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Italy has produced many brilliant minds who have made their mark on art history. During the Renaissance, the Italian city-states were at the center of an incredible flowering of visual culture that would not only influence generations onward but would also redefine what it meant to be an artist. Painters and sculptors came to be seen not only as craftsmen, but also men of learning who could express something deeply personal. Then came the drama and intensity of the Baroque artists. Modern times brought more change, some artists delved deeply into their medium while others turned to political and social issues. All along the way, there were standout personalities who illuminated the concerns of their time. Check out our list of 10 of the most interesting figures in Italian art.
Much has been said about this true Renaissance man, who was not only a painter but a mathematician, scientist, engineer, inventor, architect and much, much more. His endless curiosity and imagination led him to dream up machines that were far ahead of his time, delve into anatomy in unprecedented ways and, of course, create paintings and drawings that would astound people for many centuries. In his paintings, there is an overwhelming sense of the mystery of existence – the mystery that he sought, in so many ways, to chase, dissect and understand.
In many ways, Michelangelo defined what it means to be an artist. Though he’s known for his paintings, he considered himself first and foremost a sculptor. Born and raised in a stone quarry town, he said he drank with his mother’s milk the knack of handling the hammer and chisel. A master of anatomy, he used the straining, twisting muscles and tendons of the human body to express his powerful vision of the world.
Bellini was the Venetian of the Renaissance who took the medium of oil painting to a new expressive capacity. He was the pioneer of a technique where the colors were gradually built up in thin, translucent layers. The end result is glossy, rich and glowing like no other. In his altarpieces, you’ll find a kind of peaceful silence, illuminated by gorgeous colors that seem to be lit from within.
Known in art history textbooks for what was called his “realism,” Caravaggio brought Biblical scenes to life by casting them with everyday people – the unwashed working-class people of the backstreets. Known for creating scandals, he famously modelled the Virgin Mary after a famous prostitute, then filled up the main part of an altarpiece with the backside of a horse. Nevertheless, between being exiled for bouts of violence and brawling, he found work and recognition as one of the most talented artists of his generation.
Artemisia is one of the great boundary-breaking painters of the Baroque era. Female artists of her time were confined to still life paintings and portraits, because it was considered unseemly for women to paint from the nude figure. But Artemisia wouldn’t let that stop her. At just 17, she broke taboos with her painting of Susanna and the Elders, in which she proudly displays a full-frontal nude, smack dab in the center of the frame. She was raped two years later by another painter and subjected to torture during the investigation of the trial, but her struggles only fueled her artistic production as she turned out painting after painting of strong, defiant women.
The sculptor with the magic touch who could turn marble into anything he wanted, Bernini was a precocious genius who would redefine what was possible with sculpture. At the Galleria Borghese you’ll find some of his greatest masterpieces. In Apollo and Daphne, you’ll marvel at the almost translucent laurel leaves connected by whisper-thin branches that stretch out from Daphne’s fingertips. Looking at The Rape of Prosperina, you’ll swear that the stone has become warm, living flesh.
The desperate debauchery-filled life of bohemian Modigliani began when he was born in the Italian town of Livorno. He vagabonded his way through the Paris of the early 20th century with a circle of artists and intellectuals that included Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Diego Rivera. He was never a part of the various “isms,” like Cubism or Futurism, that were making their way across the continent. He explored his own distinctive style, painting with long, curving lines.
A groundbreaking photographer, muse, silent film actress, political activist and (perhaps) spy, Tina Modotti was born in Udine to a working-class family. She became the mistress of influential photographer Edward Weston and moved with him to Mexico. There, they became involved with all the revolutionary intellectuals who were shaking up history, such as Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Pablo Neruda. Modotti herself began to take up the camera there as she became more and more politicized. Her work turns photography into an iconic poetry, with simple and stark shots showing workers’ hands holding spades, sombreros crossed with the hammer and sickle, an ear of corn laid next to the neck of a guitar and a rack of bullets.
The most important painter of the postwar Italian scene, Morandi was a reclusive man who never married and lived in a house shared with his mother and sisters all his life. He kept a collection of bottles and boxes that he would arrange and rearrange into quiet compositions. In these little still-life paintings, everyday objects become vessels for expressing the infinite fluctiuations of time and space, light and dark.
A trailblazer of conceptual art, Manzoni is perhaps best known for his work called Artist’s Shit. This was a series of 30-gram cans supposedly containing his excrement, meant to be sold at the price of its weight in gold. This kind of ultra-ironic cultural criticism sought to ridicule an era of mass production and consumerism, where culture is excreted, canned and turned to profit. His death in 1963 was signed and declared – like so much else in his life – a work of art.