From the Roman Empire to Italian unification, Italy has been home to plenty of artistic geniuses over the centuries.
Our list of the top 5 Italian artists includes one poet and 4 painters. Of course, a special mention goes out to a large number of the Renaissance painters including Piero della Francesca, Giorgio Vasari, and Filippino Lippi. Since Italy is home to so many famous artists, no one article could ever do them all justice. However, we hope you like the 5 we've picked out in this article.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, this poet helped bring Italy together hundreds of years before the unification. His writing helped Tuscan (and the Florentine subdialect) gain popularity across Italy and become the official language of the Italian government in the 19th century.
Dante Alighieri was born in Florence in 1265 and died in Ravenna in 1321 where you can visit his grave. He is one of three literary crowns.
Just like the works Petrarch and Boccaccio, Dante’s Divine Comedy was written in Florentine rather than Latin. This was a huge decision since most texts at the time would have been written in Latin, a language which was considered much more prestigious than Florentine at the time.
However, Dante was a humanist and wanted his work to be read and understood by all rather than just the educated elites. While the text was written in Florentine, he also borrowed vocabulary from a number of the different dialects spoken in and around Italy so that even more people could understand it.
In addition to the general quality of the text, you can’t help but admire the author’s intelligence in drawing upon ancient notions in order to express the complex events of the time: battles between the Pontiff and the Emperor, the Guelphs, and the Ghibellines.
Dante managed to find a living relative to the “Courtly Love” notion in the character of Beatrice. Contemporary Italian literature probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for this literature in the Middles Ages.
It’s hardly surprising that Matteo Renzi, the former Prime Minister of Italy, said that: “Dante is omnipresent in History & Italian lessons and in schools and universities... The names of streets haven’t forgotten him, either...”
Is Dante Alighieri one of our 16 famous Italians?
Leonardo da Vinci (1456-1519)
People are still appreciating this artist’s works nearly 500 years after he died. Leonardo da Vinci was born in Tuscany in 1456 and died three years after being brought to France in Amboise in 1519.
He was an extraordinary Renaissance architect and the double spiral staircase in Château de Chambord is thought to be his work. When you combine scientific knowledge and remarkable works of art, you end up with a man who helped make Italy one of the most flourishing nations of the time.
Whether painting on canvas or walls, his painting was famous for its realism. In fact, this is characterised in his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. The shadows around her mouth have made Mona Lisa’s smile the subject of much debate in the art world.
If you'd like to see the Mona Lisa, you can do so in the Louvre in Paris. However, since this is arguably the most famous painting in the world, expect long lines of other tourists waiting to see it, too.
Leonardo da Vinci avoided classic techniques and preferred egg tempera where an egg yolk is used to bind coloured pigments. When painting on walls, he preferred gesso.
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Following the Neoplatonic Florentine Academy and a renewed interest in the arts, Michelangelo was an unrivalled talent during the Italian Renaissance.
Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (to use his full name) was born on 6th March, 1476, in the Republic of Florence. He died at the age of 88 in Rome shortly after the Council of Trent.
He was a jack of all trades and a master of all. He could paint on any surface and created masterpieces both on canvas and in the form of frescoes. His work on the ceiling on the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican is arguably his famous piece. However, his sculptures are just as famous: the Pietà in St. Peter’s Basilica, for example.
Rome also put in its fair share of orders for Michelangelo’s work. In addition to commissions by the Popes Julius II, Clement VII, and Paul III, Lorenzo dei Medici, a very influential man during the Renaissance, also commissioned works.
His works can be distinguished by his realistic representation of the naked human form. Daniele de Volterra is famous for having “covered up” some of Michelangelo’s work. However, the movement of the forms are almost hypnotic and the coloured fabrics are nuanced and fascinating.
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Titian is sometimes overshadowed by other more famous Italian artists. However, he is just as worthy of this list as any of the others.
Ludovico Dolce, an Italian theorist of painting, was full of praise for his friend Titian and said that his work “contains at once the grandeur of Michael Angelo, the pleasing grace and venustas of Raphael, together with the proper colouring of nature.”
Additionally, Dolce wasn't too fond of Michelangelo and would regularly criticise his work. Can you imagine a time where an artist as talented as Michelangelo could still be hated by some?
Born in the area surrounding Venice in 1490, towards the end of the Quattrocento, he disappeared on 27th August 1576 in the Republic of Venice’s capital.
The Venetian painter owes a lot to Giorgione who collaborated with him. He specialised in frescoes. He also took inspiration from Antonio da Correggio, especially half-tone backgrounds.
He favoured a process known as colorito in which paint is used to progressively give a painting body, layer by layer. Darker colours are usually applied first and the lighter and brighter colours are applied later.
This artistic freedom is a large part of the Renaissance’s humanism which resulted in daring new subjects such as The Rokeby Venus which would directly inspire Manet’s Olympia three centuries later. This idea would be later picked back up by the visual arts and contemporary art in general.
Ancient themes such as those from Roman myths are gladly revisited. There are plenty of examples of religious commissions. Much like Michelangelo, Titian was regularly commissioned by religious institutions to pain works for them.
This Venetian artist set himself apart from the moral conventions of the yesteryear by bringing both art and morality into the modern age.
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Caravaggio was successful 100 years after Michelangelo. He was born on 29 September 1571, in Milan and died on 18 July 1610 in Tuscany on his way to Rome.
With Caravaggio, the realism of the Renaissance became naturalism which was powerful and dramatic. He used pronounced chiaroscuro, which later became known as tenebrism.
Roberto Longhi, an Italian art expert, classifies this artist in the Lombard art style. The striking contrast between light and dark would later become an essential part of the Baroque style, a product of the Counter-Reformation.
Caravaggio matured as an artist in spiritual surroundings at the time of Charles Borromeo and Saint Philip Romolo Neri, the founder of the Oratorians. They came along after a myriad of saints including Francis of Assisi.
As an outlaw, he was forced to roam Italy. He headed to Naples and Sicily. His influence on Italian art and history came to be known as Caravaggism. What did he do? Well, he was famous for starting fights in bars. Who would have thought it?
His style would become popular throughout the first half of the 17th century.
It’s undeniable that the greatest painters existed during the Renaissance.
Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445 - 1510)
Sandro Botticelli was born in the mid-1440s in Florence, Italy. As a young man, he apprenticed as a goldsmith and then went on to study with master painter Filippo Lippi. By his forties, Botticelli was himself a master painter and contributed to many of the decoration of the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
At the height of his fame, the Florentine painter and draughtsman were one of the most esteemed artists in Italy. His graceful pictures of the Madonna and Child, and more of his work such as altarpieces and life-size mythological paintings brought to immense fame during his lifetime.
His best-known work is The Birth of Venus. It is thought that it was probably made in the mid-1480s. It represents the goddess Venus arriving at the shore after her birth when she had emerged from the oceans fully-grown (a version of the goddess called Venus Anadyomene and often represented in the art). The painting is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
Although the two are not a pair, this painting is inevitably discussed with Botticelli's other very large mythological painting, the Primavera, also in the Uffizi. They are some of the most famous paintings in the world and icons of the Italian Renaissance art movement.
Donatello (c. 1386 - 1466)
It is commonly thought that Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi (referred to as Donatello) was born in 1386 in Florence. However, his origins remain obscure and the date is only hypothetical, based on a declaration of tax submitted by the artist in 1433, stating his age at 47.
He received his childhood education in the house of the Martelli family, one of Florence's wealthiest families.
Donatello's father was part of the wool merchants guild Arte della Lana, which was one of seven imports guilds in 14th century Florence. Florence's system of governance was nominally democratic, with the guilds playing an important role in the running of the city.
Like other Florentine sculptors such as Ghiberti and Cellini, Donatello received his early artistic training in the workshop of a goldsmith.
His first important exposure as an artist arrived when he competed for the famous 1401 competition for the design of the Baptistery doors in Florence. Afterwards, he worked briefly in the studio run by Ghiberti, winner of the Baptistery door competition, whose influential workshop provided training for a number of young Italian artists.
From 1402-1404, Donatello studied with his friend and colleague Brunelleschi. According to Brunelleschi's biography, the pair travelled to the city of Rome, where they excavated and studied ancient ruins. This time marked the beginning of the Humanist movement in Florence, which favoured the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome over the stiff and formal style of the Medieval and Gothic periods.
Donatello and Brunelleschi were the first to systematically study ancient ruins for a source of inspiration. Donatello funded this time of artistic exploration by working as a goldsmith.
Donatello had maintained a close and lucrative relationship with Cosimo de’ Medici in Florence. In 1430, the eminent art patron commissioned Donatello to do yet another statue of David, this time in bronze.
This piece of work is probably Donatello’s most famous accomplishments. The sculpture is fully independent of any architectural surroundings or support. Standing a little over five feet tall, David represents an allegory of civic virtue winning over brutality and irrationality.
In 1443, Donatello was called to the city of Padua by the family of the famous mercenary Erasmo da Narni, who had died earlier that year. In 1450, Donatello completed a bronze statue called Gattamelata, showing Erasmo riding a horse in full battle dress, only missing a helmet.
This was the first equestrian statue cast in bronze since the Romans era. The sculpture created many controversies, as most equestrian statues were reserved for rulers or kings, not mere condottiere. This work became the prototype for other equestrian monuments created in Italy and Europe in the following centuries.
Matteo Giovanetti (c.1322 - 1368)
Matteo Giovannetti was an Italian painter who belonged to the Simone Martini school and was a friend of Petrarch.
in 1944 he was summoned to Avignon in France by Pope Clement VI to decorate the Palais des Papes (Palace of Popes) there. He led teams of painters and artists from right across Europe.
Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430 - 1516)
Giovanni Bellini is often regarded as the father of the Venetian Renaissance. His exceptional rendering of colour and light helped herald in a period of overwhelming creativity in Venice, and arguably all of Europe. He was known for his religiously intense images of the Madonna and Christ, as well as his talent to convey the complexity of human sentiments.
Bellini was born and died in Venice during a time when the La Serenissima, or the Venetian Republic, was a redoubtable trading power and centres of Europe. During his life, Venice remained an essential player in the Mediterranean and even world commerce.
Although he may never have ventured far away from Venice, Bellini was by no means secluded from other artists. Rather, he analysed the style of Northern European painters and embraced visitors from all across Europe. As he aged, he even took suggestions from his pupils in order to further hone his talents.
Giovanni Bellini was born into a famous family of painters around the year 1430. His father, Jacopo, was conducive in bringing the Italian Renaissance to Venice and attempted to ensure that his sons, Giovanni and Gentile, would become excellent painters too.
Giovanni and his elder brother, Gentile, presumably began their careers as apprentices in their father's workshop, mastering valuable skills and techniques from him and his pupils. One of these pupils, the Paduan artist, Andrea Mantegna, would become Bellini's brother-in-law and a great influence on his early artwork.
Once Bellini had made a name for himself through his portraitures and stunning depictions of Biblical events, he began to break with the older paint style of tempera in favour of oil paints around the 1470s. The use of oil paints served in unleashing Bellini's eye for colours and light and his compositions took on an even more life-like quality.
Many of his altarpieces are so precise and convincing, it is said, that people sitting in the back pew can feel the passion etched on the face of each subject.
It was also during this time that Bellini was awarded a prestigious position at the Doge's Palace in Venice. He painted panels in the palace's great hall, likenesses and altarpieces, and oversaw further work for the rest of his life.
Bellini composed actively up until his death at the age of almost 90 in 1516. During the last fifteen years of his life, he was overwhelmed with commissions to paint his breathtaking altarpieces, portraits and mythologies - all with thoughtful consideration to landscape detail.
Although he was a master painter, recognised by many to be the best in Venice, Bellini was always eager to learn new methods and techniques from younger painters and his students, and he worked to hone his skills until his death.
Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431 – 1506)
Andrea Mantegna was a North Italian Renaissance painter, a scholar of Roman archaeology, and son in law of Jacopo Bellini.
Like other artists of the time, Mantegna experimented with viewpoint, e.g., by lowering the horizon in order to create a sense of greater monumentality. His callous, metallic landscapes and somewhat stony characters give evidence of a fundamentally sculptural way to painting. He also led a class that was the leading generator of prints in Venice before 1500.
Mantegna was born in Isola di Carturo, close to Padua in the Republic of Venice, second son of a craftsman, Biagio. At the age of eleven, he became the student of Francesco Squarcione, a Paduan painter. Squarcione, whose real vocation was tailoring, seems to have had a remarkable passion for ancient art, and a talent for acting.
Like his famous compatriot Petrarca, Squarcione was something of a zealot for ancient Rome: he travelled in Italy, and possibly Greece, amassing antique statues, bas-reliefs, vases, etc., forming a collection of such works, then making etchings from them himself, and forcing open his stores for others to examine. All the while, he continued undertaking works on commission for which his pupils no less than himself were made free.
As many as 137 painters and pictorial disciples passed through Squarcione's school, which had been established towards 1440 and which became renowned all over Italy. Padua was attractive for artists coming not only from Veneto but also from Tuscany, such as Paolo Uccello, Filippo Lippi and Donatello.
Mantegna's early career was moulded indeed by impressions of Florentine works. At the time, Mantegna was said to be a favourite pupil; Squarcione taught him Latin, and instructed him to study pieces of Roman sculpture. The master also favoured forced perspective, the lingering results of which may account for some of Mantegna's later innovations.
However, at the age of seventeen, Mantegna parted himself from Squarcione. He later claimed that Squarcione had gained from his work without paying the rights.
If so many big names came from Italy, why stop there? There are plenty of people who could have made this list like classical, baroque, and opera composers (Clementi, Giuseppe, Verdi, Puccini, etc.), Italian directors (Visconti, for example) and many more. We could even have included Italian singers.
When it comes to music, Italy basically wrote the book on it. So many musical terms come from Italy and there are so many genres in which the Italians excel. If you're wanting to improve your Italian, listening to music could be a great way to do it.
There have been so many amazing Italians throughout history that we’d need an entire library to fairly represent them.
With all that said, it's not just poets and painters who belong in the hall of fame. Italy has a rich cinematic landscape. In fact, during the 1950s and 60s, Rome became known as Hollywood on the Tiber due to the immense number of quality films being produced there.
To round off your knowledge of Italian culture, why not check out these Italian films?
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