Art in Italy

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Art in Italy

The Renaissance was a time of incredible artistic activity in Europe. Many of the new ideas and artistic developments of the time originated in Italy, and towering figures, such as the great Florentine artist Michelangelo, created masterpieces that others studied. The influence of Italian painters, sculptors, and architects could be seen all over Europe. However, Italian artists also received ideas and inspiration from other countries, and various regions of Italy developed distinctive artistic traditions.


Several aspects of Italian culture help explain the important role played by Italy in the Renaissance. First, some of the ideas that led to the development of Renaissance art—such as humanism* and a renewed interest in the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome—appeared first in Italy. Second, Italian artists and scholars took a very analytical approach to their artistic traditions. They were the first to write about Renaissance art, and their writings, naturally enough, focused on Italian artists and works.

The early histories of Renaissance art came from Italian authors who were also practicing artists. Works such as Leon Battista Alberti's On Painting (1435) and On Architecture (1452), Raphael's Letter to Pope Leo X (1519), Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Most Excellent Architects, Painters, and Sculptors (1550), and Benvenuto Cellini's Autobiography (1562) all discuss the history of art while examining Renaissance artistic practices and techniques.

The writings of Vasari, a painter and architect from Florence, helped establish the idea that Renaissance art originated in Italy. According to Vasari, the Florentine painter Giotto di Bondone (d. 1337) had introduced a new style of painting inspired by nature. While earlier artists had used decorative lines and colors and elaborate detail, Giotto created powerful, realistic figures within settings that appeared to have spatial depth—characteristics that made his paintings surprisingly lifelike. Admiration for Giotto's naturalistic* style spread throughout the regions of Italy and helped launch the era of Renaissance art.

During the Renaissance, Italy was not a single, unified country. It consisted of a patchwork of small states, each with its own history, government, and traditions. Artistic styles varied significantly from region to region. Although Florence, Rome, and Venice were the main centers of artistic activity, skilled artists produced significant work in other areas as well.


Florence, the major city of the Italian region of Tuscany, earned lasting fame for the richness and creativity of its culture during the Renaissance. Wealthy and powerful patrons* in the city, such as the Medici family, played an important role in shaping and supporting this culture. They built churches, monasteries, and palaces in and around the city and commissioned paintings and sculpture from the best artists of the day to decorate them.

Competitions for artistic and architectural projects attracted many participants and spurred creativity. In 1401, for example, a contest to design new doors for Florence's Baptistery* drew entries from such prominent artists as Filippo Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Lorenzo Ghiberti.

A number of the city's well-known artworks feature David, the biblical hero who slew the giant Goliath. Florentines identified with David, seeing their city as a small republic battling tyranny all around it. Michelangelo's statue David (1504), modeled on ancient Greek sculpture, is the most famous representation of Florence's hero.

Architecture and Sculpture. During the 1400s Brunelleschi transformed the physical appearance of Florence through a series of architectural projects based on the models of ancient Greece and Rome. In his plans for a foundling hospital commissioned by the Silk Guild, Brunelleschi reintroduced classical* principles of proportion and balance and developed a harmonious new style. He also designed a dome for the city's cathedral that still dominates the skyline.

During the same period, the Florentine guilds* commissioned sculptures to adorn public buildings. The Orsanmichele, Florence's granary, featured statues of each guild's patron saint. For the city's oldest guild, the refiners of woolen cloth, Lorenzo Ghiberti created a bronze statue of St. John the Baptist (1405–1417) that was more than eight feet tall—the largest bronze statue to be cast in Italy for centuries.

The Florentines also used sculpture to honor prominent citizens. In the church of Santa Croce, for example, the tomb of the humanist scholar Leonardo Bruni is decorated with a carved image of Bruni with his hands folded on one of his books. In the mid-1400s, portrait busts—sculptures of the subject's head and perhaps shoulders—became fashionable. Florentine sculptors, influenced by the ancient Romans' view that signs of age and wear were honorable marks of a life of public service, created busts of important citizens in minute and even unflattering detail.

Painting and Other Arts. A strong tradition of painting in both fresco* and panels developed in Florence. In the 1420s Masaccio created a fresco of the Expulsion from Paradise that shows the anguish and remorse of Adam and Eve through their gestures and facial expressions. Fra Angelico, a leading Florentine painter of the 1430s, filled the convent of San Marco with luminous frescoes of religious themes. In the 1470s and 1480s Sandro Botticelli produced numerous works, including Primavera (Spring) and The Birth of Venus, and Domenico Ghirlandaio completed a series of frescoes based on the life of St. Francis. Many private homes featured splendid painted decorations, such as the frescoes of Famous Men and Women (1488) created by Andrea del Castagno at a villa outside Florence.

During the early 1500s, two of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, worked in Florence. Together, they brought about what is now called the high Renaissance classical style. They also inspired and educated other artists, including Raphael, a distinguished painter from Urbino, and Florentine painters Fra Bartolommeo and Andrea del Sarto. Del Sarto's scenes from the Life of St. Filippo Benizi (1509–1510) display soft brushwork and well-drawn figures within luminous landscapes.

Del Sarto's assistants, Jacopo Carucci da Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino, moved toward the Mannerist style, which had taken root throughout Italy by the mid-1500s. Mannerist painters used distortions of form and unnatural colors to convey a sense of elegance and heightened emotion in their works. According to one explanation, the artificial aspects of the Mannerist style were intended to provide glimpses of true beauty, which could not be known through the senses. By the late 1500s, some painters abandoned Mannerism and returned to the more naturalistic approach of the high Renaissance.

Many Florentine artists of the Renaissance practiced more than one art form, often excelling at several, such as sculpture and painting. Other important forms in Florence included manuscript illustration and intarsia—creating images on panels with inlaid pieces of colored wood. In the early 1400s Luca della Robbia developed a technique of glazing terra-cotta sculptures and reliefs*. Many of his works were installed on buildings around the city.


In Siena, another Tuscan city, culture revolved around the university founded there around 1240. Siena's contributions to Renaissance art began with painters of the 1300s, who introduced vivid colors, figures enlivened with emotional power, and fresh images of landscapes and interiors. One of these artists, Simone Martini, painted the Annunciation (1333) for Siena's cathedral. The painting, which shows the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, reveals the influence of French Gothic* art. Ambrogio Lorenzetti created a number of frescoes for the town hall, including Effects of Good Government in the Country, which provides a wide-angle view of the Tuscan countryside from above.

Sienese painters of the 1400s continued to work in the style of the previous century. Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni) followed in the foot-steps of Lorenzetti, exploring techniques for painting landscapes and interiors. Giovanni di Paolo created paintings of the lives of saints, including a cycle of scenes featuring St. Catherine of Siena, one of the city's most important religious figures.

During the 1500s some Sienese artists took the city's painting tradition in new directions. The most important was Domenico Beccafumi, who experimented with extreme distortions of the human form in the Mannerist tradition. In his Fall of the Rebel Angels (1524 and 1528), long-limbed figures strain violently and convey strong emotion.

Siena was also home to Jacopo della Quercia, a great Renaissance sculptor of the early 1400s. He sculpted the relief figures for the fountain in front of the government building in Siena and for the cathedral in Bologna.


Located in north-central Italy between Florence and Venice, the region of Emilia-Romagna contributed to important developments in Renaissance art, especially painting. The influential Este family, rulers of the city of Ferrara, promoted humanist ideals and were active patrons of the arts. Leonello d'Este, who governed the city in the 1440s, had a humanist education and was well acquainted with the latest artistic theories and styles. He hired the Ferrarese painter Cosmè Tura to paint a series of images of the Muses* for his study. In the 1490s Duke Ercole I d'Este worked closely with architects on a vast city-planning project that included new streets and a major new square in Ferrara.

By the early 1500s, artistic taste in Emilia-Romagna had moved toward a more naturalistic style. This is reflected in the decision of Duke Alfonso I d'Este to engage Giovanni Bellini and Titian to create mythological paintings for his study. In the city of Bologna, many were inspired by the naturalism, grace, and beauty of St. Cecilia, a painting by Raphael installed in the church of San Giovanni in Monte in 1515. Naturalism reached a high point in the work of Correggio (1494–1534), a painter from the city of Parma. His lyrical style was based on theories of human proportions, anatomy, and color technique.

The paintings of Parmigianino (1503–1540), who came from Parma, display many of the characteristics of Mannerism. In Bologna, the painters Prospero Fontana, Tommaso Laureti, and Ercole Procaccini produced Mannerist pieces. In the late 1500s, some artists, including the three painters of Bologna's Carracci Family, began to reject Mannerism in favor of a more natural style. Tracing their roots to the work of artists such as Correggio and Titian, the Carracci established an art academy in which they taught this new naturalism.


During the Renaissance, Genoa and Milan were the major urban centers of northwestern Italy. Genoa was ruled by various noble, military, and merchant families, and they shaped the city's appearance with their patronage of artists and architects. Many members of the nobility built tall palaces, complete with finely carved entryways that highlighted the owners' power and privilege.

Genoa's churches and public buildings were decorated with an array of carved images, including coats of arms, symbols of peace and abundance, and portraits of Roman emperors. Painters produced frescoes of saints, historical scenes, and allegorical* figures for structures such as the Bank of St. George, a powerful financial institution. In 1528 the Genoese admiral Andrea Doria overthrew the rulers of Genoa and founded a new government. Thereafter, Doria's villa on the harbor became the focus of Genoese culture. Formal gardens and decorations based on classical models created a triumphant style that linked Doria's Genoa with the greatness of the ancient Roman republic.

Benefiting from close contacts with France and other parts of northern Europe, Milan became a leading cultural center in the 1300s and 1400s. Renaissance ideas, including a renewed interest in classical style, reached the region in the 1460s. Some of the greatest writers and artists of the Renaissance, including Petrarch, Bramante, and Leonardo da Vinci, worked in Milan.

The city undertook several major architectural projects during the Renaissance, including its cathedral. Some projects were so large in scope that they required many artists to work together. Architects often consulted each other about building plans, while sculptors followed designs made by painters. Construction on the cathedral began in 1386. In the early stages, architects, sculptors, and stonecutters from Germany and France came to work on it. By the early 1400s, however, local Lombard artisans* had taken over. Although the cathedral is basically Gothic in style, its decorations draw on all the artistic styles and trends of the Renaissance.

Other important monuments in Milan and the surrounding region include the Certosa di Pavia (founded in 1396), an elaborately decorated monastery, as well as castles built by the ruling families. Prominent Milanese artists, such as Vincenzo Foppa and Bernardino Luini, completed paintings for some of these buildings. In the 1490s Leonardo da Vinci painted one of his most famous works, The Last Supper, in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan.


The mountainous province of Umbria lies in the heart of central Italy. During the Renaissance the region contained hundreds of churches, monasteries, and other religious institutions, which commissioned artworks for their buildings. For example, the painter Piero della Francesca produced a group of religious panels for St. Anthony's convent in Perugia in the 1460s. Umbrian artists adopted some classical elements in their work, but they tended to focus on Christian subjects rather than mythological or historical figures.

By the end of the 1400s most of Umbria had fallen under the control of the pope in Rome. The popes sponsored artistic and architectural projects in the region, such as rebuilding the monastery of St. Francis in Assisi, but they also removed works of art and sent them to Rome. In 1540, after a revolt in Perugia, the pope ordered the destruction of the city's Baglioni palace, which possessed a hall decorated with portraits.

Umbrian artists worked in numerous cities and towns throughout the region. In Foligno, the Trinci Palace, completed in 1408, contains several series of frescoes on subjects such as Heroes of Roman History, the Liberal Arts, and the Planets. In Orvieto the cathedral's chapel boasts a famous fresco series, The Renaissance Antichrist (1504), by Luca Signorelli. Often even the smallest Umbrian communities possessed one great piece of art. The town of Fontignano, for example, has a Nativity (1523) that was the last work of the Umbrian artist Pietro Vannucci, known as Perugino. Raphael spent time in Umbria in the 1490s and worked closely with Perugino.


During the Renaissance two different artistic styles flourished in Rome and the surrounding region. Some artists clung to the medieval* style that had been popular for generations, while others drew inspiration from the new movement of humanism. When a renewed interest in classical civilization took hold in the early 1500s, Rome—with its wealth of ancient monuments and its remarkable history—came to the forefront of the arts.

Beginning in the mid-1400s, Roman artists developed their skills in fresco decoration, large-scale construction, and marble carving. Local artists became familiar with Renaissance ideas and studied the works of master artists from Tuscany and other northern regions. Painters, sculptors, and architects from the cultural centers of northern Italy worked in Rome on grand projects sponsored by various popes. One of the most impressive examples of Roman painting from the 1400s was Melozzo da Forli's Ascension (ca. 1479), showing the triumphant figure of Christ surrounded by angels. Only fragments of this fresco cycle survive.

Rome entered the high Renaissance after 1500. At the Vatican, the seat of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Julius II embarked on an ambitious construction program that included decorating the Sistine Chapel and building the new church of St. Peter. For these projects, the pope commissioned the greatest artists of the era, such as Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and architect Donato Bramante. The classical forms, monumental dimensions, and expressive content of their work influenced all aspects of Roman culture.

In 1527 troops of the Holy Roman Empire* attacked and sacked* Rome, bringing the city's immense artistic flowering to an abrupt halt. Artists and patrons fled the city, and the popes lost authority over political matters. When artistic life resumed, Roman art and culture took on new values of simplicity and clarity. Sebastiano del Piombo was one of the few artists whose career continued after the sacking of Rome. He gained a reputation as a portrait painter with bold, insightful works such as his studies of Pope Clement VII.

The city's largest architectural project, the building of St. Peter's, continued throughout the 1500s, with each new pope shifting its direction. Michelangelo became architect of the project in 1547. Although later architects changed his designs, his imprint remained in certain areas, such as the central dome.


Between 1400 and 1600, the city of Naples on Italy's southwestern coast was ruled successively by the Angevin dynasty of France, the Aragon family of Spain, and finally by a viceroy who governed on behalf of the Spanish crown. Each government favored a particular artistic style. The culture of Naples stretched back to ancient Greek and Roman times. Ancient ruins standing in the city ensured that Neapolitan artists remained connected with classical traditions. In addition, trade with merchants from the Middle East brought the people of Naples into contact with Arab art and design.

In the 1400s the Angevin rulers brought to the city a taste for Gothic architecture and finely detailed oil paintings from Burgundy. A notable work from this period, a royal tomb (1428) in the Church of San Giovanni a Carbonara, combines Gothic spires and classical columns.

After Naples came under the control of the Aragon family in 1442, the city's rulers restored some classical features, such as wide Roman streets, and added spacious new squares. The best example of Neapolitan art from this time is the marble arch at the Castel Nuovo, based on Roman arches and decorated with sculpture inspired by Roman coins, carving, and portraits. Meanwhile, important local families left their mark on the cityscape by building imposing palaces and churches.

The most famous artist to work in Naples was a Lombard painter known as Caravaggio. His style featured dramatic effects of light and dark and an element of naturalism, providing a refreshing contrast to the more formal works of most other painters. Although Caravaggio spent only a short time in Naples (1606–1610), his presence lent new energy to Neapolitan painters, and the city became an international center of Baroque* art in the 1600s.


The art of Venice, a city of islands and canals on Italy's northeastern coast, reflects the city's special circumstances. Venice's Renaissance culture was shaped by its maritime* setting, its position as a crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, its prosperity based on trade, and the stability of its government and society. Venetian artists blended influences from abroad with deeply rooted local traditions. They showed a devotion to the city's main religious figures, the Virgin Mary and St. Mark. In addition, their works glorified Venice, suggesting that it enjoyed divine protection and was destined for greatness.

St. Mark's Basilica (1063–1094), the imposing church at the mouth of Venice's Grand Canal, displays a mixture of artistic traditions. Gothic sculptures on top of the church pierce the sky, while paintings inside the basilica mingle Gothic, Venetian, and Byzantine* styles. A wooden cover for the altarpiece, made in the mid-1300s by Paolo Veneziano, echoes the brilliant colors of the local mosaic* work.

By the 1450s classical elements of Renaissance art began to appear in Venice. Illustrating this new style is the entrance to the Arsenale (the center of the city's shipbuilding industry), which was modeled on a Roman triumphal arch. During most of the 1400s, painting in Venice was dominated by members of the Bellini and Vivarini families. The Bellinis (Jacopo, Gentile, and Giovanni) pioneered the Renaissance style, and the Vivarinis produced many works for export to other cities in the region. Giovanni Bellini experimented with the oil paints used in the Netherlands, an important step for Venetian art as these paints allowed artists to portray the city's glowing colors and shimmering gold mosaics.

The palace of the Doge, the head of the Venetian government, contained a council chamber decorated with scenes of the history of Venice. Originally painted as frescoes, by the mid-1400s these decorations had decayed in the damp salt air and were replaced with paintings on canvas.

During the 1500s, many talented artists carried Venetian painting to new heights. Artists continued to experiment with color and light, to focus on creating visually splendid effects, and to explore the uses of oil paints. Key artists of this period include Giorgione da Castelfranco, Titian, Vittore Carpaccio, the architect Andrea Palladio, Tintoretto, and Paolo Veronese. Works such as the Assumption of the Virgin (1518) helped make Titian the city's most celebrated painter in the mid-1500s. After the death of Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese emerged as the leading Venetian artists.

In 1577 a fire destroyed the paintings in the council chamber at the Doge's Palace in Venice. To return the hall to its former glory, the city launched a massive restoration program to which many artists from Venice and other cities contributed their efforts and talent.

(See alsoArchitecture; Art; Decorative Arts; Humanism; Italy; Sculpture. )

* humanism

Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* naturalistic

realistic, showing the world as it is without idealization

* patron

supporter or financial sponsor of an artist or writer

see color plate 3, vol. 1

* baptistery

building where baptisms are performed

see color plate 4, vol. 1

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* guild

association of craft and trade owners and workers that set standards for and represented the interests of its members

* fresco

mural painted on a plaster wall

* relief

type of sculpture in which figures are raised slightly from a flat surface

* Gothic

style of architecture characterized by pointed arches and high, thin walls supported by flying buttresses; also artistic style marked by bright colors, elongated proportions, and intricate detail

* Muses

in ancient myth, nine sisters who inspired and represented the various arts and branches of learning

* allegorical

referring to a literary or artistic device in which characters, events, and settings represent abstract qualities and in which the author intends a different meaning to be read beneath the surface

* artisan

skilled worker or craftsperson

The Inside Story

The Italian artist Giorgio Vasari was not only an accomplished painter but also a historian of art who inspired a new literary form, the artistic biography. In 1550 he published The Lives of the Most Excellent Architects, Painters, and Sculptors, a massive work that included the life stories of many Italian artists of the time. Although Vasari often got the facts wrong, his biographies are of great interest because of his firsthand knowledge of the subjects, his lively writing style and sharp opinions, and the colorful anecdotes he included about some of the world's most famous artists.

see color plate 1, vol. 1

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* Holy Roman Empire

political body in central Europe composed of several states; existed until 1806

* sack

to loot a captured city

Capturing a City's History

Art and government were often intertwined in the Renaissance, as shown in a distinctive art form produced in Siena for centuries. Tavolette or biccherne were small paintings on panels, originally used as decorative wooden covers for the financial books of the city's treasury offices. These modest paintings, some of them fashioned by master artists, provide a pictorial history of events in Siena from the 1200s to the 1600s.

* Baroque

artistic style of the 1600s characterized by movement, drama, and grandness of scale

* maritime

relating to the sea or shipping

* Byzantine

referring to the Eastern Christian Empire based in Constantinople (a.d. 476–1453)

* mosaic

picture made up of many small colored stones or tiles

see color plate 7, vol. 1

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Art in Italy

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