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.
Dante played a massive role in making Italian the language it is today. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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?
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.
Fra Angelico was another Italian painter famous for religious pieces. (Sources: Wikimedia Commons)
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.
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.
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.
Titian also painted religious art. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
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.
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.
At the end of the Middle Ages, Giotto was the precursor to the Renaissance. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
It’s undeniable that the greatest painters existed during the Renaissance.
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?
Find a private tutor for Italian lessons to help you master the Italian language: