When you mention art in Italy, most people's thoughts fly first to the Renaissance -- to Giotto, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. But Italy's artistic heritage actually goes back at least 2,500 years.
Classical Art: Greeks, Etruscans & Romans (5th c. B.C.-5th c. A.D.)
Today all, or almost all, design roads lead to Milan. In the beginning, though, all roads led from Athens. What the Greeks identified early on that captured the hearts and minds of so many was the classical rendering of form. To the ancients, classic or classical simply meant perfection -- of proportion, balance, harmony, and form. To the Greeks, man was the measure of perfection, an attitude lost in the Middle Ages and not rediscovered until the dawn of the Renaissance.
Although those early tourists to the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans, arrived with their own styles, by the 6th century B.C., they were borrowing heavily from the Greeks in their sculpture (and importing thousands of Attic painted vases). The Romans, in turn, copied heavily from the Greeks, often ad nauseam as they cranked out countless facsimiles of Greek sculptures to decorate Roman patrician homes and gardens. Bronze portraiture, a technique with Greek and Etruscan roots, was polished to photographic perfection.
Although painting got rather short shrift in ancient Rome (it was used primarily for decorative purposes), bucolic frescoes, the technique of painting on wet plaster, adorned the walls of the wealthy in Rome, though nothing significant survives in the north of Italy. Mosaics were rather better done and survived the ages more intact; you can see some of the best Roman mosaic flooring at the excavations of Aquilea in the Friuli.
Byzantine & Romanesque (5th-13th c.)
Artistic expression in the Dark Ages and early medieval Italy was largely church related. Mass was recited in Latin, so to help explain the most important lessons to the illiterate masses, biblical bas-reliefs around the churches' main doors, as well as wall paintings and altarpieces inside, told key tales to inspire faith in God and fear of sin (Last Judgments were favorites). Otherwise, decoration was spare, and what little existed was often destroyed, replaced, or covered over the centuries as tastes changed and cathedrals were remodeled.
The Byzantine style of painting and mosaic was very stylized and static, an iconographic tradition imported from the remnant eastern half of the Roman Empire centered at Byzantium (its major political outposts in Italy were Ravenna and Venice). Faces (and eyes) were almond-shaped with pointy little chins, noses long with a spoonlike depression at the top, and folds in robes (always Virgin Mary blue over red) represented by stylized cross-hatching in gold leaf.
Romanesque sculpture was somewhat more fluid, but still far from naturalistic, usually idiosyncratic and often wonderfully childlike in its narrative simplicity, frequently freely mixing biblical scenes with the myths and motifs from local pagan traditions that were being slowly incorporated into early medieval Christianity.
Romanesque art was seen as crude by most later periods and usually replaced or destroyed over the centuries; it survives mostly in scraps, innumerable column capitals and tympanums or carvings set above church doors all across Italy. Some of the best major examples of this era in northern Italy include the astounding mosaics decorating San Marco cathedral in Venice, a late Byzantine church of domes and a glittering array of mosaics. (However, while the overall effect is indeed Byzantine, many of the mosaics are from various later dates.) Verona's San Zeno Maggiore sports 48 relief panels on the bronze doors, one of the most important pieces of Romanesque sculpture in Italy, cast between the 9th and 11th centuries and flanked by strips of 12th-century stone reliefs. Aosta's Collegiata dei Santi Pietro e Orso, on the edge of town, preserves part of an 11th-century fresco cycle and 40 remarkable 12th-century carved column capitals in the cloisters.
International Gothic (Late 13th to Early 15th c.)
Late medieval Italian art continued to be largely ecclesiastical. Church facades and pulpits were festooned with statues and carvings. In both Gothic painting and sculpture, figures tended to be more natural than in the Romanesque (and the colors in painting more varied and rich), but highly stylized and rhythmic, the figures' features and gestures exaggerated for symbolic or emotional emphasis. In painting especially, late Gothic artists, such as Giotto, started introducing greater realism, a sense of depth, and more realistic emotion into their art, sowing the seeds of the Renaissance.
Without a doubt, Giotto (1266-1337) was the greatest Gothic artist, the man who lifted painting from its Byzantine funk and set it on the road to the realism and perspective of the Renaissance. His most renowned work is the fresco cycle of Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco, but arguably better (and more certain of its authorship) is Padua's (Padova's) outstanding Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel. The bulk of great Gothic art resides in Tuscany and Umbria, but Verona was blessed to have Antonio Pisanello (1395-1455), whose frescoes survive in Sant'Anastasia and San Fermo, and in Mantua (Mantova) at the Palazzo Ducale.
Renaissance & Mannerism (Early 15th to Mid-17th c.)
From the 14th to 16th centuries, the popularity of the Humanist movement in philosophy prompted princes and powerful prelates to patronize a generation of innovative young artists. These painters, sculptors, and architects were experimenting with new modes in art and breaking with static medieval traditions to pursue a greater degree of expressiveness and naturalism, using such techniques as linear perspective (actually pioneered by architect Brunelleschi and sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti). The term Renaissance, or "rebirth," was only later applied to this period in Florence, from which the movement spread to the rest of Italy and Europe.
Eventually, the High Renaissance began to stagnate, producing vapid works of technical perfection but little substance. Several artists sought ways out of the downward spiral. Mannerism was the most interesting attempt, a movement that found its muse in the extreme torsion of Michelangelo's figures -- in sculpture and painting -- and his unusual use of oranges, greens, and other nontraditional colors, most especially in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In sculpture, Mannerism produced twisting figures in exaggerated contraposto positioning.
This list of Renaissance giants merely scratches the surface of the masters Italy gave rise to in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Donatello (Donato Bardi; ca. 1386-1466) was the first full-fledged Renaissance sculptor, with a patented schiacciato technique of warping low relief surfaces and etching backgrounds in perspective to create a sense of deep space. His bronze and marble figures are some of the most expressive and psychologically probing of the Renaissance. Among his many innovations, this unassuming artist cast the first equestrian bronze since antiquity, the Gattamelata in Padua.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was the original "Renaissance Man," dabbling his genius in a bit of everything, from art to philosophy to science (on paper, he even designed machine guns and rudimentary helicopters). Little of his remarkable painting survives, however, as he often experimented with new pigment mixes that proved to lack the staying power of traditional materials. Leonardo invented such painterly effects as the fine haze of sfumato, "a moisture-laden atmosphere that delicately veils . . . forms." Unfortunately, the best example of this effect, his fresco of The Last Supper in Milan (1495-97), is sadly deteriorated, and even the ongoing multidecade restoration is saving but a shadow of the fresco's glory. See his Portrait of a Musician in Milan's Pinacoteca Ambrosiana for a better-preserved example.
Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), heavyweight contender for world's greatest artist ever, was a genius in sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry. He marked the apogee of the Renaissance. A complex and difficult man -- intensely jealous, probably manic-depressive, and certainly homosexual -- Michelangelo enjoyed great fame in a life plagued by a series of never-ending projects commissioned by Pope Julius II, including Rome's Sistine Chapel frescoes. Michelangelo worshiped the male nude as the ultimate form and twisted the bodies of his figures (torsion) in different, often contradictory directions (contraposto) to bring out their musculature. When forced against his will to paint the Sistine Chapel, he broke almost all the rules and sent painting headlong in an entirely new direction -- the Mannerist movement -- marked by nonprimary colors, Impressionistic shapes of light, and twisting muscular figures. While you'll have to go to Florence and Rome to see his greatest works, including the David, you can admire his final work (for free, no less) in Milan, an oddly modern, elongated Pietà he was still working on when he died at age 89.
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio; 1483-1520) is rightfully considered one of Western art's greatest draftsmen. Raphael produced a body of work in his 37 short years that ignited European painters for generations to come. So it's only fitting that his only significant work in northern Italy, kept in Milan's Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, is a sketch, one for the School of Athens, the fresco of which graces the papal apartments of the Vatican, at once a celebration of Renaissance artistic precepts, the classical philosophers whose rediscovery spurred on the Renaissance, and Raphael's contemporaries (the various "philosophers" are actually portraits of Leonardo, Bramante, and Raphael himself -- Michelangelo is not in the sketch but was added in the painting).
All of the above artists hailed from central Italy. Now we get to some homegrown northern Italian talents. Though his father, Jacopo (1400-71), and brother, Gentile (1429-1507), were also fine practitioners of the family business (Jacopo really more from a Gothic vein, a student of Gentile da Fabriano and rival to Pisanello), it was Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516) who towered above them all with his painterly talent, limpid colors, sculptured forms, and complex compositions. Both he and his brother are best represented by works in Venice's Accademia and Palazzo Ducale, as well as Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera. Giovanni Bellini's style and talent reverberated through Venetian art for generations; he himself taught the likes of Titian, Giorgione, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Palma il Vecchio.
Gentile and Giovanni had a sister, too, and, as it happened, she married a young painter named Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Mantegna excelled at three of the main tenets of Renaissance art: He was an early perfector of perspective (which he could warp masterfully), he was a keen observer of anatomy (which he modeled with sculptural exactitude), and he made careful studies of ancient architecture (the proportions and details of which he incorporated into his paintings). You'll find Mantegna's paintings throughout the region, from his early Madonna and Child with Saints altarpiece for Verona's San Zeno, to his work as court painter to the Gonzagas in Mantua (the Palazzo Ducale's Camera degli Sposi), to his unparalleled Dead Christ, considered the masterpiece of Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera (no small honor, considering the heavyweights inhabiting the premier art gallery in northern Italy).
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio; 1485-1576) was the father of the Venetian High Renaissance, who imparted to the school his love of color and tonality and exploration of the effects of light on darkened scenes. In Venice, you'll find his works everywhere, from canvases in the Accademia collections to altarpieces decorating churches, such as the Frari, to his early and famous Battle scene (1513) in the Palazzo Ducale's Sala del Maggior Consiglio.
After Titian, 16th-century Venetian art was dominated by two powerful talents, Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti; 1518-94). Tintoretto was something of a Venetian Mannerist, using a rapid, loose brushwork and a slightly somber, shadow-filled take on the tones of Titian's palette that together imparted a realism and vitality to his painting. Venice's Accademia has some works, of course, but his crowning glory is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, for which he painted well over a dozen large-scale canvases. He also holds the honor of having produced (with the help of son Domenico) the largest oil painting in the world (6.9*24m/23*79 ft.), the Paradise decorating the end wall of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale in Mantua.
Verona-born Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari; 1528-88) had a much brighter, tighter style, and he loved crowding his canvases with hordes of extras straight out of 16th-century central casting. In fact, his broad inclusion of earthy details ran him afoul of the Counter-Reformation spirit of the times, and he avoided incurring the church's wrath over the crowd of serving wenches and slave boys populating a Last Supper he painted only by hastily retitling it Feast in the House of Levi (now in Venice's Accademia). The church of San Sebastiano boasts his ceiling frescoes, but it's Venice's Palazzo Ducale that bookends the career of Veronese (containing both his earliest paintings and one of his final ones). His earliest Venetian commissions (1553) were for paintings in the chambers where two groups in the highest echelons of Venice's ruling body met, the Sala del Consiglio dei Dieci and the Sala dei Tre Capi del Consiglio. One of his final works (finished by his studio) was the huge Apotheosis of Venice decorating the ceiling of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Veronese would be the main artist to inspire Tiepolo and others in Venice's next generation of baroque artists.
Baroque & Rococo (Late 16th to 18th c.)
The baroque is a more theatrical and decorative take on the Renaissance, mixing a kind of super-realism based on the peasant models and chiaroscuro (harsh light and exaggeratedly dark shadows) of Caravaggio with compositional complexity and explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures. Rococo is this later baroque art gone awry, frothy and chaotic.
The baroque period produced many fine artists, but only a few true geniuses, and most of them (including Caravaggio and Bernini) worked in Rome and the south. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) was, by a long shot, the best rococo artist there was, influenced by not only his Venetian late-Renaissance predecessors but also the Roman and Neapolitan baroque. His specialty was painting ceiling frescoes (and canvases meant to be placed in a ceiling) that opened up the space into frothy, cloud-filled heavens of light, angels, and pale, sunrise colors. Though he painted many works for Veneto villas, including the sumptuous Villa Valmarana and Villa Pisani, he also spent much of his time traveling throughout Europe on long commissions (his work in Würzburg, Germany, enjoys distinction as the largest ceiling fresco in the world). His son, Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727-1804), carried on the family tradition in a Venice increasingly ruled by genre masters like Antonio Canaletto (1697-1738), whose ultrarealistic scenes of Venetian canals and palaces were snapped up by the collectors from across the Alps who began sniffing around Italy on their Grand Tour.
Late 18th Century to Today
After carrying the artistic church of innovation for over a millennium, Italy ran out of steam with the baroque, leaving countries such as France to develop the heights of neoclassicism (though Italy produced a few fine neoclassical sculptures) and late-19th-century Impressionism (Italians had their own version, called the Macchiaioli). Italy has not played an important role in late-19th/20th-century art, though it has produced a few great artists, all of whose works grace the excellent Pinacoteca di Brera, the Palazzo Reale, and the modern art gallery adjoining the Duomo, the Museo Civico d'Arte Contemporanea, all in Milan.
Antonio Canova (1757-1822) was Italy's top neoclassical sculptor, popular for his mythological figures and Bonaparte portraits (he even did both Napoleon and his sister Pauline as nudes); in addition to the Brera in Milan, you'll find his work in Venice's Museo Correr. Giovanni Fattori (1825-1908) was the best of the Macchiaioli, fond of battle scenes and landscapes populated by the Maremma's long-horned white cattle.
A sickly boy and only moderately successful in his short lifetime, Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920) helped reinvent the portrait in painting and sculpture after he moved to Paris in 1906. He is famed for his elongated, mysterious heads and rapidly painted nudes. Check them out at Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera. Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) was the founder of freaky metafisica, "metaphysical painting," a forerunner of surrealism wherein figures and objects are stripped of their usual meaning through odd juxtapositions, warped perspective and reality, unnatural shadows, and other bizarre effects, as well as a general spatial emptiness. Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) was influenced by metafisica in his eerily minimalist, highly modeled, quasi-monochrome still lifes. His paintings also decorate Turin's Galleria d'Arte Moderna.
Italian artists living in 1909 Paris made a spirited attempt to take the artistic initiative back into Italian hands, but what the Futurist movement's Umberto Boccioni (1882-1916) came up with was largely cubism with an element of movement added in. Gino Severini (1883-1966) contributed a sophisticated take on color, which rubbed off on the core cubists as well. Both are represented at Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera and the Palazzo Reale.
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