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Strange and Unusual Things to do in Tuscany

On most of my travels, I make a point to seek out the strange and unusual. This was not necessary in Tuscany. Catacombs and crypts, the skulls of Catholic saints, horrific artworks… these things were not just on the beaten path. In many cases, they were the top sights.

Before visiting, I imagined I’d fall in love with Italy because of the pizza. (Don’t get me wrong, I loved the pizza.) What I discovered on my two weeks in Tuscany that really captured my dark heart was just how much this part of the country celebrates the dead, the beautifully gothic arts, and the legacy of its violent past. I couldn’t possibly manage all the unusual things to do in Tuscany—but I tried!

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My favourite strange and unusual things to see and do in Tuscany

Medusa by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio at the Uffuzi Gallery Florence
Medusa by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, photo by Sarah Legault

I always laugh when violent video games or horror movies are accused of corrupting youth. Violence in art is as old as art itself.

And of the many horrific artworks in Italy, two of my favourites were at the Uffuzi Gallery in Florence. First up, the infamous Medusa by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). You know Medusa – of Greek mythology, with the snakes for hair. Caravaggio’s oil painting on a ceremonial wooden shield is just her decapitated head, complete with a copious blood spray and expression of pure terror. Apparently, the face is actually Caravaggio’s. Because, why not?

Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi at the Uffuzi Gallery, Florence
Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi at the Uffuzi Gallery, Florence.

Second, Judith Beheading Holofernes, by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653). She was a follower of Caravaggio and one of the great female artists of her time. The religious scene depicts the assassin Judith plunging a sword into the drunken general’s neck, his blood spattered onto the sheets, onto her breasts. Judith looks determined, a female companion helping to hold the man’s body down. Some say this was Gentileschi’s way of expressing her own violent past; she was a victim of rape at a young age and participated in her rapist’s very public trial.

The Uffuzi was recently named the most visited cultural site in all of Italy. The masses come for world famous artworks like Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus but if you’re like me, be sure to visit these two bloody artworks.

Buying your ticket in advance saves time in queues. Adult tickets are 30 Euro. A variety of guided tours of the Uffuzi are available.
Gallery is free on Sundays (expect crowds.)

Free alternative: If you’re short on time or money, or just want more severed heads, wander over to the nearby Piazza della Signoria plaza. It’s gorgeous on its own but it also has Perseus with the Head of Medusa, an imposing bronze sculpture by Benvenuto Cellini and a copy of Donatello’s bronze sculpture Judith and Holofernes.

Torture Museum in Montepulciano is one of the most unusual things to do in Tuscany

Enter Tuscany’s Torture Museums

Italy has not one but four Torture Museums all around Tuscany.

It’s like a chain of Torture Museums, all dedicated to displaying bone-crushing, rectal-tearing, head-chopping devices used by religious authorities through the ages. They may or may not be replicas, but these cruel inventions definitely did exist. We visited the location in Montepulciano and found the small collection to be a little bit “house of horrors” tourist attraction but also quite chilling when you consider how much torture still exists in this world. If you’re looking for strange and unusual things to do in Montepulciano, Siena, Lucca, Volterra or San Gimignato, it’s worth 8 Euros and an hour of your time.

Read my detailed review of the Montepulciano Torture Museum here

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Postcard image shows close-up of Saint Catherine's mummified head at Basilica of San Domenico, Siena Italy
Postcard image shows close-up of Saint Catherine’s mummified head

Witness the Mummified Head of St. Catherine of Siena

St. Catherine is a patron Saint of Italy (1347-1380), a mystic in her time who is buried in Rome. But her head is in Siena. As legend has it, her spiritual advisor had it severed from her body when her remains were being moved a few years after death. (As one does.) And that it was paraded through Sienna, with Catherine’s mother following behind.

The Basilica of San Domenico is an imposing Gothic church slightly outside downtown Siena, offering sweeping views of the city. The interior is much more basic than other Italian churches, although there are impressive religious paintings in the naves. And…there’s no polite way to say this…the absolute worst stained glass I’ve ever seen. I’m talking Monkey Christ restoration level bad.

Nevertheless, we came for St. Catherine’s head, and there it was. Mummified, sanctified, accessible to all who worship her, or just want a glimpse. Like most mummified heads, it’s not pretty. But it is powerful. This is one of the most unusual things to do in Tuscany that is free. No photographs are allowed.

Behold famous tombs at Basilica Santa Croce in Florence

Basilica Santa Croce in Florence

A veritable who’s who is buried in Santa Croce — artists, scientists, philosophers, composers. It’s not just a church, it’s a pantheon.

The exterior of Santa Croce is beautifully Gothic. I mean actual Gothic. Built in the 1300s and consecrated in 1443, it got its neo-Gothic façade of white, green and pink marble much later, in 1863. The public square Piazza Santa Croce is a great place to admire it all from afar.

The most famous tomb in Santa Croce is Michelangelo’s. The sculptor, painter, architect and poet died in 1564 in Rome at the age of 88. Against the wishes of the Pope, his body was moved by a secret night-time kidnapping operation and buried in Florence! Right opposite Michelangelo is the opulent marble sarcophagus of Galileo Galilei. You’ll also find a cenotaph commemorating Dante and dozens of other fascinating and beautiful funeral moments.

Michelangelo’s tomb in Florence
Tourists can now buy floor access tickets to the Colosseum in Rome

The burials of Santa Croce can be seen with admission to the Basilica, located at Piazza di Santa Croce. Tickets cost 8Euro for adults, 7Euro for 12-17 or university students, and free for under 11. Audio guides 4 Euro extra. Tickets on site or purchase advance on-line. Guided Tours are available.

The Basilica is open 9:30am to 5:30pm Monday to Saturday. Closed on Jan 1 and Dec 26. See the latest schedules on their site.

Read my detailed report of the Beautiful Burials of Santa Croce here.

Galileo’s mummified finger in Florence
Roman Colosseum trap door, photo by Sarah Legault

Visit Galileo’s mummified finger in Florence

You can visit Galileo Galileis middle finger on display at a museum of science in Florence.

Galileo died in 1642. When his remains were moved in 1937, local scientists and historians decided to help themselves some parts. In 2009, two fingers and a tooth turned up at auction. Turns out, they were the missing pieces of the famed astronomer. (Perhaps being in wooden case topped with a bust of Galileo was a hint?) It’s a bit like a creepy episode of Antiques Roadshow. The found body parts were acquired by what was then called The Institute of the History of Science, soon to be renamed The Galileo Museum, or, in Italian, Museo Galileo.

Inside, you’ll find a Galileo room containing a case with two small but powerful objects. The first is simply titled “Index Finger and Thumb of Right Hand and a Tooth of Galileo” and is displayed in a wood and glass bell jar. Beside it is “Middle Finger of Galileo’s Right Hand,” in a marble and glass case. Visiting Galileo’s fingers was a highlight of my trip to Tuscany.

The Museo Galilo is open every day except Christmas and New Year’s Day, and costs 13 Euro for adults and 7 Euro for ages 6-18. For current opening hours, visit their site.

The Piccolomini library in Siena is an unusual thing to do in Tuscany

Enter a secret library in Siena

Inside the Gothic cathedral in Siena is The Piccolomini library, which was commissioned in 1492 as a place for the collection of books of Pope Pius II. A select few of those illuminated manuscripts are on display here today. But what’s special about this room is the artwork. Colourful, detailed frescos depict the life of said Pope, covering all the walls and ceiling. You don’t need to be a fan of Catholic Popes to appreciate the splendour.

The library is free to enter with your admission to the Cathedral. Security keeps the crowds moving so you’re only able to spend a few minutes in here. If you want to really examine the books on display come when it’s not busy. Advance tickets and tours here.

These are just my top 6! There is so much more and I’ll update this list as I return. Because I know this trip won’t be my last.

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