10 cultured city breaks to lure you to Europe this autumn

Nick Trend
Delft: home to Pieter de Hooch, and soon to host a rare retrospective exhibition of his work - istock

I can’t remember an autumn offering such a remarkably rich and varied collection of cultural happenings in cities around Europe.

I’ve already been tempted to arrange a trip to Paris, combining the autumn arts festival with the opening of the seminal Leonardo exhibition at the Louvre in October. It commemorates the 500th anniversary of his death and aims to show the greatest number of works by him ever collected in one exhibition - a feat which is unlikely to be repeated for decades to come. 

I am hoping also to get to what promises to be a wonderful exhibition celebrating one of his greatest contemporaries, Albrecht Durer. It opened at the Albertina in Vienna yesterday and includes some of his most famous pieces - including the Hare - which are rarely displayed because they are so fragile.

Also open for the first time this week, is yet another star in Madrid’s artistic firmament. The Casa de Alba Museum, the ancestral home of the Dukes of Alba, one of Spain’s richest and influential families, houses their historic art collection is now open for regular guided tours.

There are treats in store in Italy too. The annual Ravenna Opera festival in early November includes performances of Norma, Aida and Carmen, while in Milan a new exhibition contrasts the exquisitely sensual sculpture of Canova, with those of his more traditional rival Bertel Thorvaldsen.

The Hare: Albrecht Durer's works are rarely displayed because they are so fragile Credit: getty

In Holland, two rarities would combine well for a short trip: a Golden Age spectacular compares Rembrandt and Velasquez, while a short train ride away in Delft, there will be a rare chance to see the highly atmospheric 17th-century interiors conjured by Pieter de Hooch. 

In short, if you are looking for an excuse for a weekend break, combined with some cultural treats this autumn, you are spoilt for choice. Here are my top picks over the next three months. 

Madrid: Palace of Art

Madrid already has three stellar art collections open to the public: the Prado, the Thyssen Bornemisza and the Reina Sofia museums. Now it has yet another. The Palacio de Liria is the private home of the Duke of Alba, head of one of the richest dynasties in Spain and it holds their remarkable private collection of Old Masters including key paintings by Titian, El Greco, Goya, Rembrandt, Rubens and Courbet among many others.

Palacio de Liria (palaciodeliria.com). Tours start every half an hour, book in advance, €15.

Paris: Autumn Festival and Leonardo

The Louvre owns five of the 15 surviving paintings by Leonardo and this unmissable show is expected to gather most of the rest, plus key sketches and drawings. It also coincides with the excellent Autumn Festival, Paris’s annual celebration of music, dance and art.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Louvre (louvre.fr), Oct 24- Feb 24 2020. Advance bookings obligatory. Paris Autumn Festival (festival-automne.com) until Dec 31 2019.

Vienna: Durer rarities

While Leonardo is wowing Paris, Vienna - I predict - will be in thrall to his equally brilliant contemporary, Albrecht Durer. The Albertina Museum, which has the world’s greatest collection of his drawings, is now showing some of the most famous, plus paintings and prints portraits and studies.

Albrecht Durer, Albertina Museum (albertina.at), Sept 20 2019 to Jan 6 2020.

Vienna's Albertina Museum Credit: getty

Delft: De Hooch comes home

A contemporary of Vermeer, De Hooch was a master of highly atmospheric paintings of daily domestic life in the mid-17th century. In fact, he was one of the first painters in the history of art to depict ordinary women in their own homes, working, socialising and looking after their children. This is a rare retrospective exhibition of his work, held in the town where he was born and established his career. 

Pieter de Hooch in Delft: From the shadow of Vermeer; Prinsenhof Museum (prinsenhof-delft.nl); October 11 2019 to Feb 16 2020.

Troy: myth and reality

The new museum at the site of the ancient city of Troy in Turkey opened last year displaying many of the best archaeological finds. But there is particularly good reason to plan a visit this autumn. In November, the British Museum opens the UK’s first major exhibition on Troy with finds from the excavations at the site, but also historic sculpture and other works responding to the ancient myths of its siege and fall.

Troy Museum, Canakkale, Turkey (troya2018.com). Troy: myth and reality, British Museum (britishmuseum.org/troy), Nov 21 2019 to March 8 2020. 

The ancient city of Troy Credit: istock

Amsterdam: Golden Ages Compared

There were two artistic Golden Ages in the 17th century - one Dutch and one Spanish. But rarely are paintings from these very different countries seen together. That will change next month when the Rijksmuseum will display some 60 paintings from the greatest masters of Holland (including Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer) and Spain (Velázquez, Murillo, and Zurbarán).

Rembrandt-Velázquez: Dutch and Spanish Masters, Rijksmuseum (rijksmuseum.nl), Oct 11 2019 to Jan 19 2020.

London: Freud and Gauguin 

Major shows by two of the greatest portraitists of modern times open in London this autumn. The Royal Academy hosts a world first - a complete retrospective of Lucian Freud’s self-portraits with more than 50 paintings, prints and drawings from his earliest (1939) to his last (2003). Meanwhile, the National Gallery turns the spotlight on Paul Gauguin whose radical approach to portraiture has never been examined in such depth before.

Lucian Freud: The Self-portraits, Royal Academy (royalacademy.org.uk), Oct 27 2019 to Jan 26 2020. Gauguin Portraits, National Gallery (nationalgallery.org.uk), Oct 7 2019 to Jan 26 2020.

National Gallery will turn the spotlight on Paul Gauguin next month Credit: istock

Ravenna: Opera in Ravenna

An off-shoot of Ravenna’s summer festival of classical music, the opera trilogy is a short run of major productions which are preformed in the wonderful 19th century Teatro Comunale Alighieri. The casts are mainly comprised of young singers, or those debuting in a particular role and accompanied by Riccardo Muti’s Luigi Cherubini Orchestra. This year’s programme opens with Norma, followed by Aida and Carmen and each is performed three times.

Ravenna Opera Trilogy, Nov 1-10 (ravennafestival.org)

Milan: Classic sculpture

This exhibition is the first to contrast the early 19th century creative rivalry between two sculptors: the revolutionary, often highly erotic work of Antonio Canova and the more conservative, classical often monumental sculptures of Bertel Thorvaldsen, who moved to Rome in 1797. Over 150 works will be on show.

Canova and Thorvaldsen: The birth of modern sculpture, Gallerie d’Italia (gallerieditalia.com), Oct 25 2019 to March 15 2020.

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