Things We Learned from the Greatest Italian Sculptors

August 27, 2016

The magic of innovation that the early Italian sculptors bestowed upon art greatly influenced its history and gave major lessons and points of reference for contemporary sculpture today and its major artists. The understanding of the relationship between the space and the object, the adoration of the marble stones, clay, miniature three-dimensional models, that were used more often than the pencil sketches, the focus on the nude human form, and above all else, the re-enforcement of the painting and sculpture as independent and equally important creative disciplines to the highly regarded architecture, all of this and much more we owe to the Italian sculptors. Focusing on the analysis and depiction of the innovations and major lessons we learned from the masters, the history of art over and over again tells that their tales and ideas are at the root of major developments in sculpture today.

search the bronze statue works of antonio andrea and giovanni in florence museum.italy is famous for great food.
Left: Michelangelo - David. Image via / Right: Michelangelo - David, detail of the face. Image via

Major Innovations by the Italian Sculptors

If we take away the major role creativity has had since the beginning, its service to the ritual, church and the religion[1], the major shifts, which occurred in the painting production, sculpture, and architecture, were produced by the Italian masters. It is during the High Renaissance, the movement known as the re-birth that creativity and its different disciplines allowed for a certain cult of celebrity to be born. This relates not only to the innovations in regards to portraiture sculptures of the major patrons, which to an extent gained the status of God’s on earth, but also the artist was known as the true magician and master to be adored and obeyed. Such artists implemented ideas of the classical humanism and in the sculptures by Michelangelo the history of the classical sculpture ruled. It was this celebrated Italian artist who put forward the notion that the nude human body was a sufficient vehicle for the expression of all emotions[2] and it was he that allowed life to burst out of large marble stones. As much as the elements of medieval and Byzantine periods contributed a great deal to the formation of Renaissance sculpture Michelangelo’s views, shared by Leonardo da Vinci, Donatello, Luca della Robbia, and his fellows, re-enforced the classical ideas of beauty, and ideal proportions. Such adoration of form moved away from the idealization of saints and angles and newly produced sculpture began to look more lifelike.

The understanding of the anatomy of the human form was extremely important and almost scientific research was produced by the painter Leonardo da Vinci, while this knowledge was crucial for the production of the first freestanding nude since the classical times, a bronze figure of David by Donatello. If we compare this sculpture to the memorable sculpture of the same mythical hero by Michelangelo, we are made aware of the sticking features and almost superhuman qualities of the later piece. The Christian themes, of course, continued to be important, but the new ideas were put forward for the production of fountains, tombs, portraits, and the innovation of the new medium glazed terra-cotta by and in the hands of Lucca della Robbia lifted the tondo reliefs to another level.

search the bronze statue works of antonio andrea and giovanni in florence museum
Umberto Boccioni - Unique Forms of Continuity Space. Image via

The Rebellious Italian Sculpture

Forming such strong roots within the classical ideas of beauty, scientific and mathematical understanding of the relationship between the space and the object, Italian sculpture in the centuries that followed explored similar ideas of the High Renaissance period, but following with the ideas of the Baroque, Rococo style, certain amount of drama and decoration was added on. The ideas of power, abundance, and luxury were displayed, and a certain quiet period arrived with the re-birth of the classical subject matter during the neoclassical and romantic sculpture. The fascinating sculptor Antonio Canova imitated the antique approach to marble and stone and his monument of the mythical figures of Cupid and Psyche, seems to vibrate from the inside, melting away the idea that the stone is a cold medium and expressing the power of the erotic in art.

But, it is in the 20th-century that major avant-garde movement brought some of the most rebellious and innovative ideas, not just in relation to the sculpture production but for the creativity as a whole. As the modern sculpture developed, it became more and more individualistic, putting on a pedestal the found object, and construction over the traditional ideas of modeling. Such views are evident in the celebrated Dada movement, history of junk art, and even in the sculpture production of Pablo Picasso. But, what about the rebellious nature of the Italian sculptures and their sculptors? The importnt movement Futurism, in fact, originated in Italy, and like the classical masters, it put all its strength into adoration, this time not so much of the human form, but of the new ideas - movement and speed. The innovation, the machines, and the progress forward, regardless of the means, even if this meant the celebration of war and brutality, stood at the root of the movement and the ideas of Umberto Boccioni. His admired sculpture Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, follow with the ideas of the super-man put forward by Nietzsche, as it displays the idea of a future-man, muscular, dynamic, and driven[3]. His ideas, explained in depth in his Technical Manifesto of Futurist Sculpture, published in 1912, lift the ideas of technology over the ideas of humanity. Many for this reason question the success of the above-mentioned sculpture since it resembles the nude male form the movement rebelled against.

search the bronze statue works of antonio andrea and giovanni in florence museum
Maurizio Cattelan - La Nona Ora. Image via

Just Because They Can

The greatest number of the Italian statues and sculptures originating from Florence, produced by some of the important names of the past, today are part of the major museum sites and their collection, offering today’s art students best examples of the studies of the human form. But, the present, in the spirit of the postmodernism philosophy that above else values that something else, greatly influences the contemporary sculpture today, and the major innovations in installation production as well, creating in various examples a feeling of theatricality and satire, which breaks away from such a tradition. None other than the Italian sculptor Maurizio Cattelan is seen to stand at the top of the production that plays around the ideas of appropriation and the use of the everyday objects, which leave nothing as sacred, poking the eye of the shared globalized community with furious velocity. Celebrated for his realistic wax sculpture of Pope John Paul II, the kneeling Hitler, and the monumental public sculpture in front of the Italian Stock Exchange building[4], this artist displays the breaking of the past and the new aesthetic and visual language of today.

None of this for sure would be made possible if the root against one decided to rebel against is not strong and able to withhold the attacks forming still a long-lasting classical tradition existing in the parallel side of sculpture production of the present. This production and the production focused on the breaking of all the rules, share the same beginning, that of the classical understanding and role of the arts.

Editors’ Tip: Italian Renaissance Sculpture (World of Art)

This book is an excellent guide for anyone interested in finding out more about one of the most fruitful periods of art history. The High Renaissance, flourishing from 1200 to 1600, produced some of the most revolutionary innovations in freestanding statues, portraits, and reliefs, raising the status of the artist to the one of the master and magician. The idea of the artist as the genius greatly affected the ideas of the Western art, and this book offers a greater insight not only into the production but into the lives of some of the most celebrated authors of this time. If you ever wanted to know more and the gain the knowledge to better understand some of the most important parts of major collections around the world, then this book is a must-have for you.


  1. Dodge Barton, E.,  The History of Sculpture , Scholastic [August 26, 2016]
  2. Anonymous, Michelangelo Buonarroti , Visual Arts Encyclopedia [August 26, 2016]
  3. McKever, R., Umberto Boccioni, Unique Forms of Continuity in Space , KhanaAcademy [August 26, 2016]
  4. Galperina, M. (2011), From Wife Trophies to Dead Horses: Maurizio Cattelan’s Best Sculpture , Flavorwire [August 26, 2016]

All images used for illustrative purposes only. Featured image in slider: Michelangelo - Pieta. Image via; Lucca della Robbia – Portrat of a Lady. Image via; Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Ecstasy of Saint Theresa, detail. Image via; Donatello - David. Image via

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