Italian Art Through History

Italy played a massive role in artistic and architectural movements throughout history. Many talented Italian artists became famous thanks to their outstanding art pieces which influence the World today. The Italo country was the cradle of significant Art periods including the Renaissance (which occurred in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries) and the Baroque (17th and 18th centuries). Both artistic periods presented very specific features and had a huge influence on other European countries. Meaning “rebirth”, the Renaissance consisted of a static style based on the Classic Period (Greek and Roman art), reinterpreting it in a humanistic, rationalist, and naturalist understanding.

During the Renaissance, God wasn’t the center of the universe as He used to be during the previous art periods. The concepts of anthropocentrism and humanism were strongly considered, meaning that humanity should remain at the center of human understanding and that the universe should be evaluated according to its relation with the men. In other words, Renaissance artists believed that humanity was the center of the universe.

During this period, a strong interest in acquiring knowledge in classical art, philosophy, literature, and depicting anatomy with precision influenced how the artists created their masterpieces.

In Renaissance Sculpture, the articulation of rational logic and the strict anatomical proportions were frequently sought by the artists. In Architecture, the columns took place of the pillars, and the Gothic linear was replaced by the reappearance of round arches and domes. And in Painting, the artists sought a precise method of measure, creating new formulas for the perspectives and trying to represent colors as the human eye naturally captured them.

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Renaissance artists innovated art by depicting very convincing figures after studying human anatomy.

A good example of Renaissance art would be Antoniazzo Romano’s Virgin and Child with a Donor altarpiece, a tempera Italian (Roman) work dated from c. 1480 and located at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. As previously discussed in class and on the first paper assignment, Romano’s altarpiece relies on a unique frame with inscriptions and details with gold leaf to cause the ethereal effect that this devotional piece is expected to. The vibrant colors such as navy blue, and different shades of red and gold made by using tempera and gold-leaf, respectively, match each other and contrast in a very subtle way. The broad usage of the golden color in this altarpiece creates delicacy and Holiness. However, even if the figures look delicate and ethereal, Antoniazzo also explores the usage of precise edges to create their forms and to make them contrast with the golden background. The Virgin’s face is depicted with a kind look and the way she carefully holds her son against her face and body strongly emphasizes how carefully the Roman artist captured human anatomy, a very important feature of Renaissance artists. The way Antoniazzo depicted both mother and child with fair copper hairs, delicate facial contours, and blushing cheeks reminds the way other Renaissance artists depicted their figures a few years later, like Sandro Botticelli in Primavera and Birth of Venus, where the mythological figures look delicate and transmit a striking presence to the viewers. Not to mention the way Antoniazzo depicted the patron of this altarpiece on the left bottom of the painting and how the Mother and Child bodies respond to each other reminds a rough pyramidal composition, very common to Renaissance artists later on.

The Baroque period, also born in Italy as mentioned earlier, could be considered a parallel to the counter-reform of Catholicism. The etymological meaning of the word Baroque is “grotesque”, “twisted”, and “irregular” and was used in a pejorative way to design the 17th and 18th art that was known for its dark and exaggerated aspects. The watchword is intended to be as picturesque as possible. During the Baroque period, religiosity was depicted in a very dramatic and drastic way. It didn’t reach reform countries like England, Holland, and Sweden with the same impact as it did in Italy, but it still had a huge significance in that period, especially when the topic was portraiture. In Baroque architecture, the artists sought to reach the splendor of that time by decorating many churches’ interiors in a very dramatic and ornamented way. The artistic movement was a reaction against the previous styles and had the intention of marveling and thrilling the viewer. In other words, the Baroque’s objective was to use strong contrast and to appeal to the exaggeration. It used to have great theatricality, dynamism, urgency, subjectivity, emotional appeal, passion, and conflicts in the artistic works. From a technical point of view, in the Baroque pieces, there is a recurrent use of diagonals and curves, light sets, and worked textures. And the individual harmony used to be sacrificed in the name of the final production.

As a great example of Baroque art, we can analyze Carlo Dolci’s The Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist painting, a Florentine work dated from c. 1635 and also located at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Differently from Antoniazzo’s Renaissance altarpiece, Dolci’s work counts on the unique features of oil paint to represent Virgin Mary, Child Jesus, and Child St. John the Baptist by exploring realistic details and setting a dramatic contrast with very intense colors just like other Baroque artists did. The extremely decorated golden frame of the painting is an example of how the Baroque period could be exaggerated when decorating churches and paintings that belonged to particular collections by that period.

By using oil paint to create emotional expressions and shadows on the bodies and garments of the Virgin, Child Jesus, and St. John the Baptist, Carlo also explores the elasticity and flexibility of this media to depict his figures with softer contours, giving the idea that the three Sacred figures seem to fade into the shadowed background. The Florentine’s panel¬ depicts Virgin Mary holding child Jesus close to her face and resting his feet on her lap while she affectionately looks at him. On the left corner of the painting, child St. John the Baptist clasps his hands and looks up at Jesus, as if expecting the Divine child’s blessing. Like Antoniazzo’s work, the way the mother is holding her son transmits a strong connection between the figures, however, in Carlo’s piece, the strong usage of shadows on their faces, bodies, and the background transmit a more dramatic impression to the viewer than Roman’s work. For example, the Florentine artist uses many dark and light colors and contrasts them in a very drastic way. Compared to Antoniazzo’s work, which depicted his sacred figures with golden halos and precise edges, Carlo’s The Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist approaches more the representation of them with softer contours rather than sharp edges. The different media used on both pieces plays a huge role: tempera in Antoniazzo’s work creates the hatching effects and translucid brushwork while oil paint in Carlo’s painting creates a more blended and smooth appearance.

The hairs of the Virgin, Jesus, and St. John the Baptist are made with careful brushstrokes and different shades of golden brown and copper tones, making Carlo’s work realistic just like other Baroque artists used to depict their art. Also, the idea of open composition, suggesting that the painting continues beyond the borders of the frame, strongly connects Carlo’s piece to other paintings of the Baroque period. The usage of intense colors to depict the figures’ garments to dramatically contrast with a very dark background is a feature of Baroque. Some artists that explored the strong contrast between light and shadows were Caravaggio as can be observed in Calling of Saint Matthew, and Artemisia Gentileschi as seen in Judith Slaying Holofernes.

Overall, even if both paintings have almost the same topic, the different media used and the different periods they have created cause distinct impressions to the viewer. For example, Antoniazzo’s Virgin and Child with a Donor strongly connects to other Renaissance artists. As mentioned earlier, Antoniazzo’s figures remind Sandro Botticelli’s figures, with delicate and wavy copper hair, round faces, and delicate fair skins. Maybe Antoniazzo could have influenced Botticelli a couple of years later when he was creating his masterpieces. Also, the idea of maintaining the figures in a more closed composition rather than an open composition strongly connects the Roman artist to other Renaissance artists like Raphael, Leonardo, and Michelangelo. These famous Renaissance artists usually represented their figures in a closed composition suggesting that works like Antoniazzo’s altarpiece could have influenced them. Antonio also displays his figures in a slightly pyramidal composition, reminding a little bit of Raphael’s and Leonardo’s compositions a few years later. On other hand, Carlo’s painting could have been inspired by other Baroque artists like Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi. The way Dolci used a dramatic contrast between light and shadow and how he carefully depicted his figures with realistic skin reminds these artists. Also, the ornamented frame reminds how the interior of churches was decorated during the Baroque period. Not to mention how realistic the Baroque figures look if compared to Renaissance figures in this particular case.

Finally, by analyzing both paintings and comparing and contrasting their unique ways to approach the Renaissance and Baroque elements, it is possible to affirm that both Antoniazzo Romano and Carlo Dolci present a strong inclination to using vibrant colors to depict their figures’ garments. Also, both artists have a very strong notion of human anatomy and have a significant connection to their specific periods have had, being possible that Antoniazzo could had influenced other Renaissance artists while Carlo could have been influenced by other Baroque artists.

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Italian Art Through History. (2022, Apr 26). Retrieved from

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