Italian Art & Architecture
The art and architecture of Italy has seduced visitors for hundreds of years. This rich legacy stretches back to before Roman times and continues today in the country's evolving contemporary scenes. While every epoch has its treasures and devotees, it’s the Renaissance that is the most stunning, from Florence’s elegant streetscapes and the otherworldly beauty of Venice's palazzi to the dizzying caches of works that line galleries and churches like the Uffizi in Florence and St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Italian architecture has an enduring obsession with the 'classical', employing the principles of symmetry, order, elegance and refinement. The Greeks, who established the style, employed it in the southern cities they colonised; the Romans refined and embellished it; Italian Renaissance architects rediscovered and tweaked it; and the Fascist architects of the 1930s returned to it in their powerful modernist buildings. Even today, architects such as Richard Meier are designing buildings in Italy that clearly reference classical prototypes.
Only one word describes the buildings of ancient Italy: monumental. The Romans built an empire the size of which had never before been seen and went on to adorn it with buildings cut from the same pattern. From Verona's Roman Arena to Pozzuoli's Anfiteatro Flavio, giant stadiums rose above skylines. Spa centres like Rome's Terme di Caracalla were veritable cities of indulgence, exhibiting everything from giant marble-clad pools to gymnasiums and libraries. Aqueducts like those below Naples provided fresh water to thousands, while temples such as Pompeii's Tempio di Apollo provided the faithful with awe-inspiring centres of worship.
Having learned a few valuable lessons from the Greeks, the Romans refined architecture to such a degree that their building techniques, designs and mastery of harmonious proportion underpin much of the world's architecture and urban design to this day.
And though the Greeks invented the architectural orders (Doric, Ionic and Corinthian), it was the Romans who employed them in bravura performances. Consider Rome's Colosseum, with its ground tier of Doric, middle tier of Ionic and third tier of Corinthian columns. The Romans were dab hands at temple architecture too. Just witness Rome's exquisitely proportioned Pantheon, a temple whose huge but seemingly unsupported dome showcases the Roman invention of concrete, an ingredient as essential to the modern construction industry as Ferrari is to the F1 circuit.
After Constantine became Christianity's star convert, the empire's architects and builders turned their talents to the design and construction of churches. The emperor commissioned a number of such buildings in Rome, but he also expanded his sphere of influence east, to Constantinople in Byzantium. His successors in Constantinople, most notably Justinian and his wife, Theodora, went on to build churches in the style that became known as Byzantine. Brick buildings built on the Roman basilican plan but with domes, they had sober exteriors that formed a stark contrast to their magnificent, mosaic-encrusted interiors. Finding its way back to Italy in the mid-6th century, the style expressed itself on a grand scale in Venice's Basilica di San Marco, as well as more modestly in buildings like the Chiesa di San Pietro in Otranto, Puglia. The true stars of Italy's Byzantine scene, however, are the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna and the Basilica di Sant'Apollinare in nearby Classe, both built on a cruciform plan between 527 and 550.
The next development in ecclesiastical architecture in Italy came from Europe. The European Romanesque style became momentarily popular in four regional forms – the Lombard, Pisan, Florentine and Sicilian Norman. All displayed an emphasis on width and the horizontal lines of a building rather than height, and featured churches where the bell tower (campanile) and baptistry (battistero) were separate to the church.
The use of alternating white and green marble defined the facades of the Florentine and Pisan styles, as seen in iconic buildings like Florence's Basilica di Santa Maria Novella and Duomo baptistry, as well as in Pisa's cathedral, baptistry (Italy's largest) and famous leaning tower.
The Lombard style featured elaborately carved facades and exterior decoration with bands and arches. Among its finest examples are the Lombard cathedral in Modena, Pavia's Basilica di San Michele and Brescia's unusually shaped Duomo Vecchio.
Down south, the Sicilian Norman style blended Norman, Saracen and Byzantine influences, from marble columns to Islamic-inspired pointed arches to glass tesserae detailing. One of the greatest examples of the form is the Cattedrale di Monreale, located just outside Palermo.
The Italians didn't wholeheartedly embrace the Gothic: its verticality, flying buttresses, grotesque gargoyles and over-the-top decoration were just too far from the classical ideal that seems to be integral to the Italian psyche. The local version was generally much more restrained, a style beautifully exemplified by Naples' simple, elegant Basilica di San Lorenzo Maggiore. There were, of course, exceptions. The Venetians used the style in grand palazzi (mansions) such as the Ca' d'Oro and on the facades of high-profile public buildings like the Palazzo Ducale.
Gothic appears in a number of hybrid cathedrals in Italy, several of which took hundreds of years to complete. Siena's cathedral mixes Gothic with Romanesque, Florence's cathedral fuses Gothic with elements of a nascent Renaissance. Milan's flamboyant Duomo took nearly 600 years to build and absorbed many different architectural influences, but it's often held up to be the finest (and largest) Gothic building in Italy.
Unlike the gradual, organic spread of the styles that preceded it, Renaissance architecture's adoption was a highly conscious and academic affair, helped along by the invention of the printing press. The Florentine Filippo Brunelleschi and the Venetian Andrea Palladio spread a doctrine of harmonic geometry and proportion, drawing on classical Roman principles.
This insistence on restraint and purity was sure to lead to a backlash, and it's no surprise that the next major architectural movement in Italy was noteworthy for its exuberant – some would say decadent – form. The baroque took its name from the Portuguese word barroco, used by fishers to denote a misshapen pearl. Compared to the pure classical lines of Renaissance buildings, its output could indeed be described as 'misshapen' – Andrea Palma's facade of Syracuse's cathedral, Guarino Guarini's Palazzo Carignano in Turin and Gian Lorenzo Bernini's baldachin in St Peter's in Rome are dramatic, curvaceous and downright sexy structures that bear little similarity to the classical ideal.
The baroque's show-stopping qualities were not lost on the Catholic Church. Threatened by the burgeoning Reformation to the north of the Alps, the Church commissioned a battalion of grandiose churches, palaces and art to dazzle the masses and reaffirm its authority. Rome soon became a showcase of this baroque exuberance, its impressive new statements including Giacomo della Porta's Chiesa del Gesù. Commissioned to celebrate the newly founded Jesuit order, the church's hallucinatory swirl of frescoes and gilded interiors was produced by baroque greats such as Battista Gaulli (aka Il Baciccio), Andrea Pozzo and Pietro da Cortona.
Even more prolific was Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who expressed the popes' claim to power with his sweeping new design of St Peter's Square, its colonnaded arms 'embracing' the faithful with a majesty that still moves visitors today. Yet not everyone was singing Bernini's praise, especially the artist's bitter rival, Francesco Borromini (1599–1667). Reclusive and tortured, Borromini looked down on his ebullient contemporary's lack of architectural training and formal stone-carving technique. No love was lost: Bernini believed Borromini 'had been sent to destroy architecture'. Centuries on, the rivalry lives on in the works they left behind, from Borromini's Chiesa di San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane and Bernini's neighbouring Chiesa di Sant'Andrea al Quirinale to their back-to-back creations in Piazza Navona.
Glowing in the wealth of its Spanish rulers, 16th-century Naples also drew driven, talented architects and artists in search of commissions and fame. For many of Naples' baroque architects, however, the saying 'it's what's inside that counts' had a particularly strong resonance. Due in part to the city's notorious high density and lack of show-off piazzas, many invested less time on adorning hard-to-see facades and more on lavishing interiors. The exterior of churches like the Chiesa e Chiostro di San Gregorio Armeno gives little indication of the opulence inside, from cheeky cherubs and gilded ceilings to polychromatic marble walls and floors. The undisputed meister of this marble work form was Cosimo Fanzago, whose pièce de résistance is the church inside the Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples – a mesmerising kaleidoscope of inlaid colours and patterns.
Considering the Neapolitans' weakness for all things baroque, it's not surprising that the Italian baroque's grand finale would come in the form of the Palazzo Reale in Caserta, a 1200-room royal palace designed by Neapolitan architect Luigi Vanvitelli to upstage France's Versailles.
Arguably, Italy's most homogeneous baroque city is Lecce in Puglia, set off by half a dozen highly decorative churches.
The Industrial & The Rational
Upstaged by political and social upheaval, architecture took a back seat in 19th-century Italy. One of the few movements of note stemmed directly from the Industrial Revolution and saw the application of industrial innovations in glass and metal to building design. Two monumental examples of the form are Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II in Milan and its southern sibling Galleria Umberto I in Naples.
By century's end, the art-nouveau craze sweeping Europe inspired an Italian version, called lo stile floreale or 'Liberty' (after the British department store). It was notable for being more extravagant than most, evidenced in Giuseppe Sommaruga's Casa Castiglione (1903), a large block of flats at Corso Venezia 47 in Milan.
Italy’s take on European modernism was rationalism, which strove to create an indigenous style that would fuse classical ideals with the charged industrial-age fantasies of the futurists. Its founding group was Gruppo 7, seven architects inspired by the Bauhaus; their most significant member, Giuseppe Terragni, designed the 1936 Casa del Fascio (now called Casa del Popolo) in Como. MIAR (Movimento Italiano per l'Architettura Razionale, the Italian Movement for Rational Architecture), a broader umbrella organisation, was led by Adalberto Libera, the influential architect best known for his Palazzo dei Congressi in EUR, a 20th-century suburb of Rome. EUR’s most iconic building is the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro (Palace of the Workers), designed by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano, its arches and gleaming travertine skin graphically referencing the Colosseum and ancient Rome’s glory. With most of these commissions at the behest of Mussolini’s government, rationalism is often known simply as 'Fascist Architecture', although the architects’ uncompromising modernism eventually fell out of favour as the regime turned to a theatrical pastiche of classical styles.
Into the Future
Italy's postwar boom may have driven an internationally acclaimed and deliciously cutting-edge design industry, but this was not reflected in its built environment. One of the few high points came in 1956, when architect Giò Ponti and engineer Pier Luigi Nervi designed Milan's slender Pirelli Tower. Ponti was the highly influential founding editor of the international architecture and design magazine Domus, which had begun publication in 1928; Nervi's innovations in reinforced concrete changed the face of modern architecture.
Architects such as Carlo Scarpa, Aldo Rossi and Paolo Portoghesi then took Italian architecture in different directions. Veneto-based Scarpa was well known for his organic forms, most particularly the Brion Tomb and Sanctuary at San Vito d'Altivole. Writer and architect Rossi was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1990, and was known for both his writing (eg The Architecture of the City in 1966) and design work. Rome-based Paolo Portoghesi is an architect, academic and writer with a deep interest in classical architecture. His best-known Italian building is the Central Mosque (1974) in Rome, famed for its luminously beautiful interior.
Italy's most brilliant starchitect is, however, Renzo Piano, whose international projects include London's scene-stealing Shard skyscraper and the Centre Culturel Tjibaou in Nouméa, New Caledonia. At home, recent projects include Turin’s rather uninteresting Intesa Sanpaolo tower (166m) and his far more bold Museo delle Scienze (MUSE) in Trento. Composed of a series of voids and volumes that seemingly float on water, its striking design echoes its dramatic mountain landscape. Further south in Rome, Piano's 2002 Auditorium Parco della Musica is considered one of his greatest achievements to date. He was also asked to help in earthquake reconstruction efforts and in developing anti-earthquake building codes. Piano's stature is so great, he was appointed as 'senator for life' in 2013.
Piano's heir apparent is Massimiliano Fuksas, whose projects are as whimsical as they are visually arresting. Take, for instance, his recent Nuovo Centro Congressi (New Congress Center) in Rome's EUR, dubbed the 'Nuvola' (Cloud) for its 'floating', glass-encased auditorium. Other Fuksas highlights include the futuristic Milan Trade Fair Building and the San Paolo Parish Church in Foligno.
High-profile foreign architects have also shaken things up. In Venice, David Chipperfield extended the Isola di San Michele's cemetery, while Tadao Ando oversaw the city's acclaimed Punta della Dogana and Palazzo Grassi renovation. In Rome, Richard Meier divided opinion with his 2006 Ara Pacis pavilion. The first major civic building in Rome's historic centre in more than half a century, the travertine, glass and steel structure was compared to a petrol station by popular art critic Vittorio Sgarbi. A little more love was given to Zaha Hadid's bold, sinuous MAXXI art gallery in northern Rome, which earned the Iraqi-British starchitect the prestigious RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Sterling prize in 2010. One of Hadid’s final works, the Messner Mountain Museum Kronplatz, opened in 2016, now also graces a stunning Dolomiti site.
Meanwhile, Milan's skyline has had a 21st-century makeover, with the ambitious redevelopment of its Porta Nuova district. Home to Italy's tallest building (the 231m César Pelli–designed UniCredit tower), the project also features Stefano Boeri's Bosco Verticale (Vertical Forest), a pair of eco-conscious apartment towers covered in the equivalent of a hectare of woodland. The city's ambitious CityLife project, a commercial, residential and parkland development, revolves around three experimental skyscrapers by Zaha Hadid, Arata Isozaki and Daniel Libeskind. Isozaki's 50-floor Il Dritto (the straight one) opened in 2015 as the HQ for the Allianz Group, Hadid's 44-floor Lo Storto (the twisted one) was completed in 2017, and Libeskind’s Il Curvo (the curved one), inspired by the curvaceous lines of a Renaissance cupola, was inaugurated in 2019.
- 8th–3rd Century BC Magna Graecia
Greek colonisers grace southern Italy with Stoic temples, sweeping amphitheatres and elegant sculptures that later influence their Roman successors.
- 6th Century BC–4th Century AD Roman
Epic roads and aqueducts spread from Rome, alongside proud basilicas, colonnaded markets, sprawling thermal baths and frescoed villas.
- 4th–6th Century Byzantine
Newly Christian and based in Constantinople, the Roman Empire turns its attention to the construction of churches with exotic, Eastern mosaics and domes.
- 8th–12th Century Romanesque
Attention turns from height to the horizontal lines of a building. Churches are designed with a stand-alone bell tower and baptistry.
- 13th & 14th Century Gothic
Northern European Gothic gets an Italian makeover, from the Arabesque spice of Venice's Cá d'Oro to the Romanesque flavour of Siena's cathedral.
- Late 14th–15th Century Early Renaissance
Filippo Brunelleschi's elegant dome graces the Duomo in Florence, heralding a return to classicism and a bold new era of humanist thinking and rational, elegant design.
- 15th & 16th Century High Renaissance
Rome ousts Florence from its status as the centre of the Renaissance, its newly created wonders including Il Tempietto and St Peter's Basilica.
- Late 16th–Early 18th Century Baroque
Renaissance restraint gives way to theatrical flourishes and sensual curves as the Catholic Church uses spectacle to upstage the Protestant movement.
- Mid-18th–Late 19th Century Neoclassical
Archaeologists rediscover the glories of Pompeii and Herculaneum and architects pay tribute in creations like Vicenza's La Rotonda and Naples' Villa Pignatelli.
- 19th Century Industrial
A newly unified Italy fuses industrial technology, consumer culture and ecclesial traditions in Milan's cathedral-like Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II and Naples' Galleria Umberto I.
- Late 19th–Early 20th Century Liberty
Italy's art nouveau ditches classical linearity for whimsical curves and organic motifs.
- Early–Mid-20th Century Modernism
Italian modernism takes the form of futurism (technology-obsessed and antihistorical) and rationalism (seeking a middle ground between a machine-driven utopia and Fascism's fetish for classicism).
- Mid–Late 20th Century Modern
Industrialised and economically booming, mid-Century Italy shows off its wealth in commercial projects like Giò Ponti's slim-lined Pirelli skyscraper.
- 21st Century Contemporary
Italian architecture gets its groove back with the international success of starchitects like Renzo Piano, Massimiliano Fuksas and Gae Aulenti.
Top Five Architects
Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446) Brunelleschi blazed the neoclassical trail, his dome for Florence's Duomo announcing the Renaissance's arrival.
Donato Bramante (1444–1514) After a stint as court architect in Milan, Bramante went on to design the tiny Tempietto and huge St Peter's Basilica in Rome.
Michelangelo (1475–1564) Architecture was but one of the many strings in this great man's bow; his masterworks are the dome of St Peter's Basilica and the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome.
Andrea Palladio (1508–80) Western architecture's single-most influential figure, Palladio turned classical Roman principles into elegant northern Italian villas.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) The king of the Italian baroque is best known for his work in Rome, including the magnificent baldachin, piazza and colonnades at St Peter's.
Italian art's long history underpins that of all Western art, from the classical, Renaissance and baroque to the explosive doctrine of the futurists and the conceptual play of Arte Povera in the 20th century. A roll call of Italian artists – Giotto, Botticelli, da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Caravaggio and Bernini – forged their vision into some of the greatest bodies of work of the millennia and are, centuries after their deaths, still household names the world over.
The Ancient & the Classical
Greek colonists settled many parts of Sicily and southern Italy as early as the 8th century BC, naming it Magna Graecia and building great cities such as Syracuse and Taranto. These cities were famous for their magnificent temples, many of which were decorated with sculptures modelled on, or inspired by, masterpieces by Praxiteles, Lysippus and Phidias. In art, as in so many other realms, the ancient Romans looked to the Greeks for inspiration.
Sculpture flourished in southern Italy into the Hellenistic period. It also gained popularity in central Italy, where the art of the Etruscans was greatly refined by the contribution of Greek artisans, who arrived to trade.
In Rome, sculpture, architecture and painting flourished first under the Republic and then the empire. But the art that was produced here during this period differed in key ways from the Greek art that influenced it. Essentially secular, it focused less on ideals of aesthetic harmony and more on accurate representation, taking sculptural portraiture to new heights of verisimilitude, as innumerable versions of Pompey, Titus and Augustus showing a similar visage attest.
The Roman ruling class understood art could be used as a political tool, one that could construct a unified identity and cement status and power. As well as portraiture, Roman narrative art often took the form of relief decoration recounting the story of great military victories – the Colonna di Traiano (Trajan's Column) and the Ara Pacis Augustae (Altar of Peace) in Rome exemplify this tradition. Both are magnificent, monumental examples of art as propaganda, exalting the emperor and Rome in a form that no Roman citizen could possibly ignore.
Wealthy Roman citizens also dabbled in the arts, building palatial villas and adorning them with statues looted from the Greek world or copied from Hellenic originals. Today, museums in Rome burst at the seams with such trophies, from the Capitoline Museums' 'Made in Italy' Galata morente (Dying Gaul, c 240–200 BC) to the Vatican Museums' original Greek Laocoön and His Sons (c 160–140 BC).
And while the Etruscans had used wall painting – most notably in their tombs at centres like Tarquinia and Cerveteri in modern-day Lazio, it was the Romans who refined the form, refocusing on landscape scenes to adorn the walls of the living. A visit to Rome's Museo Nazionale Romano: Palazzo Massimo alle Terme or to Naples' Museo Archeologico Nazionale offers sublime examples of the form.
The Glitter of Byzantine
Emperor Constantine the Great, a convert to Christianity, made the ancient city of Byzantium his capital in 330 and renamed it Constantinople. The city became the great cultural and artistic centre of early Christianity and it remained so up to the time of the Renaissance, though its influence was not as fundamental as the art of ancient Rome.
The Byzantine period was notable for its sublime ecclesiastical architecture, its extraordinary mosaic work and – to a lesser extent – its ethereal painting. Drawing inspiration from the symbol-drenched decoration of the Roman catacombs and the early Christian churches, the Byzantine deemphasised the naturalistic aspects of the classical tradition and exalted the spirit over the body, glorifying God rather than humanity or the state. This was infused with the Near East's decorative traditions and love of luminous colour.
In Italy, the Byzantine virtuosity with mosaics was showcased in Ravenna, the capital of the Byzantine Empire's western regions in the 6th century. The Basilica di Sant'Apollinare (in nearby Classe) and the Basilica di San Vitale and Basilica di Sant'Apollinare Nuovo house some of the world's finest Byzantine art, their hand-cut glazed tiles (tesserae) balancing extraordinary naturalness with an epic sense of grandeur and mystery.
The Byzantine aesthetic is also evident in Venice, in the exoticism of the Basilica di San Marco, and in the technicolor interior of Rome's Chiesa di San Prassede. Byzantine, Norman and Arab influences in Sicily fused to create a distinct regional style showcased in the mosaic-encrusted splendour of Palermo's Cappella Palatina, as well as the cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù.
The Not-so-Dark Ages
Italy, and Italian art, were born out of the so-called Dark Ages. The barbarian invasions of the 5th and 6th centuries began a process that turned a unified empire into a land of small independent city-states, and it was these states – or rather the merchants, princes, clergy, corporations and guilds who lived within them – that created a culture of artistic patronage that engendered the great innovations in art and architecture that would define the Renaissance.
Clarity of religious message continued to outweigh the notion of faithful representation in the art of the medieval period. To the modern eye, the simplicity and coded allegorical narrative of both the painting and sculpture of this period can look stiff, though a closer look usually reveals a sublimity and grace, as well as a shared human experience, that speaks across the centuries.
The Gothic style in art, as in architecture, was much slower to take off in Italy than in the rest of Europe. But it steadily evolved, marking the transition from medieval restraint to the Renaissance, and seeing artists once again drawing inspiration from life itself rather than concentrating solely on religious themes. Occurring at the same time as the development of court society and the rise of civic culture in the city-states, its art was both sophisticated and elegant, highlighting attention to detail, a luminous palette and an increasingly refined technique. The first innovations were made in Pisa by sculptor Nicola Pisano (c 1220–84), who emulated the example of the French Gothic masters and studied classical sculpture in order to represent nature more convincingly, but the major strides forward occurred in Florence and Siena.
While Byzantine influence lingered longer in Venice than in many other parts of Italy, its grip on the city loosened by the early to mid-15th century. In Polyptych of St James (c 1450) by Michele Giambono (c 1400–62) in Venice's Gallerie dell'Accademia, the luscious locks and fair complexion of the archangel Michael channel the style of early Renaissance master Pisanello (c 1395–1455). The winds of change blow even stronger in fellow Accademia resident Madonna with Child (c 1455) by Jacopo Bellini (c 1396–1470). Featuring a bright-eyed baby Jesus and a patient, seemingly sleep-deprived Mary, it's an image any parent might relate to. Relatable emotions are equally strong in the biblical scenes of Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506); one can almost hear the sobbing in his Lamentation over the Dead Christ (c 1480) in Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera.
Tuscan painter Gentile da Fabriano (c 1370–1427) worked in Venice during the early stages of his transition to Renaissance realism, and his evolving style reputedly influenced Venetian Antonio Vivarini (c 1415–80), the latter's Passion polyptych radiating tremendous pathos. Antonio's brother, Bartolomeo Vivarini (c 1432–99), created a delightful altarpiece in Venice's I Frari, in which a baby Jesus wriggles out of the arms of his mother, squarely seated on her marble Renaissance throne.
In 1475, visiting Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina (c 1430–79) introduced the Venetians to oil paints, and their knack for layering and blending colours made for a luminosity that would ultimately define the city's art. Among early groundbreakers was Giovanni Bellini (c 1430–1516). The son of Jacopo Bellini, his Accademia Annunciation (1500) deployed glowing reds and ambers to focus attention on the solitary figure of the kneeling Madonna, the angel Gabriel arriving in a rush of geometrically rumpled drapery.
Bellini's prowess with the palette was not lost on his students, among them Giorgione (1477–1510) and Titian (c 1488–1576). Giorgione preferred to paint from inspiration without sketching out his subject first, as in his enigmatic La Tempesta (The Storm; 1500), also in the Accademia. The younger Titian set himself apart with brushstrokes that brought his subjects to life, from his early and measured St Mark Enthroned (1510) in Venice's Chiesa di Santa Maria della Salute to his thick, textured swansong Pietà (1576) in the Accademia.
Titian raised the bar for a new generation of northern Italian masters, including Jacopo Robusti, aka Tintoretto (1518–94). Occasionally enhancing his palette with finely crushed glass, Tintoretto created action-packed biblical scenes that read like a modern graphic novel. His wall and ceiling paintings in Venice's Scuola Grande di San Rocco are nail-bitingly spectacular, laced with holy superheroes, swooping angels, and deep, ominous shadows. Paolo Caliari, aka Veronese (1528–88), was another 16th-century star, the remarkable radiance of his hues captured in Feast in the House of Levi (1573), another Accademia must-see.
Rising in the wake of Giotto, the Renaissance, with its progressive ideas about humanism and individual expression, pushed the boundaries of painting and sculpture to a new level. Serving their apprenticeship in the late 1400s, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael emerged as the illustrious pathfinders of High Renaissance art. Commissioned by the wealthy guilds and merchants of Florence in an Italy divided into small duchies and kingdoms, these three prodigious geniuses personified the central tenets of Renaissance art, a period that saw a rebirth of interest in classical antiquity, are appreciation of ancient mythology and a noble quest to inject realism into art.
Using his vast scientific and anatomical knowledge, polymath Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) spearheaded numerous technical innovations, experimenting with light manipulation, linear perspective and the depiction of subtle emotions in the human face. He worked all these elements into his enigmatic magnum opus, Mona Lisa, which has gone on to become one of the most famous (and valuable) paintings of all time. Not to be outdone, Michelangelo (1475–1564) used his dynamic sculpting skills to create a wonderfully realistic study of strength and beauty in his statue of David, while Raphael (1483–1520) devoted his energy to fashioning a grandiose fresco, The School of Athens, in the Vatican. The painting is considered by many to be the greatest homage to classicism to come out of the Renaissance.
Capital Scandals: Controversial Art in Rome
The Last Judgment (1537–41), Michelangelo There were more than just arms and legs dangling from Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco in Rome's Vatican Museums. The depiction of full-frontal nudity on the chapel's altar horrified Catholic Counter-Reformation critics. No doubt Michelangelo turned in his grave when the offending bits were covered up.
Madonna and Child with St Anne (1605–06), Caravaggio St Anne looks more 'beggar-woman' than 'beatified grandmother', but it's Mary who made the faithful blush on Caravaggio's canvas, her propped-up cleavage a little too 'flesh-and-bone' for the mother of God. The sexed-up scene was too much for the artist's client, who offered a 'Grazie, but no grazie'. The painting now hangs in Rome's Museo e Galleria Borghese.
St Matthew and the Angel (1602), Caravaggio In the original version, personal space (or the sheer lack of it) was the main problem for Caravaggio's client Cardinal del Monte. It features a sensual, handsome angel snuggling up to St Matthew – exactly what kind of inspiration the winged visitor was offering the saint was anybody's guess. And so Caravaggio went back to his easel, producing the prime-time version now gracing the Chiesa di San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.
Conquering Venus (1805–08), Antonio Canova When asked whether she minded posing nude, Paolina Bonaparte Borghese provocatively replied 'Why should I?'. Given her well-known infidelities, this marble depiction of Napoleon's wayward sister as the Roman goddess of love merely confirmed her salacious reputation. This fact was not lost on her husband, Italian prince Camillo Borghese, who forbade the sculpture from leaving their home. You'll find it at the Museo e Galleria Borghese.
From Mannerism to Baroque
By 1520, artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael had pretty well achieved everything that former generations had tried to do and, alongside other artists, began distorting natural images in favour of heightened expression. This movement – which reached its heights in Titian's luminous Assunta (Assumption, 1516–18), in Venice's I Frari, and in Raphael's La trasfigurazione (The Transfiguration, 1517–20), in the Vatican Museums' Pinacoteca – was derided by later critics, who labelled it mannerism. Pejorative as the term once was, the stylish artificiality of Agnolo Bronzino's Florentine court portraits has an almost 21st-century seductiveness.
Milanese-born enfant terrible Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573–1610) had no sentimental attachment to classical models and no respect for 'ideal beauty'. He shocked contemporaries in his relentless search for truth and his radical, often visceral, realism. But even his most ardent detractors could not fail to admire his skill with the technique of chiaroscuro (the bold contrast of light and dark) and his employment of tenebrism, where dramatic chiaroscuro becomes a dominant and highly effective stylistic device. One look at his Conversion of St Paul and the Crucifixion of St Peter (1600–01), both in Rome's Basilica di Santa Maria del Popolo, or his Le sette opere di Misericordia (The Seven Acts of Mercy) in Naples' Pio Monte della Misericordia, and the raw emotional intensity of his work becomes clear.
This creative intensity was reflected in the artist's life. Described by the writer Stendhal as a 'great painter [and] a wicked man', Caravaggio fled to Naples in 1606 after killing a man in a street fight in Rome. Although his sojourn in Naples lasted only a year, it had an electrifying effect on the city's younger artists. Among these artists was Giuseppe (or Jusepe) de Ribera (1591–1652), an aggressive, bullying Spaniard whose capo lavoro (masterpiece), the Pietà, hangs in the Museo Nazionale di San Martino in Naples. Along with the Greek artist Belisiano Crenzio and Naples-born painter Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (known as Battistello), Ribera formed a cabal to stamp out any potential competition. Merciless in the extreme, they shied from nothing in order to get their way. Ribera reputedly won a commission for the Cappella del Tesoro in the Duomo by poisoning his rival Domenichino (1581–1641) and wounding the assistant of a second competitor, Guido Reni (1575–1642). Much to the relief of other nerve-racked artists, the cabal eventually broke up when Caracciolo died in 1642.
North of Rome, Annibale Caracci (1560–1609) was the major artist of the baroque Bolognese school. With his painter brother Agostino he worked in Bologna, Parma and Venice before moving to Rome to work for Cardinal Odoardo Farnese. In works such as his magnificent frescoes of mythological subjects in Rome's Palazzo Farnese, he employed innovative illusionistic elements that would prove inspirational to later baroque painters such as Cortona, Pozzo and Gaulli. However, Caracci never let the illusionism and energy of his works dominate the subject matter, as these later painters did. Inspired by Michelangelo and Raphael, he continued the Renaissance penchant for idealising and 'beautifying' nature.
Arguably the best known of all baroque artists was the sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598–1680), who used works of religious art such as his Ecstasy of St Theresa in Rome's Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria to arouse feelings of exaltation and mystic transport. In this and many other works he achieved an extraordinary intensity of facial expression and a totally radical handling of draperies. Instead of letting these fall in dignified folds in the approved classical manner, he made them writhe and whirl to intensify the effect of excitement and energy.
While creative boundary pushing was obviously at play, the baroque was also driven by the Counter-Reformation, with much of the work commissioned in an attempt to keep hearts and minds from the clutches of the Protestant church. Baroque artists were early adopters of the sex sells mantra, depicting Catholic spirituality, rather ironically, through worldly joy, exuberant decoration and uninhibited sensuality.
The New Italy
Discontent at years of foreign rule – first under Napoleon and then under the Austrians – may have been good for political and philosophical thinkers, but there was little innovation in art. The most notable product of this time was, ironically, the painting and engraving of views, most notably in Venice, to meet the demand of European travellers wanting Grand Tour souvenirs. The best-known painters of this school are Francesco Guardi (1712–93) and Giovanni Antonio Canaletto (1697–1768).
Despite all the talk of unity, the 19th-century Italian cities remained as they had been for centuries – highly individual centres of culture with sharply contrasting ways of life. Music was the supreme art of this period and the overwhelming theme in the visual arts was one of chaste refinement.
The major artistic movement of the day was neoclassicism and its greatest Italian exponent was the sculptor Antonio Canova (1757–1822). Canova renounced movement in favour of stillness, emotion in favour of restraint and illusion in favour of simplicity. His most famous work is a daring sculpture of Paolina Bonaparte Borghese as a reclining Venere vincitrice (Conquering Venus), in Rome's Museo e Galleria Borghese.
Canova was the last Italian artist to win overwhelming international fame. Italian architecture, sculpture and painting had played a dominant role in the cultural life of Europe for some 400 years, but with Canova's death in 1822, this supremacy came to an end.
Italy entered the turbulent days of the early 20th century still in the throes of constructing a cohesive national identity. Futurism, led by poet Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944) and painter Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916), grew out of this sense of urgent nationalism and, as Italy’s north rapidly industrialised, sought new ways to express the dynamism of the machine age. Futurists demanded a new art for a new world and denounced every attachment to the art of the past. Marinetti's Manifesto del futurismo (Futurist Manifesto, 1909) was reinforced by the publication of a 1910 futurist painting manifesto by Boccioni, Giacomo Balla (1871–1958), Luigi Russolo (1885–1947) and Gino Severini (1883–1966). The manifesto declared, 'Everything is in movement, everything rushes forward, everything is in constant swift change.' Boccioni's Rissa in galleria (Brawl in the Arcade, 1910), in the collection of Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera, clearly demonstrates the movement's fascination with frantic movement and with modern technology. After WWI, a number of the futurist painters, including Mario Sironi (1885–1961) and Carlo Carrà (1881–1966), became aligned with fascism, sharing a common philosophy of nationalism and violence. Milan's Museo del Novecento along with Trentino's Museo d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto (MART) have the world's best collection of futurist works.
Paralleling futurism's bullying bluster, the metaphysical movement of Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) produced paintings notable for their stillness and sense of foreboding. He and Carlo Carrà depicted disconnected images from the world of dreams, often in settings of classical Italian architecture, as in The Red Tower (1913), now in Venice's Peggy Guggenheim Collection. Like futurism, the movement was short lived, but held powerful attraction for the French surrealist movement in the 1920s.
As Italy's north flourished in the 1950s, so did the local art scene. Artists such as Alberto Burri (1915–95) and the Argentine-Italian Lucio Fontana (1899–1968) experimented with abstraction. Fontana's punctured canvases were characterised by spazialismo (spatialism) and he also experimented with 'slash paintings', perforating his canvases with actual holes or slashes and dubbing them 'art for the space age'. Burri's assemblages were made of burlap, wood, iron and plastic and were avowedly antitraditional. Grande sacco (Large Sack) of 1952, housed in Rome's Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, caused a major controversy when it was first exhibited.
Piero Manzoni (1933–63) created highly ironic work that questioned the nature of the art object itself, such as his canned Artist's Shit (1961), directly prefiguring conceptual art and earning him posthumous membership of the radical new movement of the 1960s, Arte Povera (Poor Art). Focused primarily in Turin and often using simple, everyday materials in installation or performance work, artists such as Mario Merz (1925–2003), Michelangelo Pistoletto (b 1933) and Giovanni Anselmo (b 1934), sought to make the art experience more 'real', and to attack institutional power.
The 1980s saw a return to painting and sculpture in a traditional (primarily figurative) sense. Dubbed 'Transavanguardia', this movement broke with the prevailing international focus on conceptual art and was thought by some critics to signal the death of avant-garde. The artists who were part of this movement include Sandro Chia (b 1946), Mimmo Paladino (b 1948), Enzo Cucchi (b 1949) and Francesco Clemente (b 1952).
While global interest in contemporary art and the art market has shown exponential growth in recent decades, Italian art-world insiders bemoan the country's art scene, citing a dearth of institutional support, no real market to speak of and a backward-gazing population. That said, Italy does have a number of innovative, engaged contemporary-art champions, from museums such as Rome's MAXXI, Turin's Castello di Rivoli, Bologna's MAMbo and Museion in Bolzano. They are joined in Milan by a growing number of fondazione – private foundation collections, from the new Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli (opened in 2016) to the sprawling Fondazione Prada (opened in 2015) and the edgy Hangar Bicocca, along with the magnificent Palazzo Grassi in Venice, and the broadly roaming Museo Ettore Fico and small but astutely curated Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo, both in Turin. American art dealer Larry Gagosian set up a Roman gallery in 2007 and Milan's dealers continue to flourish. Naples and Turin also have a small but significant number of contemporary galleries.
Due to the influence of superstar Italian curators such as Francesco Bonami and Massimiliano Gioni, Italian contemporary artists are often celebrated as much, if not more, on the international stage as at home. Italian artists to watch both at home and abroad include Rudolf Stingel (b 1956), Paolo Canevari (b 1963), Maurizio Cattelan (b 1960), Vanessa Beecroft (b 1969), Rä di Martino (b 1975), and Paola Pivi (b 1971) – variously working in painting, sculpture, photography, installation, video and performance.
Italy on Page & Screen
From ancient Virgil to the recently deceased Umberto Eco, Italy's literary canon is awash with world-renowned scribes. The Renaissance alone coughed up Boccaccio, Petrarch and Dante Alighieri, a language-shaping trio who, communally, are often referred to as the tre corone (three crowns) of Italian literature. The nation's film stock is equally robust. Sift through movie credits packed with visionary directors like Fellini and Rossellini, iconic stars such Marcello Mastroianni and that trademark Italian pathos.
Crime & Punishment
Italy's acclaimed contemporary dramas combine the truthfulness of classic neorealism, the taut suspense of Italian thrillers and the psychological revelations of Fellini. Among the best is Matteo Garrone's brutal Camorra exposé Gomorra (2008). Based on Roberto Saviano's award-winning novel, the film won the Grand Prix at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival before inspiring a successful spin-off TV series.
Paolo Sorrentino's Il divo (2008) explores the life of former prime minister Giulio Andreotti, from his migraines to his alleged Mafia ties. The entanglement of organised crime and Rome's political class is at the heart of Stefano Sollima's neo-noir Suburra (2015), while Mafiosi also appear in the deeply poignant Cesare deve morire (Caesar Must Die; 2012). Directed by octogenarian brothers Paolo and Vittorio Tavianian, this award-winning documentary tells the story of maximum-security prisoners preparing to stage Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. Italy's political and social ills drive Gabriele Mainetti's acclaimed film Lo chiamavano Jeeg Robot (They Call Me Jeeg; 2015), which gives Hollywood's superhero genre a gritty local twist.
Italy's cities, hills and coastlines set the scene for countless celluloid classics. Top billing goes to Rome, where Bernardo Bertolucci uses the Terme di Caracalla in the oedipal La luna (1979), Gregory Peck gives Audrey Hepburn a fright at the Bocca della Verità in William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953) and Anita Ekberg cools off in the Trevi Fountain in Federico Fellini's La dolce vita (The Sweet Life; 1960). Fellini's love affair with the Eternal City culminated in his silver-screen tribute, Roma (1972). More recent tributes include Woody Allen's romantic comedy To Rome with Love (2012) and Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's sumptuous, decadent La grande bellezza (Great Beauty; 2013).
Florence's Piazza della Signoria recalls James Ivory's Room with a View (1985). Further south, Siena's Piazza del Palio and Piazza della Paglietta stir fantasies of actor Daniel Craig – both featured in the 22nd James Bond instalment, Quantum of Solace (2008).
Venice enjoys a cameo in The Talented Mr Ripley (1999), in which Matt Damon and Gwyneth Paltrow also tan and toast on the Campanian islands of Procida and Ischia. Fans of Il postino (The Postman; 1994) will recognise Procida's pastel-hued Corricella, while on the mainland, Naples' elegant palazzi, fin-de-siècle cafes and tailors are flaunted in Gianluca Migliarotti's fashion-documentary film E poi c'è Napoli (And Then There is Naples; 2014). The city also stars in Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Özpetek's much-anticipated thriller, Napoli velata (2018).
Further south, the cavernous landscape of Basilicata's Matera moonlights as Palestine in Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ (2004).
Out of the smouldering ruins of WWII emerged unflinching tales of woe, including Roberto Rossellini's Roma, città aperta (Rome: Open City; 1945), a story of love, betrayal and resistance in Nazi-occupied Rome. In Vittorio De Sica's Academy-awarded Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves; 1948), a doomed father attempts to provide for his son without resorting to crime in war-ravaged Rome, while Pier Paolo Pasolini's Mamma Roma (1962) revolves around an ageing prostitute trying to make an honest living for herself and her deadbeat son. More recently, Gianfranco Rosi's Oscar-nominated documentary Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea; 2016) has drawn comparisons to the neorealist movement in its confronting, moving exploration of the European refugee crisis as played out on the island of Lampedusa.
It's only natural that a nation of hopeless romantics should provide some of the world's most tender celluloid moments. In Michael Radford's Il postino (The Postman; 1994), exiled poet Pablo Neruda brings poetry and passion to a drowsy Italian isle and a misfit postman, played with heartbreaking subtlety by the late Massimo Troisi. Another classic is Giuseppe Tornatore's Oscar-winning Nuovo cinema paradiso (Cinema Paradiso; 1988), a bittersweet tale about a director who returns to Sicily and rediscovers his true loves: the girl next door and the movies. In Silvio Sordini's Pane e tulipani (Bread and Tulips; 2000), a housewife left behind at a tour-bus pit stop runs away to Venice, where she befriends an anarchist florist, an eccentric masseuse and a suicidal Icelandic waiter – and gets pursued by an amateur detective. Equally contemporary is Ferzan Özpetek's Mine vaganti (Loose Cannons; 2010), a situation comedy about two gay brothers and their conservative Pugliese family.
Shock & Horror
Sunny Italy's darkest dramas deliver more style, suspense and falling bodies than Prada platform heels on a slippery Milan runway. In Michelangelo Antonioni's Blow-Up (1966) a swinging-'60s fashion photographer spies dark deeds unfolding in a photo of an elusive Vanessa Redgrave. Gruesome deeds unfold at a ballet school in Dario Argento's Suspiria (1977), while in Mario Monicelli's Un borghese piccolo piccolo (An Average Little Man; 1977), an ordinary man goes to extraordinary lengths for revenge. The latter stars Roman acting great Alberto Soldi in a standout example of a comedian nailing a serious role.
Emerging in the mid-1960s, Italian-style Westerns had no shortage of high-noon showdowns featuring flinty characters and Ennio Morricone's terminally catchy whistled tunes (doodle-oodle-ooh, wah wah wah…). Top of the directorial heap was Sergio Leone, whose Western debut Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars; 1964) kick-started a young Clint Eastwood's movie career and morphed into a now-legendary trilogy that helped reshape world cinema (ironically the movies were filmed in Spain). Leone followed up with his 'Once Upon a Time' trilogy starting in 1968 when he relaunched the career of Henry Fonda in C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West; 1968), a story about a revenge-seeking widow.
The Great Directors
- Vittorio De Sica Actor-turned-neorealist director whose Honorary Oscar for Sciuscià (Shoeshine; 1946) spawned the Academy's 'Best Foreign Film' category. Must-see: Two Women (1960).
- Roberto Rossellini Film-critic François Truffaut called the influential neorealist the 'father of the French New Wave'. Must-see: Roma città aperta (Rome: Open City; 1945).
- Luchino Visconti Famed for the Oscar-nominated The Damned (1969) and the lavish aesthetics of his films. Must-see: Death in Venice (1971).
- Federico Fellini One of history's most influential and awarded filmmakers, best known for fusing dreams and reality. Must-see: 8½ (1963).
- Pier Paolo Pasolini Controversial neorealist who championed the damned of postwar Italy. Must-see: Mamma Roma (1962).
- Sergio Leone King of spaghetti westerns and inventor of the extreme close-up in Westerns. Must-see: C'era una volta il West (Once Upon a Time in the West; 1968).
Italy's best comedians pinpoint the exact spot where pathos intersects with the funny bone. A group of ageing pranksters turn on one another in Mario Monicelli's Amici miei (My Friends; 1975), a satire reflecting Italy's own postwar midlife crisis. Midlife crisis also underscores Paolo Sorrentino's Oscar-winning La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty; 2013), a Fellini-style tale that revolves around Jep Gambardella, an ageing, hedonistic bachelor haunted by lost love and memories of the past.
Contemporary woes feed Massimiliano Bruno's biting Viva l'Italia (2012), its cast of corrupt politicians and nepotists cutting close to the nation's bone. Italy is slapped equally hard by Matteo Garrone's Reality (2012). Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, the darkly comic film centres on a Neapolitan fishmonger desperately seeking fame through reality TV. The foibles of modern Italian life are also pulled into sharp focus in Paolo Genovese's Perfetti sconosciuti (Perfect Strangers; 2016), an award-winning comedy-drama in which three couples and a bachelor disclose each other's private text messages and phone calls in an attempt to prove they have nothing to hide.
Darkest of all, however, remains actor-director Roberto Benigni's Oscar-winning La vita è bella (Life is Beautiful; 1997), in which a father tries to protect his son from the brutalities of a Jewish concentration camp by pretending it's all a game.
The most universally beloved Italian fabulist is Italo Calvino, whose titular character in Il barone rampante (The Baron in the Trees; 1957) takes to the treetops in a seemingly capricious act of rebellion that makes others rethink their own earthbound conventions. In Dino Buzzati's Il deserto dei Tartari (The Tartar Steppe; 1940), an ambitious officer posted to a mythical Italian border is besieged by boredom, thwarted expectations and disappearing youth while waiting for enemy hordes to materialise – a parable drawn from Buzzati's own dead-end newspaper job.
Over the centuries, Niccolo Machiavelli's Il principe (The Prince; 1532) has been referenced as a handy manual for Mussolini types, but also as a cautionary tale against unchecked 'Machiavellian' authority.
Crime fiction and gialli (mysteries) dominate Italy's best-seller list, and one of its finest writers is Gianrico Carofiglio, the former head of Bari's anti-Mafia squad. Carofiglio's novels include the award-winning Testimone inconsapevole (Involuntary Witness; 2002), which introduces the shady underworld of Bari's hinterland. The scribe's latest novel is L’estate fredda (The Cold Summer; 2016), a hard-hitting tale set against the especially gruesome Mafia violence that marked 1992.
Art also imitates life for judge and novelist Giancarlo de Cataldo, whose best-selling novel Romanzo criminale (Criminal Romance; 2002) spawned both a TV series and film. Another crime writer with page-to-screen success is Andrea Camilleri, his savvy Sicilian inspector Montalbano starring in capers like Il gioco degli specchi (Game of Mirrors; 2011).
Umberto Eco gave the genre an intellectual edge with his medieval detective tale Il nome della rosa (The Name of the Rose; 1980) and Il pendolo di Foucault (Foucault's Pendulum; 1988). In Eco's Il cimitero di Praga (The Prague Cemetery; 2010), historical events merge with the tale of a master killer and forger.
Set during the Black Death in Florence, Boccaccio's Decameron (c 1350–53) has a visceral gallows humour that foreshadows Chaucer and Shakespeare. Italy's 19th-century struggle for unification parallels the story of star-crossed lovers in Alessandro Manzoni's I promessi sposi (The Betrothed; 1827, definitive version released 1842), and causes an identity crisis among Sicilian nobility in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's Il gattopardo (The Leopard; published posthumously in 1958).
Wartime survival strategies are chronicled in Elsa Morante's La storia (History; 1974) and in Primo Levi's autobiographical account of Auschwitz in Se questo è un uomo (If This Is a Man; 1947). WWII is the uninvited guest in Il giardino dei Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi-Continis; 1962), Giorgio Bassani's tale of a crush on a girl whose aristocratic Jewish family attempts to disregard the rising tide of anti-Semitism. In Margaret Mazzantini's Venuto al mondo (Twice Born; 2008), it's the Bosnian War that forms the backdrop to a powerful tale of motherhood and loss.
Roman epic poet Virgil (aka Vergilius) from Mantua spent 11 years and 12 books tracking the outbound adventures and inner turmoil of Trojan hero Aeneas, from the fall of Troy to the founding of Rome. Virgil died in 19 BC with just 60 lines to go in his Aeneid, a kind of sequel to Greek epic poet Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. As Virgil himself observed: 'Time flies'.
Fellow Roman Ovid (Ovidius) from Abruzzo was also skilled at telling a ripping tale. His Metamorphoses chronicled civilisation from murky mythological beginnings to Julius Caesar, and his how-to seduction manual Ars amatoria (The Art of Love) inspired countless Casanovas. Despite his popularity, Ovid was banished to the ancient Black Sea settlement of Tomis by Augustus in 8 AD. The emperor's motive remains a mystery to this day, with theories ranging from Ovid's association with people opposed to his rule, to the poet's knowledge of a supposedly incestuous relationship between Augustus and his daughter or granddaughter.
Some literature scholars claim that Shakespeare stole his best lines and plot points from earlier Italian playwrights and poets. Debatable though this may be, the Bard certainly had stiff competition from 13th-century Dante Alighieri as the world's finest romancer. Dante broke with tradition in La divina commedia (The Divine Comedy; c 1307–21) by using the familiar Italian, not the formal Latin, to describe travelling through the circles of hell in search of his beloved Beatrice. Petrarch (aka Francesco Petrarca), a contemporary and pen pal of Boccaccio, added wow to Italian woo with his eponymous sonnets, applying a strict structure of rhythm and rhyme to romance the idealised Laura.
If sonnets aren't to your taste, try 1975 Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale, who wrings poetry out of the creeping damp of everyday life, or Ungaretti, whose WWI poems hit home with a few searing syllables.
The Italian Way of Life
Time to employ a little creative thinking. Imagine you woke up tomorrow and discovered you were Italian. Aside from vastly superior pizza and a propensity to get operatically emotional every time your football team loses, how would life be different, and what could you discover about Italy in just one day as a local? It's more than you might think.
A Day in the Life of an Italian
Sveglia! You're woken not by an alarm but by the burble and clatter of the caffettiera, the ubiquitous stovetop espresso-maker. You're running late, so you bolt down your coffee scalding hot (an acquired Italian talent) and pause briefly to ensure your socks match before dashing out the door. Yet still you walk blocks out of your way to fuel your hard-to-kick cigarette habit (one you share with 23% of Italians). You purchase your low-tar smokes at the tabaccheria from Bucharest-born Nicolae who, as a Romanian, is part of Italy's largest migrant community. You chat briefly about his new baby – you may be late, but at least you're not rude.
On your way to work you scan news sites on your phone: another 24-hour transport strike, more coalition-government infighting and an announcement of new EU regulations on cheese. Outrageous! The cheese regulations, that is; the rest is to be expected. At work, you're buried in paperwork until noon, when it's a relief to join friends for lunch and a glass of wine. Afterwards you toss back another scorching espresso at your favourite bar and find out how your barista's latest audition went – turns out you went to school with the sister of the director of the play, so you promise to put in a good word.
Back at work by 2pm, you multitask Italian-style, chatting with coworkers as you dash off work emails, text your schoolmate about the barista on your telefonino (mobile phone) and surreptitiously check l'Internet for employment listings – your work contract is due to expire soon. After a busy day like this, aperitivi are definitely in order, so at 6.30pm you head directly to the latest happy-hour hotspot. Your friends arrive, the decor is molto design and the vibe molto fashion, until suddenly it's time for your English class – everyone's learning it these days, if only for the slang.
By the time you finally get home, it's already 9.30pm and dinner will have to be reheated. Peccato! (Shame!) You eat, absent-mindedly watching the latest episode of MasterChef Italia while recounting your day and complaining about cheese regulations to whoever's home – no sense giving reheated pasta your undivided attention. While brushing your teeth, you dream of a vacation in Anguilla, though without a raise, it'll probably be Abruzzo again this year.
Finally you make your way to bed and check Instagram one last time; your colleague Marco seems to be acclimatising to life in Sydney. He's the third person you know who has moved to Australia in recent years. You wonder what it would be like to live in a nation so young and booming. They say hard work pays over there. Marco has already been promoted, without the need of favours or influential contacts. Once again you entertain the thought of following in his footsteps, but then ponder the distance and start to pine for your famiglia e amici (family and friends). As you drift off, you console yourself in the knowledge that while it mightn't be perfect, they don't call Italy the bel paese (beautiful country) for nothing.
From Emigrants to Immigrants
From 1876 to 1976, Italy was a country of net emigration. With some 30 million Italian emigrants dispersed throughout Europe, the Americas and Australia, remittances from Italians abroad helped keep Italy's economy afloat during economic crises after independence and WWII.
The tables have since turned. Political and economic upheavals in the 1980s brought new arrivals from Central Europe, Latin America and North Africa, including Italy's former colonies in Tunisia, Somalia and Ethiopia. More recently, waves of Chinese and Filipino immigrants have given Italian streetscapes a Far Eastern twist. While immigrants account for just over 8% of Italy's population today, the number is growing. In 2001, the country's foreign population (a number that excludes foreign-born people who take Italian citizenship) was 1.3 million. By 2019, that number had almost quadrupled to over five million.
From a purely economic angle, these new arrivals are vital for the country's economic health. While most Italians today choose to live and work within Italy, the country's population is ageing and fewer young Italians are entering blue-collar agricultural and industrial fields. Without immigrant workers to fill the gaps, Italy would be sorely lacking in tomato sauce and shoes. From kitchen hands to hotel maids, it is often immigrants who take the low-paid service jobs that keep Italy's tourism economy afloat.
Despite this, not everyone is rolling out the welcome mat. In 2010, the shooting of an immigrant worker in the town of Rosarno, Calabria, sparked Italy's worst race riots in years. In 2013, a top-level football match between AC Milan and Roma was suspended after fans chanted racist abuse at Mario Balotelli, AC Milan's black, Italian-born striker. In 2017, Pescara midfielder Sulley Muntari walked off the field in response to racist chants during a Serie A game against Cagliari. The Ghanaian-born footballer was consequently penalised, receiving one yellow card for protesting about the abuse and another for leaving the field without following procedures. The Italian Football Federation subsequently withdrew the penalty (which equalled a one-match ban) in the face of widespread condemnation, including from the UK's Kick It Out antidiscrimination organisation.
If you're between the ages of 18 and 34, there's a 67% chance that's not a roommate in the kitchen making your morning coffee: it's mum or dad. The number of young Italian adults living at home is almost 20% higher than the European average, with only Slovakia claiming more young adults slumming it under their parents' roof.
This is not because Italy is a nation of pampered bamboccioni (big babies) – at least, not entirely. With a general unemployment rate of 10% and a youth unemployment rate hovering around 30% in mid-2019, it's no wonder that so many refuse to cut those apron strings. Yet high unemployment is only part of the picture. In general, Italians tend to graduate later than most Europeans. Once they do graduate, many end up in low-paying jobs or voluntary internships. It’s a reality that has led to the adoption of the Spanish term milleuristi to describe the many young, qualified Italian adults living on a paltry mille euro (€1000) or less a month.
While Italy's family-based social fabric provides a protective buffer for many during these challenging economic times, intergenerational solidarity has always been the basis of the Italian family. According to the time-honoured Italian social contract, you'd probably live with your parents until you start a career and a family of your own. Then after a suitable grace period for success and romance – a couple of years should do the trick – your parents might move in with you to look after your kids, and be looked after in turn.
As for those who don't live with family members, chances are they're still a quick stroll away, with over 50% living within a 30-minute walk of close relatives. All this considered, it's hardly surprising to hear that famous mobile-phone chorus at evening rush hour: 'Mamma, butta la pasta!' (Mum, put the pasta in the water!).
It's Not What You Know…
From your day as an Italian, this much you know already: conversation is far too important to be cut short by tardiness or a mouthful of toothpaste. All that chatter isn't entirely idle, either: in Europe's most ancient, entrenched bureaucracy, social networks are essential to get things done. Putting in a good word for your barista isn't just a nice gesture, but an essential career boost. According to Italy's Ministry of Labour, over 60% of Italian firms rely on personal introductions for recruitment. Indeed, clientelismo (nepotism) is as much a part of the Italian lexicon as caffè (coffee) and tasse (taxes); a fact that is satirised in Massimiliano Bruno's film Viva l'Italia (2012), about a crooked, well-connected senator who secures jobs for his three children, among them a talentless TV actress with a speech impediment.
In 2016, Raffaele Cantone – president of the Autorità Nazionale Anticorruzione (ANAC) – sparked a national debate after claiming that nepotism in Italian universities played a major role in the country’s ongoing ‘brain drain’. It's a sentiment echoed in a 2011 study conducted by the University of Chicago Medical Center. The study found an unusually high recurrence of the same surnames among academic staff at various Italian universities.
Over 160,000 Italians left the country in 2018 in search of better opportunities abroad, including a growing number of people from wealthy northern regions like Lombardy and the Veneto. Despite the fact that these northern regions enjoy a high per-capita GDP, a growing number of its people believe that better employment opportunities and quality of life can be found elsewhere. It's a cumulative problem. In the last decade some two million Italians – many of them young and highly skilled – have emigrated, with the vast majority remaining in Europe.
North versus South
In his film Ricomincio da tre (I'm Starting from Three; 1980), acting great Massimo Troisi comically tackles the problems faced by Neapolitans forced to head north for work. Punchlines aside, the film reveals Italy's north–south divide; a divide that still lingers 40 years on. While the north is known for its fashion empires and moneyed metropolises, Italy's south (dubbed the 'Mezzogiorno') is often spotlit for its higher unemployment, poorer infrastructure and Mafia-related police raids. To many Italians, the terms settentrionale (northern Italian) and meridionale (southern Italian) remain weighed down by crude stereotypes: while the former is often considered modern, sophisticated and successful, the latter is still often seen as lazy, traditional and somewhat unrefined. From the Industrial Revolution to the 1960s, millions of southern Italians fled to the industrialised northern cities for factory jobs. Disparagingly nicknamed terroni (literally meaning 'of the soil'), these in-house 'immigrants' were often exposed to discriminatory attitudes from their northern cousins. Decades on, the overt discrimination may have dissipated but some prejudices remain. It's not uncommon to find northerners who resent their taxes being used to 'subsidise' the south – a sentiment that has been well exploited by the Lega Nord (Northern League) political party.
Religion, Loosely Speaking
While almost 80% of Italians identify as Catholics, only around 15% of Italy's population regularly attends Sunday Mass. That said, the Church continues to exert considerable influence on public policy and political parties, especially those of the centre- and far-right.
But in the land of the double park, even God's rules are up for interpretation. Sure, mamma still serves fish on Good Friday, but while she might consult la Madonna for guidance, chances are she'll get a second opinion from the maga (fortune teller) on channel 32. It's estimated that around 13 million Italians use the services of psychics, astrologers and fortune tellers. While the uncertainties stirred up by Italy's still-stagnant economy help drive these numbers, Italians have long been a highly superstitious bunch. From not toasting with water to not opening umbrellas inside the home, the country offers a long list of tips to keep bad luck at bay.
Superstitious beliefs are especially strong in Italy's south. Here corni (horn-shaped charms) adorn everything from necklines to rearview mirrors to ward off the malocchio (evil eye) and devotion to local saints takes on an almost cultish edge. Every year in Naples, thousands cram into the duomo to witness the blood of San Gennaro miraculously liquefy in the phial that contains it. When the blood liquefies, the city breathes a sigh of relief – it symbolises another year safe from disaster. When it didn't in 1944, Mt Vesuvius erupted, and when it failed again in 1980, an earthquake struck the city that year. Coincidence?
Who are the people you'd encounter every day as an Italian? Just over 23% of your fellow citizens are smokers and around 61% drive (or are driven) to work, compared to only 3.3% who cycle. The average Italian is 45.5 years old, up 0.8 years since 2015. The percentage of Italians aged over 65 is 21.6%, the highest ratio in the European Union. This explains the septuagenarians you'll notice on parade with dogs and grandchildren in parks, affably arguing about politics in cafes, and ruthlessly dominating bocce tournaments.
You might also notice a striking absence of children. Italy's birth rate is one of the lowest in the world; an average of 1.33 births per woman compared to 1.75 in the UK, 1.84 in Ireland and 1.85 in France.
What it Feels Like for a Girl
It might score straight As in fashion, food and design, but Italy's performance in the gender-equality stakes leaves much room for improvement. Despite the fact that many of Italy's current cabinet ministers are women – a conscious effort on the part of former prime minister Matteo Renzi to redress the country's male-dominated parliament – sexism remains deeply entrenched in Italian society.
According to the European Commission's 2019 Report on Equality Between Women and Men in the EU, only 53% of Italian women are in the workforce, compared to 80% in Sweden, 75% in Denmark and 68% in France. On average, Italian women earn significantly less than their male counterparts. And though successful Italian businesswomen do exist – among them Poste Italiane chairperson Bianca Maria Farina and Eni chairperson Emma Marcegaglia – almost 95% of public-company board members in Italy remain male, and of these, approximately 80% of them are older than 55.
Italian women fare no better on the domestic front. OECD figures reveal that Italian men spend 103 minutes per day cooking, cleaning or caring, less than a third as long as Italian women, who spend an average of 315 minutes per day on what the OECD labels unpaid work.
Fashion Family Sagas
Tight as they may be, Italian families are not always examples of heart-warming domesticity. Indeed, some of Italy's most fashionable famiglie (families) prove that every clan has its problems, some small, some extra, extra large.
Consider the Versace bunch, fashion's favourite catwalking Calabrians. One of Italy's greatest exports, the familial dynasty was founded by Gianni, celebrity BFF and the man who single-handedly made bling chic. But not even the fashion gods could save the bearded genius, inexplicably shot dead outside his Miami mansion by serial killer Andrew Cunanan in 1997. With Gianni gone, creative control was passed to Donatella, Gianni's larger-than-life little sister. The subject of Anna Wintour's most unusual fashion memory – full-body spandex on horseback – the former coke-addled party queen flew herself to rehab on daughter Allegra's 18th birthday.
Then there are the Florentine fashion rivals, the Gucci clan. Established by Guccio Gucci in 1904, the family firm reads like a bad Brazilian soap – power struggles between Rodolfo and Aldo (Guccio's sons) in the 1950s; assault charges by Paolo (Aldo's son) against siblings Roberto and Giorgio, and cousin Maurizio Gucci, in 1982; and a major fallout between Paolo and father Aldo over the offshore siphoning of profits.
The last Gucci to run the company was Maurizio, who finally sold his share to Bahrain investment-bank Investcorp in 1993 for a healthy US$170 million. Two years later, Maurizio was dead, gunned down outside his Milan office on the order of ex-wife, Patrizia Reggiani. Not only had Reggiani failed to forgive her then ex-husband's infidelity, she was far from impressed with her US$500,000 annual allowance. After all, this was the woman who famously quipped that she'd rather weep in a Rolls Royce than be happy on a bicycle. Offered parole in 2011 from Milan’s San Vittore prison on condition of finding employment, Reggiani stayed true to form, stating: 'I've never worked a day in my life; I'm certainly not going to start now'. Despite the now-infamous quip, fashion's 'black widow' did find herself a gig while on day release, working part-time in a Milanese jewellery store. Reggiani’s most famous accessory while strutting Milan's upmarket streets was a live macaw, perched on her shoulder.
Having served only 18 years of her 26-year sentence, Reggiani was released early from custody in late 2016 for good behaviour. The widow’s lucky streak continued in 2017 when an appeals court in Milan ruled that despite her conviction, Gucci's ex-wife remained entitled to an annual allowance of just over €1 million, a deal agreed to by Maurizio in 1993. The court also ruled that Reggiani was owed over €18 million in back payments accrued during her time behind bars. No doubt the windfall will fuel Reggiani's infamous spending, which reputedly includes €10,000 a month on orchids.
Coordinated wardrobes, strong espresso and general admiration are not the only things that make Italian hearts sing. And while Italian passions are wide and varied, few define Italy like football and opera.
Better Living by Design
As an Italian, you actually did your coworkers a favour by being late to the office to give yourself a final once-over in the mirror. Unless you want your fellow employees to avert their gaze in dumbstruck horror, your socks had better match. The tram can wait as you fare la bella figura (cut a fine figure).
Italians have strong opinions about aesthetics and aren't afraid to share them. A common refrain is Che brutta! (How hideous!), which may strike visitors as tactless. But consider it from an Italian point of view – everyone is rooting for you to look good, so who are you to disappoint? The shop assistant who tells you with brutal honesty that yellow is not your colour is doing a public service, and will consider it a personal triumph to see you outfitted in orange instead.
If it's a gift, you must allow 10 minutes for the sales clerk to fa un bel pacchetto, wrapping your purchase with string and an artfully placed sticker. This is the epitome of la bella figura – the sales clerk wants you to look good by giving a good gift. When you do, everyone basks in the glow of la bella figura: you as the gracious gift-giver and the sales clerk as savvy gift consultant, not to mention the flushed and duly honoured recipient.
As a national obsession, la bella figura gives Italy its undeniable edge in design, cuisine, art and architecture. Though the country could get by on its striking good looks, Italy is ever mindful of delightful details. They are everywhere you look and many places you don't: the intricately carved cathedral spire only the bell-ringer could fully appreciate, the toy duck hidden inside your chocolate uova di pasqua (Easter egg), the absinthe-green silk lining inside a sober grey suit sleeve. Attention to such details earns you instant admiration in Italy – and an admission that, sometimes, non-Italians do have style.
Calcio (Football): Italy's Other Religion
Catholicism may be your official faith, but as an Italian your true religion is likely to be calcio (football). On any given weekend from September to May, chances are that you and your fellow tifosi (football fans) are at the stadio, glued to the TV or checking the score on your mobile phone. Come Monday, you'll be dissecting the match by the office water cooler.
Football was introduced to Italy by the British at the tail-end of the 19th century. Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for the locals to stamp their characteristic panache on the ‘beautiful game’. By the late 1930s, over a dozen teams were competing in an annual league known as Serie A, and the national side had taken home two out of three FIFA World Cups. Almost without realizing it, the Italians had elevated football into a tactical art where elegant attacking skill was backed up by a ruthless watertight defence.
In style-conscious Italy, it isn’t just the football matches that are important, it’s also the way they are played. Well-coiffured and self-aware Italian players prowl the field like Milanese models strutting the catwalk. In a nation that spawned Michelangelo, beauty is everything. There is no hoofing the ball in the air à la the English Premier League; Instead, it is manoeuvred skillfully across the playing surface waiting for that all-important moment of divine inspiration that lights up many Italian games. Ironically, the genius is countered by another distinctly Italian football trait: guile. Serie A games are renowned for their fake playacting and theatrical attempts to curry favour with the referee, and it isn’t always pretty.
The guile went a stretch too far in 2006 when Juventus and four other Italian clubs were implicated in a match-fixing scandal known as Calciopoli that shook Italian football to its foundations.
Scandals aside, football in Italy remains a great cultural leveller. You’ll see plenty of flag-waving in the streets and squares of tourist cities on big game days when the result can – for better or worse – affect the public mood. Bank on far better service in Naples if local heroes Napoli have just won 4-0, but don’t expect too much sleep in Rome on nights when Lazio are playing local rivals, AS Roma.
In July 2006, an estimated 715 million people watched as Italy won the World Cup against France. In bars and businesses across the nation, life practically stopped for 120 minutes and only ecstatically restarted when native Roman Fabio Grosso slotted in the winning penalty. For unbiased observers watching from the sidelines, this highly charged moment seemed to epitomise the passion, emotion, energy and excitement of Italian football, a game of style and skill that, for all its associated baggage, is as closely reflective of the Italian personality as Puccini or pizza.
Music for the Masses
Most of the music you'll hear booming out of Italian cafes to inspire sidewalk singalongs is Italian musica leggera (popular music), a term covering homegrown rock, jazz, folk, hip-hop and pop ballads. The scene's annual highlight is the Sanremo Music Festival (held at San Remo's Teatro Ariston and televised on RAI1), a Eurovision-style song comp responsible for launching the careers of chart-topping contemporary acts like Eros Ramazzotti, Giorgia, Laura Pausini and, more recently, singer-songwriter Marco Mengoni. In 2013, Mengoni won Sanremo for his ballad 'L'essenziale', using the same song later that year to represent Italy at Eurovision. Two years later, operatic pop trio Il Volo took their winning hit 'Grande amore' to Eurovision, the soaring anthem winning Italy third place. The trend was continued in 2019, when Sanremo champion Mahmood took the song 'Soldi' to Europe's campy song comp. The Sardinian-speaking Italian who has an Egyptian father and professes to sing 'Moroccan pop' was runner-up to Holland's Duncan Laurence.
In the early 1960s, Sanremo helped launch the career of living music legend, Mina Mazzini. Famed for her powerful, three-octave voice and a musical versatility spanning pop, soul, blues, R&B and swing, the songstress dominated the charts throughout the 1960s and 1970s, her emancipated image and frank tunes about love and sex ruffling a few bourgeois feathers.
Towering over all is the legendary songwriter and producer Giorgio Moroder. Hailing from South Tyrol, Moroder made his name in Germany in the early 1970s where he built a career writing and producing pioneering electronic and disco acts. He is often called the 'Father of Disco' for his part in producing and cowriting the 1977 Donna Summer hit 'I Feel Love'. Moroder later gravitated into film music where he won three Academy Awards, most notably for the song 'Take my Breath Away' from the movie Top Gun. He has also amassed numerous Grammys and Golden Globes and worked with a who's who of rock and pop artists from Bowie and Blondie to Janet Jackson and Daft Punk.
Opera Let the Fat Lady Sing
At the stadium, your beloved squadra (team) hits the field to the roar of Verdi. OK, so you might not be first in line to see Rigoletto at La Fenice, but Italy's opera legacy remains a source of pride. After all, not only did you invent the art form, you gave the world some of its greatest composers and compositions. Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) transformed Pierre Beaumarchais' Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville) into one of the greatest comedic operas, Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901) produced the epic Aida, while Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) delivered staples such as Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Turandot.
Lyrical, intense and dramatic – it's only natural that opera bears the 'Made in Italy' label. Track pants might be traded in for tuxedos, but Italy's opera crowds can be just as ruthless as their pitch-side counterparts. A centuries-old tradition, the dreaded fischi (mocking whistles) still possess a mysterious power to blast singers right off stage. In December 2006, a substitute in street clothes had to step in for Sicilian-French star tenor Roberto Alagna when his off-night aria met with vocal disapproval at Milan's legendary La Scala. Best not to get them started about musicals and 'rock opera', eh?
The word diva was invented for legendary sopranos such as Parma's Renata Tebaldi and Italy's adopted Greek icon Maria Callas, whose rivalry peaked when Time quoted Callas saying that comparing her voice to Tebaldi's was like comparing 'champagne and Coca-Cola'. Both were fixtures at La Scala, along with the wildly popular Italian tenor to whom others are still compared, Enrico Caruso. Tenor Luciano Pavarotti (1935–2007) remains beloved for attracting broader public attention to opera, while bestselling blind tenor Andrea Bocelli became a controversial crossover sensation with what critics claim are overproduced arias sung with a strained upper register. Newer generations of stars include soprano Fiorenza Cedolins, who performed a requiem for the late Pope John Paul II, recorded Tosca arias with Andrea Bocelli and scored encores in Puccini's iconic La Bohème at the Arena di Verona Festival. Younger still is celebrated tenor Francesco Meli, a regular fixture at many of the world's great opera houses. Much sadder, however, was the fate of promising tenor Salvatore Licitra. Famed for stepping in for Pavarotti on his final show at New York's Metropolitan Opera, the 43-year-old died tragically after a motorcycle accident in 2011.