The Italians’ flair for creativity manifests itself everywhere. In architecture, the Romans borrowed much from the Greeks but made some very far-reaching improvements. For instance, they introduced a circular dimension to classic Greek colonnades, giving the world the arch”and, by extension, the vault and the dome. These became essential elements in the buildings of Christianity. Dating from the early Middle Ages, examples of this Romanesque style can be found in abundance in Ferrara, Florence, Lucca, Milan, Modena, Pisa, Pavia, and Venice, and, of course, in Rome itself. Some of the deepest impressions on the history of architecture, however, were made during Italy’s Renaissance. Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence, the ducal palace in Urbino by Luciano Laurana and Francesco di Giorgio, the ducal piazza of Vigevano by Donato Bramante”every Italian city, great and small, boasts at least one example of period architecture that is now closely studied around the world. The Baroque architecture of later generations”St. Peter’s Square is the most obvious example”is also unequaled anywhere else.
As an unpatriotic people, though, Italians have little need to propagandize these innovations as inventions. They rightly point out that visionaries in every field, such as Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo, all drew on the work of predecessors in order to create their own works of genius. Even Giotto had something to start with, having closely studied the paintings of Cimabue and Pietro Cavallini. Still, most experts on the subject divide the history of painting into what came before Giotto and his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, and what came afterward. Following in the 14th-century master’s footsteps were legions of Italian painters who continued to define the Renaissance: Masaccio, Sandro Botticelli, Piero di Cosimo, Piero della Francesca, and the sculptors Donatello and Luca Della Robbia. That period of rediscovery yielded to the High Renaissance of the 15th century, which gave the world Leonardo’s Mona Lisa and Last Supper, Michelangelo’s David and The Last Judgment, Raphael’s The Alba Madonna and The School of Athens, and the works of Titian and Tintoretto. They were followed by Caravaggio in the Baroque period of the early 17th century and Canaletto’s Rococo style of the 18th century.
If, when bombarded by such terms in Italy, you ever find yourself confused by the styles or can’t remember who came when, all you need to do is open an Italian newspaper or magazine or turn on TV at prime time, all of which carry nonstop art coverage. The fact that a famous art critic has his own show on television in Italy, and that people actually watch it”or that there exists such a thing as a famous art critic at all”should give you some indication of just how seriously Italians take their painting, sculpture, and architecture.
If everything in the United States sooner or later boils down to business, everything in Italy is an art. The shape of a coffeepot, the line of a car, the taste of a simple pasta, the finish of a wine, the way a waiter scoops up the bill, and the flair of a soccer player tapping a pass into the net are all flourishes appreciated and practiced by everyday Botticellis. In Italy, more than anywhere else, style and image are everything.
Brunelleschi’s dome in Florence Photo Gallery