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Italian Art and Culture: A Journey Through Italy's Artistic Heritage

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.

Jesus and Judas by Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.
Jesus and Judas by Giotto. Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy.
Giotto di Bondone, Cinq maîtres de la Renaissance florentine.Circa 1550.
Giotto di Bondone, Cinq maîtres de la Renaissance florentine. Circa 1550.

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)

Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian attributed to Bonifacio Bembo. Circa 1454-1458.
Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian attributed to Bonifacio Bembo. Circa 1454-1458.
Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian attributed to Bonifacio Bembo. Circa 1454-1458.
Europe took more than half a century to recover from the devastation caused by the Black Plague and it was not until around 1400 that European Renaissance art began to emerge from the ashes of catastrophe. This period, known as the early Renaissance, was characterized by a renewed interest in classical art and ideas, and included artists like Sandro Botticelli. This revival was a defining moment in Italian culture and influenced the development of art for centuries to come. During the Renaissance's height, between 1505 and 1520, the scientific and humanistic thought processes challenge traditional beliefs that God was solely responsible for the world's creation and function, instead emphasizing the importance of human relationships and empathy. This period also saw the emergence of high Renaissance art, primarily characterized by a focus on classical forms, harmony and balance.
In addition to these intellectual innovations, artists also experimented with new principles, mediums and techniques. One such technique was sfumato, which involved softening a figure’s edges to create naturalistic changes in hues. This technique, combined with dramatic changes in perspective, allowed artists such as Michelangelo, Bernini and Raphael to create masterful works of art that seemed to leap out from their surfaces.
In order to fund the proliferation of art during this time, the Church encouraged wealthy patrons to commission their own works of art for churches and cathedrals. Some of the most famous wealthy patrons from this era were the Medici family, who helped make Florence the hub of Renaissance thought, art and architecture. These panels created by Bonifacio Bembo were made for a privately commissioned altarpiece, and depict the saints Cosmas and Damian, doctor saints from the Middle Ages. This narrative certainly appealed to the Renaissance's focus on science, and Cosmas and Damian were often depicted in artworks. As was the custom, creating an altarpiece would have been an expensive endeavor, so patrons would often ask for something in return, such as being featured at the bottom of the paintingsee figure of completed altarpiece.
Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint Johnby Domenico Puligo. Circa 1515. M.S. Rau.
Virgin and Child with the Infant Saint John by Domenico Puligo. Circa 1515. M.S. Rau.

The Baroque Period (1600-1700)

Bronze of Pluto Abducting Proserpine after François Girardon. Circa 1700. M.S. Rau.  Girardon was a French artist who trained in Italy.
Bronze of Pluto Abducting Proserpine after François Girardon. Circa 1700. M.S. Rau.
Girardon was a French artist who trained in Italy.
17th-Century Venetian Figural Torchères. 9 feet tall. 17th century. M.S. Rau.
17th-Century Venetian Figural Torchères. 9 feet tall. 17th century. M.S. Rau.

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.


Neoclassicism (1700-1800)

A Pompeian Lady by John William Godward. Dated 1904. M.S. Rau.
A Pompeian Lady by John William Godward. Dated 1904. M.S. Rau.

Neoclassical art sought to return to the styles of the ancient past, and it drew directly from 16th-century Renaissance Classicism. During the period of 1750-1800, the Neoclassicism art movement emerged as a response to the revolutionary scientific, social and political discoveries that lead to a rejection of Baroque emotionalism.
First, the rediscovery of the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum ignited a renewed interest in Ancient Greek and Roman art. In 1765, Johann Joachim Winckelmann published a popular book on the art of the Classical age that explicitly rejected the ornate Rococo style in favor of the austerity of composition and favored a reduction from complexity to simplicity. By emphasizing only essential elements that convey the essence of a story, 18th-century society became enamored with what they viewed as the highest form of civilization, Ancient Rome.
Second, the emergence of Neoclassicism also reflected broader cultural and historical contexts. Within enlightenment thought, spread through increased literacy, societies began circulating ideas of the scientific method, natural rights and the inherent value of the individual. These ideas ultimately lead to the Seven Years' War between England and France, the first global-scale war. France's loss subsequently inspired a new sense of patriotism and nationalism, both in France and England. The war also sparked a new cult of civic virtues and devotion to duty and austerity, ultimately leading to the French Revolution. Meanwhile, the British victory left them impecunious, leading to the taxation of the American colonies and ultimately, the American Revolution. Propelled by the classical ideas of democracy and simple governance, Neoclassicism undeniably paid homage to the early great societies that first articulated these philosophical ideals.
The Neoclassical movement proliferated across Europe, but the center point of inspiration was undeniably Italy, specifically Ancient Rome. The great Neoclassical painters John Godward, Benjamin West and William-Adolphe Bouguereau traveled to Italy, studied the works of the Renaissance Masters — who were also inspired by ancient civilizations — and regularly rendered subjects of Ancient Roman society.
Temple of Vespasian and Titus Roman Micromosaic. Late 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
Temple of Vespasian and Titus Roman Micromosaic. Late 19th Century. M.S. Rau.
Clio by studio of Romanelli. Early 20th Century. M.S. Rau.
Clio by studio of Romanelli. Early 20th Century. M.S. Rau.

Modern and Contemporary Art (1900-present)

A Tumultuous Assembly. Numerical Sensibility by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Published in Les mots en liberté futuristes, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A Tumultuous Assembly. Numerical Sensibility by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti. Published in Les mots en liberté futuristes, Metropolitan Museum of Art.
La Mela Reintegrata (The reintegrated apple).Michelangelo Pistoletto. Milano, Piazza Duca d'Aosta.
La Mela Reintegrata (The reintegrated apple). Michelangelo Pistoletto. Milano, Piazza Duca d'Aosta.

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.

Serpentiform pedestal tableby Umberto Bellotto. 20th Century. M.S. Rau.
Serpentiform pedestal table by Umberto Bellotto. 20th Century. M.S. Rau.
Tête de cariatideby Amedeo Modigliani. Conceived 1910. M.S. Rau.
Tête de cariatide by Amedeo Modigliani. Conceived 1910. M.S. Rau.

Regional Differences in Italian Art

Although 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.
Even today, distinct cultural, economic, political and societal differences are evident throughout Italy’s differing regions — sentiments that are undeniably reflected through the artistic eye. As the industrial and financial center for the Italian economy, these cultural changes are evident in regional differences in Italian architecture. Whereas northern Italian architecture tends to be more rational and functional, specifically in the mountainous region, southern Italian architecture is more decorative, ornate and focused on religious and cultural traditions. Artistically, northern Italian art tends to be more conceptual and experimental, with a focus on new media and technology, while southern Italian art tends to highlight more traditional, religious and classical motifs.
Exterior of MUSE- Science Museum in Trento, Italy.
Exterior of MUSE - Science Museum in Trento, Italy.
National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art-  Roma, Italy.
National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art - Roma, Italy.

Italian Art’s Enduring Influence:

Untreated Ceylon Sapphire Ring by Bulgari, 15.11 Carats. M.S. Rau.
Untreated Ceylon Sapphire Ring by Bulgari, 15.11 Carats. M.S. Rau.
Sapphire and Diamond Earrings by Giovane. M.S. Rau.
Sapphire and Diamond Earrings by Giovane. M.S. Rau.

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.


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