When I started planning our vacation to Italy my teenage sons worried about being trapped for hours in museums. I promised that wouldn’t happen, since I still have flashbacks to my parents dragging my sisters and me on exhaustive and exhausting visits to museums and places like landscape painter Frederic Church’s house at Olana in Hudson, New York.
Our two-week trip turned out to be packed but balanced: Rome was more about the Colosseum and Pantheon and climbing the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica than staring at medieval religious art. Much to my mother’s chagrin, we didn’t even go with her and my stepfather to the Borghese Gallery. Overall, we spent less time in museums than we did outdoors in places like Cinque Terre, Mount Baldo, Maremma’s Etruscan ruins and the Carrara marble quarry.
Still, the day of reckoning finally came, the one day my promise was meaningless. With just one full day in Modena, seeing every masterpiece on our list required nearly nine hours in three museums.
The works of art, in this case, however, were cars. Well, that’s underselling it. Our 12-year-old station wagon is a car. The elite Italian models at the Museo Lamborghini and two Ferrari museums seemed like an entirely different species.
Lucas, who was 15 at the time, would later call this one of the trip’s five best days. For Caleb, who is a year older and who blogs about cars and draws vehicles of his own design, this was akin to a holy pilgrimage. Were he in charge we would have allowed time for the nearby Pagani, Ducati and Maserati collections and for traveling to car museums in Turin and Milan.
Still, the Lamborghini and Ferrari collections would give him a chance to see important works, he said, “penned by masters like Giorgetto Giugiaro and iconic design houses like Pininfarina and Bertone.”
I lack Caleb’s love of cars but I understand his passion. When I first started dating Sharon, now my wife, an assignment took me to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, and I brought her; it became her own personal Olana, as I enthusiastically pulled her from one room to another, never breaking for lunch.
Fortunately for me in Modena, the Lamborghinis and Ferraris were so stunningly dynamic, with such eye-popping design elements, that I remained engaged nearly the entire day.
We started at the two-story Museo Lamborghini next to the company’s factory in Sant’Agata Bolognese, almost half an hour east of downtown Modena (although it’s presumably quicker in a Lamborghini). There were no factory tours or guides available in August, which left us to focus on the cars.
The exhibit started with early, less showy, Lamborghinis, such as the 400 GT 2+2 from 1966, which was the company’s second model — it looked luxurious but not particularly sporty. But we quickly came to the slinky Miura, which Caleb called “one of the most beautiful cars of all time,” notable for its signature “eyelashes” around the headlights. (The museums rotate the cars they have on display, although many of the true classics are consistently exhibited.)
Nearby is the Countach, with its low-to-the-ground, wedge-shaped front, massive hood and large vents that make it look futuristic even today. Back in the 1970s and 1980s it became an aspirational icon (or symbol of decadent excess), showing up in movies from “Cannonball Run” to “Rain Man” and on posters that adorned nearly as many teenage boys’ walls as the one of Farrah Fawcett in her red bathing suit. Its successor, the menacing-looking Diablo with its massive wing in back, became the first 200 mph Lamborghini; two models are on display here.
The first floor also features a few oddities like the LM002, a Humvee-like SUV made from 1986 until 1992. Caleb called it polarizing. He and Lucas were seduced by its macho showiness but Time magazine once listed it among the 50 worst cars of all time. I found its ungainly mix of obscene luxury and militaristic design off-putting even before I learned that Saddam Hussein’s deplorable son Uday had owned one.
The second floor had newer mainstream models (as mainstream as these cars get) like the Gallardo and a bright orange Murcielago, which was the ultimate supercar of the early 2000s — Bruce Wayne drove one in “Batman Begins,” and a rap song, “Mercy,” featuring Kanye West is devoted to it.
This floor also featured limited production runs and concept cars (never sold to the public) that were so outlandish they left in the dust any concern I had about the exhibit’s becoming redundant.
The most memorable was the Sesto Elemento, named because carbon is the sixth element and carbon fiber — a crucial advance in supercar design — keeps the car’s weight down to just 2,200 pounds, helping it reach 100 kph in 2.5 seconds. The dazzling black carbon fiber surface features red accents in the hexagonal holes on the engine cover and on the dramatically sculpted hood. Nearby was the Egoista concept, a single-seater that looks like a plane, with an unusual split rear spoiler design that comes to a point.
The museum’s gift shop includes a showroom so you can splurge for a real car as a souvenir; other big ticket items include carbon fiber luggage that runs into five figures. Caleb settled for a shirt and a pencil.
Back in Modena, the Museo Enzo Ferrari is housed in a striking building designed by Czech architect Jan Kaplicky, with a curving glass front and a streamlined yellow roof — the color of the company’s logo — with incisions that look like a car’s air intake vents. There are secondary displays in a 19th-century brick building that housed Ferrari’s father’s workshop.
The museum offers detailed history panels, annually redesigned exhibitions and video presentations on a huge wall. The videos we saw were more a distraction than an enhancement, although these, like the cars, are changed regularly.
We refueled with lunch in the museum’s stylish restaurant before heading to the main hall. The history panels tell Ferrari’s story, from his racing days through his years working for Alfa Romeo before starting his own company after World War II.
The first car was a 1948 effort with two rows of seats that looks far closer to a Packard than the slick showstoppers like the ones Sonny Crockett sped around in on “Miami Vice,” the splashy 1980s cop show. But the exhibit quickly jumped to flashier models, like a 1984 Testarossa with its side strakes and horizontal design elements that make it look impossibly low and wide.
My boys drooled over this model but Caleb had a mixed reaction to the unusual F100 R concept car nearby, with its curved windshield and angular slices holding three levels of headlights. “I spent a lot of time standing there trying to decide whether I liked it or not and I still don’t know,” Caleb said afterward. He definitely disdained the bland surfaces of the 456 GT from 1992 that “could have been made by any car company.”
But there were plenty of other cars to rev them back up like the 2-ton 612 Scaglietti and the Ferrari 458 from 2009, which Caleb called “the Testarossa of my childhood,” with its seductive rear haunches and the stylish vents near the tail and headlights.
Perhaps most impressive in this sea of red was the collection of Ferrari’s “halo cars,” their ultra-sleek, top-of-the-line models from the 512BBi and 288 GTO of the 1980s to the more recent Enzo and the hybrid LaFerrari.
For racing fans the real attraction is the Museo Ferrari Maranello, about a half-hour southwest of its sibling in the town where Enzo Ferrari moved his factory when Modena was being bombed during World War II.
This features a Formula One Hall of Champions and a permanent exhibit on the race cars, which includes insights into the evolution of safety and other industry battles as well as a special edition Ferraris like the SP12EC, inspired by the 512BBi and commissioned by guitar legend Eric Clapton.
This feels like a modern museum, offering the chance to get your photo taken inside a Ferrari (a too-expensive, too-cheesy souvenir for our tastes) and interactive experiences like the “Tyre Change” pit stop experience for big groups and a chance to drive an F1 Simulator, which my boys eagerly took on. The concentration required for the seven-minute “race” was so intense they were drained afterward.
Oh, and there was a little something special for me too, although I had to wait until the next morning for my interactive experience. Ferrari museum ticket buyers are offered the chance to tack on a 15-minute driving session on the Autodromo di Modena, a track once used for F1 races and by Ferrari, Lamborghini and Maserati for testing cars. (Some promised goodies did not materialize — no “hostess” to welcome us, no hot food selection and no “professional driver to talk through the track’s characteristics and the safety precautions required.”)
You can rent a Ferrari for a small fortune or take your own car out on the track. Seemingly everyone in Italy drives a tiny Fiat, which probably handle the outrageously tight and frequent curves with aplomb. We, however, had rented a Lancia Voyager minivan to fit all six of us on our travels. Not exactly a supercar.
I was allowed one passenger at a time. My mom and stepfather refused but Sharon went on my first lap before yielding to the boys, who encouraged me to push the limits as I took turns harder and faster each lap, the car shuddering, the tires screeching.
While the museums gave me a fuller appreciation for the thought and artistry that goes into the design of supercars, it was my morning on the track that made me fully appreciate the appeal of driving one.
Maybe one day.
IF YOU GO
Museo Enzo Ferrari, Via Paolo Ferrari, 85, 41121 Modena; musei.ferrari.com/en/modena
Museo Ferrari Maranello, Via Alfredo Dino Ferrari, 43, 41053 Maranello; musei.ferrari.com/en/maranello
Tickets for adults are 16 euros ($19) for each museum or 26 euros for a combined ticket.
Museo Lamborghini, Via Modena, 12 40019 Sant’Agata; lamborghini.com/en-en/experience/museum
Tickets for adults are 15 euros.