Etruscans & Romans

Etruscan remains are mostly found in museums (the best in the Tuscan towns Volterra, Cortona, and Chiusi, and at Rome in the Villa Giulia and Vatican museums). Notable works include the bronze Chimera at Florence's archaeology museum, carved alabaster urns and the elongated bronze statuette Shade of the Evening in Volterra's Guarnacci museum, and terra-cotta sarcophagi covers of reclining figures in museums across Tuscany and in Rome's Villa Giulia.

As Rome asserted its own identity and overpowered its Etruscan masters, it borrowed heavily from themes established by Etruscan artists and architects. In time, however, the Romans discovered Greek art and fell in love with that country's Hellenistic tradition, which the Romans continued in a somewhat altered -- some say corrupted -- form in the West.

The greatest Greek or Hellenistic statues are to be seen today in the Vatican Museums in Rome.

Along with an army of also-ran statues and busts gracing most archaeological collections in Italy, you'll find a few standouts. In Rome, look for the marble bas-reliefs (sculptures that project slightly from a flat surface) on the Arch of Constantine, the sculpture and mosaic collections at the Museo Nazionale Romano, and the gilded equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius at the Capitoline Museums.

Byzantine & Romanesque

Art and architecture in the centuries that followed the collapse of Rome (5th-13th c.) became known as Byzantine and Romanesque art.

The Byzantine style of painting and mosaic was very stylized and static. Faces (and eyes) were almond-shaped with pointy little chins; noses were long, with a spoonlike depression at the top; and folds in robes (always blue over red) were represented by stylized cross-hatching in gold leaf.

The best examples of Byzantine art are found in the churches of Ravenna with their stylized mosaics, especially at San Vitale. Of course, the greatest example of a late Byzantine church is the Basilica di San Marco in Venice.

Romanesque sculpture was more 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 slowly incorporated into early medieval Christianity.

The 48 relief panels of the bronze doors of the Basilica San Zeno Maggiore in Verona are one of the greatest remaining examples of Romanesque sculpture in Italy, dating from the 9th to the 11th centuries. The exterior of the baptistery at Parma sports a series of Romanesque allegorical friezes, masterpieces by Benedetto Antelami.


As the appeal of Romanesque and the Byzantine faded, a Gothic or late medieval style flourished from the 13th to the 15th centuries. Although the Gothic age continued to be religious, many secular buildings arose, including an array of palazzo showing off the prestige and wealth of the ruling families. Artists such as Cimabue (1251-1302), the Florentine painter, and Giotto (1266-1337), the greatest Gothic artist, lifted painting from its Byzantine funk and set it on the road to realism. Giotto's best works are fresco cycles in Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco. He was a harbinger of the oncoming Renaissance, which would forever change art and architecture.

The Flowering of the Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance was born in Florence during the 15th century and flourished until the mid-17th century. The powerful Medici family emerged as Italy's greatest art patrons. Innovative young painters, sculptors, and architects broke with static medieval traditions in pursuit of a greater degree of expressiveness and naturalism. Sculptors such as Donatello (1386-1466) cast the first free-standing nude since antiquity (Donatello's David in Florence's Bargello Museum), along with other of his masterpieces.

Ghiberti (1378-1455) labored for 50 years to complete the doors, "Gates of Paradise," for Florence Baptistery. Raphael (1483-1520) produced a body of work in 37 short years that ignited European painters for generations to come. See his Madonnas and papal portraits in Florence's Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti.

But the world's greatest artist in sculpture, painting, and architecture was Michelangelo (1475-1564), who marked the apogee of the Renaissance. His David at the Galleria dell Accademia in Florence is the world's most famous statue, and his Sistine Chapel frescoes have lured millions to the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The epitome of the Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), gave the world his fresco The Last Supper, now in Milan's Santa Maria delle Grazie, and the Annunciation (1481) in Florence's Uffizi, but his masterpiece the Mona Lisa rests in the Louvre in Paris.

The period known as the High Renaissance was said to last for only about 25 years, beginning in the early 16th century. The father of the Venetian High Renaissance was Titian (1485-1576), known for his devotion to color and tonality. His masterpieces rest in such galleries as Florence's Uffizi or its Palazzi Pitti, and in the galleries of Venice. In time, the High Renaissance stagnated, producing vapid works of technical perfection but with little substance. Several artists sought ways out of this downward artistic spiral.

Baroque & Rococo

In the late 16th and early 17th century, lasting into the 18th century, baroque art and architecture swept Europe, including Italy.

The baroque, a more theatrical and decorative take on the Renaissance, mixes a kind of superrealism based on using peasants as models and an exaggerated use of light and dark, called chiaroscuro, with compositional complexity and explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures. The even more dramatic rococo is this later baroque art gone awry, frothy and chaotic.

The baroque period produced many fine artists, but only a few true geniuses, including Caravaggio (1571-1610), who added his chiaroscuro technique of playing areas of harsh light off deep, black shadows. Among his masterpieces are the St. Matthew (1599) cycle in Rome's San Luigi dei Francesi, a series of paintings in Rome's Galleria Borghese, the Deposition (1604) in the Vatican Museums, and several more in Florence's Uffizi Gallery and Palazzo Pitti.

Bernini (1598-1680) was the greatest baroque sculptor, a fantastic architect, and no mean painter. His finest sculptures are in Rome. In the Galleria Borghese are his Aeneas and Anchises (1613), Apollo and Daphne (1624), and David (1623-24) -- his version recalls a baroque man of action rather than a Renaissance man of contemplation like Michelangelo's David.

Tiepolo (1696-1770), the best rococo artist, specialized in ceiling frescoes and canvases meant to be placed in a ceiling with frothy, cloud-filled heavens of light, angels, and pale early-morning colors. He painted many works for villas of the Veneto.

Late 18th Century and Today

After carrying the banner of artistic innovation for more than a millennium, Italy ran out of steam with the baroque, leaving countries such as France to develop the heights of neoclassicism (although Italy produced a few fine neoclassical sculptures) and the late-19th-century Impressionism (Italy had its own version, called the Macchiaioli, in Tuscany). Italy has not played an important role in late-19th- or 20th-century art. Prior to that, during the late 18th century ,it produced a few great artists. Among the more notable is Antonio Canova (1757-1822), Italy's major neoclassical sculptor, who became notorious for painting both Napoleon and his sister Pauline as nudes. His works are in Venice's Correr Civic Museum, Rome's Galleria Borghese, and Florence's Palazzi Pitti.

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