Italian Culture - Art

Leonardo da Vinci, Monna Lisa

In Italy art is everywhere, it’s what we see, breathe and are, sometimes even without realising it. We are so accustomed to living surrounded by beauty and history that we tend too often to give it for granted, and at times we end up wandering in awe, looking upwards, marvelling at the monuments, buildings, townscapes we have seen countless times. Art, history, literature, everything here is intertwined, making it impossible, and aimless, to draw a line between what is what.

The following is just an outline of this immense and diverse artistic heritage up to the Renaissance, by no means intended to be exhaustive.

Part 1 - Ancient Art
Part 2 - Early Christian & Medieval Art
Part 3 - The Renaissance

Part 1 - Ancient Art

Pre-Roman Italy

Ancient Italy did not have ethnic or cultural unity; it was a mosaic of peoples diverse in origin, traditions and language, which inhabited the peninsula since the second millennium BCE. North of the Po river was the domain of Celts and Germans, while the peoples living in the South were deeply influenced by the culture of the Greek settlers who started to get there in the 8th century BCE, bringing with them the Hellenic civilisation, which was to deeply influence the culture of Ancient Rome. The area of Greek influence was later called by the Romans (namely by the poet Ovid) Magna Graecia, or Big Greece. Only after the Roman conquest did Italy attain a unified culture; however, traces of those ancient peoples still survive on the territory and in our language, e.g. in the names of Italian regions such as Lazio, Campania, Veneto, Liguria and others.

The Etruscans (9th - 1st century BCE)

The Etruscans were the first great civilisation of pre-Roman Italy. By the beginning of the 7th century BCE they occupied the central region of Italy between the Arno and Tiber rivers, and eventually reached as far north as the Po river valley and as far south as Campania. The Romans were under the direct influence of Etruscan culture until the end of the first century BCE, when the Etruscans’ territory was incorporated into the newly established Roman Empire. Many elements of architecture, art, religion, and dress were absorbed by the Romans. Traces of their language, of which we don’t know much, still survive today: the Latin word "persona”, the character played by an actor, derives from the Etruscan for "masked man,” phersu. That’s where the English word "person” comes from.

The greatest legacy of the Etruscans is their beautifully painted tombs found in sites like Tarquinia, Cerveteri, Chiusi, and Vulci. The paintings depict lively and colourful scenes from Etruscan mythology, daily life, architectural features, and sometimes even the tomb's occupant themselves. The funerary portraits on their sarcophagi are extremely realistic, and illustrate the unique personality of the individual. This concept influenced deeply Roman art, notably portraits of private Roman citizens brilliantly rendered in paint, metal, and stone.

Chimera di Arezzo

Chimera of Arezzo, c. 400 BCE; Firenze, Museo Archeologico Nazionale

Apollo di Veio, c. 500 BCE; Museo Nazionale Villa Giulia, Roma

Apollo di Veio

Visit: Etruscan Necropolises of Cerveteri and Tarquinia

The Romans (8th century BCE - 5th century CE)

Roman art is found everywhere the Roman Empire stretched its borders: at its peak, the Roman empire covered nearly six million square kilometres – spanning large swathes of western Europe, Africa and even parts of Asia. A Roman theatre in Amman, the Valerian Bridge in modern Iran, forts, villas, bridges, baths, pillars, and walls throughout Europe and North Africa; the list is endless.

In the past it was widely thought that Romans merely fused the best of Greek and Etruscan art, but recent developments in archeological research have recognised the value of their unique contribution to western art. The vast extent of the Roman Empire resulted in very diverse approaches to art depending on location. They produced art on a grand scale, sometimes exceeding the ability of their predecessors. Any material was turned into objects of art. Recording historical events, immortalising prominent personalities or private patrons was a common artist’s duty. Painting faithfully captured landscapes, townscapes, and daily life. Realism, rooted in Etruscan funerary traditions, became a distinctive feature of sculpture and painting. Not only monumental architecture and sculptures, but also funerary art, jewellery, glassware, mosaics, pottery, all was developed to the extent that it became available not only to the wealthy but also to the middle classes.

In the 1st century BCE, Roman sculpture develops unprecedented hyperrealistic portraiture. While Greek statuary idealised the human body, over time Roman sculpture evolved to represent real people with their natural beauty and imperfections, thus enhancing the Etruscan tradition: although the modern perception of ancient art is that of a white pureness, sculptures were originally painted with bright colours. Around the first century BCE Roman portraiture reached a peak of hyperrealism where the naturally occurring features of the subject were exaggerated, often to convey moral authority and values; they were usually portraits of notable ancestors displayed to prove the family’s power and influence.

Chimera di Arezzo
Apollo di Veio

Mummy portrait of a young girl, encaustic painting from Al-Fayyūm, Egypt, 2nd century; Louvre, Paris.

Portrait of a nobleman, c. 50 BCE; Museo Torlonia, Roma.

On the other hand, Roman art was also a powerful tool for politics and propaganda. A good example is the Augustus of Primaporta of 20 BCE, where the emperor’s body is portrayed according to the idealised canon of Greek sculpture, while his face shows the influence of Roman verism; he is, at the same time, semi-god and human. Other details (Cupid, the gods on his breast plate) reveal the true message in a language that at the time was clear to all: Augustus has the gods on his side, he is an international military victor, and he is the bringer of the Pax Romana, a peace that encompasses all the lands of the Roman Empire.

Augusto di Primaporta

Augustus of Primaporta, 1st century CE; Musei Vaticani, Roma. On the right, a reconstruction of the original colours of the sculpture.

In the following centuries sculpture became more monumental with massive, larger-than-life statues of emperors, gods and heroes, such as the huge bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius on horseback. The horse’s body—in particular its musculature—has been modelled very carefully by the artist, resulting in a powerful rendering. The pose of the body shows the rider’s head turned slightly to his right, in the direction of his outstretched right arm. Towards the end of the Empire, the influence of Eastern art brought a change: sculptures lacked proportion, heads were enlarged, and figures were most often presented flatter and from the front: a good example is the giant head of Constantine the Great, part of the remains of a giant statue from the Basilica of Constantine (formerly the Basilica of Maxentius) in the Roman Forum, Rome, c. 313 CE, in the Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Marco Aurelio

Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius, gilded bronze, c. 173-76 CE. (Musei Capitolini, Rome)

Visit: Rome, Musei Capitolini

As mentioned before, Roman art was also a powerful tool for politics and propaganda; a conspicuous example is the famous Trajan’s column, meant to be displayed in the forum that the Emperor completed in 113 CE. It is world famous for its unique historical relief sculpture, which is carried in a spiral band, another innovation of the Roman age, namely, the elaborate working out of the continuous method of narration. In these reliefs, the attempt is made to record the whole history of Trajan's two campaigns against the Dacians (101-2 and 105-6) from the crossing of the Danube to the final victory. The Roman love of realistic detail is everywhere evident. It was once crowned with a statue of the Emperor, then replaced by a statue of St. Peter during the Renaissance. The column was deeply influential, the inspiration for later monuments in Rome and across the empire.

Colonna Traiana

Detail from Trajan's Column, Rome.

Roman art produced some of its greatest innovations in architecture. Roman engineers developed methods for city building on a grand scale, and made extensive use of concrete, which enabled them to realise buildings that would have been impossible to build otherwise. Concrete was resistant and affordable, that’s why Roman architecture is renowned for the durability of its construction. During the Republican era, Roman architecture combined Greek and Etruscan elements, and produced innovations such as the round temple, the dome, and the curved arch. The greatest arena in the Roman world, the Colosseum, was completed around 80 CE in the Forum Romanum, the centre of the social and political life of the city.

During the reign of Trajan (98–117 CE) and Hadrian (117–138 CE) the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent and at the same time the peak of its artistic glory, thanks to the construction of innumerable monuments, houses, gardens, aqueducts, baths, palaces, sarcophagi, and temples. Outstanding examples of dome construction include the Pantheon, the Baths of Diocletian, and the Baths of Caracalla. The Pantheon is the best preserved temple of ancient times with an intact ceiling featuring an open eye in the center. These buildings influenced deeply the architects of the Italian Renaissance, such as Brunelleschi. Constantine (306-337), undertook the last great building programs in Rome, including the erection of the Arch of Constantine built near the Colosseum. In the arch were incorporated stone elements belonging to monuments built by his predecessors. Constantine encouraged major social changes in Rome, such as decriminalising Christianity. Any religious change was a threat to the ruling and political classes of Rome, so by paying homage to the great emperors of Rome’s golden age (Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius), Constantine was stating that he intended to model his rule after those great emperors, and that he was not a threat to Roman culture and society.

Arco di Costantino

Arch of Costantine, Rome.

Part 2: Early Christian & Medieval Art


Our book & video course Learn Italian with Art is now available on Amazon and Apple Books.

Learn more

Basic Glossary

affresco - Fresco; a technique of mural painting executed upon wet lime plaster.

basilica - Originally a Roman public court building; later, Christian buildings of the same shape, with a central nave and aisles.

bassorilievo - Low relief; a projecting image with a shallow depth.

cattedrale - Cathedral; the central church of a diocese that contains the bishop's seat, cattedra (Latin cathedra).

cupola - Dome; an architectural element that resembles the hollow upper half of a sphere.

duomo - Current or former cathedral.

facciata - Facade; the front side of a building. Usually the facade of a church or palace.

mosaico - Mosaic; an image built up from small pieces of stone, glass or ceramic.

olio su tela - Oil painting on canvas.

pala d'altare - A religious painting placed behind the altar in a church.

villa - Originally a Roman upper-class country house.

Further readings

For more in-depth information about this topic, we recommend:

Diana E.E. Kleiner, Roman Architecture: A Visual Guide (2014)

Kenneth Bartlett, The Renaissance in Italy: A History (2019)

Michael Wyatt, The Cambridge Companion to the Italian Renaissance (2014)

Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci (2017)

At no additional cost to you, we will earn a commission if you make a purchase on Amazon after clicking through the links listed above. This will help support this Website.

Back to Culture Topics