Painting and sculpture of Italy from the early Middle Ages
to the present. In the 4th century AD Christian art emerged
from Roman art, which was adapted to give expression to
religious beliefs and sentiments. Throughout the next 14
centuries Roman art was to be the source of constant reappraisals
and renewals in the evolution of the visual arts in Italy,
and was fundamental to the major development of the Renaissance.
It is from antique art, blended with Byzantine and then
Gothic influences, that Italian art emerged.
Early Middle Ages
The imagery of the funerary art of antique Rome, especially
of the sarcophagi, was adapted to the iconography of Christianity.
In painting, the graphic, summary, and often emblematic
style is exemplified in the murals of the Roman catacombs.
The 5th- and 6th-century architecture and mosaics of Ravenna
(such as Sant' Apollinare Nuovo and San Vitale, Ravenna)
represent the richest fusions of Roman, Greek, and Byzantine
The Roman and Byzantine traditions were now infused with
Gothic styles from France. Until the 14th century, sculpture
was controlled by the scale and structure of the buildings
it enhanced, and was seen as an adjunct of architectural
style. In Italian painting and sculpture, as in architecture
and illumination, international decorative motifs occur.
Patterns which originated in Asia were mingled with those
developed by French sculptors. The work of Benedetto Antelami
of the late 12th to early 13th centuries, influential in
Parma and Vercelli, demonstrates the fusion of Byzantine
forms with Gothic derivations from French cathedral sculpture.
13th Century (Italian Duecento)
The transformation of Italian art from the mid-13th century
paralleled the literary developments of Dante and later
of Petrarch and Boccaccio. The sculpture of Nicola Pisano
and his son Giovanni represents a fusion of Gothic and antique.
Nicola looked to Roman models, while Giovanni turned more
to Gothic types in the human figure. His career is representative
of the emergence of the artist as a personality, which went
hand in hand with the new attitudes of both artists and
patrons, and was accompanied by a corresponding rise in
the status of the artist. In painting, such artists as Coppo
di Marcovaldo and Duccio (both Siena), Cavallini (Rome),
and Cimabue (Florence) brought a new expressiveness and
humanity to the stern Byzantine-Gothic traditions.
14th century (Trecento)
In the 14th century the interaction of the Gothic, Byzantine,
and antique Roman-in the work of many outstanding individuals-created
a recognizably national culture in Italy. In his frescoes
and panel paintings, the Florentine Giotto (working in several
parts of Italy) revolutionized Italian art, developing a
naturalism and drama that marks the first decisive sign
of the Renaissance. Though many artists were influenced
by Giotto (for example Bernardo Daddi), his advances were
not fully developed for a century. At the same time (the
first half of the century), Simone Martini was able to breathe
new life into the ornate, richly colored style of Siena,
which was a blend of Byzantine and international Gothic.
After the Black Death of the mid-14th century, which brought
about a deepening of religious feeling, it was the international
Gothic style of Siena and Lombardy that gained ascendancy
over the more monumental, Giotto-inspired, styles of Tuscany.
The work of Orcagna is an example.
15th Century (Quattrocento)
The 15th century is known as the Early or classical Renaissance.
At the opening of the century the international Gothic style
still characterized the work of many Italian painters, among
them Gentile da Fabriano, Antonio Pisanello, Sassett, and
Giovanni di Paolo.
In Florence, however, there was a reaction against the
decorative Gothic styles in the 1420s in the paintings of
Masaccio, the sculptures of Donatello, and the architecture
of Brunelleschi, who had formulated the mathematical principles
of perspective. The foundations of the Renaissance are to
be traced to the works of these three men. Its rapid development
(both in Florence and beyond) was encouraged by the development
of humanism and scientific inquiry, and by the lavish patronage
of increasingly wealthy and powerful families such as the
Medici in Florence and the Visconti and Sforzas in Milan.
The flowering of this Early Renaissance can be seen in the
sculpture of Ghiberti and Nanni di Banco, and the paintings
of Uccello, Filippo Lippi, Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca,
the Pollaiuolo brothers, Verrocchio, Perugino, Ghirlandaio,
Mantegna, and Botticelli. In Venice this new spirit is seen
in the works of the Bellini family.
By the mid- and late 15th century, N. European artists
such as Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes, and Memling
were an important influence on Italian artists through their
visits to Italy or sale of works to patrons there, for example
Hugo van der Goes's Portinari Altarpiece 1475.
Humanist culture grew with the writings of treatises on
art theory and technique, and mathematics, often derived
from antique sources, such as Alberti's On Architecture
1485, based on the Roman writer Vitruvius. Theoretical writings
by such artists as Ghiberti, Filarete, and Piero della Francesca
were concerned with speculations on aesthetic theory and
morals intended to produce a basis of discipline similar
to that of the writings of antiquity.
16th Century (Cinquecento)
The very end of the 15th century and the beginning of the
16th century form the High Renaissance. The balanced, harmonious,
and linear style of the Early Renaissance gave way to styles
that reflect a greater emotional intensity and turbulence.
Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael are its dominant
During the 16th century the artistic center shifted from
Florence to Rome, encouraged by the patronage of the popes
Julius II and Leo X, whose efforts to resurrect Rome's former
glory led to their employing the leading artists of the
day, including Bramante, Raphael, Antonio da Sangalo, and
Michelangelo. Many other artists were attracted to Rome,
and it was there that mannerism developed, a style which,
through its distortion of the emotionalism implicit in High
Renaissance works, marked the end of the Renaissance. The
Sack of Rome 1527 dispersed the mannerist style to provincial
centers of Italy, and, through Rosso and Primaticcio, to
Fontainebleau in France. Leading mannerists were Parmigianini,
Giulio Romano, Pontormo, Beccafumi, Bronzino, and Vasari.
Among sculptors Michelangelo was dominant, though major
mannerist works were produced by Cellini, Ammanati, Bandinelli,
and Giovanni Bologna.
In Venice, the High Renaissance was dominated by artists
who developed a lyrical, richly colored style from that
of Giovanni Bellini-Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, Lotto,
and Palma Vecchio. Titian went on to develop the Venetian
portrait in a manner well suited to the dignity of the courtly
needs of his later patrons. Mannerism in Venice is strongest
in the works of Tintoretto, whose painting for the Scuola
di San Rocco are among mannerism's greatest works.
Mercantile, aristocratic, and ecclesiastical patronage
ensured the rapid development of the portrait in the 16th
century. The three-quarter-length state portrait established
by Raphael (Julius II) was followed by Sebastiano (Clement
VII) and Titian (Paul III). The German innovation of the
full-length portrait was a widely used form included in,
among others, the work of Titian and Moretto. In Florence,
a type of mannerist portraiture evolved by Bronzino was
ideally suited to court patrons, and was entirely different
from the Venetian style exemplified in the later portraits
The Catholic Counter-Reformation, though demanding an art
of emotional intensity, caused a reaction against the excesses
of mannerism. This period, know as the baroque, saw the
development styles: classical, realist, and Flamboyant.
Classical baroque was developed by the Carracci, who established
schools of painting in the academies in Bologna and Rome,
using Raphael as a model. The classical style, which sought
a return to the balance and harmony of the Renaissance,
was developed by Guido Reni, Guercino, and Domenichino.
Realist baroque was the creation of Caravaggio, whose
stark realism and dramatic use of light and shadow were
to have a profound impact on the whole course of European
painting. Among his many followers (the "Caravaggisti")
were the Gentileschi, the Spanish artists Ribera and Ribalta,
and the Dutch artist Honthorst.
Flamboyant baroque was the result of the Counter-Reformation
desire for an opulent style that would express both the
mystical intensity of religious experience, and also the
power and majesty of the Church. Pietro da Cortona and Andrea
Pozzo, inspired by the classically inspired works of Annibale
Carracci, created vast, exuberant ceiling paintings swirling
with angels and saints. The greatest of these artists however
was Bernini, whose works in architecture, sculpture, painting,
and design are the most confident and colorful expression
of Italian baroque.
18th and 19th Centuries
During the 18th century many Italian artists continued to
use baroque styles, though rococo became increasingly important,
particularly in decorative works. Alessandro Magnasco worked
in Genoa and Florence in the first half of the 18th century,
contributing to the type of Italian landscape painting derived
from Rosa. The early years of the century also saw the growth
in demand for painted and engraved views of Rome, of which
Panini's paintings and Piranesi's engravings are the most
important examples, showing a turning away from baroque
In Venice, Canaletto and Guardi developed in landscape
painting a type which was independent of the academic Roman
style. The grand Venetian tradition of decorative painting
was revitalized by Tiepolo and Piazzetta. Also in Venice,
Pietro Longhi excelled in genre paintings.
During the 19th century Italian artists responded to movements
such as romanticism and realism, but with little originality.
The most original art was produced in the 1850s and 1860s
by a group known as "Macchiaioli" ("patchers").
Largely inspired by Corot, they painted pictures which,
formed by flat areas (patches) of strong color, anticipate
postimpressionism. The main artists were Giovanni Fattori
(1825-1908), Silvestro Lega (1826-1895), and Telemaco Signorini
20th Century (Novecento)
The Futurist movement 1909-14 tried to portray phenomena
such as speed and electricity in paintings and sculptures.
The first dreamlike Metaphysical paintings of de Chirico
date from the same period. The paintings of Modigliani and
the sculptures of Marini are among the finest Italian work
of the period. More recently arte povera (a form of Conceptual
art) developed during the 1960s, while in the 1970s and
1980s Sandro Chia, Francesco Clemente, and Enzo Cucchi became
leading figures in European Neo-expressionism (known in
Italy as transavanguardia).