Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither was Italy's rich art and culture. Keep reading to discover how Italian art has evolved over time.
Italian Art Movements:
Early Italian Art History (1300-1400)
During the 1200s, artists working in Byzantine Italy focused little on realism in their art. In the early 14th century, however, Giotto di Bondone revolutionized the art world with his depiction of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. His work in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua marked a departure from the traditional Byzantine style, incorporating naturalism by portraying life-like subjects amongst life-like flowers, trees and plants. Giotto's art also conveyed emotional and psychological moments, reflecting the emerging ideals of humanism. His groundbreaking work marked the beginning of the Renaissance and signaled the end of the medieval period in art history.
The idea of humanism and individualism, which placed great value on the potential of the individual, represented a significant departure from the belief that individuals, as members of the Church, should not seek fulfillment on earth since their ultimate purpose lay in the afterlife. The emergence of these nascent humanistic ideas was abruptly halted in 1348 with the arrival of the Black Plague, a devastating event that claimed the lives of over a third of Europe's population. Despite this monumental tragedy, humanistic ideas did not disappear. The rebirth ushered in by the Renaissance marked a period of revitalization for these distant ideals of the classical world, particularly with humanism, innovations in art and architecture, and technological advancements.
The Renaissance (1400-1600)
The Baroque Period (1600-1700)
Girardon was a French artist who trained in Italy.
What changed between the late Renaissance and Baroque? Late Renaissance began embracing more elaborate and emotional imagery and created images that favored heightened emotions, drama and highly opulent designs. This increasing extravagance ushered in a new age: the Baroque period, which celebrated opulent decoration like no era before.
Two major cultural and economic factors shaped the Baroque period: new trade activity and the Counter-Reformation. First, expanding exchange networks meant that European artisans had access to new materials, techniques and design influences. Second, the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation, began to promote the Baroque style as a way to exhibit their wealth and power. By using the Baroque emphasis on drama and emotion, the Church hoped to have a mass theatrical appeal and cultivate adoration to serve their aims.
Masters such as Caravaggio and Bernini are emblematic of this movement, and their revolutionary use of light, shadow and emotion dramatically changed the way figures, both religious and secular, were represented through paint. An era full of emotion, the artists who championed this movement lived lives that were equally as dramatic, or seemingly tortured, as the subjects they rendered.
Caravaggio’s paintings display chiaroscuro and theatricality, and the artist was known for his arrogance, swagger and short temper. One of the most important artists to ever live, his bluster seemed to increase along with his celebrity in Rome. He is said to have worked devotedly on his art for periods of two weeks, followed by month-long periods of cavorting around Rome starting fights with everyone from waiters to the police.
After years of exile, reconciliation and unchanged behavior, He eventually died under mysterious circumstances, ostensibly from a fever while traveling on a boat from Naples to Rome. Some argue that Caravaggio was in fact murdered by his enemies, and details surrounding his demise remain suspicious.
Modern and Contemporary Art (1900-present)
Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, the Parisian Salon and art schools became the dominant center of artistic evolution and innovation. As Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Cubism spread throughout Europe, Italian artists both participated in the movement and experimented with their own mediums.
The avant-garde art movements of the early 20th century were characterized by a contrarian spirit, exemplified by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s bold 1909 Futurism Manifesto that proclamation, "Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty, and injustice." Marinetti believed that artists should aim to "destroy the museums, the libraries, every type of academy," as they represented the stifling of progress and the old ways of thinking. Marinetti's ideas were heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution, the rise of machinery and political unrest, which led a new generation of artists to express their emotions on the changing world through anarchic art. This sentiment would persist throughout Italy's political and societal landscape throughout the 20th century.
A later modern Italian art movement, Arte Povera ("Poor Art"), was less politically charged, though still a monumental intellectual and artistic movement significant to Italian culture. The movement, first defined in 1967 by Italian art critic and curator Germano Celant, emerged in the late 1960s as a response to the dominance of Minimalism and Conceptual Art. By emphasizing humble and unconventional materials such as dirt, rocks and found objects, the artists who embodied this movement sought to elevate discovered natural beauty industrialized modern art movements that were sweeping the artistic zeitgeist. Arte Povera was embraced throughout the world, and further propelled modern art to reject the commercialization of art.
Regional Differences in Italian ArtAlthough the Roman Empire historically occupied all of modern Italy, Italian regional differences are as steep and ancient as the civilizations that first inhabited them. Only officially unified in 1861, the country of Italy saw constant border and cultural shifts until after World War I, when the South Tyrol region, formally a part of Austria, was officially ratified as Italian territory.
Italian Art’s Enduring Influence:
When it comes to collecting fine art, Italy is sure to impress. Italian art has left a profound and enduring legacy on the world, shaping artistic movements for centuries. From Italian Renaissance art to modern times, Italy has produced timeless masterpieces in painting, sculpture, architecture and design. Today, Italian art and culture remain at the forefront with internationally renowned luxury brands such as Gucci, Prada, Versace, Armani, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bulgari, Fendi and Valentino. These brands continue to innovate with their unique concepts and exceptional craftsmanship, setting new standards for refinement worldwide by representing the immense beauty of Italian history.
Interested in more Italian art? Check out our incredible collection of works by Italian artists, from Renaissance to Old Masters and Modern Art. And if you’re looking to learn about art from other European regions, read on about French art styles and their evolution over time.