Italian Art Through History

November 15, 2016

Consisting of some of the world’s most famous work of arts and architecture, Italian art has long been the central focus of world history. The cultural advancement and exchange of the popular “boot” has remained consistent throughout centuries, resulting in continuous production of monumental and spectacular works in all spheres of culture and arts. From the classical times and ancient people who had formed the first civilization on the Apennine peninsula, the great Roman Empire as the leading cultural, political, and religious centre of Western world, to the glorious periods of the Renaissance and Baroque, which we simply cannot imagine art without, and the crucial Italian avant garde movements of the past century, Italian art represents one of humanity’s greatest treasures. Its artists, museums, galleries and tendencies have always been closely allied with the intellectual and religious currents, reflecting the notions of their time and shaping an exceptional, inexhaustible legacy. A land where life itself is considered an art form, Italy continues to contribute to the diversity and enrichment of its own and the culture of the world, celebrating the abundance and significance of its tradition.

Leonardo da Vinci - Il Cenacolo, 1495-1498. Image via Wikipedia. Another one of the most influential painters was raphael, who later had a great impact on contemporary artists
Leonardo da Vinci - Il Cenacolo, 1495-1498. Image via Wikipedia

The Very Beginnings - Roman and Etruscan Art

The central role in the Italian art history has always been played by Rome, beginning with 9th century BC and the Etruscan arts. By the time the capital began building the empire on the Apennine peninsula, their bronze figures, terracotta reliefs, paintings and frescoes were heavily present, setting a rigorous standard in style and technique that was to be followed in centuries to come. The Etruscan frescoes, found on grave walls, are still considered the most important examples of pre-Roman figurative paintings known to scholars. These were made of fresh plaster and natural colors, mostly coming from stones and minerals and applied with brushes made of animal hair. These works mostly depicted everyday life scenery and traditional mythological scenes. During the mid 4th century, the famous technique of chiaroscuro began to be used, to portray volume and depth[1].

The Etruscan also had a great influence on the Roman architecture later, which was one of the backbones of the great empire that came to be by the 1st century AD. With the civilization came culture and arts, with Rome becoming the most advanced city in the world. Artworks became the symbol of wealth and abundance, with wallpaintings decorating the houses and sculptures being installed in every corner of the home and the garden. The Romans decorated floors with mosaics as well, which usually showed events from Greek and Roman mythology, historical everyday scenes. Influenced by Eastern art and religion, particularly the Byzantine empire and the capital Constantinople, Roman art began incorporating Christian motives and enhanced the production of wall painting, mosaic ceiling and floor work, as well as funerary sculpture.

The trend continued onto the Middle Ages, with Byzantine art in Italy evolving into a highly formal and refined decoration with standardized calligraphy and an admirable use of gold and color. The art in Italy by that point was quite regional, with impacts of external European and Eastern currents[2]. Another important style was the Gothic one, which marked the transition from the medieval to the Renaissance period. During the religious disputes within the church, the Franciscan orders of monks wanted to bring the Catholic Church back to basics, introducing Gothic architecture first to northern Europe and then southward, towards Italy.

Left: Fresco of an Etruscan musician with a barbiton, Tomb of the Triclinium, Tarquinia / Right: Augustus of Prima Porta, statue of the emperor Augustus, 1st century AD, Vatican Museums

Renaissance Art in Italy

Certainly the most famous period in the history of Italian art, Renaissance marked the period between the late 13th and late 16th century. It began with painters and sculptors who wanted to give their works a spiritual quality and evoke a deep religious meanings. At the same time, they wanted to portray people and nature realistically. This also reflected in the Renaissance architecture, where architects designed huge cathedrals to emphasize the grandeur of God and to humble the human spirit[3]. The artists of Renaissance Italy were often attached to particular courts and were loyal to particular towns only, yet their artworks showed all of Italy, disseminating artistic and philosophical ideas. The birthplace of Renaissance surely is the town of Florence in Tuscany, which even today holds some of the most important works of the four periods and is home to the most famous museums and galleries in the world.

In fact, the Proto-Renaissance (1300–1400), the Early Renaissance (1400–1475), the High Renaissance (1475–1525), and Mannerism (1525–1600) were divided between the artists who highlighted each of them. The beginnings marked by the famous painter Giotto, who was the first artist to portray nature realistically since the fall of the Roman Empire. His magnificent frescoes, filled with emotions of joy, rage, despair, shame, spite and love, can still be found within churches in Assisi, Florence, Padua, and Rome. Between Giotto and the three masters who came to dominate the arts of the late 15th and early 16th century, we have Taddeo Gaddi, Orcagna, Altichiero, Masaccio, Donatello, Paolo Uccello, Andrea Mantegna and many more.

Works of Italian Renaissance Art - History of Art in Italy

The High Renaissance Works of Michelangelo, Raphael and da Vinci

The period of High Renaissance, from the end of the 15th and the early 16th century, was one of the most important times in the whole history of art and the brightest moment of the Italian one, surely due to the brilliance of three men that are Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci. Michelangelo, proclaimed the greatest sculptor in history[4], was a master in portraying human figure, giving out an overwhelming impression of physical and spiritual power. His remarkable fresco on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel, painted from 1508 to 1512, accounts as one of the greatest Renaissance artworks. On the other hand, Raphael’s art was more poetic, as he was skilled in creating perspective and the use of delicate color. He is known for the many paintings of the Virgin Mary and many of his works were influenced by classical Greek and Roman models.

Joining The Sistine Chapel frescoes on the list of the most famous works of Italian Renaissance art are Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa portrait, placing him as undisputedly the greatest mind of his time and beyond. A symbol of the Renaissance spirit of learning and intellectual curiosity, da Vinci was a great talent in so many diverse areas who learned by looking at things. His studies of light, anatomy, landscape and human expressions continue to be unreached by any other artist in the world.

The Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo, 1508-1512. Image via Wikipedia

Introducing Italian Modern and Contemporary Art

Between Renaissance and the modern times, Italian art evolved in style, through the elegancy of Mannerism, the stormy chiaroscuro Baroque of Caravaggio and Bernini, the Rococo tendencies of Tiepolo, Canaletto and Bellotto, as well as the Neoclassical works of Canova and Hayez, between the 17th and 19th century. With the arrival of the 20th century, Italy and its artists joined the conception of the avant garde movements as well, relying on the rich legacy of their predecessors. With major developments in painting and sculpture, Italy also came to be the hotspot for design, particularly towards the end of the millennium which produced influential designers with their imaginative and ingenious functional works.

Milan's Museo del Novecento, home to Italian art of the 20th century. Image via
Milan's Museo del Novecento, home to Italian art of the 20th century. Image via

Futurism - Futurismo

Between 1909 and 1916, Italy joined the European movements which aimed to break ties with the past in all spheres of life. It began with the Futurist Manifesto, conceived by the Italian writer Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, which expressed the Futurist glorification of power, speed and excitement, and the disapproval of everything old, particularly the political and artistic tradition. Their artworks celebrated the technological triumph and the machine age over nature, often showing the car, the airplane, the industrial city. The style of the Futurism artists was characterized by overlapping fragments of colors and multiple imagery, oozing in energy and evoking the frenetic atmosphere of modern times. The works spanned a variety of media, including painting, sculpture, graphic and industrial design, ceramics, film and theatre, fashion and textiles, literature, music, architecture and even gastronomy, drawing sinpiration from Divisionism and Cubism. Applying the Futurist ideas in visual arts was a group of young painters based in Milan, which included Umberto Boccioni, Carlo Carrà, Luigi Russolo, Giacomo Balla, and Gino Severini. Boccioni also worked with sculptures, famously creating the 1913 Unique Forms of Continuity in Space which stood as the symbol of figures moving through space with great speed.

Umberto Boccioni's Unique Forms of Continuity in Space and Dynamism of a Soccer Player at MoMA. Image via

Metaphysical Art - Pittura Metafisica

With the work of Carlo Carrà and Giorgio de Chirico in Ferrara, the metaphysical art, in Italian pittura metafisica, came to define a dreamlike paintings of squares typical of idealised Italian cities. In these works, figures and objects seem frozen in time, found in strange, illogical contexts, the unreal lights and colors, the unnatural perspective. Described as “paintings which cannot be seen”, these works are to be recognized as the products of the unconscious mind, beyond logic or physical reality - hence the name “metaphysical”. The school established de Chirico and Carrà, although short-lived, provided significant impetus for the development of movements like Dada and Surrealism as well.

Left: Giorgio de Chirico - The Disquieting Muses, 1947, University of Iowa Museum of Art / Right: Carlo Carrà - L'Ovale delle Apparizioni (The Oval of Apparition), 1918. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome
Left: Giorgio de Chirico - The Disquieting Muses, 1947, University of Iowa Museum of Art / Right: Carlo Carrà - L'Ovale delle Apparizioni (The Oval of Apparition), 1918. Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Moderna, Rome

Novecento Italiano

Founded in Milan in 1922, the Novecento Italiano was a movement created to renew Italian art by rejecting European avant garde movements and was based on the rhetoric of the Fascism of Mussolini. Founded by critic Margherita Sarfatti and practiced by seven artists, including Anselmo Bucci, Leonardo Dudreville, Achille Funi, Gian Emilio Malerba, Piero Marussig, Ubaldo Oppi and Mario Sironi, the initiative returned to the great Italian representational art of the past, in particular the Quattrocento (the 1400s) and Cinquecento (the 1500s). The Novecento (meaning the 1900s) artists supported the Fascist regime and their work became associated with the state propaganda department[6], aiming to revive the tradition of large format history painting in the classical manner. The movement was officially launched in 1923 at an exhibition in Milan, with Mussolini as one of the speakers, and lasted all the way through 1943.

Mario Sironi - Paesaggio urbano e camion, 1920. Image via
Mario Sironi - Paesaggio urbano e camion, 1920. Image via

Spatialism - Spazialismo

Marked by the slashed and pierced paintings by Lucio Fontana, Spatialism, or movimento spaziale in Italian, was the most prominent movement of the Post-war period between 1947 and 1954. Conceived as the new type of art, it intended to synthesize color, sound, space, movement and time into artworks, combining elements of Concrete art, Dada and Tachisme. Anticipated by Fontana’s Manifesto Bianco (White Manifest) published in Buenos Aires in 1946 and followed by five more manifestos, the movement sought to unite art and science to project colour and form into real space by the use of up-to-date techniques such as neon lighting and television[7]. Fontana’s works, such as the 1947 Black Spatial Environment and the canvases slashed with a razor blade created throughout the 1950s and 60s, came to influence Environmental art and were the first to promote the idea of gestural art and performance as crucial parts of creation.

Ugo Mulas - Lucio Fontana, Milano, 1964. Image via
Ugo Mulas - Lucio Fontana, Milano, 1964. Image via

Arte Povera

The esteemed Italian art critic Germano Celant coined the term Arte Povera during the 1960s, describing artworks that combined aspects of Conceptual, Minimalist, and Performance art to take a radical stance. Artists began questioning and eventually attacking values of established institutions, asking whether art as the private expression of an individual still had an ethical reason to exist[8]. Celant, together with key figures who helped shape the movement such as Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz and Marisa Merz, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone and Michelangelo Pistoletto, promoted the notion of a revolutionary art, free of convention, the power of structure and the market place. The name “arte povera”, meaning “impoverished art”, derived from the use of worthless or common materials such as earth or newspaper, in the hope of subverting the commercialization of art.

Alighiero Boetti - Mappa, 1983. Image via
Alighiero Boetti - Mappa, 1983. Image via

Anti Design

Apart from the principal movements of the Italian art that shaped the country’s culture in the 20th century, a major role was played by design as well, which became well-known and grew to the heights of sophistication and class. While at the beginning of the century, the designers struggled to find a balance between classical elegance and modern creativity, giving life to pieces similar to the French Art Deco style, the field evolved into the main player on the international scene during the 1960s and 70s, mostly in furniture and interior design. However, between the years 1966 and 1980, there was Anti-Design, which emphasized striking colors, scale distortion, irony and kitsch. The movement was a reaction against the perfectionist aesthetics of Modernism, which began with Ettore Sottsass Jr. Together with Radical Design groups such as Archigram and Superstudio, they expressed ideas by producing furniture prototypes, exhibition pieces and publication of manifestos that are considered revolutionary even today. They embraced the uniqueness over mass-production and their designs were meant to be functional, rather than beautiful.

anti design
Left: Sottsass Superbox, via designboom com / Right: Ettore Sottsass - Carlton Bookcase, via curbed com

Transavangarde - Transavanguardia

The Italian version of Neo-Expressionism, Transavangarde, also known as Transavanguardia, is a movement that swept through Italy, and the rest of Western Europe, in the late 1970s and 1980s. Literally meaning “beyond the avant garde”, the term was coined by another renowned Italian critic, Achille Bonito Oliva, and it symbolized the rejection of the conceptual and the return to the emotion, especially in painting and sculpture. The artists, such as Francesco Clemente, Enzo Cucchi, Sandro Chia and Mimmo Paladino, revived symbolism and figurative painting, as well as mythic imagery, rediscovered during the height of the movement.

Enzo Cucchi - Eroe del mare Adriatico , 1977–1980. Image via
Enzo Cucchi - Eroe del mare Adriatico , 1977–1980. Image via

Towards the New Millennium - Arte Italiana Today

Even five hundred years after the Renaissance period, which is still considered the highlight of Italian art history, the country’s place on the international scene is a very significant one even today. Its artists, critics, curators and influential figures are ever-present, demonstrating Italy’s determination to preserve its heritage without losing its focus on the present and the future. Let us not forget that the Venice Biennale was the first art exhibition to advocate contemporary art in the world, in 2015 marking its 56th edition. Apart from the historic museum and galleries spread throughout the country, like the Uffizi Gallery or the Pinacoteca di Brera, cities like Florence, Milan, Rome, Venice and Turin are home to numerous institutions and events which are pivotal in the support and promotion of contemporary arts in Italy and beyond: Milan’s Palazzo Reale and Museo del Novecento, Rome’s MACRO and MAXXI, Museo di Villa Croce in Genoa, Punta della Dogana in Venice, Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donnaregina in Naples, the Castello di Rivoli in Turin… In the past decade, Italy also saw the rise of its artists and artworks on the international art market, divided between the important figures of the 20th century and a group of new talents which comes to define the tendencies of the millennium. A great contributor and nurturer of these individuals certainly is the Artissima art fair, Italy’s biggest as it is now in its 23rd year, as well as the numerous private and public art collections. With a strong inspiration of the past, the Italian art seems unstoppable, giving us no reason to doubt that its extraordinary legacy won’t be continued well into the future.

 later Editors’ Tip: Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, representation, identity

Between c1350 and c1650, Italian urban societies saw much debate on women¹s nature, roles, education, and behaviour. This book fills a gap in the still burgeoning literature on all aspects of women¹s lives in this period. Using a broad range of material, most of which never translated before, this book illuminates the ideals and realities informing the lives of women within the context of civic and courtly culture in Renaissance Italy. The text is divided into three sections: contemporary views on the nature of women, and ethical and aesthetic ideals seen as suitable to them; life cycles from birth to death, punctuated by the rites of passage of betrothal, marriage and widowhood; women¹s roles in the convent, the court, the workplace, and in cultural life.Through their exploration of these themes, Mary Rogers and Paola Tinagli demonstrate that there was not a single 'Renaissance woman'. The realities of women¹s experiences were rich and various, and their voices speak of diverse possibilities for emotionally rich and socially useful lives.


  1. Nice, A. T., Rome, Ancient, World Book, 2011
  2. Kitzinger, E., Byzantine art in the making: main lines of stylistic development in Mediterranean art, 3rd-7th century, Faber & Faber, 1977
  3. Hartt, F., A History of Italian Renaissance Art, Thames and Hudson, 1970
  4. Pope-Hennessy, J. W., Italian High Renaissance and Baroque sculpture, Phaidon Press, 1996
  5. Hyland, D. K. S. Futurism, World Book, 2011
  6. Formaggio D. et al., Il Novecento Italiano, 1923 - 1933 Gabriele Mazzotta, 1983
  7. Parmesani, L., L’Arte del Secolo, Skira, 2003
  8. Celant, G., Arte Povera: Histories and Protagonists, Electa, 1985

Featured images in slider: Michelangelo Pistoletto – Venus of the Rags 1967, 1974. Image via Tate. Courtesy Castello di Rivoli; Francesco Clemente - Il cerchio di Milarepa (Milarepa’s Circle), 1982; Lucio Fontana - L'attesa. Il telefono rotto, 1959-66. Image via Wikipedia; Mario Merz - Le case girano intorno a noi o noi giriamo intorno alle case?, Arte Povera 2011, Triennale, Milan; Carlo Carrà - Il cavaliere rosso (1913), via pinterest com; Giorgio de Chirico - Melancholia, 1916, Image via Wikipedia; Maurizio Cattelan - La Nona Ora, 1999, Image via Wikipedia. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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