The art of Rome ranges from Roman mosaics and Renaissance masterpieces by Michelangelo and Leonardo to baroque statues by Bernini and modern still lifes by Morandi. Its architecture is equally wide ranging, from Roman temples and Byzantine basilicas to Renaissance churches, baroque palaces, and postmodern stadiums that take their cues from the ancient Colosseum.
Classical: Etruscans & Romans (8th Century B.C. - 5th Century A.D.)
The Etruscans, who became Rome's pre-Republican Tarquin kings, arrived from Asia Minor with their own styles. By the 6th century B.C., however, they were borrowing heavily from the Greeks in their sculpture and importing thousands of Attic vases, which displayed the most popular and widespread painting style of ancient Greece.
Etruscan artistic remains in Rome are confined to the Villa Giulia and Vatican Museums; the best is the Villa Giulia's terra-cotta sarcophagi covers of reclining figures. Some tomb paintings also survive at Tarquinia.
Painting in ancient Rome was used primarily for decorative purposes. Bucolic frescoes (the technique of painting on wet plaster) adorned the walls of the wealthy. Rome's sculptures tended to glorify emperors and the perfect human form, copying ad nauseam from famous Greek originals.
Along with an army of also-ran Roman statues and busts gracing most archaeological collections, you'll find a few standouts: bas-reliefs on the Arch of Constantine; the sculptures, mosaics, and fresco collections at the various branches of the Museo Nazionale Romano; and such sculptures as the gilded equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius and The Dying Gaul at the Capitoline Museum.
Byzantine & Romanesque (5th to 13th Centuries)
The Byzantine style of painting and mosaic was very stylized and static. The oldest Paleochristian mosaics (5th-7th centuries) are in Santa Maria Maggiore, Santa Sabina (which also preserves remarkable 5th-c. wood doors carved with biblical reliefs), and San Giovanni in Laterano's San Venanzio and Santa Rufina chapels (the main church's apse mosaic is 13th c.).
Romanesque sculpture was somewhat more fluid, but still far from naturalistic. San Clemente Basilica's lower church has some of the few remaining early medieval paintings in Rome. At the National Museum of Palazzo Venezia, you'll find Rome's best collection of medieval art, including the oldest painted wood statue (13th c.), plus numerous Byzantine crosses.
International Gothic (late 13th to early 15th Centuries)
Late medieval Italian art continued to be largely ecclesiastical. In both Gothic painting and sculpture, figures tended to be more natural than in the Romanesque (and the colors in paintings more varied and rich) but remained highly stylized.
The greatest Gothic artist to work in Rome was Giotto (1266-1337). The Vatican Pinacoteca owns his Stefaneschi Triptych (1315). Arnolfo di Cambio (1245-1302), the Tuscan sculptor, left a venerated bronze St. Peter in St. Peter's Basilica.
Renaissance (early 15th to mid-17th Centuries)
The painters, sculptors, and architects of the Renaissance experimented with new modes in art and broke with static medieval traditions to pursue a greater degree of expressiveness and naturalism, using such techniques as linear perspective.
Two towering artists left a great legacy in Rome, including Raphael (1483-1520) and Michelangelo (1475-1564). For Pope Julius II, Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel frescoes (1508-12) and the Last Judgment (1535-41). He sculpted his world famous Pietà in 1500 at the age of 25. It stands in St. Peter's Basilica.
Raphael produced a body of work in his short lifetime (he died at 37) that influenced European painters for generations to come. You'll find his ethereal Transfiguration (1520), almost finished when he died, in the Vatican Museums. Also in the Vatican are his greatest works, a series of frescoed rooms (1508-20) including the School of Athens, a celebration of Renaissance artistic precepts.
Baroque & Rococo (late 16th to 18th Centuries)
The baroque, a more theatrical and decorative take on the Renaissance, mixes a kind of super-realism based on using peasants as models and an exaggerated use of light and dark, called chiaroscuro.
Caravaggio (1571-1610) reinvented baroque painting, using peasants and commoners as models. Among his masterpieces is the St. Matthew (1599) cycle in San Luigi dei Francesi, a series of paintings in the Galleria Borghese and Palazzo Corsini, and the Deposition (1604) in the Vatican Museums.
Bernini (1598-1680) was the greatest baroque sculptor. Among his finest sculptures are several in the Galleria Borghese: his youthful Aeneas and Anchises (1613), Apollo and Daphne (1624), The Rape of Persephone (1621), and David (1623-24). His other masterpiece is the Fountain of the Four Rivers (1651) in Piazza Navona.
Late 18th to 20th Centuries
After carrying the banner of artistic innovation for more than a millennium, Italy ran out of steam with the baroque. Nevertheless, the country did produce a few fine neoclassical sculptures in the late 18th century. Italy did not play an important role in 19th- or 20th-century art. Even so, a few great artists arose, notably Antonio Canova (1757-1822), the country's top neoclassical sculptor who sculpted both Napoleon and sister Pauline in the nude. His work rests in the Galleria Borghese. Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920) became known for his mysterious, elongated heads and nudes -- check them out at the National Gallery of Modern Art.
Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978) founded freaky pittura metafisica (metaphysical painting), a forerunner of surrealism wherein figures and objects are stripped of their usual meaning though odd juxtapositions, warped perspective, unnatural shadows, and other bizarre effects. Look for them in the National Gallery of Modern Art and the Collection of Modern Religious Art in the Vatican Museums.
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