Discover the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Lombardy

Written by on December 29, 2020 in Things to See & Do

mix of UNESCO sites in Lombardy

What is a UNESCO World Heritage Site?

A World Heritage Site is a landmark or area with legal protection by an international convention administered by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). World Heritage Sites are designated by UNESCO for having cultural, historical, scientific or other form of significance. There are currently 1,121 such sites worldwide.

UNESCO sites in Italy & Lombardia

Italy has a total of 55 UNESCO world heritage sites, the most of any country in the world. And Lombardia is home to eleven of them, the most of all the Italian regions.

Here we draw your attention to 5 of the most accessible and interesting sites to visit during your stay in Lombardia.

Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie

The Last Supper – L’Ultima Cena

The most precious of Lombardia’s sites is Leonardo da Vinci’s mural, the Last Supper – L’Ultima Cena. It is found in the Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano sited at the Dominican Monastery of la Chiesa di Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milano.

L’Ultima Cena represents the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles, as it is told in the Gospel of John. Leonardo has depicted the consternation that occurred among the Twelve Apostles when Jesus announced that one of them would betray him.

Unesco describes the site, which comprises both the painting and the buildings as “a unique artistic achievement, of an exceptional universal value that transcends all historical contingencies”. “The Last Supper has exerted a considerable influence, not only on the development of an iconographic theme but also on the destiny of painting”. “It is no exaggeration to say that this painting opened up a new era in art history”.

Leonardo da Vinci – the ultimate ‘many sided man’

Leonardo da Vinci, painter, architect, sculptor, engineer, inventor, mathematician, anatomist and writer, embodied the ideal of the many-sided man dreamed of by the Italian Renaissance. The Last Supper offers perhaps the most complete testimony to his multifaceted genius, his urge to experiment and his inexhaustible curiosity.

The Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci - Discover the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Lombardy
The most important mural in the world

The Last Supper, which Leonardo painted between 1494 and the beginning of 1498, is considered perhaps the most important mural painting in the world. In the period when he was working on it, he was also busy with studies of light, sound, movement and human emotions and their expression. These interests are all reflected in the Last Supper, in which, perhaps more than in any other work, Leonardo displayed his concern to depict what he called the “motions of the soul”.

Preserving this delicate painting and enabling the public to admire it is a daily challenge to the restorers, architects and art historians at the Cenacolo Vinciano who look after it. They employ the finest technologies to ensure that the masterpiece is passed on to future generations.

Workers village of Crespi d’Adda

Crespi d’Adda is located in the frazione of Capriate San Gervasio in the province of Bergamo. It is a historic and very well-preserved example of a late 19th century “company town” which appeared around that time in both Europe and America. In the UK, a similar example is Derwent Valley Mills in Derbyshire.

In fact, the style of little workers cottages was taken from the UK. Silvio Crespi, of the Crespi family that built the Crespi d’Adda textile factory and workers village took a lot of his inspiration from his time spent working in the important English textile town of Oldham.

At its peak, around 3,200 people lived and worked here at Crespi d’Adda. Around 400 people live here today, mostly descendants of the original occupants, although textile production has long since ended.

Village of Crespi d'Adda in Lombardy

Crespi d’Adda was very innovative for its day. It was the first village in Italy to have electric street lighting and it also had mains water which was rare at the time. The site is fascinating to visit and gives you a flavour of life in the industrial north of Italy during the height of the industrial revolution. It is still very much intact and you can visit the original cotton factory, the school house and workers cottages.

The site is now the headquarters of the Antonio Percassi Family Foundation. Antonio Percassi is a former professional footballer who played for Atalanta in Bergamo before becoming one of Italy’s leading entrepreneurs in the fields of fashion retail, cosmetics and shopping centre development.

The Bernina Express from Tirano in Italy to St Moritz in Switzerland

Rather than a place to visit, this unique site is a spectacular and unique railway journey across the mountains from Italy into Switzerland.

Also known as La Ferrovia Retica, the Bernina Express starts in the village of Tirano in Italy, located near Lake Como. In the Valpellina valley, just after Sondrio, on the road to Bormio. The train climbs up to a peak height of 2,253m (the highest point reached by any adhesion railway in Europe) as it crosses the Alps before delivering you into the iconic Swiss ski resort of St Moritz. If you want, you can continue on the train from St Moritz to Davos, home of the World Economic Forum.

Bernina express red train goes from Italy to Switzerland - Discover the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Lombardy

Along the way the line goes around many hairpin bends and over a spiral bridge called the Brusio Viaduct. It goes along an aerial tramway near Diavolezza and passes the Morteratsch Glacier before going through the Bernina Pass. The trip is a fabulous chance to sit back and take in some classic Alpine scenery of beautiful lakes, stunning mountains and awesome valleys.

For the best views you should sit on the right side of the train going north to south, and the left side in the opposite direction. The trip takes about 2 hours 30 minutes.

The electric train runs on 1 metre track and goes over 196 bridges as well as through 55 tunnels. As this is a popular tourist attraction the carriages have panoramic windows and there is a multi-lingual audio guide onboard to explain the route to you.

The towns of Mantova and Sabbioneta

These two fascinating and beautiful Lombard towns of Mantova and Sabbioneta are recognised together as a UNESCO site due to their ‘outstanding testimony to the architecture and town planning of the Renaissance’.

For my own reference, the Italian Renaissance was that ‘fervent period of European cultural, artistic, political and economic “rebirth” following the Middle Ages, generally described as taking place from the 14th century to the 17th century. The Renaissance promoted the rediscovery of classical philosophy, literature and art’.

Mantova is located on the eastern edge of Lombardia, close to the border with neighbouring Veneto. It is about 45km south of Verona and the same distance from the southern shore of Lake Garda. Mantova sits on the river Mincio, a tributary of the river Po. It overlooks a network of man-made lakes and is bisected by an ancient canal.

Sabbioneta is located 35km south west of Mantova, close to the border with Emilia-Romagna, about 30km north of Parma.

Mantova over the river at night time

Let’s leave it to UNESCO to explain…

Rather than try to explain myself the basis for UNESCO’s recognition of these two beautiful cities, here is what appears on UNESCO’s own Italian website, with a bit of editing thrown in.

‘Mantova and Sabbioneta represent the two best urban examples of the Italian Renaissance: the transformation of an existing city (Mantova) and the foundation of a new city (Sabbioneta), based on the concepts of an ideal city prevalent at the time. Together, they constitute two significant stages of territorial planning and urban interventions undertaken by the Gonzagas (the ruling dynasty in this part of Italy throughout the Renaissance period) between the first half of the 14th century and the early years of the 18th century.

Mantova is an extraordinary example of transformation of an existing city, of Etruscan-Roman origin and modified during the Middle Ages. Sabbioneta was built as a new city in the second half of the 16th century, supplanting a small medieval village and transforming in a very short time into an avant-garde stronghold and refined cultural and architectural centre. Its star-shaped walls, the checkerboard layout of the streets and the role of public spaces and monuments contribute to making it one of the best examples of an ideal city built in Europe.

In Sabbioneta there is one of the jewels of the history of theatre in Europe: the Teatro all’Antica built by Vincenzo Scamozzi, the first purpose-built theatre in Italy.

The antique theatre of Sabbioneta

Mantova and Sabbioneta were references for most of the subsequent city building experiences up to the modern era, playing a fundamental role in spreading the culture of the Renaissance both inside and outside Europe’.

Cremona and the ancient craft of violin making

Cremona is famous for the ancient craft of hand building and restoring violins, violas, cellos and double basses. An activity that has been central to the towns existence since the 16th – 18th centuries and which remains so to this day. That is what UNESCO wishes to celebrate and preserve with this World Heritage designation.

Stradivari, Bergonzi, Guarneri and Ruggeri were just some of the violin maker households in Cremona who created a unique production line over 300 years. Antonio Stradivari, (1644 – 1737) perhaps the most famous of all luthiers in Cremona, rose to a domineering role in 1680 in the production of luxury instruments.

cremona and the violin making workshop

Today’s luthiers of Cremona attend a specialized violin school before doing an apprenticeship in a workshop, where they continue to perfect the technique. Each craftsman builds three to six instruments a year, shaping and assembling by hand from more than 70 pieces of wood around a mold, according to the different acoustic responses of each individual piece. No two hand- made violins are identical and each part of the instrument is made of a specific wood, carefully selected and naturally seasoned. No semi-industrial or industrial materials are used. The “Consorzio Liutai Antonio Stradivari” and the “Italian Violinmaking Association” are still considered fundamental to the identity of the Cremona of today.

A visit to the Museo del Violino Antonio Stradivari in Cremona will provide you with an intimate understanding of this fascinating story and is an unexpectedly enjoyable experience for everyone, not just violin afficionados.

The Venetian ramparts of Bergamo

Finally, although there are some other very noteworthy UNESCO sites we have not mentioned (we shall do so another time) we do also have to pick out the magnificent ancient Venetian ramparts of Bergamo’s Alta Citta. Because, although we are biased, we think that a visit to Bergamo’s old town is one of the most pleasurable experiences that our region has to offer.

Bergamo citta alta - the old city with its rampart - Discover the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Lombardy

The massive walls date back to the rule of the Republic of Venice during the 1500’s and are particularly well preserved because, ironically, they did not suffer any war events. Indeed, by the time of their construction this type of defensive system was already redundant here in Italy. Nevertheless, even today Bergamo from the outside appears to be an impregnable city, thanks to its majestic defensive walls.

Read more about the lovely town of Bergamo here.

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