UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Italy

By Philip Wagenaar, MD
This item appears on page 46 of the December 2015 issue.

(Second of three parts)

World Heritage Sites are places of special significance as determined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization, or UNESCO (whc.unesco.org/en/list).

According to UNESCO’s World Heritage mission statement, these sites include “cultural heritage,” such as monuments, groups of buildings and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value, as well as “natural heritage,” such as outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, habitats of threatened species of animals and plants and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value.

Last month, wishing to give examples of one country’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I began listing those of Italy, which I chose because it has the most, 51 (47 cultural sites and four, natural). I continue describing them now, as arranged by region.


Portovenere, Cinque Terre, and the Islands of Palmaria, Tino and Tinetto Starting in Riomaggiore, my late wife, Flory, and I hiked the trails between the five fishing villages that make up the Cinque Terre. There were beautiful views, and the paths were easy, that is, until we came to the last part between Vernazza and Monterosso and learned that a woman had lost her footing on a very narrow part of the walkway and was literally hanging over the cliff. 

Her husband was not strong enough to pull her up. Fortunately, other people came to her rescue when they heard her cries. We decided to skip that part but changed our mind the next day, when we walked eastward from Monterosso until our footing became precarious…

The name “Cinque Terre” refers to five magnificent fishing villages — Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore — which are built on steep inclines and connected by a scenic coastal pathway.

There is no direct highway linkup between the communities, and cars are prohibited inside the towns, but the local Genova-la Spezia train (on the Pisa-Genova line; Genova is where all the long-distance trains end) stops at each village. There also is boat access.

The coastline, the five settlements (which can be reached only on foot, by train and by boat) and the hills have all been incorporated into the Cinque Terre National Park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The best way to see the villages is to hike from one settlement to the next one during April, May, September or October, when they are the least crowded. Start your hike in Riomaggiore, as the sun will be to your back.

Genoa: Le Strade Nuove and the system of the Palazzi dei Rolli — Le Strade Nuove and the system of the Palazzi dei Rolli date from the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The Rolli di Genova was a formal register of stately homes of famous Genoese people who desired to provide lodging for highly placed officials. 

The site involved two streets, the so-called strade nuove (“new streets”) Via Garibaldi and Via Balbi, founded by the city’s blue-blooded people. The palaces incorporated in the Rolli were split into three types, depending upon their proportions, attractiveness and standing. 


Ferrara, City of the Renaissance, and its Po Delta From the 14th to 16th centuries, several city building projects were executed by the governing Este family in which the streets and ramparts were interconnected with the palaces, churches and gardens, which resulted in well-balanced views. The best known of these projects, the Addizione Erculea, planned by Biagio Rossetti at the conclusion of the 15th century, established the onset of contemporary town design.

Early Christian Monuments of Ravenna — These monuments — the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, the Neonian Baptistery, the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, the Arian Baptistery, the Archiepiscopal Chapel, the Mausoleum of Theodoric, the Church of San Vitale and the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Classe — all are parts of an exceptional accumulation of early Christian shrines and mosaics created when Ravenna was the headquarters first of the Roman Empire (from the fifth century on) and subsequently of Byzantine Italy. 

(The Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire, was the predominantly Greek-speaking extension of the eastern segment of the Roman Empire during Late Antiquity, the period between approximately AD 250 and 750 and the Middle Ages.)

Cathedral, Torre Civica and Piazza Grande, Modena — Modena’s impressive, 12th-century cathedral with its sky-high tower and its piazza was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.


Historic Centre of Urbino — This small municipality has a unique, well-preserved, medieval architecture, despite a loss of productivity from the 16th century on.

TUSCANY (Toscana)

Historic center of Florence  — Florence became a commercial and artistic center in the 15th and 16th centuries. This will be quite obvious to travelers who have visited the following buildings: the cathedral (Santa Maria del Fiore), the Church of Santa Croce, the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace.

Piazza del Duomo, Pisa — In Pisa, the Piazza dei Miracoli (Miracles Square), officially Piazza del Duomo (Cathedral Square), is owned by the Catholic Church. The piazza has a spectacular set of buildings, i.e., the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry, the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Camposanto Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery), in addition to a hospital and two museums. 

Historic Centre of San Gimi­gnano San Gimignano is a small, medieval municipality that is renowned for its 12 remaining “tower-houses” (A tower-house is a stone building that is earmarked for defensive as well as residential purposes.)

Historic Centre of the City of Pienza In 1459, Pope Pius II chose Pienza as the first city to be renovated according to the “Renaissance Humanist philosophies of municipal design.” (Humanist philosophy is an assortment of ethical concepts and traditions that stresses reason, methodical investigation and social satisfaction and often eliminates the acceptance of God.)

Historic Centre of Siena — After parking our motorhome in a campsite, my late wife, Flory, and I took a bus to visit the most acclaimed part of the medieval city of Siena, the Piazza del Campo.

Alighting far outside the piazza, we strolled through winding streets to the beautiful, shell-shaped square, where many young people were sitting on the ground, their backpacks next to them. 

Ambling around the square, we gazed at the surrounding graceful palazzi signorili (“stately mansions”), once occupied by the nobility, their outward appearance matching each other, and the Gothic-influenced Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall), including its tower, the Torre del Mangia. 

Besides being a medieval city, Siena is famous for its cuisine, art and museums as well as the Palio, a horse race held twice a year. 

The historic center, dating from the 14th to 16th centuries, is surrounded by walls and has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list since 1995.

Val d’Orcia — The Val d’Orcia embraces charming municipalities, such as Pienza and Montalcino. The countryside was restructured during the 14th and 15th centuries to prove that individuals could live in harmony with the environment.

Medici Villas and Gardens in Tuscany — Twelve villas and two gardens were built by the Medici family from the 15th to 17th centuries. This is the first time that residences were combined with gardens and agricultural centers, which represented a new modus operandi of building in coordination with countryside.


Assisi, the Basilica of San Francesco and Other Franciscan Sites  — The Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi is the mother church of the Franciscan Order. The church is adorned with murals by many artists from the Middle Ages, These masterpieces demonstrate the evolution of Italian art during this time.


Historic Center of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura — From the 1470s, several popes began to modernize Rome, the purposes being to spiritualize the Church and its government and to make transfer into and through the city easier for pilgrims. To achieve this, they implemented principal thoroughfares ending in panoramas of pillars, fountains and grand buildings.

With its large number of major ancient shrines, Rome has become another UNESCO World Heritage Site, encompassing all of the Holy See edifices, which are defined in the 1929 Lateran Treaty signed with the Kingdom of Italy.

Villa Adriana (Tivoli, near Rome) — The Villa Adriana, or “Hadrian’s Villa,” is a unique complex of classical structures built by the Roman emperor Hadrian in the second century AD. These structures are a blend of Grecian, Egyptian and Roman building styles.

Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia — The Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia are burial grounds that contain exceptional frescoes that illustrate the lifestyle during that era. They date from the ninth to the first centuries BC.

Villa d’Este, Tivoli — Sixteenth-century Villa d’Este consists of a palace combined with gardens that belong to the Grandi Giardini Italiani (Great Italian Gardens), which is an organization of Italy’s foremost gardens. 

Villa d’Este has many water features, statues of elves and caves that inspired other European garden enterprises. These striking creations and the series of terraces evoke memories of the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the miracles of the antiquated world. 

Next month, I will complete my descriptions of Italy’s 51 Heritage Sites.    

Dr. Wagenaar welcomes questions but may not be able to answer them individually. Write to him c/o ITN.