Italian Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations  

The artistic traditions of Italy have their origins in the ancient Roman Empire, which was centered in Rome and the Italian peninsula. The classical tradition of ancient Greece and Rome has been an ever-present element in Italian art throughout its history. Its two greatest and most influential periods—Renaissance and Baroque—relied heavily on the style and ideals of classical art. For centuries, artists have traveled to Italy to study both monuments from Roman times and the work of the great Italian masters of the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

Artists visiting Italy also enjoyed painting and drawing the picturesque countryside and cities bathed in brilliant Mediterranean sunlight. Some artists specialized in Italianate subjects.

Before its unification in 1871, Italy was made up of many small independent city-states. The most powerful were Venice, Florence, Naples, and the Papal States centered in Rome. Different styles of art and architecture developed in each city. The major patrons of art in the cities were their wealthy ruling families. These included the Medici in Florence, the Gonzagas in Mantua, and the Farnese and Barberini in Rome. The most influential art patrons in all of Italy were the ambitious popes of the Roman Catholic Church in Rome. They commissioned the leading architects and artists of the day to build and decorate their churches and palaces.

Middle Ages (300-1400)

The art of Italy during the Middle Ages can be divided into three periods: Early Christian, Romanesque, and Gothic.

Early Christian Art
In the A.D. 300's, the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine the Great adopted Christianity as its official religion. Constantine moved the imperial capital to Byzantium and called it Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey). This move hastened the decline of Rome as an important center and widened the split between the eastern and western halves of the empire. The eastern half, known as the Byzantine Empire, became very powerful. The western half suffered destruction at the hands of invading Germanic tribes, who gradually took over the region now known as Italy.

During this period, two artistic trends existed side by side and gradually influenced each other. Artists working within the classical tradition, especially those of the court of Constantinople, created realistic, lifelike images. In contrast, artists of the distant provinces of the eastern Roman Empire, and later of the invading Germanic tribes, produced art that was decorative and that stressed the inner meaning of life. When these two traditions merged, the classical image became simplified. Figures were drawn using strong outlines and appeared flat and stiff. Decorative patterns were added to ornament the image.

This change in style reflects a fundamental change in attitude toward the world. During the classical age, people and their lives on earth had been of central importance. The early Christian period is marked by an increased interest in the spiritual life. The emphasis on spirituality formed the basis for the art of the Middle Ages and reached its peak during the Romanesque period.

When Christianity became the official religion, a church-building campaign was started by Emperor Constantine. Early Christian churches were usually built using either the basilican or the central plan. The basilican plan had been used for palaces and law courts in ancient Rome and became the model for most churches built in Italy after A.D. 400. A basilican church is shaped like a rectangle. The wide section in the center, called the nave, is separated from aisles on both sides by rows of columns. At one end of the rectangle is a rounded section called the apse, where the altar is located. One of the finest early Christian basilican churches is the church of St. Sabina, which was built in Rome about 425. The marble columns used in this church were taken from the ruins of an ancient temple.

The central plan was developed from the design of Roman baths and tombs. It became especially popular in the eastern Roman Empire. In Italy it was most commonly used in cities, such as Ravenna and Venice, that were in close contact with the Byzantine Empire. In central plan churches, all sections were built around a central dome. A fine example is the Santo Stefano Rotondo (468-83), in Rome.

Although the exteriors of early Christian churches were plain, the interiors were elegant and colorful. The flat wooden ceilings were brightly painted, and the walls were decorated with magnificent mosaics and frescoes that were instructive as well as beautiful.

Mosaics, Paintings, and Sculpture
Mosaics are pictures made by pressing tiny pieces of colored glass or stone into cement. The art of mosaic began in the East. Some of the period's finest mosaics were made in the 500's for the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. They feature portraits of the Emperor Justinian and his court.

Frescoes—paintings on wet plaster—were another type of wall decoration. Frescoes were much less costly than mosaics. They had been used by ancient Romans on the walls of homes and catacombs (burial chapels). The fresco technique was especially popular in Italy, particularly around Rome.

Most early Christian sculpture was made for tombs. Many tombs were decorated with crowded scenes from the Bible. One of the most beautiful is the Tomb of Theodoric (about 520), in Ravenna.

Romanesque Period
With the decline of Rome, a new civilization developed in the empire's northern territories, ruled by the Frankish kings. The first distinct style to emerge by the late 700's was the Romanesque. The subject matter and style of all the arts during this period focused on the spiritual world.

Architects of the Romanesque period were inspired by the remains of ancient Roman buildings that survived throughout the empire. Romanesque churches were based on the basilican plan of early Christian churches. Architects of northern Italy were probably the first to use rounded stone arches instead of wood in the ceiling of the nave. Thick walls, pierced by only small window openings, were needed to support the heavy stone. This gave Romanesque churches a heavy, solid look.

Another feature that Italian architects added to the Romanesque style was a separate bell tower (campanile) that was built beside the main church. Two examples are the church of Sant' Ambrogio in Milan (begun about 1080) and the cathedral in Pisa with its famous leaning tower (built between 1174 and 1350).

Italian churches during the Romanesque period continued to be decorated with frescoes and mosaics. Saints and other holy figures were portayed with stiff poses, simplified forms, and staring eyes.

Gothic Period
The Gothic style appeared in Italy during the late 1100's. It came to Italy from France, which at that time was the leader in architecture, sculpture, and manuscript illumination.

Gothic cathedrals are high and filled with light. Their soaring walls reach great heights, braced by exterior supports called flying buttresses. The graceful Gothic style contrasts with the heavy, solid look of the Romanesque. The Gothic style never took hold in Italy as it did in France. However, important examples of Gothic architecture can be found in Italy. They include Florence Cathedral, built in the late 1200's, Siena Cathedral, begun before 1260, and Orvieto, begun in 1290. Milan Cathedral, begun in 1386 and completed two centuries later, was designed with the help of French architects. It is one of the largest cathedrals built in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The Venetians, who traded with Islamic countries as well as with countries of northern Europe, combined the Gothic style with Islamic design when decorating their palaces.

A new interest in naturalism (portraying lifelike images) appeared in French Gothic sculpture of the early 1200's. Smiling, lively figures in gracefully draped robes gradually replaced the stiff, stern figures in Romanesque church decoration. Religious subjects continued to dominate, but secular (nonreligious) images appeared with greater frequency.

Italian sculpture showed almost no sign of French Gothic influence until the late 1200's. The change is apparent in the work of Nicola Pisano of Tuscany and his son, Giovanni. Nicola's famous pulpit in the Baptistery at Pisa (1259-60) and Giovanni's carvings on the exterior of Siena Cathedral reintroduced the kind of naturalism found in antique sculpture of the classical period.

Illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows had become important art forms in northern Europe during the Middle Ages. However, painting and mosaic continued to flourish in Italy, as they had since antiquity.

The work of one Italian painter, Giotto, marks a dramatic change in Italian painting. His frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, painted in 1305-06, show the extent of his achievement. The figures in the paintings are modeled and shaded rather than merely outlined, and they have the solidity and weight of sculpture. More powerfully than ever before, the figures communicate human emotion through their gestures and facial expressions. Giotto's work looked forward to the painting style of the Renaissance.

Painting on wood panels flourished in Siena and Florence, two rival cities in central Italy. Siena experienced a golden age of art during the 1300's, when it was one of the largest and richest cities in Europe. Sienese painters loved to work with bright colors and gold decoration and to portray luxurious clothing. Finished paintings were set into richly carved and gilded frames that were capped by pointed Gothic arches.

Among the most innovative Sienese painters were Duccio de Buoninsegna, Simone Martini, and the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti. The work of these painters incorporated influences from both Byzantine and Gothic art.

Duccio painted a famous altarpiece, called the Maesta (1308-11), for Siena Cathedral. The painting, with its expressive figures of the Virgin and Child, was revolutionary for its time. Duccio's pupil, Simone Martini, preferred to work in the International Gothic style of northern Europe. His elegant figures are also emotionally expressive. The Lorenzetti brothers were fresco painters who were skilled at creating the illusion of space in their paintings. Ambrogio's panoramic views of town and countryside in his fresco The Effects of Good and Bad Government (1338-40) show his ability to depict large-scale outdoor scenes.

More than half the population of Siena perished in the Black Plague of 1348, and the city never recovered its status. By the late 1300's its rival, Florence, had emerged as the center of the early Renaissance.

Renaissance (1400-1600)
The period known as the Renaissance was Italy's Golden Age, during which the country led all of Europe in economic, cultural, and intellectual achievement. Renaissance is a French word meaning "rebirth." The period was given this name because there was a rebirth of interest in the learning and arts of the classical age.

Renaissance scholars broke with the God-centered outlook of the Middle Ages. They focused instead on humans and their world. This movement, called humanism, affected all aspects of Renaissance thought.

Renaissance artists sought to return to the ideals of classical Greece and Rome. They often portrayed nonreligious subjects. The human figure dominated Renaissance art. It was often shown nude, as it had been in Greek and Roman art. For the first time, artists studied the human body like scientists. They even dissected corpses to learn more about the body's structure so that they could depict people more convincingly.

Early Renaissance
Florence, the center of the early Renaissance, was ruled by a wealthy and powerful banking family, the Medici. The Medici were generous art patrons and progressive thinkers. Their patronage drew intellectuals and artists from all over Italy to Florence.

The Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi was the first true Renaissance architect. Inspired by ancient Roman ruins, he introduced classical forms into his own building designs. The dome of the cathedral in Florence is his most celebrated work. Brunelleschi also invented a mathematical method for creating perspective, or the appearance of depth, on the flat surface of a painting.

Another important architect of the period was Leon Battista Alberti. A man of many talents, Alberti is best known for his writings on theories of painting, sculpture, and architecture. In creating his building designs, Alberti consulted De Architectura, by Vitruvius, the only book on architecture to survive from Roman times.

Italian sculptors were the first to work in the Renaissance style. Lorenzo Ghiberti designed a pair of gilded bronze doors for the Baptistery of Florence Cathedral in 1435. The reliefs (raised sculptures) on the doors contain figures that look like classical sculptures.

Another sculptor, Donatello, also studied classical sculpture, as well as human anatomy. He carved the first free-standing statues (those that can be seen from all sides) since ancient times. His bronze David (1430-32) and his statue of a soldier on horseback, known as Gattamelata (1445-50), are realistic and dynamic portraits.

Many different styles existed in the early Renaissance. The Florentines stressed the importance of drawing in all aspects of art. The art of Florence, therefore, is characterized by graceful lines.

The Florentine master Masaccio established a new direction in painting that lasted for the next 200 years. From his friend Brunelleschi, Masaccio learned how to use perspective to create the illusion of space in his paintings. The sculptural quality of his figures may have been inspired by Donatello, whom he also knew. Masaccio's most famous work is a series of frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, painted about 1426. These paintings, which have the realism of Giotto's works, were admired and studied by many later artists, including Michelangelo.

Piero della Francesca continued Masaccio's style. His paintings, with their cool colors, statue-like figures, and simple composition, convey a sense of timelessness and order.

The Dominican friars Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi painted sensitive depictions of saints and other religious subjects. Their delicate and graceful figures are Gothic in style, but have more solidity.

Antonio Pollaiuolo was one of the first Renaissance artists to paint large-scale scenes from mythology. He often showed nude figures in motion to demonstrate his knowledge of human anatomy. The dynamic movement in his paintings can also be seen in the later work of Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli's elegant portraits, religious paintings, and mythological scenes are typical of the Florentine style of this period.

High Renaissance
After the death of Lorenzo de Medici in 1492, Florence lost much of its power. During the period known as the High Renaissance, Florence was replaced by Rome as a center of culture and learning. Countless artists and architects went to Rome, many to work on projects for popes Julius II and Leo X.

Rome, which contained many surviving works from ancient times, inspired artists to work on a larger scale, to try to recapture the grandeur of the classical period.

Figures in paintings and sculptures were more full-bodied and idealized. Movement and strong human emotion, so important in the Early Renaissance, became less significant. Instead, artists tried to achieve a timeless and quiet serenity that would convey divine perfection. The ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato inspired artists to seek simplicity and balance, harmony and order. Greek and Roman philosophy were combined with Christian beliefs to create a new style.

Leonardo da Vinci
The High Renaissance style of painting first appeared in the work of Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo was a sculptor, writer, engineer, inventor, musician, and astronomer, as well as a painter. He was revered in his own lifetime as a true "Renaissance man"; that is, someone who developed and used all his talents to full capacity. Leonardo's fresco The Last Supper (1495-98) and his portrait Mona Lisa (1503-05) are among his most famous works. His technique of using contrasting light and dark areas (called chiaroscuro) influenced the development of the High Renaissance style.

Bramante, Michelangelo, and Raphael
The ambitious Pope Julius II was fortunate to have in his employment three of the most brilliant artists who ever lived. He hired Donato Bramante to rebuild St. Peter's Basilica, Michelangelo Buonarroti to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in St. Peter's, and Raphael Sanzio to paint frescoes for the papal apartments in the Vatican Palace. Julius' grand schemes were continued by his successor, Pope Leo X.

Bramante was the first architect of the High Renaissance. His career began in Milan, where he was influenced by Leonardo and by early Christian churches. When he moved to Rome in 1499, his buildings became larger and heavier. His chapel for the church of San Pietro in Rome, known as the Tempietto ("little temple") typifies the basic principles of High Renaissance architecture. The design of the building is based on simple geometric shapes--a rectangle and a circle--that create a sense of harmony and order. Bramante died before he was able to carry out his design for the rebuilding of St. Peter's.

Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter, and architect. His celebrated statue David (1501-04) is the Italian Renaissance version of ancient Greek sculptures of athletes. Michelangelo's thorough understanding of human anatomy was unsurpassed. His paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, depicting scenes from the Bible, were completed in 1512. They quickly became one of the wonders of the world. Another of Michelangelo's masterpieces is his design for the dome of St. Peter's. The dome dominates the skyline of Rome and has been copied many times over.

Raphael, who was born in Urbino, divided his time between Florence and Rome. The figures in his paintings have an idealized beauty characteristic of the High Renaissance. His frescoes in the Vatican Palace, done between 1509 and 1517, are among his greatest artistic achievements. Raphael also designed ten large tapestries for the Sistine Chapel, depicting the lives of the apostles. The designs were reproduced in engravings and became widely known throughout Europe. Raphael's large studio of assistants and apprentices helped complete many of his projects and continued his style after his untimely death at age 37.

Other Artists
Another important artist who worked in the style of the High Renaissance was the painter Antonio da Correggio. His greatest work is a fresco, The Assumption of the Virgin (1526-30), painted in the domed ceiling of Parma Cathedral. The painting is a masterpiece of perspective, filled with twisting and turning figures who appear to be rising into the heavens. The work looks forward to the baroque style of the next century.

A separate style of painting developed in Venice. The Venetian painters were the first in Italy to work in oil, a medium imported from northern Europe. Other Italian artists used a mixture of oil and egg tempera. While Florentine and Roman artists emphasized line, Venetian artists loved to portray the effects of color and light. They used color and shading rather than lines to define the shapes in their paintings.

Giovanni Bellini, his pupil Giorgione, and Titian were the greatest painters of the Venetian school. These artists took special care in painting the landscapes in the backgrounds of their works. Realistically painted and bathed in mists, the landscapes projected a romantic atmosphere that was to influence later artists.

Late Renaissance and Mannerism
After 1520, some Renaissance artists began to emphasize style over the subject matter of their works. That is, the manner in which a picture was painted or a sculpture was carved became more important than the image it portrayed. These artists were called mannerists. Mannerist artists delighted in unusual images. Figures in strange colors and twisted poses were placed in crowded settings. The meaning of a painting's subject would often be intentionally unclear.

Mannerist art reflects the uncertainty of the time. Italy had become a battleground for foreign armies. Much of Rome was destroyed by one of the armies in 1527, and the city lost its powerful position. In addition, the Roman Catholic Church was threatened by the Protestant movement that had begun in northern Europe.

Michelangelo's late work mirrors the questioning mood of the mannerist period. As he grew older, the spiritual nature of his work intensified. A new religious emotionalism can be seen in his painting The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel and in his later sculpture.

One of the best-known mannerist artists was Francesco Parmigianino. He was much influenced by Correggio and Raphael. His elegant painting of the Virgin and Child known as the Madonna with the Long Neck, painted about 1535, is often cited as a typical example of mannerist painting.

Giulio Romano, a pupil of Raphael, was a fresco painter, decorator, and architect who worked in his master's style. His most celebrated work was the Palazzo del Te (1526-35), the summer palace of the Duke of Mantua. Giulio designed both the building and its wall decoration. Paintings on the walls of one room, the Sala dei Giganti (hall of the giants), depict a scene from mythology--the rebellion of the Giants against Olympus. The scene surrounds the viewer standing in the room, creating a sensation similar to a modern-day house of horrors in an amusement park.

Other mannerist painters include Rosso Fiorentino and Jacopo Pontormo. Pontormo's pupil, Bronzino, along with Giorgio Vasari, were among the next generation of Florentine mannerists.

1600's and 1700'S

By the end of the 1500's, a new optimism was beginning to replace the uncertainty of the mannerist period. An ambitious rebuilding program was begun to make Rome the most magnificent city on earth. The Roman Catholic Church sought to recover the confidence and faith of the people. Artists received commissions to decorate church interiors with paintings and sculpture that taught church beliefs to the people in a clear and believable way. The mannerist style of confusion and artificiality was replaced by simplicity, clarity, and realism. It was the beginning of a new age, known as the baroque period.

Baroque Period
In general, baroque art and architecture is characterized by a return to the naturalism of the Renaissance, combined with a new element of movement and drama. The vitality of baroque art appeals to the senses. This was the last great period of Italian art.

Architecture and Sculpture
Carlo Maderno was the first architect to work in the baroque manner and the first to inspire European artists outside Italy to adapt to the new style. In 1607 he completed the facade (front) and nave of St. Peter's.

The greatest of all Italian baroque masters was Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini. A brilliant sculptor, architect, and painter, Bernini was the first to combine all three arts into a single, beautiful whole. No other artist since Michelangelo was held in such high esteem: Bernini was employed by five popes. His most important work was for St. Peter's. For the interior of the church, Bernini designed the Throne of St. Peter, the canopy over the papal altar, and the tomb of Pope Urban VIII. For the exterior, he created the magnificent square, with its stately rows of columns, that welcomes visitors to the church.

Bernini's sculpture was very different from Renaissance statues, which were usually designed to be viewed from the front. His lifelike figures catch the light and prompt the viewer to circle them in order to see the full effect. Instead of the white marble or bronze used by Renaissance sculptors, Bernini often used polychrome marble (marble of different colors pieced together). His genius for re-creating movement and life in his art can also be seen in the many fountains he designed for Rome. A biography of Bernini appears in this encyclopedia.

Painting in the 1600's was marked by a return to the values of the Renaissance tradition. The Carracci family in Bologna were instrumental in effecting this change. Their style combined skillful drawing with an emphasis on color. These two elements of painting had remained separate in Renaissance art.

Annibale Carracci and his brother Agostino, together with their cousin Lodovico, shared a studio. Later they opened a school that taught young apprentices to draw from live models. It was the first time such training had ever been provided. This progressive school produced some of the major figures of Italian painting of the 1600's, including Guido Reni, Domenichino, Lanfranco, and Giovanni Guercino. All these painters worked in the classical style.

Annibale's most important works were produced in Rome between 1595 and 1605. His paintings on the ceiling of the gallery of the Farnese Palace laid the foundation for Italian painting for the next 150 years. Painted in the manner of Raphael and Michelangelo, the paintings depict mythological love scenes from Ovid's Metamorphosis. Annibale also made important contributions to the development of landscape painting.

The paintings of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio were as revolutionary as the sculptures of Bernini. In his Death of the Virgin (1606), Caravaggio chose to show the Virgin Mary as an ordinary person, with dirty feet and unkempt hair. This portrayal shocked the people of his day, but Caravaggio's brand of realism had enormous influence, as did his use of dramatic lighting. His paintings of fruits and flowers contributed greatly to the development of the kind of painting known as still life.

Painting in Venice
In the early 1700's, Venice again became an important artistic center. The city was the home of Giambattista Tiepolo, the last great painter of frescoes in the tradition of Raphael and Michelangelo. Tiepolo was a prolific artist whose reputation was as great in Germany and Spain as it was in Italy. He used very light colors that imitated the effects of brilliant daylight and gave his paintings a cheerful optimism. This style of painting is known as rococo.

The beauty of Venice attracted tourists from all over Europe. A group of artists known as the vedutisti, or view painters, flourished in Venice. They specialized in views--both real and imaginary--of the city, which were sold to tourists. Antonio Canale, called Canaletto, and Francesco Guardi were the most popular and accomplished of these artists.

1800'S and 1900'S

While no longer in the forefront of artistic development in Europe, Italy continued to produce artists of international stature. These included the sculptor Antonio Canova, who worked in the style known as neoclassicism, which tried to imitate classical art.

In the mid-1800's, a group of painters known as the macchiaioli (spot painters) emerged in Florence. Like the French impressionists, they painted outdoors and strove to capture the effects of light on figures, objects, and landscape.

At the beginning of the 1900's, Italian artists again led an international movement. The poet and dramatist Filippo Marinetti started a movement called futurism. Futurist artists were excited about what the new century would bring, and they wanted to abolish the past. They tried to represent the motion and sound of machinery and modern city life in their paintings and sculpture. Umberto Boccioni and Gino Severini were among the members of the group, which disbanded at the start of World War I (1914-18).

After the war, Carlo Carra, a futurist painter, joined with Giorgio de Chirico to found a movement called pittura metafisica. It was part of an international art movement known as surrealism. Later, Carra returned to a traditional style based on the old masters. He became associated with Giorgio Morandi, a still-life painter and etcher. Morandi's monochromatic (one-color) studies of bottles have received wide acclaim.

Two important sculptors of the 1900's are Giacomo Manzu and Marino Marini. Manzu created religious sculptures in a refined and elegant style that shows his subject simply and realistically. Marini absorbed a variety of influences, including the sculpture of ancient Greece. The horse and rider is his recurring theme.

As the 1900's drew to a close, Italians continued to contribute to an art scene that was becoming increasingly international. Abstract art (art that does not attempt to represent real objects) was never fully accepted in Italy; the work of Lucio Fontana was an important exception. Most Italians artists have continued to create recognizable images. The works of two leading painters, Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente, express each artist's very personal vision of life's experiences.

Helen Mules
Associate Curator of Drawings
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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