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Mediterranean Art: Trailing the Masters in Spain, France and Italy

SmarterTravel

On a recent Mediterranean cruise, I noticed a trend in the shore excursion offerings: art. Beyond the region’s famous museums, the Mediterranean has also been home to some fo the world’s most accomplished artists. And it’s the glimpse into their personal lives — their homes, studios, galleries, neighborhoods and even graves — that adds a relatable touch to the paintings and other art you’ve seen in museums across the globe.

Beginning in Spain, crossing into France and on into Italy, we take you on a brief tour of Mediterranean art, following in the footsteps of an inimitable architect, a Spanish Dadaist, an eccentric surrealist, and Italian masters of sculpture and painting. You can walk the streets they walked and even look out the windows onto views they would eventually immortalize on canvas.

Barcelona, Spain: Gaudi, Picasso and Miro

The triumvirate of Antoni Gaudi, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro irrevokably shaped the artistic landscape of Barcelona. The curling, playful spires and shapes of Gaudi’s architecture crop up on Passeig de Gracia, where Casa Batllo — once a private residence — sticks out like a rowdy rowhouse in tribute to the swirls of the ocean. Just down the street is Gaudi’s Casa Mila, or La Pedrera (stone quarry), distinguished by chimneys that resemble helmeted heads. (Don’t miss the rooftop tour.)

Gaudi lived for a time in Parc Guell, a park originally intended to be a gated community for the wealthy, while he worked on the homes, gatehouses and other areas around the grounds. Just outside Barcelona proper is one of Gaudi’s less-visited works, the Church of Colonia Guell, a place of worship intended for the textile workers who lived there. Gaudi is buried in a crypt within his most popular work, the Sagrada Familia Basilica. A hop-on, hop-off tour will cover most of these sites; in-depth tours of each location are also available.

Picasso lived in Barcelona during his formative years, and it’s here that the largest collection of his early works is housed. The Museu Picasso contains thousands of paintings, sculptures and traveling exhibits in castle-like homes dating back to the 13th century. In the years leading up to Picasso’s recognizable Blue Period, he frequented Els Quatre Gats, a cafe in the Gothic Quarter still open today, with original menu art created by — you guessed it.

Barcelona-born Joan Miro influenced the world of modern art, and his irregular lines are found in works like the72-foot abstract sculpture “Woman and Bird” in the Parc de Joan Miro. No art tour of Barcelona is complete without a hike (or bus ride, or cable car ride) up Montjuic to the Fundacio Joan Miro, started by Miro himself in the 1970s to house his works, and built up over the years through additional donations by family and friends.

Girona, Spain: Dali

About two hours outside of Barcelona by car or train is the site of the Dali Theatre-Museum, located in Salvador Dali’s home town of Figueres, in the province of Girona. Buried in a crypt below the stage in the building that was once the town’s theater, Dali envisioned this building before he died: “I want my museum to be a single block, a labyrinth, a great surrealist object. … The people who come to see it will leave with the sensation of having had a theatrical dream.” It holds the largest collection of works by Dali in any single location, along with featured works by other artists such as El Greco, Duchamp and fellow Catalonian artist Antoni Pitxot.

Joies Dali, a separate two-story building containing jewelry designed by Dali, is nearby. Also in the vicinity are Dali’s former house in Portlligat, and the Gala Dali castle in Pubol. Both properties offer a clear insight into the imaginative artist’s muses — namely, his wife Gala.

Aix-en-Provence, France: Cezanne

Exploring Paul Cezanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, Atelier des Lauves, is a visceral experience. Preserved exactly as he left it (with his hat still on the hook), the small room where Cezanne painted and dreamed opens to a small group of visitors each day. See the paint stains soaked in over the years along with artwork, furniture and even his glass of wine; look out the window to his atelier and breathe in the perfume of the garden.

Signposts throughout Aix will guide you to the haunts of the influential post-impressionist painter — the house where Cezanne was born, landmarks of his youth and cafes he frequented with friends. Apart from his studio, you can visit his family’s estate, Bastide du Jas de Bouffan, and the Bibemus Quarries, a park where Cezanne had a cottage and that often served as a subject for his paintings.

Admission to the studio and other sites in Aix is free with the purchase of a #provenceaixperience tourism pass.

The French Riviera: Matisse, Chagall, Renoir and Van Gogh

It isn’t difficult to see how an artist would draw inspiration from Nice, on the sun-splashed Cote d’Azur. Henri Matisse, who moved there in 1917, once said, “When I realized that every morning I would see this light again, I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.” In addition to visiting the Musee Matisse, which has one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of the artist’s work, you can also stop by the Hotel Regina, where Matisse used to reside, and wander through the market just down the street from where he lived.

If you aren’t too far under Nice’s spell, consider making the 30-minute drive out to Vence to examine Matisse’s final work: the Chapelle du Rosaire, with colorful stained-glass windows and exquisite murals created by the artist.

Matisse wasn’t the only artist smitten with the French Riviera. Pierre-Auguste Renoir spent the last 12 years of his life in Cagnes-sur-Mer, where his former home now houses a collection of paintings, sculptures and original furniture. Art lovers will also want to check out the Fondation Vincent van Gogh in Arles and the Musee National Marc Chagall in Nice.

Florence, Italy: Uffizi Gallery

Okay, so the Uffizi isn’t an artist; it’s an entire gallery. In Florence it’s hard to extricate just a few masterworks from centuries’ worth of exceptional art — so after ogling Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia (just do it, no one is judging you), journey to the Uffizi Gallery, where you can view Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” as well as paintings from Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Giotto, Rubens and Rembrandt.

The Uffizi complex began construction in 1560, and many of the works within it also hail from the Renaissance period. These works have survived the test of time, including terrorism plots and natural disasters, but today you’ll have to worry about … the lines. With so many significant works concentrated in the same building, the Uffizi is considered one of the top museums in the world — and the wait time reflects that. We recommend booking online in advance and paying a little extra to skip the line.

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–written by Brittany Chrusciel

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