The Guide to Essential Italy

Let The Great Courses and Smithsonian Journeys take you on a rich and diverse tour that explores the crown jewels of Italian civilization.
The Guide to Essential Italy is rated 4.5 out of 5 by 178.
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Rated 3 out of 5 by from An Extremely Detailed Guide Very detailed descriptions with many associated stories. The professor is a little pedantic, but certainly knows his Italy.
Date published: 2021-06-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Essential Italy I have been to Italy four times over the last 60 years. If only I had the opportunity to have seen this just once. The history of and the examination of the palaces in Venice was outstanding. Dr. Bartlett was amazing. Thank you so much.
Date published: 2021-06-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A Great Inspiration I watched this course as a preparation for a trip to Italy in 2018 (before Covid hit), and I found the course to be extremely helpful. Professor Bartlett orients the viewer very effectively with each city, and this made the transition to the "real" streets on my trip much easier. His anecdotes about the colorful characters made everything come alive. Highly recommended for a traveler to Italy!
Date published: 2021-06-03
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Italy as a museum The words "dead" and "dull" are not the first words that come to my mind when I think of Italy. But they describe the impression of the country with which this course leaves one. The so-called "essential Italy" of this course is a place of Roman ruins, churches, paintings, sculptures, and architecture, whose history seems to have petered out around the 16th century. It is, in sum, a museum. It is not a living country populated by Italians. The course follows the well-worn touristic itinerary of Rome-Florence-Venice, with just a few stops and side-trips (e.g., Naples figures as a city that you have to pass through to get to the ruins of Pompeii on a day trip from Rome). If you love tramping through museums and churches and checking famous artifacts off a prescribed list, this is the course for you. But before buying it you should understand that it is a tour of a museum, not of a living country.
Date published: 2021-05-13
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Here’s a Church; There’s another Church Covers Rome, Florence, and Venice primarily. Lots of churches, with thin descriptions of architectural styles and artwork. Not much history. Professor is dynamic. Lots of walking directions, turn left, turn right.
Date published: 2021-03-28
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Worthwhile, but some quibbles My husband and I have been to Italy several times and intend to go again. This course opened our eyes to many parts of Rome, Florence and Venice that we had missed on our visits to those cities. The professor is very knowledgeable about art and architecture, and also gives a lot of historical information, though often in a way that presupposes a knowledge the viewer may not have (for instance, what was the sacking of Rome? Who did it and why? etc.). Also he shares a good many legends which vary in interest. His delivery is mostly dry with occasional glints of humor. As the course went on, however, we felt that he warmed to his subject, or maybe we just got used to his teaching style and began to see the true love he has for Italy and the vast experience he brings to the subject. Quibbles: "Essential Italy"? We feel sure that there are great buildings and artworks in places outside these major cities. The South is entirely ignored. A more accurate title might be: "Artistic and Architectural Treasures of Italy." Biggest issue for us: The soundtrack was a throwaway. The music had nothing to do with Italy, except for a few bits of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons. Most of the music was by composers of other countries, like Handel and Brahms, even Elgar. My husband is a professional classical musician with a special interest in Italy, and reminded me that opera was born in that country and many of the greatest composers of the Renaissance and Baroque were Italian We howled in frustration when the professor mentioned how glorious the music is in St. Mark's Cathedral in Venice and then omitted to play even a few seconds of a work by Giovanni Gabrieli, the immortal maestro di cappella of the church, so that viewers could experience this glory for themselves. From the centuries of Italian musical masterpieces a great soundtrack could have been put together to complement the subject ideally. If you're talking about Essential Italy, you should not ignore her musical preeminence. Still, we gained a lot from this course and are glad to have hung in there through some dry and frustrating parts.
Date published: 2021-03-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Outstanding! Dr. Bartlett's course exceeded all my aspirations. I think I could re-visit Italy and enjoy partaking in it.
Date published: 2021-03-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An excellent tour of Italy I have watched this several times. Dr. Bartlett does such a good job of explaining the history and significance of sites. The photography is excellent. My only complaint is that I wish the photographer would pause a few seconds at each location to give the perfect postcard view of that site. I wish I had taken this course before visiting Rome a few years ago with no tour, just my Michelin and Rick Steve's guide books. I certainly missed a lot. I would have appreciated more history, especially of the papacy and its degeneracy in the 15-17th centuries. And of the history of Italy, its warring states, and the Risorgimento. Also, Dr. Bartlett refers to so many things as "the greatest ______ in Rome or Italy. Don't miss." Aside from my requests that this course be 10 lectures longer, it was excellent. Thank you, Dr. Bartlett and the Great Courses.
Date published: 2021-02-25
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Italy is the quintessential location for anyone interested in art, culture, and history. In collaboration with the Smithsonian, we bring you the exceptional gems and daily life of Italy's past and present in a visually stunning tour. Explore Rome, Florence, and Venice-and take side trips to Pompeii, Perugia, and more. Visit important monuments, witness artistic masterpieces, and immerse yourself in Italian culture.


Kenneth R. Bartlett
Kenneth R. Bartlett

In short, and in almost every way that matters, historical Europe was the laboratory in which the world you now live in was conceived and tested. And you'll be living with the consequences of those experiments for the rest of your life.


University of Toronto

Professor Kenneth R. Bartlett is a Professor of History at the University of Toronto. He received his Ph.D. from the Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of Toronto in 1978. He was the first director of the University of Toronto Art Centre and founding director of the Office of Teaching Advancement at the university, a position he held until 2009.

Much of Professor Bartlett’s career has been devoted to bringing the culture of European history into undergraduate and graduate classrooms. He has taught regularly in the University of Toronto Summer Abroad programs in Europe. He has been the recipient of numerous teaching awards, most notably, the 3M National Teaching Fellowship, awarded by the Canadian Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, and the inaugural President’s Teaching Award from the University of Toronto. In 2007, Professor Bartlett was one of the 10 finalists in TVOntario’s Best Lecturer Competition, which pits students’ favorite instructors against one another in a battle of charisma, clarity, passion, and conviction. That same year, the professor was recognized with an inaugural Leadership in Faculty Teaching Award by the government of Ontario.


Professor Bartlett is the author of The English in Italy, 1525–1558: A Study in Culture and Politics; The Civilization of the Italian Renaissance: A Sourcebook; and most recently, A Short History of the Italian Renaissance. He is also coeditor or translator of five other books, including Humanism and the Northern Renaissance (with M. McGlynn), and author of more than 35 articles and chapters on European history and culture. He has been the academic consultant and occasional on-camera commentator for the Illuminated Filmworks videos about the Vatican Library and for such television series as The Naked Archaeologist and Museum Secrets.


Together with his wife, Gillian, who herself holds a Ph.D. and is the author of seven books, Professor Bartlett regularly leads tours to Europe for major museums, universities, and cultural organizations.


Professor Bartlett’s other Great Courses include The Development of European Civilization, The Italian Renaissance, and The Italians before Italy: Conflict and Competition in the Mediterranean

By This Professor

The Guide to Essential Italy


Rome: The Eternal City

01: Rome: The Eternal City

Begin your journey with sites along the Tiber River, which tells the story of Rome through the ages. Climb the Monte Caprino, one of Rome's seven hills, to see monumental sculptures, Michelangelo's magnificent piazza and palaces, and the outstanding decoration and artworks of the Church of the Aracoeli....

30 min
The Capitoline and the Colosseum

02: The Capitoline and the Colosseum

Learn about the marvels of Roman hydraulic engineering, and visit the massive Circus Maximus and the spectacular ruined baths nearby. Then discover the great palace complex of Domitian, with the emperor's private quarters and ceremonial rooms; the houses of Augustus and Livia; and the Renaissance Farnese Gardens....

29 min
Imperial Palaces of the Palatine Hill

03: Imperial Palaces of the Palatine Hill

Learn about the marvels of Roman hydraulic engineering, and visit the massive Circus Maximus and the spectacular ruined baths nearby. Then discover the great palace complex of Domitian, with the emperor's private quarters and ceremonial rooms; the houses of Augustus and Livia; and the Renaissance Farnese Gardens. ...

30 min
Pompeii: A City Frozen in Time

04: Pompeii: A City Frozen in Time

Take a detour to the amazingly preserved city of Pompeii, with its fascinating view into the lives of ordinary Roman citizens. Envision the grandeur of Pompeii's forum, with its temples, municipal buildings, and public baths. Explore luxurious mansions, brothels, and bakeries; the theatre, outdoor gymnasium and arena; and the beautiful Villa of Mysteries. ...

30 min
The Roman Forum

05: The Roman Forum

Learn about the history of this monumental public space, the epicenter of Rome's empire. Visit essential sites of the Forum, including the Temples of Venus and of Rome, the Arch of Titus, the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, and the House and Temple of the Vestal Virgins....

30 min
Along the Via Sacra to the Capitoline

06: Along the Via Sacra to the Capitoline

Continuing with highlights of the Forum, grasp the economic and civic functions of the Basilica Aemilia and the Basilica Julia. Take in important pagan shrines, the Curia or Senate House, and the Arch of Septimius Severus, and learn the remarkable stories of the Church of Saints Mark and Martina and the Mamertine Prison....

29 min
The Via del Corso and Princely Palaces

07: The Via del Corso and Princely Palaces

Delve into the history of this famous street, and how it was named. Visit the Palazzo Doria Pamphili (containing a superb private art museum), the Palazzo Odescalchi, and the vast Palazzo Colonna, and learn about the lives of princely families. Discover the frescoes of the Galleria Sciarra, one of Rome's little-known gems....

29 min
The Trevi Fountain and Baroque Rome

08: The Trevi Fountain and Baroque Rome

A beloved symbol of Rome, the dazzling Trevi Fountain was a showpiece for Baroque papal power. After exploring the fountain, walk to the Piazza Quirinal, and visit its two majestic Baroque palaces. Also visit churches by Bernini and Borromini, highlighting Santa Maria della Vittoria, which contains Bernini's Cornaro Chapel and Ecstasy of Santa Teresa....

30 min
Above and Beyond the Spanish Steps

09: Above and Beyond the Spanish Steps

Walk down the famous Via Veneto to Bernini's Fontana Tritone fountain, continuing to the massive Palazzo Barberini, now a superlative art museum. Explore the picturesque Spanish Steps area, highlighting the Villa Medici, the elegant Via Condotti, and the great Palazzo Borghese, one of Rome's most lavish princely dwellings....

29 min
At the Bend in the Tiber

10: At the Bend in the Tiber

The Piazza Montecitorio comprises the political heart of Rome. Begin with the Palace of Montecitorio, a Bernini masterpiece now housing the Italian parliament. Marvel at the storied Palazzo Chigi, the imposing Temple to Hadrian, and the sublime interior of the church of Sant'Ignazio, and the Solarium Augusti, a gigantic sundial....

30 min
The Pantheon to Campo dei Fiori

11: The Pantheon to Campo dei Fiori

Immerse yourself in the lore of the iconic Pantheon, the resting place of Raphael and other celebrated Italians. Explore architectural treasures including splendorous Gothic and Renaissance churches en route to the teeming Piazza Navona, center of Roman social life. Also visit the Palazzo della Cancelleria, the finest early Renaissance palace in Rome....

31 min
Piazza Farnese to the Ara Pacis

12: Piazza Farnese to the Ara Pacis

Begin at the Piazza Farnese, one of Rome's most majestic squares, and visit its great Renaissance palace. Then take in the Palazzo Spada, with its ingenious Borromini interior, and discover one of Rome's greatest jewels, the Villa Farnesina. Conclude with two hugely important ancient sites, the Mausoleum of Augustus and the Ara Pacis....

30 min
Piazza del Popolo to San Clemente

13: Piazza del Popolo to San Clemente

Here, admire the lovely church of Santa Maria del Popolo, with its magnificent frescoes, and the lovely Villa Museo Borghese, boasting masterworks of Bernini, Titian, Raphael, and Caravaggio. Linger at the fabulous papal basilica of San Giovanni in Laterano, the Scala Santa (Holy Stairs), and the extraordinary three-level church of San Clemente....

29 min
The Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica

14: The Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica

Learn the history of the Vatican's Apostolic Palace, one of the most important repositories of art in the Western world, and savor treasures including the superlative Rooms of Raphael and Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling. Conclude your Roman tour at the Renaissance Basilica of Saint Peter, the world's largest church and the seat of Roman Catholicism....

30 min
Orvieto, Siena, and San Gimignano

15: Orvieto, Siena, and San Gimignano

En route to Florence, discover three idyllic Italian towns. First visit Orvieto, with its glorious cathedral, vast Palace of the Popes, and intact medieval quarter. Continue to the UNESCO world heritage site of Siena, an astonishing medieval time capsule, and the exquisite San Gimignano, of dramatic towers and historic churches housing sublime frescoes....

30 min
Florence: Politics in Art and Architecture

16: Florence: Politics in Art and Architecture

Begin your tour of Florence by delving into the history of the feudal clans and merchant class that built the city. Visit the Uffizi, another of the world's greatest repositories of art; the imposing Palazzo Vecchio, with its dramatic Medici history; and the Orsanmichele, a building central to the medieval Florentine economy....

31 min
From the Piazza del Duomo to San Marco

17: From the Piazza del Duomo to San Marco

Walk to the magical Piazza del Duomo, which encompasses all of Florence's rich history. Admire the vast Duomo (cathedral), with its world-famous dome, one of the wonders of the Renaissance. Marvel at the Baptistery's extraordinary doors, Ghiberti's masterpiece, before exploring the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, home to treasures including the superb Medici Chapel....

31 min
Santa Croce and the Pazzi Chapel

18: Santa Croce and the Pazzi Chapel

Begin here at Florence's Accademia, home to Michelangelo's David, before visiting other superlative Florentine museums. In particular, explore the magnificent preaching church of Santa Croce, containing a stunning spectrum of artistic riches, including works of Donatello, Giotto, and della Robbia. Finish at the Pazzi Chapel, a masterwork of architectural geometry....

30 min
En Route to the Ponte Vecchio

19: En Route to the Ponte Vecchio

Travel the streets of Florence, beginning with the Via del Proconsolo, one of the city's most historic thoroughfares. Enjoy architectural and historical treasures such as the Abbey of Florence, Dante's house, the fascinating Museum of the Old Florentine House, and the gorgeous Palazzo Bartolini-Salimbeni, before reaching the romantic Ponte Vecchio....

30 min
The Pitti Palace

20: The Pitti Palace

Learn the colorful history of the Palazzo Pitti, which now contains several extraordinary museums. Focus on the renowned Palatine Gallery, a veritable treasury of Western culture featuring Flemish and Italian masterpieces of painting. Then savor the delights of the Boboli Gardens, a vision of a Renaissance and Baroque paradise....

30 min
The Oltrarno

21: The Oltrarno

Hear the romantic story of the house of Bianca Cappello, a tale of Renaissance intrigue. Then explore the great basilica of Santa Maria del Santo Spirito, with its dazzling altar canopy and 38 family chapels. Also enjoy the decoration of the nearby Brancacci Chapel, one of the most important examples of Renaissance painting....

30 min
Walking to Santa Maria Novella

22: Walking to Santa Maria Novella

Begin at the beautiful Ponte Santa Trinità bridge, dating from the 16th century, and grasp its political and civic symbolism. Then walk the fashionable Via Tornabuoni to the vast Dominican complex of Santa Maria Novella. Explore the complex's great preaching church, with artistic treasures including the Tornabuoni Chapel, one of Florence's great masterpieces....

29 min
From Santa Maria Novella to San Lorenzo

23: From Santa Maria Novella to San Lorenzo

Continuing at Santa Maria Novella, view the superlative frescoes of the Green Cloister and the Spanish Chapel. Visit Europe's oldest operating pharmacy, founded in the 12th century, followed by the Medici Fortezza da Basso fortress, en route to the Basilica of San Lorenzo, whose Old Sacristy is a masterwork of Brunelleschi's geometric design....

30 min
The Medici Legacy

24: The Medici Legacy

Now discover Michelangelo's New Sacristy, burial place of Medici nobles and a brilliant integration of sculpture and architecture. From there, take in the spectacular Chapel of the Princes, resting place of the Medici monarchs; view the phenomenal Laurentian Library, pride of the Medici clan; and learn the intriguing history of Florence's old markets....

30 min
The Ognissanti, Palaces, Parks, and Villas

25: The Ognissanti, Palaces, Parks, and Villas

Travel the Borgo Ognissanti, an important historic entry into Florence. Admire elegant palaces on the way to the church and monastery of Ognissanti, with their splendid frescoed Vespucci Chapel, Sacristy, and refectory. Enjoy the lush beauties of the Cascine Park and the Bardini Gardens, and visit the Jewel Villa, where Galileo lived....

30 min
Romantic Views: San Miniato and Fiesole

26: Romantic Views: San Miniato and Fiesole

Here, visit one of Italy's most beautiful Romanesque churches, San Miniato al Monte, highlighting the collective artistic genius of the Chapel of the Cardinal of Portugal. Then travel to the hillside town of Fiesole, with its beautiful Villa Medici, Romanesque cathedral, and spectacular views over the city of Florence below....

30 min
Arezzo, Perugia, and Assisi

27: Arezzo, Perugia, and Assisi

On a leisurely route to Venice, stop at three romantic hill towns of Tuscany and Umbria. Begin with Arezzo, with its picturesque Piazza Grande and glorious, art-laden churches. Then discover the magnificent guildhalls, Palace of the Priors, and papal fortress of Perugia, and Assisi's Temple of Minerva and sublime Church of St. Francis....

30 min
Venice: The Center of Power

28: Venice: The Center of Power

As an introduction to Venice, contemplate the political and commercial history that gave rise to one of the world's most phenomenally beautiful cities. Then learn about the Molo, Venice's quayside entry point; the Doge's Palace, a brilliant masterpiece of Gothic architecture; and the Basilica di San Marco, a triumphal monument to Venetian glory....

31 min
The Drawing Room of Europe: Piazza San Marco

29: The Drawing Room of Europe: Piazza San Marco

On the magical Piazza San Marco, take account of the Renaissance Procuratie Nuove, housing Venice's Procurators (municipal officials), and Napoleon's grand neoclassical palace. Discover the remarkable clock tower, with its two beautiful and ingenious public timepieces. View artistic treasures adorning the exterior of the Basilica, and learn about Venice's historic cisterns and wells....

30 min
The Basilica of San Marco

30: The Basilica of San Marco

The interior of this great basilica is one of almost hypnotic magnificence. Enter through the atrium, and admire the symbolic floor mosaics and the gilded mosaics of the vaults, among the greatest anywhere in the world. Study the church's sublime decoration, highlighting the sacristy doors, the Golden Altarpiece, and the Cappella dei Mascoli....

28 min
The Ducal Palace

31: The Ducal Palace

Begin your visit to the palace at the monumental Staircase of the Giants within the regal palace courtyard. Enter the rooms of state by the Golden Staircase, leading to the elegant ducal apartments. Learn about the lifestyle and role of the Doge, as you view majestic rooms glorifying Venetian power and myth....

30 min
Venetian Civilization

32: Venetian Civilization

Enter the palace's Hall of the Great Council, called the most dramatic room in Europe, and learn about the Venetian republic's governing body of patrician representatives. Visit the palace prisons and the famous Bridge of Sighs en route to the Correr Museum of Venetian Civilization, which celebrates the republic's institutions, customs, arts, and trades....

29 min
Along the Giudecca and Grand Canals

33: Along the Giudecca and Grand Canals

On the glorious Venetian waterways, take a vaporetto to view Palladio's churches and the resplendent Santa Maria della Salute, which dominates the waterfront. Stop at fabulous palace museums along the Grand Canal, such as the great Galleria Accademia and the Casa Rezzonico, a stunning evocation of 18th-century Venetian life....

29 min
The Upper Grand Canal and San Marco on Foot

34: The Upper Grand Canal and San Marco on Foot

Among further riches of the Grand Canal, visit sumptuous waterside palaces, the former Jewish ghetto, and view the sweep of historic commercial buildings from Venice's maritime past. Then explore the San Marco district, featuring magnificent Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture, and learn about the lore of the Venetian gondola....

30 min
The Rialto and Sestiere San Polo

35: The Rialto and Sestiere San Polo

Begin at the enchanting Rialto bridge, a defining landmark of Venice. From there, walk the San Polo district, a historic mercantile quarter, and visit streets and edifices recalling Venetian trading. Finish at two extraordinary treasure houses of art: the Frari, a great Franciscan church, and the glorious Scuola Grande di San Rocco....

29 min
Sestiere Castello and the Outer Islands

36: Sestiere Castello and the Outer Islands

Within the treasure-laden Castello district, discover one of history's greatest equestrian statues, the astonishing ducal tombs of the church of San Zanipolo, and a jewel-box church where wedding parties arrive and depart by gondola. Finally, take a vaporetto to picturesque islands in the lagoon, home to the traditional crafts of glass-making and lace-making....

37 min