From Classical to Romanesque: the 8th Century B.C. to the 12th Century A.D.
Ancient Art -- The Etruscans were prodigious town builders. In architecture, they used the load-bearing arch, raised rectangular temples approached by steps, and built houses with open atrium courtyards surrounded by colonnaded porticos on the inner face.
Although precious little Etruscan painting survives, the Etruscans were masters of this art form. They painted -- in fresco, to boot -- scenes rich in the pleasures of everyday life, especially banqueting. What we have most of is their sculpture, which went through an idiosyncratic archaic period (with some Oriental influences), through an Attic period influenced by the art of ancient Greece, and was finally subsumed under the Hellenistic Roman style. They cranked out thousands of votive bronzes -- small representations of warriors, washerwomen, and farmers plowing -- occasionally producing works of singular expressive beauty, such as Volterra's famed Shadow of the Evening.
The Etruscans' most famous forms of sculpture are their funerary urns, each of which was capped with a lid carved into a likeness of the deceased, half-reclining as if at an eternal banquet. Most of these have intense expressions and enigmatic smiles that have made them a popular modern image to represent Etruria in general. As Greek culture began to seep in during the 6th century B.C., the cinerary urns under these lids were increasingly carved with reliefs depicting scenes from Greek mythology, often having to do with the movement to the underworld (riding in carts, boats, chariots, and the like).
As Rome gained ascendancy in the 3rd century B.C., its conservative and static style of carving, architecture, and painting supplanted the more naturalized and dynamic nature of the Etruscan arts. The Romans have left us many of their Hellenistic bronze and marble statues, innumerable fragments of decorative friezes and other reliefs, and several theaters and baths in varying stages of decay (at Fiesole, Volterra, Gubbio, and Spoleto).
Paleo-Christian Art -- The 4th to 11th centuries are characterized by what's often referred to as the paleo-Christian style. This period was marked by very simple structures; the few that survive -- including churches in Spoleto, Pienza, and Perugia, and the later and much more unified Sant'Antimo -- strike most moderns as hauntingly beautiful and elegant, if architecturally inharmonious. In the north of Tuscany, the architecture quickly developed into the style known as Romanesque.
Byzantine Painting -- The political influence of the Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople, was confined to Italy's northeastern Adriatic coast. But the artistic influence of Byzantium's stylized iconographic tradition in mosaics and panel paintings spread throughout Italy, starting from the Adriatic city of Ravenna in the 5th century.
Byzantine painting is characterized in individual works by gold-leaf backgrounds, stylized gold crosshatching in the blue and red robes of the Madonna, oval faces with large almond eyes and spoonlike depressions at the tops of sloping noses, a flattened look (due to an almost complete lack of perspective or foreshortening), and, above all, conservatism.
Byzantine art had an Oriental decorativeness and severely static rule ensuring the reproduction of icons that wavered little from past models. It kept Italian painting moribund for over 800 years. Painting didn't break out of the conservative funk until the late 13th century.
Romanesque Architecture -- When Pisa became a major medieval power, it did so as a huge shipping empire, and with this trade came contact with Eastern and Islamic cultures. Pisa poured its 11th-century prosperity into building a new religious core and cathedral, adapting many of the decorative elements from these Eastern contacts. The style that was developed in Buscheto's Duomo and the associated baptistery and bell tower (yes, the one that leans) came to define the Romanesque and quickly spread across northern Tuscany.
The purest, earliest form that arose in Pisa and Lucca -- known, sensibly, as the Pisan-Luccan Romanesque -- was characterized most strikingly by horizontal stripes of marbles on the facades and eventually in some interiors as well (at first they used green and white; later, in Siena, it became black and white; and in Umbria the available local stone made it pink and white). The other key elements were curving semicircular arches; blind arcades of these arches often set with diamond-shaped decorative inlays (or coffered depressions) called lozenges; open galleries supported by thin mismatched columns and often stacked three or four rows high on facades; lots of tiny detail in marble inlay; and often a nave flanked by two colonnaded aisles inside.
The later form of the movement that was adapted in Florence (the Baptistery, San Miniato al Monte, and Badia Fiesolana) and Pistoia (San Giovanni Fuoricivitas and, though later altered, the Duomo) was called the Florentine Romanesque. On the surface it was very similar to the Pisan-Lucchese school, but it was practiced along much stricter lines of a geometry gleaned from classical architecture, a predecessor to the mathematically proportional architecture of the Renaissance. Before that could come to pass, however, in the late 12th century a strong northern styling came into vogue called, after its supposed association with the emperors (whether German or Frankish), the Gothic.
Tuscan Gothic: The 13th & 14th Centuries
The Gothic first started infiltrating Italy as architecture. It was originally imported by French Cistercian monks, who in 1218 created the huge San Galgano abbey church, now roofless (and terribly romantic). Although this French style of the Gothic never caught on, the church was still at the time revolutionary in introducing some of the new forms, which were adopted when Giovanni Pisano overhauled Siena's cathedral and "Gothicized" it.
Thin-columned windows, along with lacelike stone tracery that the Gothic style used to fill up arch points and the crenellations it strewed across the tops of buildings, caught the Tuscan fancy and were incorporated into many palaces, especially in Siena, where the architectural forms otherwise pretty much stayed the same old solid, reliable medieval masonry. Out of this marriage were born the civic palaces of Siena and, more influential, Volterra, which served as the model for Florence's own famous Palazzo Vecchio (and similar buildings across the region).
The Palazzo Vecchio's architect was Arnolfo di Cambio, the Gothic master of Florence's 1290s building boom. Arnolfo was also responsible for the Franciscan church of Santa Croce and the original plans for the Duomo. The kind of Frankish Gothic building most people associate with the term "Gothic," with lots of spires and stony frills, really showed up only in the tiny carved stone jewel of Santa Maria della Spina along the banks of the Arno in Pisa. Andrea Orcagna, who was also a painter, gave us another bit of this sort of Gothic in miniature with his elaborate marble-inlaid tabernacle in Florence's Orsanmichele (the church is also a Gothic structure itself, but an odd one).
The Gothic style was perhaps at its most advanced in sculpture. Nicola Pisano probably emigrated from southern Apulia to work in Pisa, where he crowned that city's great Romanesque building project with a Gothic finale in 1260. He created for the baptistery a great pulpit, the panels of which were carved in high relief with a new kind of figurative emotion displayed in the sway of the figures and a degree of activeness in their positioning and apparent movement. By the time Nicola carved the panels on his second pulpit in Siena, along with his son Giovanni Pisano, the figures were moving into a radically new sort of interaction, with a multitude of squirming bodies and pronounced stylized curves to add a graceful rhythm and emotion to the characters. Giovanni went on to carve two more pulpits (in Pistoia, perhaps the apogee of the genre, and back to Pisa for the Duomo) and numerous individual large statues for niches on the facade of Siena's Duomo, on which he was working as an architect, furthering his father's innovations in descriptive storytelling. Andrea Pisano (no relation) picked up the thread in Florence when in 1330 he cast the first set of bronze baptistery doors in the now-established Gothic style.
Byzantine tradition kept its hold over painting for quite a while, and the Gothic didn't catch on in this medium until the end of the 13th century. When it did, humanist philosophy was also starting to catch on. Humanism was reviving academic interest in the classical world and its philosophy and architecture, and it was encouraging a closer examination and contemplation of the natural world and everyday life -- as opposed to the medieval habit of chaining all intellectual pursuits to theology and religious pondering.
True, in the 1280s Florentine master painter Cimabue was beginning to infuse his religious art with more human pathos than Byzantine custom had ever seen, and his Sienese compatriot (some say student) Duccio was beginning to adapt a narrative naturalism to his decorative Byzantine style. When the Gothic style finally entered the realm of painting, its avatar was Giotto.
The Trecento: Seeds of Renaissance Painting -- In the 1290s, Giotto di Bondone -- best known as a frescoist who left us masterpiece cycles in Assisi's Basilica di San Francesco (possibly) and Florence's Santa Croce and Padua's Cappella Scrovegni (certainly) -- completely broke away from the styling of his teacher, Cimabue, and invented his own method of painting, steeped in the ideas of humanism and grounded in an earthy realism. What he did was to give his characters real human faces displaying fundamental emotions; to use light and shadow to mold his figures, giving them bulk under their robes; to employ foreshortened architecture not only to provide a stage-set backdrop but also, and this was key, to give the paintings depth and real space (he let you see through painted windows to heighten the illusion); and to use simple but strong lines of composition and imbue the figures with movement to create dynamic scenes.
The Giottesque school that grew out of his workshop, and later his fame, kept some of the naturalistic elements and realistic foreshortened backdrops, but Giotto's innovations, and especially his spirit, seemed to stagnate at first. Most trecento works remained fundamentally Gothic, especially as practiced by Giotto's pupil and faithful adherent Taddeo Gaddi, his son Agnolo Gaddi, and Andrea Orcagna.
The Sienese School -- Siena adapted some of the humanist elements of realism and naturalism into its Gothic painting but left by the wayside the philosophical hang-ups and quest for perfect perspective the Florentine Renaissance soon embarked on. The Sienese school ended up with a distinctive, highly decorative art form rich in colors, patterns, and gold leaf. It was often as expressive as Giotto's work, but this was achieved more through the sinuous lines of its figures and compositional interplay.
Painters like Duccio di Buoninsegna and Sano di Pietro gave the Sienese school a focus in the late 1200s, starting to adapt Gothic elements but still working in a Byzantine tradition, and Jacopo della Quercia became a towering figure in Sienese Gothic sculpture. One of the first great painters to come out of Duccio's workshop was Simone Martini, who developed a much more refined style of the Gothic flavor with his elegant lines, ethereal figures, and richly patterned fabrics. Two more of Duccio's students were Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti, both masters of color and composition who infused their art with the naturalness of common life. The former left the most important cycle of civic (that is, nonreligious) art ever painted, inside Siena's Palazzo Pubblico.
The Black Death of 1348 nipped the emergent Sienese school of painting in the bud. The Lorenzetti brothers perished, and the handful of citizens who lived through the plague were more intent on simple survival than on commissioning artworks, leaving Florence's version of the Renaissance to develop and eventually reign supreme. Mannerist painter Domenico Beccafumi was perhaps the only great Sienese artist of later generations.
The Early Renaissance: The 15th Century
Tradition holds that the Renaissance began in 1401 when Lorenzo Ghiberti won a competition to cast Florence's new set of baptistery doors. Although confined to Gothic frames, Ghiberti still managed to infuse his figures with an entirely new kind of fluid dynamism and emotional naturalism that earned him accolades when the doors were finished more than 20 years later. (He was immediately commissioned to do another set, which became known as the "Gates of Paradise," one of the cornerstone pieces of the early Renaissance.)
One of the men Ghiberti competed against for the first commission was Filippo Brunelleschi, who decided to study architecture after he lost the sculpture competition. When he came back from a learning trip to Rome, where he examined the classical construction of the ancients, he was full of groundbreaking ideas. These led to his ingenious red-tiled dome over Florence's Duomo as well as to a new kind of architecture based on the classical orders and mathematical proportions with which he filled Florentine church interiors -- all done in smooth white plaster and soft gray stone.
One of his buddies was a sculptor named Donatello, who traveled with him to Rome and who on his return cast the first free-standing nude since antiquity (a David, now in Florence's Bargello) in an anatomically exacting style of naturalness. Donatello also developed the schiacciato technique of carving in very low relief, using the mathematical perspective trick his architect friend Brunelleschi taught him to achieve the illusion of great depth in shallow marble.
Brunelleschi also passed this concept of perspective along to a young painter named Masaccio, who was working with Gothic artist Masolino. Masaccio added it to his experimental bag of tricks, which included using a harsh light to model his figures in light and shadow, bold brushstrokes and foreshortened limbs to imply movement and depth, and an unrelenting realism. He used all of these to create the unprecedented frescoes in Florence's Cappella Brancacci. Part of his secret for creating figures of realistic bulk and volume he learned from studying the sculptures of Donatello and of another friend, Luca della Robbia, who besides working on marble and bronze developed a new way to fuse colored enamel to terra cotta and went on to found a popular workshop in the medium that he handed down first to his nephew Andrea, and then his son Giovanni. Masaccio got the precision perspective down to a science when painting Santa Maria Novella's Trinità (1428), thereby inaugurating the full-blown Renaissance in painting. He died at age 27 -- which perhaps explains why he isn't much more famous.
Where Masaccio tried to achieve a new level of clarity and illusionistic reality with his perspective, Paolo Uccello became obsessed about experimenting with it, working out the math of perfect perspective and spatial geometry in some paintings and then warping it in others to see how far he could push the tenets for narrative and symbolic ends rather than making his work only representative (at its best in the Noah fresco in Santa Maria Novella's Green Cloister).
Though at first it was secondary to the Florentine school, color continued to be of some importance. This is best exemplified by the still somewhat Gothic Domenico Veneziano (Venetian artists always were and would remain supreme colorists), who is most important for teaching Piero della Francesca, a Sansepolcro artist whose quiet, dramatic style and exploration of the geometry of perspective created crystalline-clear, spacious, haunting paintings with an unfathomable psychology in his figures' expressions.
Lorenzo Monaco imparted what he knew of the Gothic to Fra' Angelico, who continued to paint beautiful religious works in the bright colors and intimate detail of a miniaturist or illuminator of Bibles. Although his art is often seen as the pinnacle of the style known as International Gothic, Angelico's tiny racks of saints are fully Renaissance if you look closely enough; they're well modeled and lifelike, set in a plane of perspective with a strong single light source.
Fra' Filippo Lippi started a long trend toward tall, thin Madonnas and mischievous angels. His sure lines, realistic depictions, and suffused color palette made him popular and brought into his bottega (workshop) apprentices like Sandro Botticelli, who would continue to paint exceedingly graceful scenes and flowing drapery that helped make his compositions some of the most fluid of the Renaissance. The son of Botticelli's teacher became Botticelli's own pupil, and Filippino Lippi carried on the workshop's tradition. But Filippino also seemed to add back some of the earthiness seen in the works being turned out by the high-production workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio. Ghirlandaio stayed popular by producing scenes of architectural unity and firmness, figurative grace, and complex coloring -- and by adding in plenty of portraits of the commissioner's family members. In 1488, one of the apprentices in his workshop was a young Michelangelo Buonarroti.
That year also saw the death of one of the more innovative sculptor/painters, Andrea del Verrocchio, whose quest for hyperrealism and detailing in his carefully created bronzes and marbles and his few surviving exactingly painted panels were to greatly influence a young pupil of his studio, Leonardo da Vinci.
The High Renaissance: The Late 15th to Mid-16th Century
One of Piero della Francesca's students was Luca Signorelli, a Cortonan whose mastery of the male nude in such works as his Cappella San Brizio in Orvieto had a great effect on the painting of Michelangelo. His highly modeled figures of colorful and incisive geometry shared many similarities with the works of the nearby Umbrian school being developed by another of Piero's protégés, Perugino, who also studied alongside Leonardo da Vinci in Verrocchio's bottega and whose ethereal blues and greens, beautiful landscapes, and limpid lighting would be further refined by his student Pinturicchio.
Back in Florence, Leonardo da Vinci was developing a highly realistic style in the 1480s. His patented sfumato technique revolutionized perspective by softly blurring the lines of figures and creating different planes of distance basically by throwing far-off objects out of focus. Leonardo also studied anatomy with a frightening intensity, drawing exacting models of human and animal bodies in various degrees of dissection just to find out exactly how to paint joints bending and muscles rippling in a realistic manner. He sketched swirls of water flowing and horses rearing, always trying to catch the essential inner motion of the world. In his spare time, he designed scientific inventions (usually on paper) such as parachutes, machine guns, water screws, and a few helicopters.
Michelangelo Buonarroti left Ghirlandaio's fresco studio to study sculpture under the tutelage of Donatello's protégé, Bertoldo, and by age 23, following his first success in Rome with the Pietà in St. Peter's, had established himself as the foremost sculptor of his age with the gargantuan David. He's considered by many to be the first artist ever to surpass the ancients in terms of creating muscular bodies that (besides being naturally accurate) were proportioned for the greatest symbolic impact of grace and power. Michelangelo also revolutionized painting with his frescoes on the ceiling of Rome's Sistine Chapel (also evident in Florence's Doni Tondo), where his twisting, muscularly modeled figures, limpid light, bold brush strokes, and revolutionary color palette of oranges, turquoises, yellows, and greens flabbergasted an entire generation of artists and established him as one of the greatest painters of his age. Before his death at the ripe old age of 89 in 1564, he went on to design innovative architecture (the Laurentian Library in Florence and St. Peter's Dome in Rome) and write some pretty good Renaissance sonnets, too.
Perugino's star pupil, Raphael, melded the clarity and grace he learned from the Umbrian school with the sfumato of Leonardo and the sweeping earthy realism of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel paintings. He created paintings that carried the picture-perfect grace and penetrating emotion to new heights, but his career was cut short with an early death in 1520 at age 37.
The Mannerist Experiment -- Eventually the High Renaissance began to feed off itself, producing vapid works of technical perfection but little substance, perhaps best exemplified by the painting of Giorgio Vasari. As Florentine art stagnated, several artists sought ways out of the downward spiral.
Mannerism was the most interesting attempt, a movement within the High Renaissance 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. Other artists took these ideas and ran them to their logical limits, with such painters as Andrea del Sarto, Rosso Fiorentino, Pontormo, Sienese Domenico Beccafumi, and il Parmigianino elongating their figures, twisting the bodies in muscularly improbable ways -- waifish women with grotesquely long necks and pointy heads ran rampant -- and mixing increasingly garish color palettes.
The sculptors fared perhaps better with the idea, producing for the first time statues that needed to be looked at from multiple angles to be fully appreciated, such as Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines under Florence's Loggia dei Lanzi and the Monument of the Four Moors at Livorno's harbor by his student, Pietro Tacca.
The Baroque: The Mid-16th to 18th Centuries
The experiments of the Mannerists soon gave way to the excesses of the baroque. Architecturally, the baroque era rehashed and reinterpreted yet again the neoclassical forms of the Renaissance, introducing ellipses and more radically complicated geometric lines, curves, and mathematics to replace the right angles and simple arches of traditional buildings. Bernardo Buontalenti was the main Tuscan architect of note in the period, and he worked extensively for the Medici, building them villas and sumptuous fanciful gardens. His more accessible works in Florence include the Tribune in the Uffizi, the facade of Santa Trinita, grottoes in the Giardino Boboli, and the Medici Forte di Belvedere. His greatest single achievement, however, was the city of Livorno, a beautiful bit of city planning he performed for the Medici in 1576.
The baroque artists achieved some success in the field of church facades and altar frames. At their most restrained, they produced facades like those on Florence's Ognissanti and half a dozen churches in Siena, interiors like that of Florence's Santa Maria Maddalena dei Pazzi, and successful chapel ensembles in the cathedrals of Volterra and Siena (the latter one of master Gian Lorenzo Bernini's few works in Tuscany). But mainly they acted more like interior decorators with extremely bad taste -- in the era of the Medici grand dukes and other over-rich princelings, the more different types of expensive marbles you could piece together to decorate a chapel, the better. The Medici Cappella dei Principi (Chapel of the Princes) in Florence is the perfect nauseating example.
Rococo was the baroque gone awry, a world of dripping stuccoes and cotton-candy love scenes on canvas, of which you can be thankful very little has survived in Tuscany or Umbria.
From the Neoclassical to the Present
Italy didn't have a major hand in developing many new styles after the baroque, although 19th-century works by Italy's master neoclassical sculptor Canova are scattered around Tuscany and Umbria, and Tuscany had one great neoclassical sculptor, Giovanni Duprè, born in Siena in 1817.
Tuscany had a brief moment in a very localized limelight again from the 1860s to around 1900 when the Macchiaioli, a group of artists in Florence and Livorno, junked the old styles and concentrated on exploring the structure of light and color in painting, concerned with the effect of the individual macchie, or marks of paint on the canvas. In effect, it was kind of a Tuscan Impressionism.
Some 20th-century Tuscan talents are Livorno's Modigliani, who garnered fame in France for his innovative oblong portraits; the futurist Gino Severini from Cortona; and Marino Marini, a Pistoian sculptor known for his stylized bronze horses. In architecture, Tuscany had the privilege of hosting the only major new movement in Italy, its own variant on Art Deco called the Liberty Style.
As the focus of Western painting and sculpture migrated to countries like France and the United States in the 20th century, Italy turned its artistic energies mainly to the cinema, fashion (Armani, Gucci, Versace, Pucci, and the like) -- an industry in which Florence shines -- and the manufacture of sleek, fun, and often mind-bogglingly useful industrial design objects like Alessi teakettles, Pavoni coffee machines, Olivetti typewriters, the Vespa (created and manufactured at Pontedera, outside Pisa), and Ferraris.
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