Since 2000 BC, Italy has been a crossroads of cultures, the intermingling of Etruscan, Greek and Latin civilisations.
After the Phoenicians had settled at Carthage and set up trading posts, the Greeks founded a large number of colonies on the coasts of Sicily and southern Italy (8C BC), known as Magna Graecia. It included Ionian, Achaean and Dorian colonies, named after the Greek peoples who had colonised them. The social unit was the “city”.
The 6C and 5C BC marked the zenith of Greek civilisation in Italy, corresponding to the period of Pericles in Athens. Greek seaborne trade was so successful that Syracuse soon rivalled Athens. Syracuse and Taranto were the two main centres of this refined civilisation. Philosophers, scientists and writers settled in Sicily. Aeschylus lived at Gela. Theocritus defined the rules of bucolic poetry and Archimedes was murdered by a Roman soldier in Syracuse.
But rivalry between these many and varied cities led to warfare, which, with Carthaginian raids, led to decline, culminating in the Roman conquest at the end of the 3C BC.
Territory in the Greek settlements was roughly divided into three different areas from the 8C BC onwards, when the first colonists arrived in Italy: places of worship, public spaces and residential areas. Generally the city was laid out in an octagonal grid – designed by Hippodamus of Miletus, a Greek philosopher and town planner who lived in Asia Minor in the 5C BC – organised around two main axes, the cardo (stenopos in Greek), which ran from north to south, and the decumanus (plateia in Greek), running from east to west. The road network was completed with minor cardi and decumani, which formed blocks.
A number of public areas and buildings were situated within the town, such as the agorà, the main, central square where much of public life took place, the ekklesiastérion, a public building used for the meeting of the public assembly (ekklesìa), and the bouleutérion, which housed meetings of the citizens’ council (the boulé).
The temples, sometimes built outside the city limits, were often surrounded by other sacred buildings.
The monumental structures included porticoes, gymnasia, theatres and votive monuments.
The city itself was usually protected by fortifications, outside of which lay the agricultural land, subdivided into family plots, and the area used for burials.
The focus of the building was the naos, also known as the cella, which housed the statue of the god; the temple faced east so that the statue was illuminated by the rising sun, considered to be the source of all life.
In front of the naos was the pronaos, a kind of antechamber, while the back of the temple, the opistodomos, acted as a treasury room. The temple was surrounded by columns (peristyle) and supported by a base; the columns which supported the entablature rested on the last steps (stylobate) of the temple. A two-sided sloping roof covered the building.
The dominant style in Magna Graecia and in Sicily is the Doric style, with its imposing and plain columns, which are placed directly on the stylobate without a base. The capital has no sculpted carvings, but consists simply of a round buffer (echinus) placed on a square block (abacus).
The Doric entablature comprises a smooth architrave. Its upper section presents a frieze with alternating metopes (panels of sculpted low reliefs) and triglyphs (panels depicting two deep vertical grooves in the centre and two smaller grooves on each side).
Many consider Doric temples to be the prototype of ideal beauty due to their simple structure and perfect harmony of proportions. The human eye distorts large buildings’ lines, so the architects made optical corrections to the conventional structure.
The entablatures, whose upper sections seemed to lean forward slightly, were raised in the centre, thus acquiring an imperceptible arched shape. To create an impression of perfect equilibrium, the columns situated to the sides of the temple façade were bent slightly towards the inside of the building, in order to avoid the effect of leaning outwards. Finally, in very large buildings (such as the Temple of Concord in Agrigento and the Basilica in Paestum) where the columns seemed to contract towards the top of the temple, this optical illusion was addressed by increasing the shaft’s diameter at about two-thirds of its height.
The temples were often decorated with groups of sculptures and low reliefs and were usually painted in red, blue and white in order to provide the sculptures and columns with maximum relief.
Compared with the architecture of mainland Greece, the temples of Magna Graecia and Sicily are more monumental, pay more attention to spatial effect and show a particular taste for abundant decoration.
The scarcity of marble and the particular Italian taste for pictorial and chiaroscuro effects resulted in the predominant use of limestone and sandstone as raw materials. Clay was widely used in the pediments and acroteria of the temples, as well as for votive statues. The colonies employed the Ionic style from the end of the 6C BC. This introduced a greater individualisation of features, an increasingly dramatic sense of pathos and the use of softer shapes. The main artistic centres were Taranto, Naples, Paestum, Agrigento and Syracuse.
Painting and ceramics
Painting was considered by the Greeks to be the most noble and eloquent form of art; unfortunately the perishable nature of the pigments used means that little remains of this art. The only surviving examples are inside tombs or on the façades of hypogea (underground chambers).
Vases with black figures painted against a red or yellow background date from the Archaic and beginning of the Classical periods. The detail on the figures was obtained by simply engraving the black varnish with a steel tip. Mythological subjects or scenes depicting daily life were the most common designs. Red figure vases appeared in southern Italy towards the end of the 5C BC. The black varnish, previously only for figures, now infused the background, with the figures ‘reserved’ in the natural brick red clay and painted with touches of black and white. This reversal, which gave artists a greater freedom of expression, constituted a revolutionary discovery and allowed artists to produce more subtle designs. The themes used remained much the same. From the 3C BC the art of the native Italian peoples and of Magna Grecia became more decorative in style.
While the Greeks were disseminating their civilisation throughout the south of the peninsula and Sicily, the Etruscans flourished in central Italy, from the 8C BC onwards. This powerful empire’s growth was checked only by that of Rome (3C BC). They are a little-known people whose alphabet, along with certain tombstone inscriptions, has now been partially deciphered. Some authorities think they were natives; others, following the example of Herodotus, insist they came from Lydia in Asia Minor. The Etruscans at first occupied the area between the Arno and the Tiber but later spread into Campania and the Po Plain. They reached their zenith in the 6C BC. Etruria then comprised a federation of 12 city-states known as lucumonies, which comprised the cities of Tarquinia, Vulci, Vetulonia, Cerveteri, Arezzo, Chiusi, Roselle, Volterra, Cortona, Perugia, Veii and Volsinii (present-day Bolsena). Grown rich from ironwork, copper and silver mines, and trade in the western Mediterranean, these excellent artisans and technicians enjoyed a highly refined civilisation.
The Etruscan towns, built on elevated sites with walls of huge stones, show an advanced sense of town planning, often based on Greek models. Near the towns are vast burial grounds. These necropolises – cities of the dead – mimicked the streets, blocks, houses and furnishings of everyday life, often carved into the soft tufa.
Etruscan art is strongly influenced by the Orient and especially by Greece from the 6C BC onwards. It has a marked individuality sustained by realism and expressive movement. Vivid frescoes adorn the tombs at Tarquinia; the scenes range from the saucy to the sublime. These mysterious artists were also accomplished sculptors, architects, engineers and gold- and iron-workers.
Sculpture makes up the main body of Etruscan art. The great period is the 6C BC, when large groups of statuary adorned the pediments of temples: the famous Apollo of Veii (in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome), of obvious Greek influence, belongs to this period. Some portrait busts are more original in their striking realism, intensity of expression and stylised features: their large prominent eyes and enigmatic smiles are typical of the Etruscan style. The same applies to the famous groups of semi-recumbent figures on the sarcophagi, many of which are portraits. They also excelled in bronze sculpture, as demonstrated by the Arezzo Chimera (in Florence’s Archaeological Museum) and elongated votive figurines.
The only surviving paintings are in burial chambers (Cerveteri, Veii and especially Tarquinia). These frescoes were supposed to remind the dead of the pleasures of life: banquets, games, plays, music, dancing, hunting, etc. These colourful and delicate wall paintings show amazing powers of observation and form a good record of Etruscan habits and customs.
Pottery and Goldwork
The Etruscans were artisans of genius. In pottery they used the little-known bucchero technique, producing black earthenware with figures in relief. Initially decorated with motifs in pointillé, the vases developed more elaborate shapes with a more complicated ornamentation, although in general these were not of the same quality as the earlier work. In the 7C BC they modelled beautiful burial urns, canopae, in animal or human shapes. Both men and women wore heavy – often solid gold – ornaments that often showcased exceptional skill in the filigree and granulation techniques.
Roman towns often had military roots. Walled in periods of trouble, they were generally divided into four quarters by two main streets, the decumanus and the cardo, intersecting at right angles and ending in gateways. Other parallel streets created a grid.
The streets were edged with footpaths, sometimes 50cm/18in high, and lined with porticoes to shelter pedestrians. Large flagstones, which fitted together perfectly, paved the roads. Stepping-stones crossed the right-of-way, but grooves allowed horses and cartwheels to pass.
A Roman House
Excavations at Herculaneum, Pompeii and especially Ostia have uncovered two main types of houses. An insula was a dwelling of several storeys divided into apartments, often with shops open to the street. A domus was a luxurious, single-family mansion with an atrium, which had evolved from the earlier Greek model.
The latter had a modest external appearance owing to bare walls and few windows. But the interior – adorned with mosaics, statues, paintings and marbles and sometimes including private baths and a fish pond – revealed the riches of its owner. A vestibule overlooked by the porter’s lodge led to the atrium.
The atrium, originally the domus’s heart, later referred to the internal courtyard around the impluvium, a basin which caught rainwater.
The bedrooms (cubiculae) opened off the atrium, which was the only part of the house where strangers were usually admitted. At the far end was the tablinum, or the living and dining room. The atrium and adjoining rooms constituted the oldest form of the Roman house, later inhabited by less wealthy citizens.
The peristyle was a central court surrounded by a portico. Reserved for the family, it generally featured a garden with fountains, statues and mosaic-lined basins. The living quarters opened onto it. The cubiculae were simple sleeping chambers with a stone platform built against the wall or a movable bed. There were mattresses, cushions and blankets but no sheets. The dining room, or triclinium, takes its name from the three couches for the guests. Adopting a Greek custom, Romans ate reclined on cushions and leaning on one elbow. Slaves attended the central table.
Lastly, there was the great hall or oecus, which was sometimes embellished with a colonnade. The outbuildings included the kitchen with a sink and drain, and built-in stove and oven; baths, which were like the public baths on a smaller scale, and the slaves’ quarters, barns, cellars, stables etc. The latrines were usually in a kitchen corner to simplify drainage systems.
Roman life revolved around the forum, each town’s centre of politics, leisure and commerce. Originally a market, the large square usually stood at a major intersection and was often surrounded by a portico during the Imperial period.
Government offices also flanked a forum. These included the curia or headquarters of local government; the voting hall for elections; the public tribune where candidates harangued crowds; the “basilica of finance” or exchange (argentaria); the municipal treasury; the public granaries; the “basilica of justice” or law courts; the prison; temples and many commemorative monuments.
As they became less content with the Forum, ancient Roman emperors built auxilliary centres nearby. Trajan, Nerva and Augustus all constructed opulent additions, now collectively known as the Fori Imperiali.
Roman cemeteries lined major roads at some distance from town. The tombs were marked by an altar, simple stele (a slab or pillar), or even a mausoleum for the most important families. Less affluent Romans rested in a columbarium, a vault with niches for funerary urns, named for its resemblance to a dovecote. The most famous cemetery is on the Via Appia Antica, south of Rome. Directly after death, the body was exhibited on a funeral couch surrounded with candlesticks and wreaths. Then the family buried or cremated the remains. The deceased was provided with objects thought useful in the afterlife: clothes, arms and tools for men, toys for children, and jewellery and toilet articles for women.
The Romans borrowed elements from Greek architecture, but created their own art. Innovations included softer, more flexible curved shapes, such as the arch, dome and vault.
Walls and pilasters replaced columns, the foundation of the Greek trilithic system. Concrete, thrown into moulds, allowed huge covered spaces like the Pantheon, the world’s largest unreinforced solid concrete dome at 43.4m/142 ft in diameter. Also noteworthy were the Romans’ many public civil engineering projects: bridges, aqueducts, roads, tunnels, sewers, baths, theatres, amphitheatres, stadia, circuses, basilicas, nymphaea, gymnasia, colonnades, triumphal arches and both public and private monuments (often rivals in terms of size and splendour).
Temples honoured gods or emperors, raised to divine status from the time of Augustus. The Roman version, again inspired by the Greek, consists of a closed chamber, the cella, containing the image of the god, and an open vestibule. The building is surrounded, partly or completely, by a colonnade and is built on a podium. Romans also imported circular temple-plans. The most stunning example remains the Pantheon, dedicated to all the gods. This engineering marvel has an eye (oculus) in its grand concrete dome. Originally built in 27 BC, it has been a place of worship for over 2 000 years and this Catholic church now contains the tombs of the artist Raphael and Italian royalty.
In Rome these commemorated the victories by generals or emperors. The low reliefs on the arches recorded their feats of arms. In the provinces, such as Aosta, Benevento and Ancona, there are municipal arches commemorating important events or erected in honour of some member of the Imperial family.
Again, Rome has a concentration of superb structures, including the Forum’s 203 AD Arch of Septimius Severus, the worn 81 AD Arch of Titus, which commemorates the capture of Jerusalem (and thus is shunned by many Jews) and the pollution-scarred, 315 AD Arch of Constantine, which the dictator Benito Mussolini further damaged in a megalomaniac desire for a triumphal procession.
Nowhere is the Roman arch better employed than these waterways, many of which stand today (though an argument could perhaps be made for the Colosseum). These stone stream-beds stride across the countryside and plunge underground. Rome alone built 11 between 312 BC and 206 AD, which funnelled more than a million cubic metres a day into the city (35m cubic feet). Three ancient aqueducts continue to supply the capital’s fountains and streetside taps.
The Roman baths doubled as fitness centres, casinos, social clubs, libraries, lecture halls and meeting-places. The free amentities explain the amount of time people spent there. Decoration in these great buildings was lavish: mosaic ornaments, coloured marble facings, columns and statues.
The bather followed a medically prescribed circuit. From the gymnasium (palestra), he entered a lukewarm room (tepidarium) to prepare for the hot baths (caldarium). He then returned to a lukewarm room before plunging into the cold baths (frigidarium) to tone the skin. Underground furnaces (hypocausts) heated the water and air, which also circulated inside the walls and floors.
This typical Roman structure, several storeys high, encircles an elliptical arena with seats. A huge adjustable awning, the velarium, sheltered the spectators from the sun and rain. Inside, a wall protected the front rows from the wild animals in the ring. A complex of circular galleries, staircases and corridors enabled all the spectators to reach their seats quickly without crowding through the vomitaria (passageways).
Always popular, the performances included fighting of three kinds: between animals, between gladiators and animals, and between gladiators. In principle, a human duel always ended in the death of one opponent. The public could ask for a gladiator’s life to be spared and the President of the Games would indicate a reprieve by turning up his thumb. The victorious gladiator received a sum of money if he was a professional; a slave or a prisoner would be freed.
In some amphitheatres the stage could be flooded for naval spectacles (naumachia), where actors battled in flat-bottomed boats.
Naturally, the Colosseum is the star of this genre. Three tiers high, it covers about 2.5ha/6 acres of drained marshland in Rome’s heart. More than 50 000 people could squash onto the marble and tufa benches with standing room at the top. Known as the Flavian Amphitheatre until the 8C, the Colosseum is the model for modern sports stadiums.
Usually connected to the Imperial palace, the circus hosted horse and chariot races. Its shape was long and narrow, with a short curved side and a straight side, where the races started. Spectators sat on the terraces, while the competitors whipped around the track. In the later Roman Empire, many different types of games took place here. The circus resembled the smaller stadium, which was copied from the Greek model. The Circus Maximus, near Rome’s Forum, is among the most famous examples. However, the landmark Piazza Navona also began as a chariot track: the 86 AD circus known as domitianus or agonalis (from the ancient Greek for “games”, which was corrupted into the modern name). Baroque churches, fountains and palaces have since encrusted the ruins, but the shape remains evident.
Theatres had rows of seats, usually ending in colonnades, a central area or orchestra for performance or elevating distinguished spectators, and a raised stage. Action unfolded before a wall – the building’s finest part, which imitated a palace façade: decoration included several tiers of columns, niches containing statues, mosaics and marble facings. The perfect acoustics were generally due to a combination of sophisticated devices. The scenery was either fixed or mobile and there was an ingenious array of machinery either in the wings or below stage. Special effects were also impressive, including smoke, lightning, thunder and the sudden appearance of gods – the famous deus ex machina – or heroes.
Comedies and tragedies were the theatre’s chief function; however, the space also hosted competitions, lottery draws and the distribution of bread or money.
Until the end of the 2C BC, all actors wore wigs of different shapes and colours, according to their character’s nature. After that date, they adopted distinctive pasteboard masks, often represented in theatre sculptures. Tragic actors, to make themselves more impressive, wore buskins or sandals with thick cork soles.
The Romans ignited the Italian peninsula, inhabited by Greek colonists, the gentle Etruscans and various Indo-European tribes. They rewrote the rules, from the she-wolf rescuing abandoned babies to Caesar storming across the Rubicon. The Romans spread peace and prosperity from Upper Mesopotamia to the British Isles. Eventually Barbarian invasions and plague weakened the Empire, which split in two and converted to Christianity. Lombards, Franks and Normans ruled the ruins, and later popes and emperors. City states squabbled through the Dark Ages; then blossomed in the Renaissance. Italians finally cast off foreign rulers – the French and Spanish – under the dashing leadership of Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1871. Following the horrors of Fascism and 1970s political terrorism, Italy stabilised and joined the European Union.
The tumultuous journey from “head of the world” to member-state left behind a rich cultural and historical legacy, treasured by travellers.
From the Origins to the Empire (753–27 BC)
753 Foundation of Rome by Romulus, according to legend. (However, archaeologists unearthed Latin and Sabine villages on the Tiber Island from the early 8C.)
750 Rape of the Sabine women.
7C–6C Royal dynasty of the Tarquins, Etruscan rulers. Power is divided between the king, the senate and the people.
509 Tarquins expelled after the rape of Lucretia. Establishment of the Republic: the king’s powers are conferred on two consuls.
451–449 The Law of the XII Tables institutes equality between patricians and plebeians.
390 The Gauls sack Rome.
281–272 War against Pyrrhus, King of Epirus; southern part of the peninsula submits to Rome.
264–241 First Punic War: Carthage abandons Sicily to the Romans.
218–201 Second Punic War. Hannibal crosses the Alps and defeats the Romans at Lake Trasimeno. Hannibal routs the Romans at Cannae and halts at Capua. In 210 Scipio carries war into Spain, and in 204 he lands in Africa. Hannibal is recalled to Carthage. Scipio defeats him at Zama in 202.
146 Macedonia and Greece become Roman provinces. Capture of Carthage.
133 Occupation of Spain, end of Mediterranean campaigns.
133–121 Failure of the policy of the Gracchi, who promoted popular agrarian laws.
122 Senate assassinates democrtic reformer Gaius Gracchus.
118 The Romans in Gaul.
112–105 War against Jugurtha, King of Numidia (now Algeria).
102–101 Marius, the vanquisher of Jugurtha, stops the invasions of Cimbri and Teutoni.
88–79 Sulla, Marius’ rival, triumphs over Mithridates (King of Pontus) and establishes his dictatorship in Rome.
70 Pompey and Crassus become masters of Rome.
63 Catiline’s plot against the Senate exposed by Cicero.
60 The first Triumvirate: Pompey, Crassus, Julius Caesar. Rivalry of the three rulers.
59 Julius Caesar as Consul.
58–51 The Gallic War (52: Surrender of Vercingetorix at Alesia).
49 Caesar crosses the Rubicon, driving Pompey from Rome.
49–45 Caesar defeats Pompey and his partisans in Spain, Greece and Egypt. He writes his history of the Gallic War and meets Cleopatra.
Early 44 Caesar appointed Dictator for life.
15 March 44 Caesar is assassinated by Brutus, his adopted son.
43 The second Triumvirate: Octavian (great-nephew and heir of Caesar), Mark Antony, Lepidus.
41–30 Struggle between Octavian and Antony. At Actium, lovers Antony and Cleopatra suffer defeat and suicide.
The Early Empire (27 BC–AD 284)
27 Octavian takes the title “Augustus Caesar” and plenary powers.
14 Death of Augustus.
14–37 Reign of Tiberius.
41 Caligula assassinated.
64 Nero rules. Rome burns.
67 Saints Peter and Paul martyred.
68 Julio-Claudian Dynasty (Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero) ends.
69–96 Flavian Dynasty: Vespasian, Titus, Domitian.
96–192 Century of the Antonines, marked by the successful reigns of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus and Marcus Aurelius, who consolidated the Empire.
193–275 Severus Dynasty: Septimius Severus, Caracalla, Heliogabalus, Alexander Severus, Decius, Valerian, Aurelian.
235–68 Military anarchy; a troubled period. The legions make and break emperors.
270–75 Aurelius re-establishes the unity of the Empire.
The Later Empire and Decline (AD 284–476)
284–305 Reign of Diocletian (“the age of martyrs”). Empire split into East and West.
306–37 Reign of Constantine. By the Edict of Milan (313), Constantine decrees religious freedom. Constantinople, the eastern capital, thrives. Rome declines.
379–95 Reign of Theodosius the Great, the Christian Emperor, who establishes Christianity as the state religion in 382.
At his death the Empire is divided between his sons, Arcadius (East) and Honorius (West).
5C The Roman Empire is repeatedly attacked by the Barbarians: in 410, Alaric, King of the Visigoths, captures Rome. Capture and sack of Rome in 455 by the Vandals under Genseric.
475 Byzantium is the seat of the Empire. Goths rule Rome.
476 Deposition by Odoacer of Emperor Romulus Augustus ends the Western Empire.
From Roman Empire to the Germanic Holy Roman Empire
493 Odoacer is driven out by the Ostrogoths under Theodoric.
535–53 Reconquest of Italy by the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian (527–65).
568 Lombards, a Germanic tribe, invade led by King Alboin.
590–604 Papacy of Gregory the Great, who evangelised the Germans and Anglo-Saxons.
752 Threatened by the Lombards, the Pope appeals to Pepin the Short, King of the Franks.
756 Donation of Querzy-sur-Oise. Pepin the Short returns the Byzantine territories conquered by the Lombards to Pope Stephen II, leading to the birth of the Patrimonium Petri ( Papal States) and temporal power of the Pope.
774 Pepin’s son, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), becomes King of the Lombards.
800 Charlemagne is proclaimed Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Leo III.
9C The break-up of the Carolingian Empire causes complete anarchy and the formation of many rival states in Italy. This is an unsettled period for the Papacy, which is often weak and dissolute. Widespread corruption among the ecclesiastical hierarchy.
951 Intervention in Italy of Otto I, King of Saxony, who becomes King of the Lombards.
962 Otto I, now crowned Emperor, founds the Germanic Holy Roman Empire.
The Church versus the Empire
9C Establishment of Normans in Sicily and the south.
1076 The Gregorian Reform of Pope Gregory VII tries to re-establish the Church‘s influence. Dispute between the Pope and Emperor Henry IV leads to the Investiture Controversy.
1077 Humbling of the Emperor before the Pope at Canossa.
1097 First Crusade begins.
1155 Frederick Barbarossa crowned Emperor.
The struggle between the Empire and the Papacy resumes, with the Ghibellines supporting the Emperor and the Guelphs supporting the Pope.
1167 Creation of the Lombard League, an association of Guelph leaning cities.
1176 Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III reconcile.
1216 Triumph of the Papacy on the death of Pope Innocent III.
1227–50 A new phase in the struggle for Empire (Frederick II) and the Papacy (Gregory IX).
French Influence and the Decline of Imperial Power
13C Peak of economic prosperity of the Communes.
1265 Charles of Anjou, brother of St Louis, crowned King of Sicily.
1282 Sicilian Vespers: massacre of French settlers in Sicily.
1300 First Jubilee declared by Pope Boniface VIII.
1302 The Anjou Dynasty establishes itself in Naples.
1303 Attack of Anagni, instigated by King Philip of France, on Pope Boniface VIII.
1309–77 The popes established at Avignon, France. The Avignon popes included Clement V to Gregory XI who took the Papacy back to Rome at the instigation of St Catherine of Siena. This period is referred to as the Avignon Captivity.
1328 Failure of the intervention in Italy by the Emperor Ludwig of Bavaria.
1378–1418 The Great Schism of the West (anti-popes in Pisa and Avignon) is brought to an end by the Council of Constance (1414–18).
1402 Last German intervention in Italy (the Lombard militia defeats the Emperor).
1442 Alfonso V, King of Aragon, becomes King of the Two Sicilies.
1453 Constantinople, capital of the Christian Eastern territories, falls to the Turks.
1492 Death of Lorenzo de’ Me-dici. Christopher Columbus discovers America.
1494 French King Charles VIII intervenes for Ludovico II Moro.
Economic and Cultural Golden Age (15C, early 16C)
Trade transformed the north and centre of the peninsula, while the south kept its feudal structures. The economic importance of Italy derived from the large-scale production of consumer goods (cloth, leather, glass, ceramics, arms etc), as well as commerce.
Merchants and bankers who settled in countries throughout Europe spread their civilisation, which bloomed brightest at the Italian courts. Wealthy patrons vied to support artists and commission splendid palaces. Foremost among them ranked the Medici of Florence, the Sforza of Milan, the Montefeltro of Urbino, the Este of Ferrara, the Gonzaga of Mantua and the Popes in Rome (Julius II, Leo X).
Decline set in as trade shifted towards the Atlantic, crippling the maritime republics that prospered during the Middle Ages. Genoa soon faced ruin, Pisa was taken over by its age-old rival Florence, and Amalfi and Venice were in serious trouble as the Turks advanced westwards. Additionally, political fragmentation made Italy an inevitable target for the powerful nation-states that emerged within Europe.
From the 16C to the Napoleonic Era
16C France and Spain struggle for the supremacy of Europe.
1515–26 François I, victor at Marignano, vanquished at Pavia, is forced to give up the Italian heritage.
1527 Capture and sack of Rome by the troops of the Constable of Bourbon, in the service of Charles V.
1545–63 The Church attempts to re-establish its authority and credibility, damaged by the Protestant Reformation, with the Council of Trent.
1559 Treaty of Cateau-Cambrèsis: Spanish domination over Naples, Milan, Sicily and Sardinia until early 18C.
17C Savoy becomes northern Italy’s most powerful state.
1713 Victor-Amadeus II of Savoy acquires Sicily and the title of King. The Duke of Savoy swaps Sicily for Sardinia (1720).
1796 Napoleon’s campaign in Italy. Creation of Cispadan Republic.
1797 Battle of Rivoli. Treaty of Campo-Formio. Cisalpine and Ligurian Republics created.
1798 Proclamation of the Roman Republic. The French occupy Rome. Pope goes into exile.
1799 Parthenopaean (Naples) Republic declared.
1801 The Cisalpine Republic becomes the Italian Republic.
1805 Napoleon transforms the Italian Republic into a Kingdom, and assumes the crown of the Lombard kings.
1808 Rome occupied by French troops. Murat becomes King of Naples.
1809 The Papal States are attached to the French Empire.
1812 Pius VII is taken to France as a prisoner.
1814 Collapse of the Napoleonic regime. Pius VII returns to Rome.
Towards Italian Unity (1815–70)
Niccolò Machiavelli dreamed of a united Italy in the 16C, but no action unfolded for centuries. After the 1815 Congress of Vienna, many revolts by the “Carbonari” – patriots opposed to the Austrian occupation – were crushed. In 1831 Giuseppe Mazzini founded the Young Italy movement. This period, known as the Risorgimento, inspired the First War of Independence against Austria, led by Charles Albert of Savoy, King of Sardinia. Initial Italian succes- ses were followed by a violent Austrian counter-attack, the abdication of Char-les Albert in 1849 and the accession of Victor Emmanuel II to the throne.
Europe finally took notice, thanks to the skilful campaigning of his minister Camillo Cavour, an ardent advocate of Italian liberty, and the participation of Piedmont in the Crimean War as France’s ally. The Plombières agreement signed by Cavour and Napoleon III in 1858 led to the outbreak of the Second War of Independence in the following year, with combined Franco-Piedmontese victories in Magenta and Solferino.
Following popular uprisings in central and northern Italy, the Kingdom of Sardinia annexed Lombardy, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany. In 1860, after Garibaldi liberated Sicily and southern Italy from the domination of the Bourbons, the emerging State added southern Italy, the Marches and Umbria. On 17 March 1861, the Kingdom of Italy was proclaimed with Turin as the capital and Victor Emmanuel as king. In 1866 the capital moved to Florence.
In the same year, the Third War of Independence – with the Prussians as Italy’s allies against Austria – led to the annexation of the Veneto. Four years later, on 20 September 1870, General Cadorna’s troops entered Rome through Porta Pia. Rome finally joined Italy and became the capital in 1871.
From 1870 to the Present Day
1882 Italy, Germany and Austria sign the Triple Alliance.
1882–85 Italians gain a footing in Eritrea and the Somali Coast.
1900 Umberto I asassinated. Accession of Victor Emmanuel III.
1904–06 Rapprochement of Italy with Britain and France.
1911–12 War breaks out between Italy and the Turks. Occupation of Libya and the Dodecanese.
1915 Outbreak of the First World War. Italy enters WWI on 24 May 1915. It joins France, Great Britain and Russia (the Triple Entente) against Austria-Hungary, then Germany (28 August 1916).
1918 The Battle of Vittorio Veneto marks the end of the First World War for Italy (4 November).
1919 Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye: Istria and the Trentino are attached to Italy.
1920–21 Social disturbances fomented by the Fascist Party led by Benito Mussolini.
1922–26 Mussolini’s squads terrorise opponents, then march on Rome. He becomes Prime Minister, then Il Duce.
1929 Lateran Treaty concluded between the Italian Government and the Papacy. This defined the relationship between Church and State and brought to an end the age-old “Roman Question”.
1936 Italy occupies Ethiopia. Rome-Berlin Axis formed.
1939 Second World War erupts.
1940 Italy enters World War II allied with Germany against Britain and France.
1943 – 10 July: The Allies land in Sicily. 25 July: Overthrow and arrest of Mussolini.
8 September: Armistice.
German occupation in much of the country. 12 September: Mussolini is freed by the
Germans and sets up the
Italian Socialist Republic in the north.
1944–45 The Allies slowly reconquer Italy. The country is liberated (25 April 1945) and the war ends. Mussolini is arrested while trying to flee into Switzerland, tried and shot.
1946 Victor Emmanuel III abdicates. Accession of Umberto II. Proclamation of The Republic after a referendum.
1947 Treaty of Paris: Italy loses its colonies as well as Albania, Istria, Dalmatia and the Dodecanese. Frontier redefined to the benefit of France.
1948 – 1 January: New Constitution comes into effect.
1954 Trieste is attached to Italy.
1957 Treaty of Rome institutes the European Economic Community (now the EU): Italy is one of six founding members.
1960 Rome hosts Olympic Games.
1962 The Second Vatican Council reforms church policy.
1963–8 Strikes and protests over the socio-economic system: autunno caldo (hot autumn). Prime Minister Aldo Moro tries to bring together the socialists and conservatives.
1970–80 Riots due to political unrest. The “Years of Lead“.
1970 Regional system instituted.
1978 Left-wing terrorist groups (the Red Brigades) kidnap and assassinate Aldo Moro.
1980 Bologna station bombing.
1981 Attack on Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Square by Turkish terrorist Mehmet Alì Agca.
1982 Prefect of Palermo, Alberto Dalla Chiesa killed.
1991 Italian Communist Party (PCI) splits into two new parties, the Democratic Party of the Left (PDS) and the Communist Refoundation (RC). First wave of Albanian refugees arrives in Puglia.
1992 Operation to fight economic and political corruption in Italy commences, and leads to the collapse of the ruling classes of the Republic. Two judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, are assassinated in Sicily.
1994 The centre-right led by Silvio Berlusconi wins the first political elections under the new majority electoral system. Second Republic begins.
1996 Teatro La Fenice destroyed by fire in Venice. Electoral victory of the Ulivo alliance. The left governs for the first time in the Republic‘s history.
1997 Earthquakes in Umbria damage the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi.
27 March 1998 Italy signs up to the single European currency.
13 May 1999 Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, Governor of the Bank of Italy, becomes the 10th President of the Italian Republic.
13 May 2001 Electoral victory for the central-right alliance and Berlusconi.
1 January 2002 Italy adopts the euro.
2002 Prices rise and the economy dips. Fiat plans to lay off 20 percent of its workforce.
2003 Berlusconi on trial for corruption charges relating to business dealings in the 1980s. Protests against the government and Iraq involvement intensify.
2004 Berlusconi’s trial resumes. He is cleared of corruption.
2005 Pope Jean Paul II dies and German cardinal Joseph Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict XVI. EU constitution ratified. Voters throw out Berlusconi’s coalition. He resigns, forms a new government and resumes rule.
2006 Giorgio Napolitano, a former Communist Party member, becomes Italy’s 11th post-war president. Romano Prodi becomes Prime Minister.
2007 Romano Prodi resigns after a defeat on a foreign policy vote, but continues with a re-formed coalition government.
2008 Berlusconi wins a third term as Prime Minister. Venice suffers extensive flooding.
2009 Italy plunges into a recession. Berlusconi chooses young attractive women as candidates for the European election. His wife files for divorce.
Altarpiece (or ancona): a large painting or sculpture adorning an altar.
Ambulatory: extension of the aisles around the chancel for processional purposes.
Apse: semicircular or polygonal end of a church behind the altar; the outer section is known as the chevet.
Architrave: the lowermost horizontal division of a Classical entablature sitting directly on the column capital and supporting the frieze.
Archivolt: arch moulding over an arcade or upper section of a doorway.
Atlantes (or telamones): male figures used as supporting columns.
Atrium (or four-sided portico): a court enclosed by colonnades in front of the entrance to a early Christian or Romanesque church.
Bastion: in military architecture, a polygonal defensive structure projecting from the ramparts.
Buttress: external support of a wall, which counterbalances the thrust of the vaults and arches.
Caisson (or lacunar): decorative square panel sunk into a flat roof or vaulted stonework.
Cathedra: high-backed throne in Gothic style.
Ciborium: a canopy (baldaquin) over an altar.
Corinthian: see Order.
Cortile: interior courtyard of a palace.
Counter-façade: internal wall of church façade.
Cross (church plan): churches are usually built either in the plan of a Greek cross, with four arms of equal length, or a Latin cross, with one arm longer than the other three.
Crypt: Underground chamber or vault usually beneath a church, often used as a mortuary, burial place or for displaying holy relics. Sometimes it was a small chapel or church in its own right.
Diptych: see Polyptych.
Entablature: in certain buildings, the section at the top of a colonnade consisting of three parts: the architrave (flat section resting on the capitals of a colonnade), the frieze (decorated with carvings) and the cornice (projecting top section).
Exedra: section in the back of Roman basilicas containing seats; by extension, curved niche or semicircular recess outside.
Fresco: mural painting applied over a fresh undercoat of plaster.
Ghimberga: a triangular Gothic pediment adorning a portal.
Grotesque: a decorative style popular during the Renaissance in which parts of human, animal and plant forms are distorted and mixed. The term comes from the old Italian word grotte, the name given in the Renaissance period to the Roman ruins of the Domus Aurea.
High relief: sculpture or carved work projecting more than one half of its true proportions from the background (half-way between low relief and in-the-round figures).
Ionic: see Order.
Jamb or pier: pillar flanking a doorway or window and supporting the arch above.
Lantern: turret with windows on top of a dome.
Lesene (or Lombard strips): decorative band of pilasters joined at the top by an arched frieze.
Low relief: bas-relief, carved figures slightly projecting from their background.
Merlon: part of a crowning parapet between two crenellations.
Modillion: small console supporting a cornice.
Moulding: an ornamental shaped band which projects from the wall.
Narthex: interior vestibule of a church.
Nave: the area between the entrance and chancel of a church, with or without aisles.
Oculus: round window.
Ogee arch: a pointed arch of double curvature: Cyma Recta where the lower curve is convex and the upper curve concave; Cyma Reversa where the reverse is true.
Order: system in Classical architecture ensuring a unity of style characterised by its columns (base, shaft, capital) and entablature. The orders used in Tuscany are: Doric (capitals with mouldings – the Tuscan Doric order is a simplified version of this), Ionic (capitals with volutes), Corinthian (capitals with acanthus leaves) and the Composite, derived from the Corinthian but more complex.
Pala: Italian term for altarpiece or reredos.
Palazzo: a town house usually belonging to the head of a noble family; the word derives from the Palatine Hill in Rome where the Caesars had their residences and came to mean the official residence of a person in authority.
Pediment: ornament in Classical architecture (usually triangular or semicircular) above a door or window.
Pendentive: connecting piece positioned at a corner of a square space to support an octagonal or circular dome.
Piano nobile: the principal floor of a palazzo raised one storey above ground level.
Pieve: Romanesque parish church.
Peristyle: the range of columns surrounding a Classical building or courtyard.
Pilaster strip: structural column partially set into a wall.
Pluteus: decorated balustrade made from various materials, separating the chancel from the rest of the church.
Polyptych: a painted or carved work consisting of more than three folding leaves or panels (diptych: 2 panels; triptych: 3 panels).
Portico: an open gallery facing the nave in early Christian churches; it later became a decorative feature of the external part of the church.
Predella: base of an altarpiece, divided into small panels.
Pronaos: the space in front of the cella or naos in Greek temples; later the columned portico in front of the entrance to a church or palace.
Pulpit: an elevated dais from which sermons were preached in the nave of a church.
Pyx: cylindrical box made of ivory or glazed copper for jewels or the Eucharistic host.
Retable: large and ornate altarpiece divided into several painted or carved panels, especially common in Spain after the 14C.
Rose-window: A circular window usually inserted into the front elevation of a church, often filled with stained glass, and decorated with tracery arranged symmetrically about its centre.
Splay: a surface of a wall that forms an oblique angle to the main surface of a doorway or window opening.
Tambour: a circular or polygonal structure supporting a dome.
Tempera: a painting technique in which pigments are ground down and bound usually by means of an egg-based preparation. The technique was replaced by oil.
Tondo: a circular picture, fashionable in Italy in the mid-15C.
Triforium: an open gallery above the arcade of the nave, comprised mainly of three-light windows.
Triptych: see Polyptych.
Trompe l’oeil: two-dimensional painted decoration giving the three-dimensional illusion of relief and perspective.
Tympanum: the section above a door (or window) between the lintel and archivolt.
Vault: arched structure forming a roof or ceiling; barrel vault: produced by a continuous rounded arch; cross vault: formed by the intersection of two barrel vaults; oven vault: semicircular in shape, usually over apsidal chapels, the termination of a barrel-vaulted nave.
Volute: architectural ornament in the form of a spiral scroll.
A tour of Italy’s art and architectural treasures can be disorientating, given the country’s huge contributions to culture over the centuries. From saints and symbols to glistening mosaics, Italy boasts an impressive array of imagery.
Historical context is vital to properly appreciate Italian art in all its diversity and richness. The rightful heir of the Greek, Etruscan and Roman civilisations, Italian art has adopted essential principles and characteristics from each period.
Italy has always been open to foreign influences. This melting pot was fuelled in part by its extensive geographical area, stretching from the Alps in the north to Sicily. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Byzantium held sway and greatly influenced the northern Adriatic shores for several centuries. Invaders – including the Ostrogoths, Lombards, Franks, Arabs and Normans – all left their imprint on conquered territory in southern Italy. The extraordinarily malleable Italian character absorbed these varied and exotic influences. One after another, the cities of Florence, Siena, Verona, Ferrara, Milan, Rome, Venice, Naples, Genoa – and many other centres of minor or major importance – became cradles of artistic movements.
By the 12C, Italian artists were already beginning to show certain common characteristics: in particular, a shared taste for harmony and solidity of form, and an innate sense of space inherited from the Classical world. This restrained style tried to depict the rational and intelligible order of things. The Italians rejected the naturalistic art popular with northern schools, and tempered the abstraction and decoration of Oriental artists. Slowly a representational technique evolved that reflected the artist’s emotions. Idealisation – greatly prized in antiquity – continued to play a role as well.
In spite of this scholarly and well-mastered image, Italian art had a strong social component. Parallel to the artist’s intellectual attempt to impose order on reality, art gradually developed a feeling for naturalism, influenced by Classical models. A good example of this was the medieval square, or “piazza”. Following in the tradition of the Roman Forum, it contained the main public buildings, such as the church, baptistery, town hall or princely seat. Law courts, a hospital or a fountain were sometimes added.
Often designed to look like stage scenery, with extensive embellishment and ornamentation, the piazza was the social theatre for business, local markets, meetings, political decision-making and other important events. A typical Italian piazza is usually the result of centuries of construction. As a record of aesthetic influences and social moods, it can be used to interpret history. Scholars examine how certain elements were reused, ornamental motifs copied and styles mingled or superimposed. Aspiring architects, sculptors and painters could best exercise and promote their talents in this public arena.
Italy’s excellent town planners, however, retained a harmonious relationship with nature. From Roman times onward, they embellished the countryside with sumptuous villas and splendid terraced gardens, skilfully designed to create shade and please the eye. Fountains, springs and follies invited the passerby to rest, meditate or simply enjoy nature’s beauty. Thus the Italian architects and landscape gardeners, often indifferent to the solemn grandeur of French classicism, have created many places that capture an architectural rapport with nature.
These range from Hadrian’s Villa near Rome, to the flower-bedecked terraces of the Borromean Islands, including the Oriental charm of the Villa Rufolo in Ravello. This harmony also echoes through the elegant buildings of the Florentine countryside, the fantastic Mannerist creations of Rome, Tivoli or Bomarzo, the urban and regional projects designed by Juvarra in Piedmont, and Palladio’s work on the delightful mansions of the Brenta Riviera.
Barbarian invasions triggered the decline of the late Roman Imperial tradition and encouraged the popular and narrative early Christian art, which later formed the basis of the Romanesque style.
Honorius and his sister Galla Placidia chose Ravenna as the capital of the Empire. After the death of Theodoric and the Gothic invasions, the town came under direct Byzantine rule in the reign of Justinian (AD 527–65). The Byzantine Emperors ruled the region of Ravenna and Venezia Giulia only until the 8C, but they held sway in Sicily and part of southern Italy until the 11C. Byzantine art inherited a legacy of naturalism and sense of space from the Greek and Latin artistic traditions, and a rich decorative style from its Oriental roots.
Byzantine architects inherited the vault and dome from the late-Roman period. They developed the style’s potential, often with extraordinary results, culminating in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. Simpler structures were also built, combining plain, sober exteriors with dazzling interior decoration in mosaic and marble. The bas-reliefs on sarcophagi, chancel parcloses, ambos and pulpits assume an essentially decorative character.
Animals and figures became stylised and symbolic. Byzantine paintings often have a “cartoon” quality to the modern eye. Flat, stiff figures – with large eyes – appear to float. Rich hues were frequently paired with gold-leaf backgrounds. Scenes are simple, so illiterate viewers could easily learn religious lessons.
Byzantine artists excelled at this sumptuous form. Precious materials made mosaic the perfect technique for portraying Bible characters or courtly figures. The tiles (tesserae) were fragments of hard stone or glass that were glazed and irregularly cut to catch the light. They covered oven vaults, walls and cupolas, where their gold highlights could sparkle in the mysterious semi-darkness. Enigmatic, grandiose figures stood out against midnight blue backgrounds and landscapes filled with trees, plants and animals. The mosaics of Ravenna (5C–6C) are perhaps the most famous examples of the period. However, the Byzantine style continued to prevail during the 11C–12C at St Mark’s in Venice, in Sicily (Cefalù, Palermo, Monreale) and in various forms up to the 13C in Rome.
Romanesque and Gothic (11–14C)
The Italian predilection for harmony and monumental ensembles meant that architecture did not reach the sublime heights of the great Gothic achievements of northern Europe.
Round Roman arches – based on thick, heavy basilica walls – grounded an 11C architectural renaissance. New cathedrals and Benedictine monasteries drew on Carolingian and Ottonian traditions, as well as regional influences. Alternating columns and pilasters provided buildings with rhythm, space and depth. These continued into the roof structure, where archivolts and ribs support the square vaults. In Romanesque style, the structural function of architectural features is always visible. The most flourishing school was initially in northern Italy. Here, master masons included the Maestri Comacini, who created exceptional stone buildings in the mountains and brick edifices in the valleys. The Maestri Campionesi hailed from the Lugano region and the Lombard lakes.
The regions of central Italy were influenced by other cultural models and produced quite different styles. Florence’s highly original medieval style is characterised by delicate colours and a subtle intellectual character. Rome, however, drew on the early Christian tradition of the magnificent Constantinian basilicas. In Tuscany – especially in Pisa, Lucca and Pistoia – the Romanesque style shows strong Lombard and classical Florentine influences, embellished by decorative details. Typical features include tiers of arcades with a multitude of small columns on the façades, tall blind arcades on the side walls and east end, decorative lozenges and different coloured marble encrustations.
The Maestri Cosmati, a Roman guild of mosaic and marble workers, held sway in 12–13C Latium. They specialised in assembling fragments of multicoloured marble (pavings, episcopal thrones, ambos or pulpits and candelabra) and the encrustation of columns and friezes in the cloisters with enamel mosaics. Finally, southern Italy and Sicily show a mixture of Lombard, Saracen, Byzantine and Norman influences, the result of which was the monumental and noble Sicilian-Norman style. This style also displays Oriental influence in its highly decorative façades, and Classical influence in the perfectly poised rhythm of its colonnades.
Sculpture was closely linked with architecture. Low reliefs presented both biblical and secular stories, often intended to educate.
Painting bloomed alongside mosaics in the large cathedrals, where the vast walls and vaults were covered with colour. The bare, austere walls seen in many churches today are almost always the result of the ravages of time or restoration work. Originally, bright and imaginative frescoes illustrated stories from the Bible, mixing new experimental artistic forms with old Byzantine influences. Finally, this period saw the rise of illustrated manuscripts, another learning aid.
“Then arose new architects who after the manner of their barbarous nations erected buildings in that style which we call Gothic (dei Gotthi),” complained Florentine historiographer Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574). The style has since earned respect and even adoration, but the pejorative label – evoking barbarian hordes – stuck.
These ambitious builders wanted to push stone steeples closer to God. Romanesque barrel and groin vaults were better suited to squat, solid and dark structures. From the 11C, experiments began with pointed arches, stone ribs and flying buttresses, which propped up constructions with bridgelike arches. Interiors opened out and larger windows poured “divine” light inside.
The pointed arch allowed more height above the transept. Tall, spectacular pilasters – formed by bands of columns – supported the weight. Storey upon storey drew the gaze to the vault’s highest point, symbolizing Christians’ yearning for heaven.
No longer bearing the entire load, the walls could be pierced with glass panels. While the solid structure of the building and the omnipresent Classical heritage remained vital, light became an important element. Lavish stained-glass scenes were common, as well as rose windows, which most famously adorn Notre-Dame in Paris.
The buildings reached unimagined heights, supported externally by a mass of buttresses and flying buttresses. These were hidden from sight inside the church, accentuating the impression of space and vertical movement.
The Cistercians introduced Gothic architecture into Italy, but its widespread adoption was due to the many new religious orders, especially the Franciscans and Dominicans. These groups often used the traditional model of the early Christian basilica, so practical and economical, and adapted it to current trends. The era’s civil architecture showed more originality. Numerous prosperous towns displayed their civic pride with municipal palaces and loggias. The Venetian Gothic style relieved bare façades with windows and loggias, and persisted until the late 15C.
The Pisano family from Pisa combined ancient traditions, seen through the classicism championed by Frederick II (Nicola, 1215–c 80), and their vigorously expressive realism, explicitly Gothic in tone (Giovanni, 1248–after 1314). These masters and the architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio (c 1245–1302) introduced new iconography and ambitious projects for pulpits and funerary monuments. All exhibited the new humanism.
The painted Crucifixes in relief that appeared in the 12C were the first specimens of Italian painting. The rigidness inherited from Byzantine art gradually melted away. In the 13C a Roman, Pietro Cavallini, (1273–1321) executed frescoes and mosaics with a greater breadth of style, reminiscent of Antique art. His Florentine contemporary, Cimabue (1240–1302), adorned the Upper Basilica of Assisi with frescoes displaying a new sense of pathos. This inspired Giotto (1266–1337), who added naturalism to the mix. Movement, depth and atmosphere were indicated or suggested.
Emotion flickered across his frescoes in Assisi, Padua and Florence. Giotto’s masterful works influenced all successive painting, including that of Masaccio and Michelangelo.
At the same time in Siena, Duccio di Buoninsegna (c.1255–1318) still showed a strong Byzantine influence. He founded the Siena School, which exployed a graceful linear technique and much decorative colour. Exponents of this delicate school included Simone Martini (c.1284–1344) and the brothers Pietro (c.1280–1348) and Ambrogio Lorenzetti (1285–1348).
The masters of the Florentine Trecento period (14C) developed a mystical and realistic style far removed from the lively work of Giotto. They stressed harmonies of line and colour, and a great refinement in the decorative elements. At the same time the International Gothic style, developed in the courts of Europe, was practiced by artists from central and northern Italy and perfected in the frescoes painted by Simone Martini and Matteo Giovannetti (nd–1367) in Avignon. Other exponents of this refined, stately and occasionally decadent artistic movement, which lasted until the 15C, include Stefano da Zevio (c.1379–after 1438) from Verona, Pisanello (c.1380–1455) a portraitist, animal painter and distinguished medallist and Gentile da Fabriano (c.1370–1427).
Artists, scholars and poets flourished during this era, characterised by a passion for Antiquity, well-organised city-states governed by a noble or princely patron, and a new vision of man’s place at the centre of the universe. The Medici city of Florence was the epicentre of this cultural movement, much later designated the Renaissance (rebirth).
A new art concept was introduced by Florentine sculptor and architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), an enthusiastic admirer of Antiquity. His strong personality transformed the practical approach of the medieval master builder into the creative role of the architect who designed on the drawing board. Brunelleschi was both an artist and an intellectual. His invention of geometrical perspective allowed him to plan harmonious and rationally designed buildings. His intuitive reproduction of three-dimensional objects on two-dimensional canvas provided the foundation for all future painting.
His intellectual abilities and the abstract character of his architectural creations were imitated and made commonplace by his followers, but were never fully understood. Leon Battista Alberti (1406–1472) also used his knowledge of ancient art to create a new expressive style. His vision was based on an emotional relationship between objects and space, which most likely inspired the architect Donato Bramante.
The magnificent doors of Florence’s Baptistery, designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti (1378–1455), show the influence of Gothic tradition and ancient art. However, the most powerful sculptor of the period was undoubtedly Donatello (1386–1466), who eschewed intellectual speculation. His focus was on interpreting Classical forms with a free and innovative spirit, breathing dynamism into his work and bringing it to the height of expressive power. After Padua, where he created works that set a standard for all of northern Italy, Donatello returned to Florence.
Here, in the changing climate of the second half of the century, he explored the idea that humanity is acquired through suffering, presaging the crisis of the century’s end. His contemporary, Luca della Robbia (1400–1482), specialised in coloured and glazed terracotta works, while Agostino di Duccio (c 1418–1481), Desiderio da Settignano (c1430–1464) and Mino da Fiesole (1429–1484) continued in the Donatello tradition, at the same time moving away from the extremes of his intense dramatical style.
The third major figure of the 15C was the painter Masaccio (1401–1428). He applied Brunelleschi’s laws of perspective and added light. For the first time in centuries, figures cast a shadow, creating perspective and the notion of space. His substantial characters thus acquired a certain realism and a solidity that lent them a moral dignity. Paolo Uccello (c.1397–1475) took another tact: perspective based on two vanishing points. Uccello also demonstrated that more than one method exists for reproducing reality, with the philosophical implications all this entails.
At the same time, the Dominican friar Fra Angelico (1387–1455), who remained very attached to Gothic tradition, was attracted to the new theories of the Renaissance, while Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–1497) adapted his style to the portrayal of brilliant secular festivities. Andrea del Castagno (1419–1457) emphasised modelling and monumental qualities.
Sandro Botticelli (1444–1510) produced a miraculous purity of line, giving a graceful and almost unreal fragility to his figures and a deep sense of mystery to his allegorical scenes. At the turn of the century, amid the crisis in humanist values, he created dazzling figures of sharp lines and muted colours.
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449–1494) revealed a gift for narrative painting in monumental frescoes that depicted the ruling class of Florence in an atmosphere of stately serenity.
The work of Piero della Francesca (1415–1492) from Sansepolcro is a supreme example of Tuscan Renaissance art. Here, he displays faultless harmony and draughtsmanship with his use of form, colour and light.
At the Gonzaga court in Mantua, Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506) painted scenes full of grandeur and vigour, using ancient models to create Renaissance paintings of strong and inscrutable heroes.
In the esoteric, astrological and alchemical atmosphere of the court of Ferrara, Cosmè (Cosimo) Tura (1430–1495) created original and challenging compositions in which men and objects are hurled together in a mix of colours that resemble sharp metals and semiprecious stones.
The second major centre of art at this time was Venice, where Giovanni Bellini (1432–1516) created a sense of optical and empirical space in his paintings. He did this by using colour and tones, in contrast to the geometric, intellectual and anti-naturalist painting of Florence.
Bellini was much influenced by the work of Antonello da Messina (1430–1479) in the 1470s, who had in turn drawn on the work of the Flemish masters and his knowledge of Piero della Francesca.
The 16C saw the development of the previous century’s sensibility, infused even more with Antiquity, mythology and the discovery of humanity. The artistic centre of the Renaissance moved from Florence to Rome, where the popes rivalled one another in embellishing palaces and churches. Artists became more independent, acquiring social prestige. The canons of Renaissance art were already being exported and put into practice elsewhere in Europe. However, this golden age of poets and humanists was disrupted by political and religious upheavals in Europe, many linked to Lutheranism.
The century began with the return of Donato Bramante (1444–1514) from Milan to Rome, where he laid the foundations for the new Basilica of St Peter’s, later completed by Michelangelo. Despite appearances, Bramante’s architectural style was not completely Classical in tone; he made use of trompe l’œil effects (such as the false chancel created in Milan’s San Satiro Church) that feigned depth.
As a result, architecture became more than a rational representation of what exists. This development would find perfect expression in the later Baroque style.
Michelangelo, partly inspired by Bramante’s ideas, attempted to give moulded form to large architectural structures – treating them as sculptures. Giacomo da Vignola (1507–1573) also worked in Rome, while Andrea Palladio (1508–1580) designed a number of buildings in Vicenza. In his important works on architecture, he advocated the Classicism of ancient art and was himself responsible for many churches, palaces and luxury villas in Venetia.
Michelangelo (1475–1564) did most of his life’s work in either Florence or Rome. He was the most outstanding character of the century, owing to his creative, idealistic and even troubled genius, which found expression in masterpieces of unsurpassed vitality. His art explored questions like divine revelation, the human longing for something beyond its dissatisfying earthly existence, the soul trying to release itself from the prison of the body, and the struggle between faith and the intellect. He drew inspiration from ancient art and the work of Donatello, which he reinterpreted with impressive moral tension. Michelangelo towered above his contemporaries, including the elegant and refined Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), a skilled goldsmith and sculptor known for his Perseus (now in Florence) and the powerful sculptor Giovanni Bologna (or Giambologna) (1529–1608), who followed the dictates of a stately and courtly art.
The 16C was an important period for painting. Numerous outstanding artists produced works in the new humanist vein. Rome and later Venice replaced Florence as artistic centres. The century began with exceptional, but complementary, masters. Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was the archetype of the new enquiring mind. He is famous for his sfumato (literally translated as ‘mist’), an impalpable, luminous veil effect that created an impression of distance between persons and objects or surroundings. His insatiable desire for knowledge, interest in mechanics and attempt to form observations into a coherent system make him a precursor of modern scientists. His reflections on the soul – interpreted in paintings such as The Last Supper in Milan – had a lasting effect on future painters.
Raphael (1483–1520) was not only a prodigious portraitist and painter of gently drawn madonnas, but also a highly inventive decorator with an exceptional mastery of composition, given free rein in the Stanze of the Vatican. His style is classical in the fullest sense. He communicated the most intellectual and sophisticated ideas in logical, fascinating and deceptively simple paintings.
Michelangelo (1475–1564), the last of the three great men, was primarily a sculptor, yet famously frescoed the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Here, his skill with relief and power were triumphant. The master’s paintings portray a magnificent and heroic humanity, which appears devastated by the message of God. The bright optimism of contemporary Humanist Classicism was thus shattered and future artists were forced to choose between the divine Raphael or the terrifying Michelangelo.
The 16C Venetian school produced many great colourists. Giorgione (1478–1510) explored the relationship between man and nature by creating a wonderful sense of landscape and atmosphere. Titian (c.1490–1576), a disciple of Bellini, was influenced as a youth by Giorgione and imbued with his skill for both mythological and religious compositions. He was also a fine portraitist and was commissioned by numerous Italian princes and European sovereigns. His later work, characterised by bold compositions and densely-coloured brushwork, is the impressive and personal document of one of the greatest artists of the century. Tintoretto (1518–1594) added a tormented violence to his predecessors’ luminosity, and ably exploited this in dramatic religious compositions. Paolo Veronese (1528–1588) was foremost a decorator in love with luxury and sumptuous schemes. He delighted in crowd scenes with grandiose architectural backgrounds. In contrast, Jacopo Bassano (1518–1592) handled rustic and nocturnal scenes, heightened with a new sense of reality and a freedom of touch and composition.
The Unsettled Years
The end of the 15C was a time of crisis: the invasion of Italy by foreign armies, with the resulting loss of liberty for many states, the increase in religious tensions, leading to the Lutheran Protestant movement, the sack of Rome and the Counter-Reformation all had a dramatic effect on artists. In northern Italy, Lorenzo Lotto (1480–1556) interpreted the spiritual anxieties of the provincial aristocracy and bourgeoisie with sharp psychological insight. In Brescia, following Foppa, artists explored reality and morality. Romanino (1484–1559) exploded with expressive violence. Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (c.1480–1548) demonstrated a deep, lyrical intensity, while the paintings of Alessandro Moretto (1498–1554) were humble in their touching spirit of faith. But the most obvious examples of the anti-Classical crisis were in Florence, where Jacopo Pontormo (1494–1556) was the typical incarnation of a genial, yet tormented and neurotic artist, a visionary given to bouts of insanity. Influenced by the works of Raphael and Michelangelo, his paintings disturbed the harmony of the Renaissance with their troubled tension, sharp colours and unreal sense of space.
The art of the Counter-Reformation – which often tweaked the canon in an exaggerated or “mannered” way – marked the transition between Renaissance and Baroque. It attempted to voice the preoccupations of the previous generation. This refined genre pursued ideals of supreme and artificial beauty by copying the stylistic solutions of Raphael and Michelangelo. Mannerist art involved complex compositions of muscular and elongated figures. The period is generally considered to be one of technical accomplishment, but also of formulaic, theatrical and over-stylised work. A typical exponent of this style was Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574), author of the Lives of the Artists, who had a strong influence on historical and critical judgement up to the present day. While Mannerism was widely adopted throughout Europe, it was countered in Italy by the Roman Catholic Church, which, following the Council of Trent, proposed that religious art be subjected to greater doctrinal clarity.
Naturalism, Classicism and Baroque: the 17C
Reacting against Mannerism, a group of Bolognese artists founded the Accademia degli Incamminati (Academy of the Eclectic), under the leadership of the Carracci family (Annibale, the most original, Lodovico and Agostino). They proposed a less artificial style that was truer to nature and paved the way for future artistic trends.
Classicism evolved first in Bologna and Rome, and later throughout Italy, following the premises laid down by the Carracci. One of the basic concepts is that certain forms – used in ancient art and by Raphael – constitute models of perfection and should be paradigms for any creation of high spiritual content. The vault of Palazzo Farnese in Rome, painted by Annibale Carracci, presages the Baroque style with its overwhelming dynamics and trompe-l’œil.
Fanciful and frilly, the Baroque style introduced a sense of movement, broken perspectives, scrolls and false reliefs. Painting paired with architecture to create disturbing visions of impressive verisimilitude. A good example is the ceiling of the Gesù church in Rome, where Baciccia (1639–1709) created a credible illusion of the sky in the physical architectural space of the ceiling.
The swashbuckling Michelangelo da Caravaggio (1573–1610) overthrew several centuries of Italian idealism. His intense and often cruel realism, inspired by the artistic traditions of Lombardy and Brescia, drew inspiration from everyday life in Rome. Contrasting light and shadow gave a dramatic visual impact to his work and often highlighted the moral reasons behind human actions and sentiments. He was widely imitated in Italy, France and the Netherlands – and was without doubt the most influential artist in 17C Europe.
Architecture and sculpture
Unlike Mannerist architecture – static and intellectual – Baroque sought spatial dynamism. Spectators were amazed and confused by scenic devices, the continual intermingling of exterior and interior, curved and broken lines, and the role of light as a vehicle of divine intervention. The true Baroque style, which is structural and found mainly in Rome, is often the creation of artists who worked as architects, painters, sculptors and scenographers. The transformation of St Peter’s basilica by Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) offers typical examples: the famous colonnade solves the problem of the inharmonious extension of the church and makes the monumental but static façade the background to a dynamic piazza. The square then turns towards Rome and opens its arms to welcome the faithful.
Inside the cathedral, the flooding light and the immense bulk of the baldaquin compensate for the loss of centrality. The extension of the nave is transformed into an extraordinary tunnel of perspective of increasing tension. An interesting variation of Baroque architecture can also be seen in Puglia (especially Lecce) and in Sicily, where buildings with ornate and imaginative decoration clearly show the influence of the Spanish Plateresque style.
The deep cultural changes of the new century, with its emphasis on rational and enlightened thinking, were reflected in art. Now, the Baroque style, exhausted of its most intimate religious content, became even more secular and decorative in tone. Art was departing from symbolic significance and becoming more autonomous. It was more inclined to entertain rather than to educate – a trend that began in France, where the style was known as rocaille.
Italy had by now relinquished its leading role, although the peninsula still produced some important artistic figures, especially in Piedmont. The era’s most extraordinary project was the urban revival of Turin, which raised the city to the status of a European capital. Here, Filippo Juvarra (1678–1736) moved beyond the drama of his predecessor Guarino Guarini (1624–1683). Instead, he designed a town plan (long tree-linedavenues surrounding the buildings) of grandiose theatricality: the perfect backdrop for the fine costumes of the Court of Savoy. Art took another important step away from a mere representation of physical objects with the Venetian painter Giovanni Battista (Giambattista) Tiepolo (1696–1770), who created trompe l’œil perspectives for pure visual pleasure and no real regard for verisimilitude or the content of the stories represented: art was now being valued for its artistic qualities alone.
In the late 18C and early 19C, the vogue for all things Classical spread throughout Italy and Europe, following the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The style’s sober, simple and harmonious lines – modelled on the Antiquity – contrast starkly with the exuberant, irregular Baroque fashion. The Italian Neoclassical style is exemplified by the sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822), whose works follow perfectly the “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur” of Greek art as described by Winckelmann (and only really observed through Roman copies). In his most famous sculpture, The Three Graces (in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), the extreme formal perfection is transformed into an ambiguous sensuality that resonates with nostalgia for a perfect world lost forever. It is a subtle allusion to the impalpable screen between life and death that characterises all of his work, as well as the period’s poetry.
Neoclassicism also infiltrated architecture, alongside the eclectic style. This free-for-all lasted throughout the century, often with erratic results. An exception is Alessandro Antonelli (1798–1888), who enlivened the idiom with new engineering principles, binding the academic tradition to the boldest experiments in Europe.
In painting, the often academic tone of Francesco Hayez (1791–1882) demonstrates the Romantic style, which existed alongside the Neoclassical tradition. This friend of Canova created paintings of medieval history, highly sentimental in tone, which referred to the contemporary events of the Risorgimento. The Macchiaioli group, founded in 1855, started a revolt against academicism that lasted about 20 years. Also known as the “spotters”, the painters were in some ways the precursors of the Impressionists; they frequently worked outdoors, using colour and simple lines, and drawing inspiration from nature. The main figures of the group included Giovanni Fattori (1825–1908), Silvestro Lega (1826–1895) and Telemaco Signorini (1835–1901). Some artists worked with the Impressionists in Paris, and their influence had an indirect, but powerful, effect on Italian art.
At the end of the 19C, in parallel with the growth of a flowing and sketchlike style of painting, Giovanni Segantini (1858–1899), Pellizza da Volpedo (1868–1907) and Gaetano Previati (1852–1920) developed the Divisionist school. This art reflected the theories of the French Post-Impressionists; on the one hand developing a deeper analysis of reality, with strong connotations of a social character, while at the same time lending itself to allegorical and symbolist themes. This was in line with artistic developments in the rest of Europe, and their solutions were of fundamental importance for the avant-garde trends of the 20C.
The 20C began in an explosive manner with the sensational and anti-aesthetic style of the Futurists, Under the leadership of the poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), the movement’s theorist, they celebrated speed, crowds and machinery. This was an explicit and anarchic reaction to bourgeois traditionalist values, which were attacked with vehemence and a sometimes superficial vitality. The movement soon adopted a nationalist tone, which in some cases developed into a sympathy for the Fascists. The Futurists tried to render the dynamism of the modern world, often with fragmented forms similar to Cubism’s. However, they differed in their marked sense of rebellion, which was influenced both by contemporary philosophers such as Bergson, and by the violent and impassioned disharmony of the Expressionist movement.
The members of this avant-garde movement were Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), Giacomo Balla (1871–1958), Gino Severini (1883–1966), Carlo Carrà (1881–1966) and the architect Antonio Sant’Elia (1888–1916). Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978), together with Carrà, created metaphysical painting, a disturbing form where objects are placed in unlikely but credible positions in an ambiguous and enigmatic atmosphere. Giorgio Morandi was inspired by some of the same ideas. His still-lifes of everyday objects invite meditation on history and the meaning of the painting.
After the First World War, the return to peace revived artistic activity both in Italy and abroad. This included the founding of the Novecento group, which developed naturalistic premises through Magical Realism, interpreted through a re-reading of metaphysics and of Italian medieval and classical art. The results were often highly poetic and stylised. Most of the painters, sculptors and architects in Italy either belonged to, or were influenced by this group, especially when the political regime declared itself in favour of this stylistic trend in the 1920s, opposing any relationship with contemporary European art. A few isolated voices, often criticised by the authorities, were raised in explicit or tacit opposition to these trends and in favour of a less provincial approach. Some of the most important forces were involved in the Corrente group from Milan, the Scuola romana, and the Sei di Torino.
These groups shared a common interest in Expressionism, which often gave their art a highly dramatic realism, a social tension and a deeply humane content. A good example is the painter Renato Guttoso (1912–1987), with his personal interpretation of post-Cubist art, combined with explicitly anti-fascist material. Even in the general post-war crisis, he nearly always managed to avoid the risks of socialist realism, thanks to his openness to different cultural influences. One of the most important contemporary sculptors was Giacomo Manzù (1908–1991), who succeeded in breathing new life into Christian art. A clear and luminous sensitivity gave his works, especially the low reliefs, an almost Donatellian vitality. As such, Manzù succeeded in making a sorrowful and humane statement against violence.
The Post-War Period
The tragedy of war always makes an indelible impression. Artists query the significance of creation in a world where all moral values have been brutally set aside. The phrase “the death of art” also surfaced in the new consumer society of the 1950s and 1960s. The classical artistic language was no longer understood as a system of signs able to give form to the aesthetic experience of reality. New expression was therefore anti-aesthetic and mirrored trends which previously had no influence.
Canvases were sometimes tossed aside or much abused. Alberto Burri (1915–1995), who came to painting later in life, avoided the traditional academic circles. By pasting old torn bags onto his canvas, Burri’s intention was not to represent ideas or objects, but to exhibit a fragment of reality. This matter only acquired significance because it had been transformed by the artist and therefore became part of his personal experience. Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) also stretched the physical limits inherent in the traditional method of creating art. He cut canvases, seeking new solutions to the old problem of space, which can be created, but not represented. In doing so, he emphasised the importance of the “gesture“ and of the action that puts the here and now in contact with the other world of the canvas and destroys the classical pretence of space.
Other artists belonged to the movement known as arte povera, which opposed the “rich” world. Their break with the classical method of creating and understanding art was complete. The apex was the artist’s radical refusal to develop a role; something he believes to be a hoax, dominated by the system against which he is struggling.
Birth of Italian Literature
The Italian language acquired a literary form in the 13C. At Assisi St Francis (1182–1226) wrote his moving Canticle of the Creatures in the vernacular instead of the traditional Latin, so that the people could read the word of God. The 13C also gave rise to the Sicilian School which, at the court of Frederick II, developed a language of love inspired by traditional ballads from Provence. The most famous of the 13C poetical trends was, however, that of the dolce stil nuovo (“sweet new style”): followers included Guinezzelli and Cavalcanti. The term was appropriated by Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), author of Vita Nuova (New Life), Convivio (The Banquet) and De Vulgari Eloquentia (Concerning Vernacular Eloquence), to indicate the lyrical quality of this poetry which would celebrate a spiritual and edifying love for an angel-like woman in verse. It was with this new tool that he wrote one of the most powerful masterpieces of Italian literature: the Divine Comedy is the account of a lively, enquiring and impassioned visitor to Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise (Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso). It is also an epic account of the Christianised Western world and the height of spiritual knowledge of the period. During the 14C Petrarch (1304–74), the precursor of humanism and the greatest Italian lyrical poet, and his friend Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–75), the astonishing storyteller who seems almost modern at times, continued in the tradition of Dante.
Each enriched the Italian language in his own way.
Humanism and Renaissance
Florentine humanism reinterpreted the ancient heritage and invented a scholarly poetry in which the tension of the words and images reflected the aspiration of the soul to attain an ideal. Politian, Lorenzo de’ Medici (1449–92) and especially Michelangelo were exponents of the neo-Platonic notion of ideal poetry. However the Florentine Renaissance also favoured the development of other quite different lines of thought: scientific with Leonardo da Vinci, theorist with Leon Battista Alberti, philosophical with Marsile Fincin and encyclopaedic with the fascinating personality of Pico della Mirandola. Later Giorgio Vasari became the first-ever art historian.
In the 16C writers and poets perfected the Italian language to a height of refinement and elegance rarely attained, and all this in the service of princes whom they counselled or entertained. The most famous was Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527) , the statesman and political theorist whose name now symbolises cunning and duplicity. In his work entitled The Prince he defined with clarity and intelligence the processes which control society, and the moral and political consequences of these relationships.
At the court in Ferrara, Matteo Maria Boiardo (1441–94) fused the epic poetry of the Carolingian cycles with the courtly poetry of the Breton cycles in the poem celebrating chivalry, Orlando Innamorato (Roland in Love). Ludovico Ariosto (1475–1533) and Torquato Tasso (1544–95) provided an element of intellectual brilliance. The former wrote Orlando Furioso (Roland the Mad), an epic poem in episodes which enjoyed an extraordinary vogue, and Tasso, his successor at court in this genre, published his Jerusalem Delivered (Gerusalemme Liberata).
At Urbino, Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529) was the author of one of the great works of the period The Courtier (II cortegiano) which was read throughout Europe. In Venice, Aretino (1492–1556) sketched the unsentimental portrait of his contemporaries (Letters) while in Padua, Ruzzante (1502–42) favoured realism in the local dialect.
Counter-Reformation and Baroque Period
After the discovery of America in 1492, an event which affected the Mediterranean economy adversely, and the spread of Lutheran Protestantism, the 17C to the early 18C marked a period of decadence for Italian literature. The exception was Galileo (1564–1642), a scientist, who, taking Archimedes as his point of reference rather than Aristotle, made a distinction between scientific methods and those applicable to theology and philosophy. He was implacably opposed by the Church in an attempt to reassert its influence under the onslaught of the Reformation. The fear of the Inquisition hampered original thought and favoured the development of Baroque poetical concepts in a quest for fantasy.
The Age of Enlightenment and Romanticism
The early 18C was marked by Arcadia, a literary academy which preached “good taste” inspired by the purity of Classical bucolic poetry, in opposition to the “bad taste” of the Baroque period.
The philosopher Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) elaborated the theory of the ebb and flow of history based on three stages (sense, imagination and reason). The dramatist Pietro Metastasio (1698–1783) was also a leading figure of the period whose biting yet well-thought out vision advanced scientific and philosophical thought.
In Venice, the 18C was dominated by the dramatist Carlo Goldoni (1707–93), known as the Italian Molière, who peopled his plays in an amusing, alert and subtle manner with the stock characters and situations of the Commedia dell’Arte, an art form which was then highly popular in Venice.
From the end of the 18C writers began to express a new national spirit (consciousness which developed until the upheaval of the Risorgimento).
Giuseppe Parini (1729–99), a didactic writer, and Vittorio Alfieri (1749–1803) who became known for his tragedies on the themes of liberty and opposition to tyranny, were the precursors of the violent and tormented Ugo Foscolo (1778–1827) whose patriotic pride is given full vent in Of the Sepulchres.
It was Giacomo Leopardi (1798–1837) who in some of the finest poems of his verse collection Canzoni expresses with a certain lucidity and lyrical purity the growing gulf between the old faith and a fear of the unknown future. He was the main exponent of Italian romanticism and of the theory of historical pessimism based on the contrast between a happy natural state and reason (or civilisation) which brings unhappiness.
This was followed by cosmic pessimism which posits the condemnation of Nature and unhappiness as an intrinsic human condition.
The Milanese author, Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873), wrote one of the most important novels of 19C Italian literature, The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), a grandiose epic of ordinary folk based on the notion of providence in human existence.
Realism and Decadence
The Sicilian Giovanni Verga (1840–1922) assured the transition between the 19C and 20C with his novels. He was one of the most important members of the Italian Realist (verismo) school of novelists which took its inspiration from the French naturalist movement. In his extravagant fiction series entitled Vinti he presents his pessimistic vision of the world and his compassion for the disinherited.
In the field of lyrical poetry in the second half of the 19C Giosuè Carducci (1835–1907), a Nobel Prize winner in 1906, drew inspiration from Classical poetry. He was a melancholy figure who criticised the sentimentality of the romantic movement. Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938) adopted a refined and precious style to express his sensual love of language. The complex and anxious voice of the poet Giovanni Pascoli (1855–1912) filled the early years of the century. His nostalgic poetry recalls the age of innocence and a sense of wonder.
Authors Modern and Contemporary
In the early 20C, magazines devoted to political, cultural, moral and literary themes were published. Giuseppe Prezzolini (1882–1982) and Giovanni Papini (1881–1956) were among the contributors.
Futurism, which influenced other forms of artistic expression, was the most important of the contemporary literary movements. In his Manifesto (1909) Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), the leader and theoretician of the movement, exalted the attractions of speed, machines, war and “feverish insomnia”, ideas which were echoed by the disjointed syntax, punctuation and words employed in this literary style.
In line with the European sensibility expressed by Musil, Proust and Joyce, Italian letters favoured the theme of discovery which was influenced by studies on repression and the unconscious in the early years of psychoanalysis. In Zeno’s Conscience, Italo Svevo (1861–1928) examines the alienation of the main protagonist as past and present unfold in a long internal monologue. The Sicilian dramatist Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) also analyses man’s tragic solitude and the way in which the identity of the individual is eclipsed by the perceptions of the different persons with whom he associates. The only escape is madness.
Traces of realism and the influence of D’Annunzio can be detected in the work of Grazia Deledda (1871–1936), who shrouds her portrayals of Sardinian society in mythology. Her tales are dominated by passionate emotions and a deep religious sense of life and death.
The Hermetic Movement, which developed after the First World War, celebrated the essential nature of words, liberated from the burden of a grandiloquent and commemorative tradition. The poetry of Giuseppe Ungaretti (1888–1970) is evocative and intense, while another leading figure of this movement, Salvatore Quasimodo (1901–68), produced successful translations of Greek and Latin Classical literature and of Shakespeare.
The poetry of Eugenio Montale (1896–1981) relates with sharp and incisive eloquence the anguish which afflicts human nature. Umberto Saba (1883–1957), whose native Trieste was strongly marked by Central European culture, uses both noble language and everyday vocabulary in his intensely lyrical and autobiographical work.
After the Second World War, neo-Realism – which was ideally suited to the cinema with its popular appeal – gave a graphic account of the life and misery of the working class, of peasants and street children.
The recurring themes in the works of Cesare Pavese (1908–50) are the loneliness and difficulty of existence, described with anguish in his diary which was published posthumously with the title This Business of Living.
During recent decades the Italian novel has shown a strong vitality with such diverse personalities as Pratolini (A Tale of Poor Lovers), Guido Piovene (Pietà Contro Pietà), Ignazio Silone (Fontarama), Mario Soldati (A Cena Col Commendatore), Carlo Levi (Christ Stopped at Eboli) and Elsa Morante (Arthur’s Island).
In the 20C, a handful of Italian authors have achieved international fame: Alberto Moravia (1907–90) is regarded as a significant narrator of modern Italy, identifying the importance of such issues as sex and money. His book, The Time of Indifference, recounts the decline and forbearance of a bourgeois Roman family. Another well-known neo-Realist author was Italo Calvino (1923–85) who experimented with the mechanisms of language and who wrote short stories tinged with subtle irony.
Leonardo Sciascia (1921–89) concentrated on revealing some of the ills of Italian society, such as the Mafia. He wrote essays, detective stories, historical memoirs and romantic surveys. Carlo Emilio Gadda, known as the “engineer”, experimented with language and portrayed the hypocrisy, follies and obscure ills of contemporary society. Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922–75) provoked and contested the received ideas of his time, contrasting Marxist ideology with Christian spirituality and peasant values.
Dino Buzzati (1906–72), an original figure, was a poet, writer, illustrator and journalist. His penchant for fantasy and surrealism is tinged with scepticism and is reminiscent of Kafka and Poe.
The 1980s saw the huge success of The Name of the Rose (1980), a Gothic thriller written by the semiologist and essayist Umberto Eco (b.1932). The century came to a triumphant close with the awarding of the 1997 Nobel Prize for literature to the playwright and actor Dario Fo (b.1926), a kind of latter-day court jester who in his plays attacks the powerful and defends the oppressed.
Italy has played a significant role in the evolution of music with the invention of the musical scale and the development of the violin. It is the birthplace of Vivaldi, who inspired Bach and who was surprisingly neglected until the beginning of the 20C, and of Verdi who created operatic works to celebrate the Risorgimento in the 19C.
Early musical composition and religious music
As early as the end of the 10C, a Benedictine monk, Guido of Arezzo (997–c.1050), invented the scale, naming the notes with the initial syllables of the first six lines of John the Baptist’s hymn “Ut queant laxis / Resonare fibris / Mira gestorum / Famuli tuorum / Solve polluti / Labii reatum Sancte Johannes”. The “Si” formed by the initials of Sancte Johannes was added to these and the Ut was changed to Do in the 17C.
In the 16C, the golden age of vocal polyphony which was then very popular was marked by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c.1525–94), a prolific composer of essentially religious music (105 masses). During that period, Andrea Gabrieli (c.1510–86) and his nephew Giovanni (c.1557–1612) who were the organists at St Mark’s in Venice were masters of sacred and secular polyphonic music. The latter composed the first violin sonatas.
From the Baroque period to the 18C
It was only in the 17C and 18C that a proper musical school (for operatic as well as instrumental works) was born in Italy, characterised by charm and freshness of inspiration and melodic talent. The old and new musical forms evolved with the expressive and stylistic innovations of Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583–1643) for the organ and harpsichord, Corelli (1653–1713) for the violin and Domenico Scarlatti (1685–1757) for the harpsichord. The talented Venetian Antonio Vivaldi (1675–1741) composed a wealth of lively music greatly admired by Bach, particularly his concertos divided into three parts, allegro/adagio/allegro, and with descriptive interludes as in the Four Seasons. Baldassare Galuppi (1706–85), a native of Burano near Venice composed the music for the librettos of Goldoni as well as sonatas for harpsichord with a lively tempo. Although Venice was in its final period of glory, her musical reputation grew with the Marcello brothers, Benedetto (1686–1739) and Alessandro (1684–1750). The latter composed a famous concerto for oboe, stringed instruments and organ with a splendid adagio. The instrumental compositions of Tomaso Albinoni (1671–1750) are reminiscent of Vivaldi’s masterpieces.
In the 18C important Italian composers worked outside Italy. In the field of chamber music, Luigi Boccherini (1743–1805), a native of Lucca working in Spain, was famous for his melodies and minuets. He also wrote a powerful symphony, The House of the Devil.
Antonio Salieri (1750–1825) from the Veneto was an active composer and a famous teacher who taught Beethoven, Schubert and Liszt. Towards the end of his life, he became mentally disturbed and blamed himself for Mozart’s death. This is the theme of the film Amadeus by Milos Forman (1984). The Piedmontese Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755–1824), Salieri’s contemporary, enriched the violin repertory with 29 fine violin concertos. He lived in Paris and London; he died when his wine business failed.
Although not a musician, Lorenzo Da Ponte deserves a mention for his poetic contribution to great musical works. His love of adventure took him not only to New York where he died, but also to Vienna, Europe’s musical capital at that time. He collaborated with Mozart and wrote librettos for The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte which won him great fame. This great period ended with the Romantic movement which is wonderfully celebrated by the great violinist Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840) although by that time the piano had become more popular than the violin. His adventurous life, genius of interpretation and legendary virtuosity as well as his slim, tall build turned him into a demonic figure. His most famous works include 24 capricci and six concertos; the finale of the second concerto is the well-known Campanella.
Modern opera originated with Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643) from Cremona whose masterpiece was Orfeo. Monteverdi heralded this musical idiom combining words and music, which was immediately very successful and became a popular pursuit influencing the whole cultural scene in Italy.
At the end of the 17C, Neapolitan opera with Alessandro Scarlatti established the distinction between arias which highlight virtuoso singing and recitatives which are essential for the development of the action. In the 18C, Giovan Battista Pergolese, Domenico Cimarosa and Giovanni Paisiello were the leading composers of comic opera (opera buffa).
In the 19C there were few great composers of instrumental music apart from Paganini, as lyrical art was made to reflect the intense passions of the Risorgimento. Gioacchino Rossini (1782–1868) marked the transition from the classical to the romantic period (Othello, William Tell and the comic operas The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Thieving Magpie and The Barber of Seville). Vincenzo Bellini (1801–35) composed undistinguished orchestral music but admirable melodies and arias (La Somnambula, Norma). His rival Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) wrote several melodramas (Lucia di Lammermoor) where the action takes second place to the singing, as well as some charming comic operas: L’Elisir d’Amore, Don Pasquale. Amilcare Ponchielli (1834–86) is remembered mainly for his successful opera La Gioconda.
The greatest composer of the genre during the fight for independence from Austria was Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) with his dramatic, romantic works: Nabucco, Rigoletto, II Trovatore, La Traviata, Aida etc; he also wrote an admirable Requiem. The Realist movement (Verismo) then became popular, with Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana), Leoncavallo (I Pagliaci), and especially Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) whose Tosca, Madame Butterfly and La Bohème crowned the era.
In reaction, the next generation concentrated on orchestral music; it included Ottorino Respighi (1879–1937) who composed symphonic poems (The Fountains of Rome, The Pines of Rome, Roman festivals). 20C composers include Petrassi who explored all musical forms and Dallapiccola (1904–75), the leader of the Dodecaphonic movement (the 12 notes of the scale are used) in Italy. The passionate Luigi Nono (1924–90) used serial music to express his political and liberating message; he wrote instrumental, orchestral and vocal works.
Venues and artists
The only relatively recent unification of the country accounts for the numerous and famous opera houses and concert halls: the prestigious La Scala in Milan, for which Visconti created marvellous sets, the Rome Opera House, the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, the Poncielli in Cremona, the Politeama in Palermo, the Fenice in Venice (destroyed by fire in January 1996), the Carlo Fenice in Genoa, and the Regio and the modern Lingotto in Turin. In spring Florence hosts a renowned music festival, and in summer splendid performances are held in the amphitheatre at Verona and in Caracalla’s Baths in Rome.
Among the great orchestras and chamber music groups, the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome, the Filarmonica of La Scala in Milan, the Solisti Veniti and the Orchestra of Padua and the Veneto are noteworthy.
Among the great Italian conductors, Arturo Toscanini was renowned for the verve and originality of his interpretations. Other famous names include Victor De Sabata and nowadays, Claudio Abbado, Carlo Maria Giulini and Riccardo Muti, who perform all over the world. Artists of international reputation include the violinists Accardo and Ughi, the pianists Campanella, Ciccolini, Lucchesini and Maria Tipo, the cellists Brunello and Filippini and the ballet dancers Carla Fracci, Luciana Savignano and Alessandra Ferri.
The famous singers Cecilia Bartoli, Renato Bruson, Fiorenza Cossotto, Cecilia Gasdia, Katia Ricciarelli, Renata Scotto, Lucia Valentini Terrani as well as Ruggiero Raimondi and the late Luciano Pavarotti are worthy successors to La Malibran, Renata Tebaldi, Maria Callas, Caruso and Beniamino Gigli.
The Early Years and Neo-Realism
The Italian cinema industry was born in Turin at the beginning of the 20C and grew rapidly (50 production companies in 1914) with great successes on the international scene. Film-makers specialised first in historical epics, then in the 1910s they turned to adventure films and in the 1930s to propaganda and escapist films subsidised by the state, which distracted spectators temporarily from the reality of the Fascist State.
In 1935 the Cinecittà studios and the experimental cinematographic centre which numbered Rossellini and De Santis among its pupils were founded in Rome.
During the years of Fascist rule the cinema had become divorced from real life, and to bridge the gap film directors advocated a return to realism and close observation of daily life. The first major theme of neo-Realism was the war and its aftermath.
Roberto Rossellini denounced Nazi and Fascist oppression in Rome Open City and Germany Year Zero. Vittorio de Sica’s Sciuscia (1946) and Bicycle Thieves (1948) depicted the unemployment and misery of the post-war years. In Bitter Rice (1949) and Bloody Easter (1950) De Santis portrays the working class divided between the prevailing ideology and revolutionary ambitions. Neo-Realism ended in the early 1950s as it no longer satisfied the public who wanted to forget this bleak period, but its influence was still felt by future generations of film-makers.
1960s to the present day
In the 1960s, Italian cinema flourished and a large number of films (over 200 a year), generally of very high quality, was made with the support of a strong industrial infrastructure. Three great directors dominated this period. Federico Fellini (1920–93) shot the successful La Strada (The Street) in 1954 and La Dolce Vita in 1960. His fantasy world is reflected in the original camerawork. Michelangelo Antonioni (1912–2007) made his debut in 1959 with L’Avventura, and his work (The Red Desert, 1960 and Blow Up, 1967) underlines the ultimate isolation of the individual. Luchino Visconti (1906–76) made Rocco and His Brothers in 1960 and The Leopard in 1963. His films, characterised by opulence and beauty, examine closely the themes of impermanence, degradation and death.
During the same period a new generation of film-makers made a political and social statement: Pier Paolo Pasolini, Ermanno Olmi, Rosi, Bertolucci and the Taviani brothers.
Italian cinema won great international success with several masterpieces until the mid-1970s: Death in Venice (1970) and Ludwig (1972) by Visconti; Casanova (1976) by Fellini, The Passenger (1974) by Antonioni; L’Affare Mattei (1971) by Francesco Rosi and The Last Tango in Paris by Bernardo Bertolucci. Since the late 1970s the industry has been in a state of crisis, as it faces competition from television and the collapse of the market. However, some films made by famous directors have won acclaim: The Night of San Lorenzo (1982) by the Taviani brothers, The Ball (1983) by Ettore Scola, The Last Emperor (1987) by Bertolucci and Cinema Paradiso (1989) by Giuseppe Tornatore.
An introduction to Italian cinema would be incomplete without the “Italian comedies”, which include masterpieces such as Guardie e Ladri (1951), I Soliti Ignoti (1958), La Grande Guerra (1959), L’Armata Brancaleone (1966) and Amici Miei (1975) by Mario Monicelli and Divorzio all’Italiana (1962) by Pietro Germi.
The younger generation of film-makers embraced realism and their protagonists are engaged in the social struggle. The most interesting films include Bianca (1984), La Messa è Finita (1985) and Caro Diario (1993) by Nanni Moretti, Il Portaborse (1990) and La Scuola (1995) by Daniele Luchetti; Regalo di Natale (1986) by Pupi Avati; Mery per Sempre (1989), Ragazzi Fuori (1989) and Il Muro di Gomma (1991) by Marco Risi and Notte Italiana (1987) and Vesna Va Veloce (1996) by Carlo Mazzacurati. In 2000, Silvio Soldini made a name for himself with a charming film, Pane e Tulipani, in which the rather eccentric protagonists go about their daily life in Venice (and not a tourist in sight).
A number of talented actor-writers have succeeded in exporting Italian comedies abroad. Examples include Ricomincio da Tre (1981), Non Ci Resta Che Piangere (1984), Le Vie del Signore Sono Finite and The Postman (1994) by Massimo Troisi; Un Sacco Bello (1980), Compagni di Scuola (1988) and Maledetto il Giorno che ti ho Incontrato (1992) by Carlo Verdone; Il Ciclone (1996) by Leonardo Pieraccioni, and Il Piccolo Diavolo (1988), Johnny Stecchino (1991) and Il Mostro (1994) by Roberto Benigni, who also produced the Oscar-winning masterpiece Life is Beautiful (1997).
The success of Italian cinema is above all due to its famous stars, such as Vittorio Gasmann, Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren, Anna Magnani, Giulietta Masina, Marcello Mastroianni, Alberto Sordi, Ugo Tognazzi, Totò and many others.
The term “costume” dates back to the 16C. Its meaning, “way of dressing”, had traditional and lasting connotations. “Fashion” is a 17C term which refers to novelty in dress codes and implied something short-lived.
Costume or Fashion?
“Fashion” is now synonymous with Italy, but its connotations – of status, grandstanding and conspicuous consumption – have their roots in late medieval Europe and the early Renaissance.
A trend towards greater extravagance started in the 11C and gathered momentum in the 14C, sweeping away the austerity of past centuries and the idea of “costume”, with its traditional and lasting connotations, as a way of dressing. In Italy this move towards increased consumption flourished due to the importance of fine fabric production and importation to the northern Italian economy.
Merchants and manufacturers who made huge fortunes in the Florentine and Venetian city republics sought to buy the status they coveted, funding art and architecture and dressing ostentatiously to make statements of wealth and social standing.
By the 16C, this competition in dress had gained another aspect to it – that of the idea of “fashion”.
Ever mindful of their desire to establish a new social hierarchy, rich Italians began to fit fabrics together in complex and highly stylised ways. This gave clothing a recognizable “cut” that could be embraced or discarded, according to whim. Clothing now had a novel, transitory value and a built-in obsolescence, where it could go “out of fashion” long before it wore out.
Thus the imperative to continuously update one’s wardrobe was born, and with it new social status based on the ability to finance it. This new order was powerful enough to challenge even the inherited entitlement of nobility, who fought back valiantly with various sumptuary laws until the mid-16C, but to no real avail – fashion as a force and an expression had arrived in Europe, and was there to stay.
Fads and Trends
Flamboyance and confidence characterised the Italian approach to fashion from the 13C onwards. Two new developments that were of great influence were buttons and glasses (Cardinale Ugo di Provenza is depicted wearing spectacles in a 1352 fresco in Treviso’s Capitolo di San Nicolò, a first in the history of art). Hair also became longer and more carefully styled, while cosmetics gained in popularity. For nobles and the rich, personal expression became more important than conformity. This partly accounted for extremes of style, such as heels as high as 60cm/2ft. In Venice, it was said that, “such was the height of the heels they wore, the Venetian ladies passing through Piazza San Marco looked like dwarfs dressed up as giants”. From the early Renaissance on, hats became a key part of the Italian man’s wardrobe. The beret originated in Renaissance Italy as a piece of cloth on a embroidered band, with a string inside to adjust the fit to any head. Women also began to wear earrings again, something that had previously been denounced as unbecoming, as it was a Moorish influence. In the 18C black veils, masks, fans and three-cornered hats were the height of fashion in Venice. By the 19C jackets and coats were worn long and straight with a high waistline, and clothing was under the spell of Romanticism. Huge puffed sleeves were in vogue for women, as were corsets designed to make the waist as small as possible (creating the vitino di vespa or wasp waist). Next followed the popular crinoline, worn over ornately decorated undergarments.
Colour, an Essential Element
The trend for colour was particularly evident during the Renaissance, but tastes changed from century to century. Until the 13C, fashion favoured the dark blue of the Byzantine mosaics at San Vitale (Ravenna), giving way to a vogue for two-tone clothes. Pink was all the rage in the Quattrocento; in the 16C the fashion for gold, silver and black gave clothes a more solemn air (as exemplified in portraits by Titian). Pale colours were popular in the late 16C and 17C. So too was “slashing” on sleeves, doublets and hose to expose bright linings. This circumvented laws that commoners only wear clothes of one colour.
The 18C progressed to a preference for white and pastel shades, while the last word in 19C fashion was black and white – a monochromatic look that continued to be popular into the early 20C.
Today, as in the Past
Italy continues to influence global fashion, most notably from the haute couture fashion capital of Milan. Its twice-yearly Fashion Weeks, showing the new collections, rank beside those of Paris and New York for industry importance.
Away from the catwalks, looking good in Italy is a democratic art. Italians take immense pride in their appearance. Many seem to have inherently good taste: opting for classic, well-made clothes, rather than experimental, disposable fashion. The style imperative applies as much to those who can afford to shop in Via Monte Napoleone (Milan) or Via dei Condotti (Rome) as the locals who go to the market. And there is no off-duty; for Italians, dressing casually is no excuse for shabby, slovenly attire.
The Big Names
Italy is home to some of fashion’s biggest names, and the “Italian look” is a phrase that now means many things. The most iconic fashion houses include:
Giorgio Armani, whose signature style is understated elegance, and who believes that clothes are made to be worn, not just seen. For quintessential Italian chic, an Armani suit lasts many seasons, and his diffusion line, Emporio Armani, is good for quality separates and accessories (www.giorgioarmani.com).
Laura Biagiotti is known for clean lines and elegant separates. She has made a particular name in cashmere (www.laurabiagiotti.it).
King of 1960s haute couture, directional designer Pierre Cardin was born in Italy to French parents. He introduced geometric designs and experimented with the unisex style (www.pierrecardin.com).
The designs of Dolce and Gabbana celebrate the female form. Renowned for their show-stopping eveningwear, the duo fashions daywear that is equally confident, with an emphasis on corseting, figure-sculpting pencil skirts and décolletage. The diffusion line, D&G, is good for well-cut jeans (www.dolce gabbana.it).
Luxury brand Fendi is best-known for its leatherwork; for style kudos, look for bags, wallets and shoes with the classic Fendi logo (www.fendi.com).
Gianfranco Ferré focuses on “quality, comfort, individuality and simplicity”. Trademark pieces include crisply-cut white shirts, stylish eyewear and women’s trouser suits (www.gianfrancoferre.com).
Gucci has reigned for some as the must-have label for the fashion faithful. Its look is sexy, streetwise and expensive. A Gucci bag is a key investment: still considered shorthand for style in A-list circles (www.gucci.com).
The family-owned label Missoni is best known for sumptuous knitwear in colourful stripes. Its distinctive swimwear is popular with chic sunbathers on Mediterranean beaches (www.missoni.com).
The Moschino style has remained true to the ethos of the late designer. The Cheap and Chic line is always full of surprising designs, with bright colours and quirky detailing (www.moschino.it).
Miuccia Prada designs grown-up, stylish clothes fashioned from fine materials, which frequently dictate the next fashion trends. Her understated bags and shoes are global bestsellers (www.prada.com).
Trussardi favours simple lines and a focus on high-quality tailoring and finishing (www.trussardi.com).
The designer Valentino recognised that women should cultivate their own style to enhance their self-confidence. His label’s designs lean towards elegant and classical, many incorporating the famous “V” logo (www.valentino.com).
After her brother Gianni’s murder in 1997, Donatella Versace has taken the family business to new heights. The Versace label is adored by rock and film stars, with a signature style that is glamorous and glitzy, with colourful prints, sequins, attitude and plenty of suntanned skin on show (www.versace.com).