Everyone knows about the more famous museums and attractions in Italy – The Uffizi, St Peter’s, the Colosseum and so on. For those looking for a bit of change from the normal tourist route however, Italy also offers a surprising number of overlooked, offbeat or just downright strange attractions, from a memorial to plague victims to an eye-twisting ceiling. Below are just a few selections:
1. The Museum of the Souls of Purgatory
This quirky little museum situated in a small building next to the Church of the Sacred Heart of Sufferance (Sacro Cuore del Suffragio) is the legacy of French Priest Victor Jouet. In 1897, a fire burned down the chapel of Madonna del Rosario that had once stood on that spot; after the flames had died down, it was discovered that the smoke had left the mysterious image of a suffering face on one side of the altar (you can still see it in an ancient photograph in the museum).
Father Jouet examined the impression and came to the conclusion that it was the image of a soul in Purgatory. From then on, he dedicated himself to collecting similar spirit-signs from around Belgium, Germany, Italy and France, and by the end of his life, had collected hundreds of clothes, books, shirts and other materials that had been ‘touched by the dead’. The story of each find is described, and a tour past the displays make for an eerie counterpart to the more usual visits to churches and museums.
The Museum of the Souls of Purgatory is located at 12 Lungotevere Prati; Tel: 6540517. Open Sunday 9 A.M. to noon. No admission charged.
2. Trompe L’Oeils: Borromini Perspective Gallery and the Fake Pozzo Dome
The Renaissance Masters are famous for their mastery of all the techniques of painting, and one of their favourite techniques was the use of trompe l’oiel, literally ‘fool the eye’. In Rome, there are two famous examples of this technique: the Borromini Perspective Gallery and the Fake Pozzo Dome (pictured above).
The first is located on the ground floor of the Galleria Spada. Upon entering the courtyard, through a glass door and beyond a small formal garden, visitors will be forgiven for thinking they are seeing a long colonnade stretching into the distance, ending at the foot of a grand statue of Mars. Despite the evidence of their own eyes, the optical illusion is just a cleverly painted 9 metre hallway, and that grand statue is barely 1 metre tall! The optical illusion was carefully painted by Francesco Borromini, who skilfully reduced the dimensions of the colonnade as it receded, making the passage look almost twice as long as it really was. If you ask nicely, the guard may let you into the garden, where you can examine the painted wall more closely.
The second trompe l’oiel is actually the dome of the Church of Saint Ignatius (Chiesa di Sant Ignazio). If you’re sharp, you might notice as you enter that the roof is actually flat – legend has it the residents around the church didn’t want a big old dome blocking their morning sunshine, so the builders had to go with an alternative. Once inside though, if you stand exactly on a particular marble disk in the pavement and look up, you’d swear a dome was soaring up above you! This particular optical illusion was painted by Andrea Pozzo in 1685 on a canvas 15 metres wide, and only really works if you stand on that exact spot. Anywhere else, and it looks disconcertingly as though the ceiling is about to collapse. The dome itself isn’t the only trompe l’oiel in the church, as nearby the ceiling is covered with a painting representing the admission of Ignatius into paradise, and also makes use of false perspective.
The Galleria Spada is located at Piazza Capo di Ferro 13 and is open every day from 9.30 a.m.- 7.30 p.m (closes on Mondays, 1 January & 25 December). Tel. +39 06 6832409. Admission is EUR 5. The Church of Sant Ignazio is located at Piazza Sant’Ignazio, Rome and is open every day from 7 am to 12:30pm, and 3:30 pm to 7pm. Admission is free.
3. La Specola
This famous museum in Florence is noted for its collection of incredibly lifelike wax anatomical models, which were legitimately used for study purposes by medical students. There are about 1500 statues representing the other ailments the medieval Florentines had to deal with, but perhaps the best known are the ones known as the ‘Plague Waxes’. When the Black Death ran rampant throughout Europe during the Middle Ages, Italy was especially hard hit, as almost half of its population was lost to the ravages of the plague. To truly capture the horror of the time, artisans used moulds made from the cadavers of plague victims to create anatomically correct, uncomfortably realistic wax statues. Thought-provoking, but possibly not something you’d want to visit just after lunch.
La Specola is located in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence, Zoological Section at Via Romana 17. Open Thurs-Tues 9am-1pm. Admission is EUR 5.
4. The Original Ice Man
In Bolzano, a middling-sized town in Northern Italy, visitors can stop by the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology to take a look at one of the oldest men in Italy – Oetzi, who went to sleep 5,000 years ago and got covered by a glacier. Only recently found by German tourists a few years ago, the Ice Man (as he is informally known to scientists and journalists the world over) has been a tremendous find for local archaeologists, as they piece together how the ancients lived. You can learn all about the find and the later research by perusing the displays and the audioguides, and even catch a glimpse of the man himself, still looking as though he might wake up at any moment.
The South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology is located at Museumstrasse 43, Bolzano. Tel: 320100. Open Tuesday to Sunday from 10 am to 5.30 pm (closes on 1 January, 1 May & 25 December). Admission is EUR 8; guided tours available for additional EUR 2.
5. National Museum of Pasta
Actually, this probably doesn’t count as strange, since it is Italy we’re talking about, homeland of all things pasta. Located in Rome, this museum offers a neat look at every stage of pasta making, from the Grain Room where you’ll see the durum grains being pulverized into powder, to the Ligurian Room where you can count all the different kinds of pasta that can be made and the Napoli Room, where you’ll see photos of celebrities enjoying pasta dishes. Of course, after learning all about pasta, the best place to continue is in a restaurant for a real life sample!
The National Museum of Pasta is located at Piazza Scanderbeg, 114/120 – 00187, Rome. Tel: 6991120. Open every day including Sundays from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm. Admission is free.
6. National Etruscan Museum (Museo Nazionale Etrusco)
Not quite quirky so much as it is overlooked, this museum has the world’s best collection of all things Etruscan, and is located in the Palazzo Ruspoli, a beautiful Renaissance Villa in the Borghese Gardens, Inside, there’s everything from statues to coffins, but two of the most popular displays are the miniature collection and the Castellani collection. The first is an amazing gathering of figurines, depicting everything from chariots to sword and teeny-tiny plates, in fact almost everything used in daily life. Why they were made is still a mystery, much like the Etruscans themselves, but there are thousands of the charming miniatures and they are well over 2500 years old. The second item is the spectacular Castellani collection, which comprises of coins, gold and some breathtaking jewellery.
The National Etruscan Museum is located at Piazzale di Villa Giulia 9 Rome 00196. Tel: 3201951. Open Tuesdays to Sundays at 8.30 am to 7.30am. Admission is free.
7. Medieval Criminal Museum
For a stark reminder of just how gentle our modern penal system is, look no further than this museum in Tuscany, which documents the many brutal punishments doled out during the unenlightened medieval ages. There’s everything from stretching racks, thumb screws, knee-splitters, spiked collars and even more gruesome tools. Many of them are original relics from ancient dungeons, while others are replicas no less stomach-turning for never having been used. There’s a model of the infamous Iron Maiden here as well. Definitely not for the faint of heart, or tender of stomach.
The Medieval Criminal Museum is located at Via del Castello 1/3, San Gimignano, Siena. Open from 10:30am to 7:20pm. Admission is EUR 5. Guided tours are available on request.
8. National Museum Of Musical Instruments
Music lovers will find special enjoyment at this particular attraction, which collects well over 3,000 musical instruments in one place. From bells to whistles, pan pipes and drums, every recognizable (and a few very unusual) musical instrument is represented here. One of the most valuable items in the museum is the piano of Bartolemeo Cristofori, one of the three oldest in the world; another particularly valuable item is the gilt-covered Barberini Harp of 1600.