the Eremitani Museum complex that was almost destroyed in WWII. Thousands of fragments from Menabuoi’s fresco were painstakingly reassembled like a giant crossword puzzle. I can’t imagine Giotto’s 38 panels depicting the life of Jesus Christ would have survived the same treatment.

Pompeii, synonymous with Roman archaeology, is also the most visited ruined city in the world, with over 3 million per year. A day doesn’t go by without another coach load of day-tripping tourists off a huge cruise ship dropping in all at once to ‘do’ Pompeii. Various tours basically cover the same highlights: ashen remains of bodies, pornographic graffiti, communal toilets, a forum, statues and cobbled streets. When Vesuvius blew up in 79AD, Pompeii ceased to exist. Nowadays, it’s big business.

ostia antica

Ostia Antica is older than Pompeii, but just as well-preserved and luckily, not as popular. It was once Rome’s port, perhaps its first colony and from where Rome launched a thousand ships while it conquered the known world. Now it’s simply called Ostia, a Roman suburb. Approximately 45 minutes by commuter train from Rome’s Centro Historico, it’s easily accessible. An abandoned city since the Tiber River silted up and changed course over a thousand years ago, it’s almost perfectly preserved, like Pompeii without the volcanic explosion and massive crowds. On a beautiful late autumn day, I shared this bucolic site, approximately the same size as Pompeii, with fewer than 100 other visitors.

Berlin is Europe’s newest Bohemian city. Yes, I realise that is a contradictory statement. It’s also a refreshed seat of German tourism power. Check out the crowds at the Charlottenburg Palace if you don’t believe me. When not clubbing and pub crawling, visitors are museum and palace hopping in droves, with the former home of the Prussian kings being top on the list.

The unique Amber Room is worth a visit in itself – if you can stand the crowds. In Potsdam, approximately 45 minutes by train from Berlin’s central railway stations, is Frederick the Great’s Sans Souci Palace. Yes, it can be crowded, particularly on sunny summer weekends. However, Potsdam’s extensive wooded grounds filled with palaces and stately homes (including the surprisingly modest Cecilienhof where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt met to discuss terms for ending WWII), is where quietude can be found even on the most crowded days.

frederick the great grave in potsdam

Be sure to check out Frederick the Great’s grave on the grounds of his lovely Sans Souci Palace. Notice the potatoes scattered around it? The emperor introduced potatoes to his subjects, enabling them an affordable meal from an easily grown crop. Though potatoes were once considered poisonous, Frederick was a sensible man not given to superstition and who believed potatoes nutritious and efficacious to health. Remember that when eating chips with your currywurst in one of Berlin’s Bohemian biergartens.

Tom Neal Tacker travelled courtesy of RailEurope, Berlin Tourism, Krakow Tourism and Padova Tourism.  

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