Italian art, works of art produced in the geographic region that now constitutes the nation of Italy. Italian art has engendered great public interest and involvement, resulting in the consistent production of monumental and spectacular works. In addition, Italian art has nearly always been closely allied with the intellectual and/or religious currents of its day while retaining its own remarkable past as a continual source of inspiration.
For a discussion of early works in the area see Etruscan art and Roman art. See also Italian architecture.
The Medieval Period
Throughout the Middle Ages, Italian art consisted primarily of architectural decorations (frescoes and mosaics). Byzantine art (see Byzantine art and architecture) in Italy was a highly formal and refined decoration with a standardized calligraphy and an admirable use of color and gold. Until the 13th cent., art in Italy was almost entirely regional, affected by external European and Eastern currents. After c.1250 the art of the various regions developed characteristics in common, so that a certain unity as well as great originality is observable.
The Beginnings of Italian Renaissance Art
Major painters, including Guido of Siena, Cimabue, and Duccio di Buoninsegna, while retaining many of the Byzantine conventions, introduced a new naturalism and a more direct appeal to human emotion. The same spirit is seen in the powerful sculpture of Nicola Pisano. He made use of elements from classical antiquity, as did Pietro Cavallini in his fresco paintings in Rome.
But it is with Giotto di Bondone, a contemporary of Dante, that the new painting first takes on life and warmth. His style, perfected c.1300, determined the future course of art in Italy. His immediate followers, Taddeo Gaddi, Bernardo Daddi, Giottino, and others spread his teachings and technique. Simultaneously, art flourished in 14th-century Siena, following the example set by Duccio and developing a more Gothic manner. Among the superb artists of the Sienese school were the painters Simone Martini and the brothers Pietro and Ambrogio Lorenzetti and the sculptors Giovanni Pisano and Arnolfo di Cambio.
The Black Death (1348) severely curtailed artistic productivity for the next two generations. Apocalyptic frescoes were created during this time by Andrea Orcagna in Florence and by Francesco Traini in Pisa. The pessimistic content of this art was superseded in the early 15th cent. by an elegant manner known as the International style (see Gothic architecture and art), manifest in the works of Lorenzo Monaco, Gentile da Fabriano, Masolino da Panicale, and to a certain extent Pisanello.
In the second decade of the 15th cent. Italy—primarily Florence—took the lead in the formation of an art that was to affect Europe profoundly for more than 500 years (see Renaissance art and architecture). Political stability was established in several regions, and powerful ruling families produced the patrons of art that made the artistic flowering possible. Donatello, Brunelleschi, and Alberti were among the first to look consciously toward classical antiquity as a model for their work. They, with Masaccio, whose style recalls Giotto's monumentality, began to devise the optical system of perspective. They also set a high artistic standard that was emulated by succeeding generations.
In the first half of the 15th cent. the sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti embellished the Florentine baptistery with his splendid bronze doors, winning the commission in competition against another great sculptor and architect, Filippo Brunelleschi. Other sculptors, such as Desiderio da Settignano, Antonio Rossellino, and Bertoldo di Giovanni, carried the tradition established by Donatello through to Michelangelo, while the workshop of the Della Robbias during the 15th cent. produced a great quantity of superb terra-cotta relief sculptures. The Tuscan painters, including Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, created works of exquisite color. Paolo Uccello and Andrea del Castagno contributed refinements to the understanding of the laws of perspective.
Domenico Veneziano and Piero della Francesca were attracted to Florence, while Florentine artists such as Donatello and Fra Filippo Lippi ventured into N Italy. By the second half of the quattrocento, schools in N Italy began to flourish. Squarcione was the teacher of many painters, among them Carlo Crivelli and the powerful master Andrea Mantegna, who painted magnificent frescoes for churches and palaces in Padua and Mantua. His father-in-law, Jacopo Bellini, a superb draftsman, had two sons, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, who continued his Venetian workshop. Gentile painted detailed and delightful scenes of Venice, as did Carpaccio. Giovanni Bellini initiated a century of Venetian greatness with the richness of color for which Venice became famous.
The Vivarini family produced paintings notable for a bright, translucent color. Antonello da Messina, a Sicilian who was briefly in Venice, was one of the first Italians to use the medium of oil painting, with remarkable effect. The impact of Mantegna's style was felt in Ferrara in the paintings of Cosimo Tura, Francesco del Cossa, and Ercole de' Roberti. In Siena during the 15th cent. the major artists included Sassetta, Giovanni di Paolo, Francesco di Giorgio, and the sculptor Vecchietta.
The last half of the quattrocento in Florence saw the rise of a group of painters celebrated for their lyrical style—Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, and Baldovinetti—as well as the more austere masters Signorelli and Antonio Pollaiuolo. Perugino and particularly Melozzo da Forlì were among the notable painters of Umbria. Benozzo Gozzoli and Ghirlandaio decorated Florence with exquisite narrative frescoes. The Florentine sculptor Verrocchio infused his works with a fresh vitality and sense of drama. But in the years around the turn of the 16th cent. the works of these artists were reduced in significance as the figures of the High Renaissance emerged.
The High Renaissance
Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael vied with one another in Florence and in Rome to create a perfect art. Raphael's idealized Madonnas and portraits and his Vatican frescoes exerted a tremendous influence over European artists. Whereas his works have come down to us fully realized, many of the complete artistic schemes of Michelangelo and Leonardo remain largely on paper.
Leonardo has left only a small group of magnificent easel paintings and one grand but deteriorated fresco, The Last Supper in Milan. His unparalleled, incredibly versatile genius is most clearly revealed in his notebooks, replete with extraordinary plans of all varieties. Michelangelo's magnificent ceiling and Last Judgment for the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican are the only monumental projects in painting, sculpture, or architecture that materialized according to his plans. Most of his sculptural masterpieces are fragments of vast designs that were never executed in their entirety.
In the early 16th cent. some of the grandeur of the High Renaissance artists was echoed in the works of Andrea del Sarto, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Fra Bartolommeo, but other followers of the great masters in Rome, in Florence, and elsewhere developed a complex, sometimes bizarre style in their own right known as mannerism. Among these were the painters Pontormo, Giulio Romano, Parmigianino, Il Rosso, Primaticcio, and later Bronzino and Vasari, as well as the sculptors Giovanni Bologna, Bandinelli, Ammanati, Buontalenti, and Benvenuto Cellini. By the second half of the 16th cent. the mannerist style had declined into a rather dry academism, seen in the works of the Zuccari family.
Venice was comparatively unaffected by the elegant, tortuous forms of mannerism. At the beginning of the 16th cent. two superlative Venetian masters, the mysterious, short-lived Giorgione and the long-lived, prolific Titian, continued the tradition established by Giovanni Bellini of sumptuous, poetic coloring. They created sensuous figures whose contours melted into luminous, atmospheric landscapes. Their stylistic effects influenced the works of Palma Vecchio, Pordenone, the Bassano family, the Ferrarese Dosso Dossi, and the lavish banquet scenes of Paolo Veronese. Only Tintoretto veered away from the harmonious canvases that were typical of the Venetians. He created instead twisted, dramatic, elongated forms, related to those of the mannerists but more vigorously conceived.
The Baroque Period
In the early 17th cent. Rome became the center of a renewal of Italian dominance in the arts. In Parma, Correggio decorated church vaults with lively figures floating softly on clouds—a scheme that was to have a profound influence on baroque ceiling paintings. The stormy chiaroscuro paintings of Caravaggio and the robust, illusionistic paintings of the Bolognese Carracci family gave rise to the baroque period in Italian art. Domenichino, Francesco Albani, and later Andrea Sacchi were among those who carried out the classical implications in the art of the Carracci.
On the other hand, Guido Reni, Guercino, Gentileschi, Lanfranco, and later Pietro da Cortona and Padre Pozzo, while thoroughly trained in a classical-allegorical mode, were at first inclined to paint dynamic compositions full of gesticulating figures in a manner closer to that of Caravaggio. The towering virtuoso of baroque exuberance and grandeur in sculpture and architecture was Bernini. Toward 1640 many of the painters leaned toward the classical style that had been brought to the fore in Rome by the French expatriate Nicolas Poussin. The sculptors Alessandro Algardi and the Fleming François Duquenoy also tended toward the classical. Notable late baroque artists include the Genoese Gaulli and the Neapolitans Luca Giordano and Francesco Solimena.
The Rococo Period
The leading lights of the 18th cent. came from Venice. Among them were the brilliant exponent of the rococo style, Tiepolo; the architectural painters Guardi, Canaletto, Piazzetta, and Bellotto; and the engraver of Roman antiquities, Piranesi. Fantastic landscape was brought into vogue in the works of Castiglione and Magnasco, both of whom worked in Naples.
Modern Italian Art
During the late 18th and 19th cent. Italy continued to serve as a training school for the artists of the world but tended to rest on her laurels. In the mid-19th cent. the group known as the Macchiaioli gave new life to landscape and genre subjects. Early in the 20th cent. the exponents of futurism developed a dynamic vision of the modern world while Chirico expressed a strange metaphysical quietude and Modigliani joined the school of Paris. Gifted later modern artists include the sculptors Giacomo Manzù, Marino Marini, the still-life painter Giorgio Morandi, and the iconoclastic painter Lucio Fontana. In the second half of the 20th cent. Italian designers, particularly those of Milan, have profoundly influenced international styles with their imaginative and ingenious functional works.
See R. Wittkower, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1600–1750 (2d ed. 1965); J. White, Art and Architecture in Italy, 1250–1400 (1966); C. Seymour, Jr., Sculpture in Italy, 1400–1500 (1966); S. J. Freedberg, Painting in Italy, 1500–1600 (1970); J. Pope-Hennessy, An Introduction to Italian Sculpture (3 vol., 2d ed. 1971); J. D. Hale, ed., Concise Encyclopedia of the Italian Renaissance (1985).