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Top 7: Hidden Italy

Italy is packed with so much exquisite art and architecture that some of it may have escaped your attention. From a secret, art-laden corridor in the Uffizi Gallery to the necropolis under St Peter’s Basilica, we reveal the cultural treasures you may not know about — but definitely should

Top 7: Hidden Italy
Mural painting, Villa Poppaea. Image: AWL

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1. The other Pompeii: Villa Poppaea, nr Naples
Just one stop after Pompeii on the Sorrento-to-Naples Circumvesuviana Train is Torre Annunziata, a down-at-heel suburb that was once the well-to-do seaside resort of Oplontis. Like its more famous neighbour, it was buried by the 79AD eruption of Vesuvius. The surviving house from that era, the Villa Poppaea, is said to have once belonged to Emperor Nero and his wife Poppaea, its design was the blueprint for many of the houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum. You can see why — it’s huge and lavishly decorated with trompe l’oeil windows, doors and columns, bright scarlets and oranges on the walls, plus frescoes of birds, fruit, masks and mythological scenes such as Hercules in the garden of the Hesperides. Outside are 13 gardens, orchards and a huge swimming pool; inside, columns, doors and windows have been preserved by the ash, giving the eerie impression the owners have just popped out.
How to do it: Villa Poppaea is open 8.30am-7.30pm 1 April to 31 October, and 8.30am-5pm in winter. Entry €5.50 (£4). Real Holidays has three nights B&B at the Costantinopoli 104 hotel with flights to Naples from Gatwick from £360 per person.
More info: pompeiisites.org

2. What lies beneath: St Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City
Before St Peter’s took its present shape — gargantuan, marble-lined and topped with Michelangelo’s famous dome — there was a smaller, simpler church, built by the Emperor Constantine to mark the supposed burial place of St Peter. And before that, there was a pre-Christian necropolis. Both are still there, under the current basilica, and both are accessible on guided tours, booked (well) in advance with the Vatican. The hour-long tour whisks you past the Swiss Guards and down two levels beneath St Peter’s to the necropolis, which is astonishingly well preserved, complete with streets, buildings and sarcophagi- and sculpture-filled tombs. Next, you’ll climb up a level to glimpse remains of Constantine’s first basilica, an early Christian graffiti wall and what the Vatican claims are the remains of St Peter, before ending the tour among the tombs of popes from the past 1,000 years.
How to do it: Daily guided tours cost €13 (£9). Apply for tickets in advance in person at the Ufficio Scavi (excavations office) in the Vatican, or by fax (F: 00 39 06 69873017). Citalia has three nights’ B&B at the Hotel City and flights from Gatwick with Norwegian from £285 per person.
More info: scavi.va

Tomb of the Monkey, Chiusi. Image: Getty

Tomb of the Monkey, Chiusi. Image: Getty

3. Art that rocks: ‘Caves of God’, Mottola
Cave dwellings are hardly scarce in Southern Italy — after all, entire towns have been sculpted out of the ravines in Basilicata and western Puglia. But rarely have they preserved such astounding artwork as in the Byzantine churches of Mottola, a small town between Taranto and Matera. The Grotte di Dio (‘Caves of God’) are set in ravines and either carved out of the rocky ground or sculpted from caves. Although gated off, the local tourist office can arrange two-hour guided tours of all four: the 12th-century San Gregorio, beneath a field; San Nicola, whose ninth-century frescoes (dubbed ‘the Sistine Chapel of cave architecture’) once made it a stopping point for pilgrims en route to Jerusalem; Sant’Angelo, a two-level church hewn from a cave complex in the 11th century; and Santa Margherita, with wall upon wall of 12th-century frescoes.
How to do it: Tours, from €3 (£2.30) for groups to €10 (£7.60) for individuals, are by appointment. Book by email ([email protected]) or phone (T: 00 39 0998 867640). Western & Oriental has seven nights B&B at Corte San Pietro in Matera, flights with EasyJet to Bari and a week’s car hire from £730 per person.
More info: mottolaturismo.it

4. Painted tombs: Etruscan necropolis, Chiusi
Before the Romans arrived, the town of Chiusi was one of the hubs of the Etruscan civilisation. Today, as well as being home to the National Etruscan Museum — filled with artifacts such as statues and Greek-style vases — it’s possible to go inside three of the 15 painted tombs in the nearby necropolis: the Tomb of the Pilgrim, Tomb of the Monkey and Tomb of the Hill, which opened to the public in March last year. A fourth, the Tomb of the Lion, is currently closed.
How to do it: Daily tours of ‘Pilgrim’ from March-October, at 11am and 4pm, and 2.30pm from November-February — free with €6 (£4.60) museum entry. ‘Monkey’ tours are on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, at the same times, for €3 (£2.30). ‘Hill’ tours, from March-October every Friday at 12pm and 5pm and from November-February on the first and third Friday of the month at 12pm and 3.30pm. Tickets cost €3 (£2.20).
More info: prolocochiusi.it

Multimedia display within Roman ruins beneath Palazzo Valentini. Image: Getty

Multimedia display within Roman ruins beneath Palazzo Valentini. Image: Getty

5. Palatial hospital: Scuola Grande di San Marco, Venice
Only in Venice could a hospital be located in a marble Renaissance palace. The was known as the Scuola Grande di San Marco — one of six such civic institutions with artistic leanings, some of which date back to the 13th century — until 1819, when it was turned into an Austrian military hospital. Visitors can still enter the spectacular hallway, climb the monumental staircase and visit its library, with over 8,000 books from the 16th century onwards, ancient surgical tools and a gilded ceiling. There’s also an anatomy museum (Il Museo di Anatomia Patologica) with a display of early operating tables, and the hospital’s old pharmacy (Farmacia Storica), reconstructed as it was in the 18th century, complete with the herbal medicines that Venetian hospitals were prescribing since their 12th-century origins.
How to do it: The anatomy museum and pharmacy are open every Monday from 2-5pm, entry €3 (£2.30). The library is free and open 9.30am-1pm and 2-5pm Tuesday to Saturday. Railbookers offers a Venice city break from London St Pancras International, with overnight trains and two nights’ B&B at the Hotel Ca’ dei Conti from £419 per person.
More info: scuolagrandesanmarco.it

6. Archaeology in action: Palazzo Valentini, Rome
Rome, of course, is one great archaeological dig, but to escape the crowds and see one in action, head to the 16th-century Palazzo Valentini, which offers guided tours of recent excavations up to 23ft beneath the building. Roman mosaics, painted walls and the polychrome floors of villas are all visible below the glass walkways, and bathhouses, kitchens and peristyles are all brought to life through multimedia demonstrations.
How to do it: Guided tours take place Wednesday to Monday, €12 (£8.50).
More info: palazzovalentini.it

7. Chez Noble: Villa La Quiete, Tuscany
Once the nobility’s playground, the countryside around Florence is dotted with lavish villas that used to be owned by the Medici family. Some are open to the public, some are strictly private; one that treads the line between the two is Villa La Quiete, owned by the local government and open for visits by appointment. Dating back to the 15th century, it was bought by the Medici clan in 1627, who promptly stuffed it with priceless art (including a major work of the Tuscan Baroque: the wax sculpture Lamentation of the Virgin and angels on the Dead Christ, by Massimiliano Soldani Bensi). They also frescoed its ceilings and created a formal garden before gifting it to a religious institution.
How to do it: There are no official English-speaking tours, but it’s possible to book a visit with an Italian guide who’ll show you around and give you a brochure in English. This year’s prices are still to be confirmed at the time of going to press; email [email protected] to arrange a visit.
More info: villalaquietefirenze.it

Read more in the April 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)