The History of Italian Art

Italy has always been one of the main centers for art throughout the centuries, often influencing the whole of Europe. From the Byzantine period through the High Renaissance, Italian artists were some of the most famous in the world. New styles of painting were often echoed in the sculpture and architecture of an era, such as Baroque and Rococo.

Byzantine Period
Frescoes and mosaics from the Byzantine period.

In 6th Century Italy, Ravenna was an important center of Byzantine art, where the local church was decorated with mosaics. A distinctive feature of this art, up until the Gothic era, was the golden background to the subject. Pietro Cavallini worked mainly in Rome in the 13th century and his paintings and mosaics were greatly influenced by classical Roman art. A fragment of his fresco, "The Last Judgment," is in the church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome.

Gothic Era
Gothic style began in Italy.

The Gothic style of art began in Italy, appearing in panel paintings of Florence and Sienna. Reflecting medieval ideas of chivalry, Italian artists in the late 13th century used the new naturalism in their work. This became the dominant style of painting throughout Europe until the end of the 15th century. Giotto was a prominent artist of the new tradition; his fresco in the Arena Chapel in Padua depicts his characteristic intensity and clarity.

Early Renaissance
Renaissance style in Florence.

Italy was at the heart of the Renaissance in all the arts. A close relationship existed between painting and sculpture, with the emphasis on a life-like appearance and classical setting. Masaccio’s fresco, "The Trinity," from around 1427, is in the Santa Maria Novella church in Florence. Some artists used diverse styles during this period, such as Donatello, whose Florentine sculpture of Magdalene, in 1453, is completely different from his smooth, classical sculpture of St. George in 1417.

The Dominican monk, Fra Angelica, produced paintings such as "Madonna and Child" in the early Renaissance style, while Botticelli employed the new humanist tendency to paint mythological subjects, as in his "Primavera," and "The Birth of Venus."

High Renaissance
Renaissance art and sculpture

As the Renaissance reached the end of the 15th century, Italian art entered its most famous period. Leonardo da Vinci wrote his "Treatise on Painting," devoting a section to linear perspective. He defined the term sfumato in painting: a gradual, blurred transition between areas of different color. Michelangelo’s sculpture of David is as famous as his paintings in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. In Florence, Raphael adopted Leonardo’s new methods and techniques between 1504 and 1508, and became a noted painter of the Madonna.

Venetian Renaissance Artists
Titian and Tintoretto were Venetian artists.

In Venice, Titian learned from Bellini and revolutionized oil painting techniques, to become one of the most important Renaissance artists. Titian’s use of color inspired Tintoretto, whose painting of The Last Supper in its Venetian setting hangs in the chancel of San Giorgio Maggiore. High Renaissance art eventually evolved into a more elegant and stylized form of painting for a short period, known as Mannerism.

Baroque to Rococo
Baroque style emerged in Rome.

A new style of painting, Baroque, emerged in Rome in the 17th century, involving the classicism of Anibale Caracci and the realism of Caravaggio. Still-life became popular, with paintings such as Caravaggio’s "Basket of Fruit" circa 1596, painted in vibrant colors. The Bolognese artist Guido Reni balanced the different influences of the time, painting the "Crucifixion of St. Peter" in 1605.

High Baroque, or Rococo style, became popular in the 18th century age of reason. Artists began to express beauty, elegance and sentimentality. The female artist Rosalba Carriera captured the delicacy of the time in her portraits of fashionable society. The Venetian Gian Battista Piazzetta founded an art school that formed the basis of the Accademia.

Neoclassicism to Modern Art
Italian art nouveau arrived in 1902.

Rome was the center of idealistic Neoclassical thought in the mid-18th century, most notable in sculptures. This led to the Romanticism of 19th century European art. In the 1840s, the Macchiaioli movement emphasized realism and truth, with independent artists’ colonies arising all over Italy. Giovanni Fattori used Impressionist touches in his paintings of nature and military scenes. By the 1880s, the Divisionism technique used streaked brushstrokes to express ideas in paintings. Modernism arrived in Italy in the form of Italian Art Nouveau in 1902.

  • “Art: A World History”; Dorling Kindersley; 1998
  • “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting”; Dorling Kindersley; 1994
  • “A Pictorial History of Art”; Christopher Lloyd; 1985
  • History World
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