Don’t expect to be blown away by spectacular monuments or charming corners as you would in other Italian art cities – Forlì is a town that reveals itself discreetly. Once you’ve gotten to know it though, you’ll learn it has much to offer to the curious visitor interested in Italian history and art, not to mention food – we are in the gastronomic heart of Italy after all, the region of Emilia-Romagna (in this case, the Romagna portion).

I had the opportunity to visit Forlì recently on a tour organized by Romagna Full Time. The focus was on Forlì as an “urban museum”, as related to the so-called Atrium Route, an itinerary on the traces of the rationalist architecture of the Fascist era, and on Forlì as an “art city”, thanks to the prestigious art exhibitions which attract thousands of visitors every year - all paired with some nice food experiences.  

[Forlì's main square, Piazza Saffi.]

A Forlì visit should begin with an exploration of its architecture. In the 1920s and ‘30s, the city underwent a major architectural renovation commissioned by Benito Mussolini, the founder of Italy’s Fascist party and the country’s prime minister from 1922 to 1943. Mussolini was born in nearby Predappio and chose Forlì as the city that would celebrate him and his regime. He commissioned famous architects of the time, including Gustavo Giovannoni, Cesare Bazzani and Cesare Valle, along with well-known local engineers, to redesign and reconstruct the city in a way that would convey the power of Fascism to current and new generations. Fascist architecture here left such a profound mark that Forlì came to be known as “la città del Duce”, the Duce’s city.

The architecture favored by fascist architects was the so-called “rational style” or “simplified neoclassicism”, which features symmetric and regular shapes, essential and geometric lines, monumental facades decorated with classic elements such as columns and arches. Fascist architecture used classical art and mythology as a propaganda tool to connect Fascism to the grandeur of the Roman Empire; a poignant example is the statue of Icarus in Piazzale della Vittoria.  

[The Monument to Victory in Piazzale della Vittoria as seen from the Parco della Resistenza.]

For Mussolini, the Icarus statue was also closely associated with his son Bruno, a pilot in the Regia Aeronautica Italiana (Royal Italian Air Force) who flew in both the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Bruno’s achievements as a war pilot are celebrated in a series of mosaics (a favorite of Fascist design because linked to ancient Rome) decorating the interior of the Collegio Aeronautico (Aeronautical College), possibly the most impressive part of this itinerary. The scenes portrayed on the walls of the building, which is still in use today as a middle and high school, celebrate flight and the military actions and accomplishments achieved in the sky by fascist party officials.

[The Statue of Icarus and the mosaics of the Collegio Aeronautico.]

Besides public buildings and communal urban spaces, private houses were also built according to the Fascist architectural style; a good example is the uniquely-shaped green house by the old city walls designed by Roberto De Cupis, a major Forlì-born artist of the 20th century.  

But Forlì is also an art city boasting museums with important permanent and temporary exhibitions that will delight art lovers. Head to the “Museums District” for a must-see visit to Palazzo Romagnoli and Musei di San Domenico.

Palazzo Romagnoli, located in the oldest part of town, features what is considered one of the most important collections of 20th-century figurative art. The collection (about 70 paintings) was donated by Forlì native Giuseppe Verzocchi, a developer who commissioned paintings on the theme of ‘work’ to some of the most important artists of the time; the only requirement was for the paintings to be at least 90x70 cm and to include a small brick with the initials V&D, which referred to the company owned by Verzocchi. 

[Some of the 20th-century paintings on the theme of 'work' at Palazzo Romagnoli.]

The Musei di San Domenico complex comprises five buildings, located in the renovated 13th century Dominican convent. Inside the complex is the headquarter of the civic museums of Forlì and the convent refectory, with beautiful frescoes. Collections here span from the 12th to the 17th centuries with paintings by Fra Angelico, Lorenzo di Credi, Marco Palmezzano, Vitale da Bologna and Antonio Canova’s celebrated Statue of Hebe, located in a dedicated oval room.

A temporary exhibition currently on view which I highly recommend is “Steve McCurry – Icons and Women”. It features a selection of shots (180) taken by the iconic National Geographic photographer, from his most famous ones (think the “Afghan Girl”) to his most recent work and even unpublished photos. The exhibition also features two videos: one is about the search for Sharbat Gula, the Afghan girl whose portrait made McCurry famous, and the other is about his travels and photography technique. Get an audio guide to hear McCurry talk about his life and work, complete with fascinating anecdotes.  

[One of the photographs on display at the "Steve McCurry - Icons and Women" exhibition.]

(A major upcoming exhibition at Musei San Domenico is “Piero della Francesca – Indagine su un mito”, scheduled to open on February 13, 2016. Stay tuned for details.) 

All in all, Forlì makes for a pleasant and interesting visit, plus when you visit Forlì, the charming Romagna coast and several beautiful historic villages are never too far away, so you can add some great side excursions.   

Where to eat

On more gluttonous matters, for a taste of the local cuisine, head to Eataly on Forlì’s main square, Piazza Saffi. The restaurant inside the upscale food chain is headed by chef Giuliana Saragoni, former owner of the much celebrated Locanda al Gambero Rosso. Saragoni’s cuisine is inspired by the flavors of traditional Romagna cuisine and relies heavily on local ingredients. For a cozy night out, head to Osteria Enoteca Salumè, whose menu varies according to what is in season; it has a large selection of wines, and the mascarpone with dark chocolate chunks dessert is to die for!

* I suggest you hire a private guide for your Forlì tour. I was lucky to be shown around by the very knowledgeable Benedetta Orlati, the head of the Federazione Guide Turistiche di Forlì (association of Forlì's licensed tour guides).