When you think of Italian history and culture while learning Italian, do you get excited? We know that well! Over the centuries, whether it was the ancient world, the Roman Empire or the Risorgimento that turned the Appennine Peninsula into the independent nation of Italy, Italy has produced many geniuses of fine arts.
In the following we will introduce the poet and the four painters who have most influenced Italian art history. The list is not complete, of course, but big names like Piero della Francesca, Giorgio Vasari or Lippi can unfortunately not be treated …
You can admire many of the works of these geniuses in the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, for example.
Dante Alighieri (1265-1321)
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, a poet played a major role in the future Italian unity: Dante Alighieri.
He wrote in a Florentine dialect that took on supra-regional significance and even became the official language of the Italian government in the 19th century.
- Long before that, the lingua italiana had already been brought to the deepest part of Sicily by notaries. It was the cultural language per se.
- Dante Alighieri was born in June 1265 in Florence and died in 1321 in Ravenna (today’s region of Emilie-Romagna). You can still find his monumental tombstone there.
- Together with Francesco Petrarca and Giovanni Boccaccio, he is counted among the tre corone (“three crowns”) of Italian literature.
In his Commedia, the Divine Comedy, Dante has distanced himself from Latin and written verses unlike Petrarca and Boccaccio. Beyond the incredible quality of the text, one can only marvel at the great knowledge and reading of the author.
He draws on ancient sources just as he does on the complex events of his time: power struggles between Roman Pontifices and the Emperor, between the Guelphs (on whose side he is) and Guibellines.
Following the tradition of the courtly novel, Dante (who almost wrote in Occitan) creates an extraordinary heroine called Béatrice. Without this medieval literary climax, contemporary Italian literature would probably not be the same.
So it is not surprising that Matteo Renzi, former President of the Council of Ministers of the Italian Republic, quoted the great poet several times in his speeches: Dante is present in history classes, online Italian courses, grammar schools and universities … And the streets often bear his name, too …
Leonardo da Vinci (1456-1519)
This universal genius still fascinates us, and rightly so. The richness of his work lies in its diversity.
He was born in Tuscany on April 15, 1456 and died in Amboise in 1519, after having been brought to France by Franz I three years earlier because of the Italian wars.
- He is an exceptional Renaissance architect: the double staircase in Chambord Castle was most probably built according to his plans.
- Add to this his visionary scientific discoveries and his works of art and you can understand how this man contributed to the greatness of Italy.
- His works of art were painted on canvas or directly on walls (The Last Supper). Realism is sometimes very engaging, as in the famous portrait of Mona Lisa.
Here, slight shading of the contours of the mouth was enough to cause great uncertainty about the meaning of the smile … Today this picture is certainly one of the most famous in the world.
Leonardo da Vinci departs from classical fresco painting and prefers the tempera technique, in which egg yolk is used to fix the colour pigments. He prefers Gesso as a primer. Take lessons in Italian for beginners to be even better informed.
After neoplatonic Florentine philosophy and the arts reached new heights, Michelangelo became one of the most important artists of the High Renaissance, and his sculptors’ talents are still unparalleled today.
With his full name Michelangelo di Ludovico Buonarroti Simoni, this Italian cultural giant was born on 6 March 1475 in Caprese, Tuscany. He died at the age of 88 in Rome in 1564, shortly after the Council of Trento.
- In the Italian tradition, he is also a man of many talents. He paints on every material. His frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, which stands on the Vatican Hill, crown his artistic career.
- His sculptures are no less famous: a great example is his Roman Pietà of 1499, which still stands in St. Peter’s Basilica.
- Rome, the Eternal City, is one of his greatest patrons: the Popes Julius II, Clement VII and Paul III are his most important patrons, as well as Lorenzo de’ Medici, and thus the most powerful Florentine family.
- His works are characterized by a very realistic nudity of the bodies – some of his world-famous works were still retouched by Daniele da Volterra.
The movements and the bodies portrayed are almost hypnotic, the paintings often colourful, nuanced and fascinating.
Titian (v. 1488-1576)
He is sometimes overshadowed by other famous Italian artists. His work is remarkable, both qualitatively and quantitatively.
Ludovico Dolce, commentator and historiographer of Italian painting, said of his compatriot that he “united the greatness and fearsome side of Michelangelo and the grace and elegance of Raphael”. He was born around 1490 in Pieve di Cadore, towards the end of the Quattrocentos, and died on 27 August 1576 aristocratic Venice.
The Venetian painter owes much to Giorgione, with whom he collaborated intensively. He specialized in fresco painting. Da Corregio is also one of his sources of inspiration, especially as far as the sensuality of the bodies and the slightly clouded picture backgrounds are concerned.
- Titian uses the colorito technique, in which the painting takes shape layer by layer. One usually begins with the dark background, and works his way up to the bright and luminous layers of color.
- Did you know that the Venus of Urbino inspired many later artists? The Renaissance artists dared to explore new themes.
- This artistic freedom is a constant of Renaissance humanism, where new and daring themes are dealt with (see Venus in front of the mirror and also the Venus of Urbino of 1538, which three centuries later is said to have been a direct source of inspiration for the Olympia of Manet).
- Diversity is appreciated. This aspect is taken up again by the visual arts and contemporary art in general.
- It revives ancient themes such as Roman myths. He receives many religious commissions and finally also deals with mannerism.
The Venetian painter-magician symbolizes an epoch in which the moral conventions of art are broken: Modernism began, in art as well as in customs.
One hundred years after Michelangelo, Caravaggio rose to the painting heaven, marking the end of the Renaissance and the beginning of the early Baroque period. He was born in Milan on 29 September 1571 and died on 18 July 1610 on a trip to Rome.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio transformed the realism of the Renaissance into a powerful naturalism. It was the beginning of the chiaroscuro technique, which tended towards tenebrism as Tintoretto had practiced it.
Roberto Longhi, historian and expert of Italian painting, places this artist in the tradition of the various painters of Lombardy who were masters of contrasts. These contrasts between light and dark colours, between darkness and brightness, became an essential part of the Baroque aesthetics that were fed by the Counter-Reformation.
- Caravaggio’s environment is very spiritual. Great spiritual personalities such as St. Charles Borromeo and St. Philip Neri, who founded the Congregation of the Oratory, are among them.
- His difficulties with the judiciary forced him to make long journeys, including through Naples and Sicily, which would provide him with lasting inspiration. His influence on Italian painting was so great that one still speaks of “caravaggism” today.
- This is a school of painting that was very important during the 17th century, a key moment in the history of painting.
- The greatest Italian painters are connected from far or near with the Renaissance, which lasted for several centuries and is rich in facets.