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The Middle Ages: 9th Century to the 14th Century

A ravaged Rome entered the Middle Ages, its once-proud people scattered and unrecognizable in rustic exile. A modest population lived in the swamps of the Campus Martius. The seven hills, now without water because the aqueducts were cut, stood abandoned and crumbling.

The Pope turned toward Europe, where he found a powerful ally in Charlemagne, king of the Franks. In 800, he was crowned emperor by Pope Leo III. Although Charlemagne pledged allegiance to the church and looked to Rome and its pope as the final arbiter in most religious and cultural affairs, he launched northwestern Europe on a course toward bitter opposition to the meddling of the papacy in temporal affairs.

The successor to Charlemagne’s empire was a political entity known as the Holy Roman Empire (962–1806). The new Empire defined the end of the Dark Ages but ushered in a long period of bloody warfare. Magyars from Hungary invaded northeastern Lombardy and, in turn, were defeated by an increasingly powerful Venice. This was the great era of Venetian preeminence in the eastern Mediterranean; it defeated naval rival Genoa in the 1380 Battle of Chioggia; its merchants reigned over most of the eastern Mediterranean, and presided over a republic that lasted for a millennium; great buildings like the Doge’s Palace were built. The Lion of St. Mark—symbol of the city's dominion—can be seen as far afield as Bergamo, close to Milan.

Rome during the Middle Ages was a quaint backwater. Narrow lanes with overhanging buildings filled many areas that had once been showcases of imperial power. The forums, mercantile exchanges, temples, and theaters of the Imperial era slowly disintegrated. As the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, the state was almost completely controlled by priests, and began an aggressive expansion of church influence and acquisitions. The result was an endless series of power struggles. Between 1378 and 1417, competing popes—one in Rome, another “antipope” in Avignon—made simultaneous claims to the legacy of St. Peter.

Normans gained military control of Sicily from the Arabs in the 11th century, divided it from the rest of Italy, and altered forever the island’s racial and ethnic makeup. The reign of Roger II of Sicily (r. 1130–54) is remembered for its religious tolerance and the multiethnic nature of the court—as well as its architecture. The Palazzo dei Normanni, in Palermo, and nearby Monreale, are just two among many great projects the Normans left behind.

In the mid–14th century, the Black Death ravaged Europe, killing perhaps a third of Italy’s population; the unique preservation of Tuscan settlements like San Gimignano and Siena owes much to the fact that they never fully recovered after the devastation dished out by the 1348 plague. Despite such setbacks, Italian city-states grew wealthy from Crusade booty, trade, and banking.

The medieval period marks the beginning of building in stone on a mass scale. Flourishing from a.d. 800 to 1300, Romanesque architecture took its inspiration and rounded arches from ancient Rome. Architects built large churches with wide aisles to accommodate the masses. Pisa’s Campo dei Miracoli (1153–1360s) is typical of the Pisan-Romanesque style, with stacked arcades of mismatched columns in the cathedral’s facade (and wrapping around the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa), and blind arcading set with diamond-shaped lozenges. The influence of Arab architecture is obvious—Pisa was a city of seafaring merchants.

Romanesque sculpture was fluid but still far from naturalistic. Often wonderfully childlike in its narrative simplicity, the work frequently mixes biblical scenes with the myths and motifs of local pagan traditions that were being incorporated into medieval Christianity. The 48 relief panels of the bronze doors of the Basilica di San Zeno Maggiore in Verona are among Italy's greatest remaining examples of Romanesque sculpture. The exterior of Parma’s Baptistery sports a series of Romanesque friezes by Benedetto Antelami (1150–1230).

As the appeal of Romanesque and the Byzantine faded, the Gothic style flourished from the 13th to the 15th centuries. In architecture, the Gothic was characterized by flying buttresses, pointed arches, and delicate stained-glass windows. These engineering developments freed architecture from the heavy, thick walls of the Romanesque and allowed ceilings to soar, walls to thin, and windows to proliferate.

Although the Gothic age continued to be religious, many secular buildings also arose, including palaces designed to show off the prestige of various ruling families. Siena’s civic Palazzo Pubblico and many of the great buildings of Venice date from this period. San Gimignano, in Tuscany, has a preserved Gothic center. Milan's Duomo is one of Europe's great Gothic cathedrals.

Painters such as Cimabue (1251–1302) and Giotto (1266–1337), in Florence, Pietro Cavallini (1259–ca. 1330) in Rome, and Duccio di Buoninsegna (ca. 1255–1319) in Siena, began to lift art from Byzantine rigidity and set it on the road to realism. Giotto’s finest work is his fresco cycle at Padua’s Cappella degli Scrovegni; he was the true harbinger of the oncoming Renaissance, which would forever change art and architecture. Duccio’s 1311 “Maestà,” now in Siena’s Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana, influenced Sienese painters for centuries. Ambrogio Lorenzetti painted the greatest civic frescoes of the Middle Ages—such as his “Allegories of Good and Bad Government” in Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico—before he succumbed to the Black Death, along with almost every great Sienese artist of his generation.

The medieval period also saw the birth of literature in the Italian language—which itself was a written version of the Tuscan dialect, primarily because the great writers of the age were Tuscans. Florentine Dante Alighieri wrote his “Divine Comedy” in the 1310s. Boccaccio’s “Decameron”—kind of a Florentine “Canterbury Tales”—appeared in the 1350s.

Renaissance & Baroque Italy

The story of Italy from the dawn of the Renaissance in the early 15th century to the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries is as fascinating and complicated as that of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire.

During this period, Rome underwent major physical changes. The old centers of culture reverted to pastures and fields, and great churches and palaces were built with the stones of ancient Rome. Cows grazed on the crumbling Roman Forum. The city's construction boom did more damage to the ancient temples than any barbarian sack had done. Rare marbles were stripped from the Imperial-era baths and used as altarpieces or sent to limekilns. So enthusiastic was the papal destruction of Imperial Rome that it’s a miracle anything is left.

Milan was a glorious Renaissance capital, particularly under the Sforza dynasty and Ludovico “Il Moro” (1452–1508), patron of Leonardo da Vinci. Smaller but still significant centers of power included Gonzaga Mantua and Este Ferrara.

This era is best remembered because of its art, and around 1400 the most significant power in Italy was the city where the Renaissance began: Florence. Slowly but surely, the Medici family rose to become the most powerful of the city’s ruling oligarchy, gradually usurping the powers of the guilds and the republicans. They reformed law and commerce, expanded the city’s power by taking control of neighbors such as Pisa, and also sparked a “renaissance,” a rebirth, in painting, sculpture, and architecture. Christopher Hibbert’s “The Rise and Fall of the House of Medici” (2001) is the most readable historical account of the era.

Under the patronage of the Medici (as well as other powerful Florentine families), innovative young painters and sculptors went in pursuit of a greater degree of expressiveness and naturalism. Donatello (1386–1466) cast the first freestanding nude since antiquity (a bronze now in Florence’s Museo Nazionale del Bargello). Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455) labored for 50 years on two sets of doors on Florence’s Baptistery, the most famous of which were dubbed the “Gates of Paradise.” Masaccio (1401–28) produced the first painting that realistically portrayed linear perspective, on the nave wall of Santa Maria Novella.

Next followed the brief period that’s become known as the High Renaissance: The epitome of the Renaissance man, Florentine Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), painted his “Last Supper,” now in Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie, and an “Annunciation” (1481), now hanging in Florence’s Uffizi alongside countless Renaissance masterpieces from such great painters as Paolo Uccello, Sandro Botticelli, Piero della Francesca, and others. Raphael (1483–1520) produced a sublime body of work in 37 short years.

Skilled in sculpture, painting, and architecture, Michelangelo (1475–1564) and his career marked the apogee of the Renaissance. His giant “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence is the world’s most famous statue, and the Sistine Chapel frescoes have lured millions to the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The father of the Venetian High Renaissance was Titian (1485–1576); known for his mastery of color and tonality, he was the true heir to great Venetian painters Gentile Bellini (1429–1507), Giorgione (1477–1510), and Vittore Carpaccio (1465–1525). Many of their masterpieces can be seen around Venice.

As in painting, Renaissance architecture stressed proportion, order, classical inspiration, and mathematical precision. Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), in the early 1400s, grasped the concept of “perspective” and provided artists with ground rules for creating the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface. Ross King’s “Brunelleschi’s Dome” (2000) tells the story of his greatest achievement, the crowning of Florence’s cathedral with that iconic ochre dome. Even Michelangelo took up architecture late in life, designing the Laurentian Library (1524) and New Sacristy (1524–34) at Florence’s Medici Chapels. He moved south (just as art’s center of gravity did) to complete his crowning glory, the soaring dome of Rome’s St. Peter’s Basilica. The third great Renaissance architect—the most influential of them all—was Andrea Palladio (1508–80), who worked in a classical mode of columns, porticoes, pediments, and other ancient temple–inspired features. His masterpieces include fine churches in Venice.

In time, the High Renaissance stagnated, paving the way for the baroque. Stuccoes, sculptures, and paintings were carefully designed to complement each other—and the space itself—to create a unified whole. It’s spiritual home was Rome, and its towering figure was Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), the greatest baroque sculptor, a fantastic architect, and no mean painter. Among many fine sculptures, you’ll find his best in Rome’s Galleria Borghese and Santa Maria della Vittoria. Baroque architecture is especially prominent in the South: in the churches and devotional architecture of Naples and in Siracusa, Sicily. Turin under the Savoys was remodeled by the baroque architecture of Guarino Guarini (1624–83) and Filippo Juvarra (1678–1736).

In music, most famous of the baroque composers is Venetian Antonio Vivaldi (1678–1741), whose “Four Seasons” is among the most regularly performed classical compositions of all time.

In painting, the baroque mixed a kind of super-realism based on using peasants as models and an exaggerated use of light and dark—a technique called chiaroscuro—with compositional complexity and explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures. The period produced many fine artists, notably Caravaggio (1571–1610). Among his masterpieces are the “St. Matthew” (1599) cycle in Rome’s San Luigi dei Francesi and “The Acts of Mercy” in Pio Monte della Misericordia, Naples. The baroque also had an outstanding female painter in Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1652): Her brutal “Judith Slaying Holofernes” (1620) hangs in Florence’s Uffizi.

Frothy, ornate, and chaotic, rococo art was the baroque gone awry—and has few serious proponents in Italy. Giambattista Tiepolo (1696–1770) was arguably the best of the rococo painters, and specialized in ceiling frescoes and canvases with cloud-filled heavens of light. He worked extensively in Venice and the northeast. For rococo building—more a decorative than an architectural movement—look no further than Rome’s Spanish Steps or the Trevi Fountain.

At Last, a United Italy: The 1800s

By the 1800s, the glories of the Renaissance were a fading memory. From Turin to Naples, chunks of Italy had changed hands many, many times—between the Austrians, the Spanish, and the French, among autocratic thugs and enlightened princes, between the noble and the merchant classes. The 19th century witnessed the final collapse of many of the Renaissance city-states. The last of the Medici, Gian Gastone, had died in 1737, leaving Tuscany in the hands of Lorraine and Habsburg princes.

French emperor Napoleon brought an end to a millennium of Republic in Venice in 1797, and installed puppet or client rulers across the Italian peninsula. During the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), which followed Napoleon’s defeat by an alliance of the British, Prussians, and Dutch, Italy was once again divided.

Political unrest became a fact of Italian life, some of it spurred by the industrialization of the north and some by the encouragement of insurrectionaries like Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–72). Europe’s year of revolutions, 1848, rocked Italy, too, with violent risings in Lombardy and Sicily. After decades of political machinations and intrigue, and thanks to the efforts of statesman Camillo Cavour (1810–61) and rebel general Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–82), the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed in 1861 and Victor Emmanuel (Vittorio Emanuele) II of Savoy became its first monarch. The kingdom’s first capital was Turin (1861–65), seat of the victorious Piedmontese, followed by Florence (1865–71).

The establishment of the kingdom, however, didn’t signal a complete unification of Italy because Latium (including Rome) was still under papal control and Venetia was held by Austria. This was partially resolved in 1866, when Venetia joined the rest of Italy after the Seven Weeks’ War between Austria and Prussia. In 1871, Rome became the capital of the newly formed country, after the city was retaken on September 20, 1870. Present-day Via XX Settembre is the very street up which patriots advanced after breaching the city gates. The Risorgimento—the “resurgence,” Italian unification—was complete.

Political heights in Italy seemed to correspond to historic depths in art and architecture. Among the more notable practitioners was Venetian Antonio Canova (1757–1822), Italy’s major neoclassical sculptor, who became notorious for painting both Napoleon and his sister Pauline as nudes. His best work is in Rome’s Galleria Borghese. Tuscany also bred a late–19th-century precursor to French Impressionism, the Macchiaioli movement; see their works in the “modern art” galleries at Florence’s Palazzo Pitti.

If art was hitting an all-time low, music was experiencing its Italian golden age. It’s bel canto opera for which the 19th century is largely remembered. Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) was born in Pesaro, in the Marches, and found fame with his 1816 “The Barber of Seville.” The fame of Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), a prolific native of Bergamo, was assured when his “Anna Bolena” premiered in 1830. Both were perhaps overshadowed by Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), whose works such as “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata” have become some of the most whistled on the planet. At the turn of the century, however, the Romantic movement that had dominated music gave way to the verismo (“realism”) of composer Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), whose operas “La Bohème” (1896), “Tosca” (1900), “Madama Butterfly” (1904), and the unfinished “Turandot” (1924) still pack houses worldwide. He’s celebrated with a museum and opera festival in Lucca, Tuscany.

The 20th Century: Two World Wars & One Duce

In 1915, Italy entered World War I on the side of the Allies, joining Britain, Russia, and France to help defeat Germany and the traditional enemy to the north, now the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the aftermath of war, Italians suffered with rising unemployment and horrendous inflation. As in Germany, this deep political crisis led to the emergence of a dictator. On October 28, 1922, Benito Mussolini, who had started his Fascist Party in 1919, knew the country was ripe for change. He gathered 30,000 Black Shirts for his March on Rome. Inflation was soaring and workers had just called a general strike, so rather than recognizing a state under siege, King Victor Emmanuel III (1900–46) proclaimed Mussolini as the new government leader. In 1929, Il Duce—a moniker Mussolini began using from 1925—defined the divisions between the Italian government and the Pope by signing the Lateran Treaty, which granted political, territorial, and fiscal autonomy to the microstate of Vatican City. During the Spanish Civil War (1936–39), Mussolini’s support of Franco’s Fascists, who had staged a coup against the elected government of Spain, helped seal the Axis alliance between Italy and Nazi Germany. Italy was inexorably and disastrously sucked into World War II.

Deeply unpleasant though their politics were, the Fascist regime did sponsor some remarkable architecture. It’s at its best in Rome’s planned satellite community EUR, especially its “Square Colosseum,” the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro. In a city famed for Renaissance works, Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station (1934) is also a masterpiece—of modernism. The station has a plaque commemorating the Jews who were sent to their deaths in Nazi Germany from the terminus.

After defeat in World War II, Italy’s voted for the establishment of the First Republic—overwhelmingly so in northern and central Italy, which helped to counterbalance a southern majority in favor of keeping the monarchy. Italy quickly succeeded in rebuilding its economy, in part because of U.S. aid under the Marshall Plan (1948–52). By the 1960s, as a member of the European Economic Community (founded by the Treaty of Rome in 1957), Italy had become one of the world’s leading industrialized nations, and prominent in the manufacture of automobiles and office equipment. Fiat (from Turin), Ferrari (from Emilia-Romagna), and Olivetti (from northern Piedmont) were known around the world.

The country continued to be plagued by economic inequality between the industrially prosperous north and the depressed south, and during the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was rocked by domestic terrorism: These were the so-called Anni di Piombo (Years of Lead), during which extremists of the left and right bombed and assassinated with impunity. Conspiracy theories became the Italian staple diet; everyone from the state to shady Masonic lodges to the CIA was accused of involvement in what became in effect an undeclared civil war. The most notorious incidents were the kidnap and murder of Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 and the Bologna station bombing, which killed 85 in 1980. You’ll find a succinct account of these murky years in Tobias Jones’s “The Dark Heart of Italy” (2003).

The postwar Italian film industry became respected for its innovative directors. Federico Fellini (1920–93) burst onto the scene with his highly individual style, beginning with “La Strada” (1954) and going on to such classics as “The City of Women” (1980). His “La Dolce Vita” (1961) defined an era in Rome.

In the early 1990s, many of the country’s leading politicians were accused of corruption. These scandals uncovered as a result of the judiciary’s Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) investigations—often dubbed Tangentopoli (“Bribesville”)—provoked a constitutional crisis, ushering in the Second Republic in 1992.

Other resonant events in recent Italian history have centered on its religion. As much of the world watched and prayed, Pope John Paul II died in April 2005, at the age of 84, ending a reign of 26 years. A Vatican doctrinal hard-liner next took the papal throne as Pope Benedict XVI. He was succeeded by the surprisingly liberal Pope Francis in 2013, after Benedict became the first pope to resign since the 1400s.

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