Art and Architecture 101

A primer on Italian art and archtiecture

When you mention art in Italy, most people’s thoughts fly first to the Renaissance, to Giotto, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raphael, and Leonardo. But Italy’s artistic heritage actually goes back at least 2,500 years.

Art 101

Classical: Greeks, Etruscans, and Romans (5th century B.C.–A.D. 5th Century)

Today all, or almost all, design roads lead to Milan. In the beginning, though, all roads led from Athens. What the Greeks identified early on that captured the hearts and minds of so many others was classical rendering of form.

To the ancients, classic or classical simply meant perfection—of proportion, balance, harmony, and form. To the Greeks, man was the measure of perfection, an attitude lost in the Middle Ages and not rediscovered until the dawn of the Renaissance.

Although, those early tourists to the Italian peninsula, the Etruscans arrived with their own styles, by the 6th century b.c. they were borrowing heavily from the Greeks in their sculpture (and importing thousands of Attic painted vases).

The Romans, in turn, copied heavily from the Greeks, often ad nauseum as they cranked out countless facsimiles of Greek sculptures to decorate Roman patrician homes and gardens. Bronze portraiture, a technique with Greek and Etruscan roots, was polished to photographic perfection.

Although painting got rather short shrift in ancient Rome (it was used primarily for decorative purposes), bucolic frescoes, the technique of painting on wet plaster, adorned the walls of the wealthy in Rome, some of which is still visible in major museums throughout Italy—as well as still on the walls of ancient building in Rome, Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia Antica.

Mosaics were rather better done, and survive the ages more intact. You can see some of the best Roman mosaic flooring at the Villa of Piazza Armerina in Sicily, the Roman ghost towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia Antica, and at the excavations of Aquileia in the Friuli.

Byzantine and Romanesque (5th–13th centuries)

Artistic expression in the Dark Ages and early medieval Italy was largely church-related. Mass was recited in Latin, so to try and help explain the most important lessons to the illiterate masses, Biblical bas reliefs around the churches' main doors, and wall paintings and altarpieces inside, told key tales to inspire faith in God and fear of sin (Last Judgements were favorites). Otherwise, decoration was spare, and what little existed was often destroyed, replaced, or covered over the centuries as tastes changed and cathedrals were remodeled.

The Byzantine style of painting and mosaic was very stylized and static, an iconographic tradition imported from the remnant eastern half of the Roman Empire centered at Byzantium (its major political outposts in Italy were Ravenna and Venice). Faces (and eyes) were almond-shaped with pointy little chins, noses long with a spoon-like depression at the top, and folds in robes (always Virgin Mary blue over red) represented by stylized cross-hatching in gold leaf.

Romanesque sculpture was somewhat more fluid, but still far from naturalistic, usually idiosyncratic and often wonderfully child-like in its narrative simplicity, frequently freely mixing Biblical scenes with the myths and motifs from local pagan traditions that were being slowly incorporated into early medieval Christianity. Romanesque art was seen as crude by most later periods and usually replaced or destroyed over the centuries; it survives mostly in scraps, innumerable column capitals and tympanums or carvings set above church doors all across Italy.

Some of the best major examples of this era in Northern Italy include the astounding mosaics decorating San Marco cathedral in Venice, a late Byzantine church of domes and glittering array of mosaics—though while the overall effect is indeed Byzantine, many of the mosaics are of various later dates. Verona's San Zeno Maggiore sports 48 relief panels on the bronze doors, one of the most important pieces of Romanesque sculpture in Italy, cast between the 9th and the 11th centuries and flanked by strips of 12th-century stone reliefs. Aosta's Collegiata dei Santi Pietro e Orso on the edge of town preserves part of an 11th-century fresco cycle and 40 remarkable 12th-century carved column capitals in the cloisters.

International Gothic (Late 13th–early 15th centuries)

Late medieval Italian art continued to be largely ecclesiastical. Church facades and pulpits were festooned with statues and carvings. In both Gothic painting and sculpture, figures tended to be more natural than in the Romanesque (and the colors in painting more varied and rich), but highly stylized and rhythmic, the figures' features and gestures exaggerated for symbolic or emotional emphasis. In painting especially, late Gothic artists such as Giotto started introducing greater realism, a sense of depth, and more realistic emotion into their art, sowing the seeds of the Renaissance.
Without a doubt, Giotto (1266–1337) was the greatest Gothic artist, the man who lifted painting from its Byzantine funk and set it on the road to the realism and perspective of the Renaissance. His most renowned work is the fresco cycle of Assisi’s Basilica di San Francesco, but arguably better (and more certain of its authorship) is Padua’s (Padova’s) outstanding Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel. The bulk of great Gothic art resides in Tuscany and Umbria, but Verona was blessed to have Antonio Pisanello (1395–1455), whose frescoes survive in Sant'Anastasia and San Fermo, and in Mantua (Mantova) at the Palazzo Ducale.

Renaissance & Mannerism (Early 15th–mid-17th centuries)

From the 14th to 16th centuries, the popularity of the Humanist movement in philosophy prompted princes and powerful prelates to patronize a generation of innovative young artists. These painters, sculptors, and architects were experimenting with new modes in art and breaking with static medieval traditions to pursue a greater degree of expressiveness and naturalism, using such techniques as linear perspective (actually pioneered by architect Brunelleschi and sculptors Donatello and Ghiberti). The term Renaissance, or "rebirth," was only later applied to this period in Florence, from which the movement spread to the rest of Italy and Europe.
Eventually the High Renaissance began to stagnate, producing vapid works of technical perfection but little substance. Several artists sought ways out of the downward spiral. Mannerism was the most interesting attempt, a movement that found its muse in the extreme torsion of Michelangelo’s figures—in sculpture and painting—and his unusual use of oranges, greens, and other nontraditional colors, most especially in the Sistine Chapel ceiling. In sculpture, Mannerism produced twisting figures in exaggerated contraposto positioning.
This list of Renaissance giants merely scratches the surface of the masters Italy gave rise to in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Donatello (Donato Bardi; ca. 1386–1466) was the first full-fledged Renaissance sculptor, with a patented schiacciato technique of warping low relief surfaces and etching backgrounds in perspective to create a sense of deep space. His bronze and marble figures are some of the most expressive and psychologically probing of the Renaissance. Among his many innovations, this unassuming artist cast the first equestrian bronze since antiquity, the Gattamelata in Padua.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) was the original “Renaissance Man,” dabbling his genius in a bit of everything from art to philosophy to science (on paper, he even designed machine guns and rudimentary helicopters). Little of his remarkable painting survives, however, as he often experimented with new pigment mixes that proved to lack the staying power of traditional materials. Leonardo invented such painterly effects as the fine haze of sfumato, “a moisture-laden atmosphere that delicately veils . . . forms.” Unfortunately, the best example of this effect, his fresco of The Last Supper in Milan (1495–97), is sadly deteriorated, and even the ongoing multidecade restoration is saving but a shadow of the fresco’s glory. See his Portrait of a Musician in the Pinacoteca Ambrosiana for a better-preserved example.
Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475–1564), heavyweight contender for world’s greatest artist ever, was a genius in sculpture, painting, architecture, and poetry. He marked the apogee of the Renaissance. A complex and difficult man—intensely jealous, probably manic-depressive, and certainly homosexual—Michelangelo enjoyed great fame in a life plagued by a series of never-ending projects commissioned by Pope Julius II—including Rome's Sistine Chapel frescoes. Michelangelo worshiped the male nude as the ultimate form and twisted the bodies of his figures (torsion) in different, often contradictory directions (contraposto) to bring out their musculature. When forced against his will to paint the Sistine Chapel, he broke almost all the rules and sent painting headlong in an entirely new direction—the mannerist movement—marked by nonprimary colors, Impressionistic shapes of light, and twisting muscular figures. While you'll have to go to Florence and Rome to see his greatest works, including the David, you can admire his final work (for free no less) in Milan, an oddly modern, elongated Pietà he was still working when he died at age 89.
Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio; 1483–1520) is rightfully considered one of Western art’s greatest draftsman. Raphael produced a body of work in his 37 short years that ignited European painters for generations to come. So it's only fitting that his only significant work in Northern Italy, kept in Milan's Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, is a sketch, one for the School of Athens, the fresco of which graces the papal apartments of the Vatican, at once a celebration of Renaissance artistic precepts, the classical philosophers whose rediscovery spurred on the Renaissance, and Raphael's contemporaries (the various "philosophers" are actually portraits of Leonardo, Bramante, and Raphael himself—Michelangelo is not in the sketch, but was added in the painting).
All those artists hailed from central Italy. Now we get to some home-grown Northern Italian talents. Though his father Jacopo (1400–1471) and brother Gentile (1429–1507) were also fine practitioners of the family business (Jacopo really more from a Gothic vein, a student of Gentile da Fabriano and rival to Pisanello), it was Giovanni Bellini (1430–1516) who towered above them all with his painterly talent, limpid colors, sculptured forms, and complex compositions. Both he and his brother are best represented by works in Venice's Accademia and Palazzo Ducale as well as Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera. Giovanni Bellini's style and talent reverberated through Venetian art for generations; he himself taught the likes of Titian, Giorgione, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Palma il Vecchio.
Gentile and Giovanni had a sister, too, and as it happened she married a young painter named Andrea Mantegna (1431–1506). Mantegna excelled at three of the main tenets of Renaissance art: he was an early perfector of perspective (which he could warp masterfully), a keen observer of anatomy (which he modeled with sculptural exactitude), and he made careful studies of ancient architecture (the proportions and details of which he incorporated into his paintings). You'll find Mantegna's paintings throughout the region, from his early Madonna and Child with Saints altarpiece for Verona's San Zeno, to his work as court painter to the Gonzagas in Mantua (the Palazzo Ducale's Camera degli Sposi), to his unparalleled Dead Christ, considered the masterpiece of Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera (no small honor, considering the heavyweights inhabiting the premiere art gallery in Northern Italy).
Titian (Tiziano Vecellio; 1485–1576) was the father of the Venetian High Renaissance, who imparted to the school his love of color and tonality and exploration of the effects of light on darkened scenes. In Venice, you'll find his works everywhere, from canvases in the Accademia collections to altarpieces decorating churches such as the Frari to his early and famous Battle scene (1513) in the Palazzo Ducale's Sala del Maggior Consiglio.
After Titian, 16th-century Venetian art was dominated by two powerful talents, Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti; 1518–94). Tintoretto was something of a Venetian Mannerist, using a rapid, loose brushwork and a slightly somber, shadow-filled take on the tones of Titian's palette that together imparted a realism and vitality to his painting. Venice's Accademia has some works, of course, but his crowning glory is the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, for which he painted well over a dozen large scale canvases. He also holds the honor of having produced (with the help of son Domenico) the largest oil painting in the world (23' x 79'), the Paradise decorating the end wall of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio in the Palazzo Ducale.
Verona-born Paolo Veronese (Paolo Caliari; 1528–88) has a much brighter, tighter style, and he loved crowding his canvases with hordes of extras straight out of 16th-century central casting. In fact, his broad inclusion of earthy details ran him afoul of the Counter-Reformation spirit of the times, and he only avoided incurring the church's wrath over the crowd of serving wenches and slave boys populating a Last Supper he painted by hastily re-titling it Feast in the House of Levi (now in Venice's Accademia). The church of San Sebastiano boasts his ceiling frescoes, but it’s the Palazzo Ducale that bookends the career of Veronese. His earliest Venetian commissions (1553) were for paintings in the chambers where two groups in the highest echelon's of Venice's ruling body met, the Sala del Consilgio dei Dieci and the Sala dei Tre Capi del Consilgio. One of his final works (finished by his studio) was the huge Apothesis of Venice decorating the ceiling of the Sala del Maggior Consiglio. Veronese would be the main artist to inspire Tiepolo and others in Venice's next generation of baroque artists.

baroque and rococo (Late 16th–18th centuries)

The baroque is a more theatrical and decorative take on the Renaissance, mixing a kind of super-realism based on the peasant models and chiaroscuro (harsh light and exaggeratedly dark shadows) of Caravaggio with compositional complexity and explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures. Rococo is this later baroque art gone awry, frothy and chaotic.
The baroque period produced many fine artists, but only a few true geniuses, and most of them (including Caravaggio and Bernini) worked in Rome and the south. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770) was by a long shot the best rococo artist there was, influenced by his Venetian late-Renaissance predecessors but also the Roman and Neapolitan baroque. His specialty was painting ceiling frescoes (and canvases meant to be placed in a ceiling) that opened up the space into frothy, cloud-filled Heavens of light, angels, and pale, sun-rise colors. Though he painted many works for Veneto villas, including the sumptuous Villa Valmarana and Villa Pisani, he also spent much of his time traveling throughout Europe on long commissions (his work in Wu[um]rzburg, Germany, enjoys distinction as the largest ceiling fresco in the world). His son Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo (1727–1804) carried on the family tradition in a Venice increasingly ruled by genre masters like Antonio Canaletto (1697–1738), whose ultra-realistic scenes of Venetian canals and palaces were snapped up by the collectors from across the Alps who began sniffing around Italy on their Grand Tour.

Late 18th Century to Today

After carrying the artistic church of innovation for over a millennium, Italy ran out of steam with the baroque, leaving countries such as France to develop the heights of neoclassicism (though Italy produced a few fine neoclassical sculptures) and late 19th century Impressionism (Italians had their own version, called the Macchiaioli). Italy has not played an important role in late-19th–20th-century art, though it has produced a few great artists, all of whose works grace the excellent Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan, as well as in the Palazzo Reale.
Antonio Canova (1757–1822) was Italy's top neoclassical sculptor, popular for his mythological figures and Bonaparte portraits (he even did both Napoléon and his sister Pauline as nudes); in addition to the Brera, you'll find his work in Venice's Museo Correr. Giovanni Fattori (1825–1908) was the best of the Macchiaioli, fond of battle scenes and landscapes populated by the Maremma's long-horned white cattle.
A sickly boy and only moderately successful in his short lifetime, Amadeo Modigliani (1884–1920) helped re-invent the portrait in painting and sculpture after he moved to Paris in 1906. He is famed for his elongated, mysterious heads and rapidly painted nudes. Check them out at Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera. Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) was the founder of freaky metafisica, "Metaphysical Painting," a forerunner of Surrealism wherein figures and objects are stripped of their usual meaning through odd juxtapositions, warped perspective and reality, unnatural shadows, and other bizarre effects, and a general spatial emptiness. Giorgio Morandi (1890–1964) was influenced by metafisica in his eerily minimalist, highly modeled, quasi-monochrome still-lifes. His paintings also decorate Turin's Galleria d'Arte Moderna.
Italian artists living in 1909 Paris made a spirited attempt to take the artistic initiative back into Italian hands, but the Futurist movement Umberto Boccioni (1882–1916) came up with was largely Cubism with an element of movement added in (Duchamp-esque). Gino Severini (1883–1966) contributed a sophisticated take on color which rubbed of on the core Cubists as well. Both are represented at Milan's Pinacoteca di Brera and the Palazzo Reale.

Architecture 101

While each architectural era has its own distinctive features, there are some elements, general floor plans, and terms common to many. Also, some features may appear near the end of one era and continue through several later ones.
From the Romanesque period on, most churches consist either of a single wide aisle, or a wide central nave flanked by two narrow aisles. The aisles are separated from the nave by a row of columns, or by square stacks of masonry called piers, usually connected by arches.
This main nave/aisle assemblage is usually crossed by a perpendicular corridor called a transept near the far, east end of the church so that the floor plan looks like a Latin Cross (shaped like a Crucifix). The shorter, east arm of the nave is the holiest area, called the chancel; it often houses the stalls of the choir and the altar. If the far end of the chancel is rounded off, we call it an apse. An ambulatory is a curving corridor outside the altar and choir area, separating it from the ring of smaller chapels radiating off the chancel and apse.
Some churches, especially after the Renaissance when mathematical proportion became important, were built on a Greek Cross plan, each axis the same length. By the baroque, funky shapes became popular, with churches built in the round, or as ellipses, and so forth.
It’s worth pointing out that very few buildings (especially churches) were built in only one particular style. These massive, expensive structures often took centuries to complete, during which time tastes would change and plans would be altered.

Ancient Rome (1st Century B.C.–A.D. 4th Century)

The Romans made use of certain Greek innovations, particularly architectural ideas. The first to be adopted was post-and-lintel construction—essentially, a weight-bearing frame, like a door. Later came adaptation of Greek columns for supporting buildings, following the classical orders of Doric column capitals (the plain ones) on the ground floor, Ionic capitals (with the scrolls on either end) on the next level, and Corinthian capitals (flowering with acanthus leaves) on the top.
Romans thrived on huge complex problems for which they could produce organized, well-crafted solutions. Roman builders became inventive engineers, developing hoisting mechanisms and a specially trained workforce. They designed towns, built civic centers, raised grand temples and public baths, and developed the basilica, a rectangle supported by arches atop columns along both sides of the interior and with an apse at one or both ends. Basilicas were used for courts of justice, banking, and other commercial structures. The design was repeated all over the Roman world, beginning around the 1st century a.d. Later, early Christians adapted the architectural style for the first grand churches, still called basilicas.
Although marble is traditionally associated with Roman architecture, Roman engineers could also do wonders with bricks or even prosaic concrete. Their urban planning still stamps the street layouts of cities from Aosta (which preserves a gate and theater stage) to Brescia (with an ancient temple and theater remaining in the city center) to Verona (which preserves a magnificent ancient amphitheater still used for performances).

Romanesque (A.D. 800–1300)

The Romanesque took its inspiration and rounded arches from ancient Rome (hence the name). Romanesque architects concentrated on building large churches with wide aisles to fit the masses who came both to hear the priests say Mass, but mainly to worship at the altars of various saints. But to support the weight of all that masonry, the walls had to be thick and solid (meaning they could be pierced only by few and rather small windows) resting on huge piers, giving Romanesque churches a dark, somber, mysterious, and often oppressive feeling.
The most identifiable Romanesque feature is rounded arches. These load-bearing architectural devices allowed the architects to open up wide naves and spaces, channeling all the weight of the stone walls and ceiling across the curve of the arch and down into the ground via the columns or pilasters. The style also made use of blind arcades, decorative bands of "filled-in" arches, the columns engaged in the wall and the arches' curves on top protruding mere inches. Set into each arch's curve is often a lozenge, a diamond-shaped decoration, often inlaid with colored marbles.
Modena's Duomo (12th century) marks one of the earliest appearances of rounded arches, and its facade is covered with great Romanesque reliefs; Cremona's Duomo is no slouch either. The Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan (11th–12th century) is festooned with the tiered loggias and arcades that would become hallmarks of the Lombard Romanesque.

Gothic (Late 12th–early 15th centuries)

By the late 12th century, engineering developments—most significantly the pointed arch, which could bear a much heavier load than a rounded one—freed architects from the heavy, thick walls of Romanesque structures and allowed ceilings to soar, walls to thin, and windows to proliferate.
Instead of dark, somber, relatively unadorned Romanesque interiors that forced the eyes of the faithful toward the altar and its priest droning on in unintelligible Latin, the Gothic churchgoer's gaze was drawn up to high ceilings filled with light, a window unto heaven. The priests still gibbered in a dead language, but now peasants could "read" the Gothic comic books of colorful frescoes lining the walls and panels in stained glass windows.
In addition to those pointy arches, another Gothic innovation was the famous flying buttress. These free-standing exterior pillars connected by graceful, thin arms of stone help channel the weight of the building and its roof out and down into the ground. To help counter the cross-forces involved in this engineering sleight of hand, the piers of buttresses were often topped by heavy pinnacles or statues. Inside, the general pointiness continues with cross vaults: The square patch of ceiling between four columns instead of being flat would arch up to a point in the center, creating four sail shapes, sort of like the underside of a pyramid with bulging faces. The "X" separating these four sails was often reinforced with ridges called ribbing. As the Gothic style progressed, four-sided cross-vaults would become six-, eight-, or multi-sided as architects played with the angles they could make. In addition, tracery—delicate, lacy spider webs of carved stone curly-cues—graced the pointy end of windows and just about any acute angle throughout the architecture.
The true, French-style Gothic only flourished in Northern Italy, and the best example is Milan's massive Cathedral, a festival of pinnacles, buttresses, and pointy arches begun in the late 14th century. Venice's I Frari is a bit airier and boxier; Padua's Basilica di Sant'Antonio is largely Gothic, though its Romanesque facade and Byzantine domes try to throw you off. In palace architecture, the Venetian developed a distinctive style of insetting lacy, lithe, pointed marble windows with a distinct eastern flair into pale pastel plaster walls. This is seen in countless palaces across Venice, but most strikingly in its most lavish: Ca' d'Oro, Ca' Foscari, and the model against which all were measured, the Palazzo Ducale itself.

Renaissance (15th–17th centuries)

As in painting, Renaissance architectural rules stressed proportion, order, classical inspiration, and mathematical precision to create unified, balanced structures. It was probably a Florentine architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, in the early 1400s, who first truly grasped the concept of “perspective,” and provided artists with ground rules for creating the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface.
The early Renaissance was truly codified by central Italian architects working in Florence and Rome, though influential early Florentine theorist Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72) built structures across Italy, including Sant'Andrea in Mantua. Urbino-born Donato Bramante (1444–1514), who would find fame in Rome building St. Peter's, got his start in Milan by converting the older church of San Satiro and rebuilding the altar end of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
The undisputed master of the High Renaissance was Andrea Palladio (1508–80) from the Veneto, who worked in a much more strictly classical mode of columns, porticoes, pediments, and other ancient temple–inspired features (see the “Andrea Palladio—Father of Neoclassicism” box, below). In Venice, Jacopo Sansovino (1486–1570) reigned supreme, his loggia and Libreria Sansoviniana lining St. Mark's Square becoming a cornerstone of the High Renaissance, to be copied and repeated in such far-flung architectural endeavors as the cast iron facades in New York's SoHo district.
Raphael protégé Giulio Romano (1492–1546) designed Mantua's impressive Palazzo Te; Galeazzo Alessi (1512–72) was the premiere architect of Genoa's famed palaces, many of which are now museums.

[SWSH]          Andrea Palladio—Father of Neoclassicism

Order, balance, elegance, harmony with the landscape, and a human scale are all apparent in the creations of architect Andrea Palladio (1508–80). Palladio was working as a stonemason and sculptor when, at 30, inspired by the design of ancient buildings he studied on trips to Rome, he turned his hand to architecture and applied the principles of classical proportion to Renaissance ideals of grace, symmetry, and functionality. Vicenza, the little city near Venice where Palladio lived as a boy and where he returned in his prime, is graced with many Palladian palazzi and a church as well as his Teatro Olympico. In Venice, he designed the churches of San Giorgio Maggiore and Redentore.
     Palladio is best known, though, for the villas he built on the flat plains of the Veneto for Venetian nobles yearning to escape the cramped city. Nineteen of these villas still stand, including what may be his finest, La Rotunda, outside Vicenza. The design of this and Palladio’s other villas—square, perfectly proportioned, elegant yet functional—may strike a note of familiarity with American and British visitors: Palladio influenced generations of architects who followed his lead when they designed neoclassical plantation houses in the American South and country estates in England, his "Palladian" style informing everything from British architecture to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.
     Other Palladio masterpieces include Vicenza's Palazzo della Ragione and Palazzo Valmarana (1566), and in the Veneto countryside around Vicenza the Villa Babaro and Villa Foscari. His final work is the Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza (1580), an attempt to reconstruct a Roman theater stage backdrop as described in ancient writings. He also designed the Venetian churches San Giorgio Maggiore (1565–1610) and Il Redentore.

baroque & rococo (17th–18th Centuries)

More than any other movement, the baroque aimed toward a seamless meshing of architecture and art. The stuccoes, sculptures, and paintings were all carefully designed to complement each other—and the space itself—to create a unified whole. This whole was both aesthetic and narrative, the various art forms all working together to tell a single Biblical story (or, often, to subtly relate the deeds of the commissioning patron to great historic or Biblical events).
In the baroque, classical architecture is rewritten with curves, like a Renaissance where many of the crisp angles and ruler-straight lines are exchanged for curves of complex geometry and an interplay of concave and convex. The overall effect is to lighten the appearance of structures and add movement of line and vibrancy to the static look of the classical Renaissance.
Unlike the sometimes severe and austere designs of the Renaissance, the baroque was playful. Architects festooned structures and encrusted interiors with an excess of decorations intended to liven things up—lots of ornate stuccowork, pouty cherubs, airy frescoes, heavy gilding, twisting columns, multicolored marbles, and general frippery.
The baroque was also a movement of multiplying forms. The baroque asked why make do with one column when you can stack a half dozen partial columns on top of each other, slightly offset, until the effect is like looking at a single column though a fractured kaleidoscope? The baroque loved to pile up its forms and elements to create a rich, busy effect, breaking a pediment curve into segments so each would protrude further out than the last, or building up an architectural feature by stacking short sections of concave walls, each one curving to a different arc.
Rococo is the baroque gone awry into the grotesque, excessively complex and dripping with decorative tidbits.
The baroque flourished across Italy, but frankly little of it was truly inspired architecture. You'll find good examples in Venice's Santa Maria della Salute, and especially in Turin, from the Castellamonte-designed Piazza San Carlo to the great works of Guarino Guarini (San Lorenzo, Palazzo Carignano, the San Sidone chapel for the Holy Shroud in the cathedral), and Filippo Juvarra (Basilica di Superga, Palazzina di Stupinigi).

neoclassical to Modern (18th–21st Centuries)

By the middle of the 18th century as a backlash against the excesses of the baroque and rococo, architects, inspired by the rediscovery of Pompeii and other ancient sites, began turning to the austere simplicity and grandeur of the classical age and inaugurated a neoclassical style. The classical ideals of mathematical proportion and symmetry, first rediscovered during the Renaissance, are the hallmark of every classically-styled era—a reinterpretation of ancient temples into buildings and massive colonnaded porticos. Northern Italy's two famed opera houses are both excellent neoclassical exercises: Milan's La Scala and Venice's La Fenice. To see perhaps the best example of the chilliness the neoclassical style often entailed, pop into Padua's Caffè Pedrocchi for a cappuccino (interestingly, the architect, Giuseppe Japelli—who also worked in rococo and Palladian idioms—drew inspiration not just from Classical Greece/Rome, but also ancient Egypt).
Italy's take on the early-20th-century Art Nouveau movements was called Liberty. Like all Art Nouveau, decorators rebelling against the era of mass production stressed a craft uniqueness, creating asymmetrical, curvaceous designs based on organic inspiration (plants and flowers) and using wrought iron, stained glass, tile, and hand-painted wallpaper.
The Industrial Age of the 19th century brought with it the first genteel shopping malls of glass and steel girders, such as the famed Galleria in Milan. Mussolini made a spirited attempt to bring back ancient Rome in what can only be called Fascist architecture: Deco meets Caesar. Monumentally imposing and chillingly stark white marble structures are surrounded by classical-style statues. Fascist architecture still infests all corners of Italy, though most of the Right Wing reliefs and the repeated engravings of "DVCE"—Mussolini's nickname for himself—have long since been chipped out. One of the best, easily accessible, oft-overlooked examples is Milan's massive train station (so if you're stuck with a long wait, wander outside to squint up at the weird Deco gargoyles and call your lay-over sightseeing).
Fitting into no style is Turin's truly odd Mole Antonellina (1863–97) designed as a synagogue but later put to various uses (currently, it is a film museum). Its squat brick base is topped by a steep cone supporting several layers of Greek temples piled one atop the other at right angles, capped off in turn by a needlelike spire at 552 feet.
Since then, Italy has mostly poured concrete and glass skyscrapers like the rest of us, though a few architects in the medium have stood out. The mid–20th century was dominated by Pier Luigi Nervi (1891–1979) and his reinforced concrete buildings, including Turin's Exposition Hall (1949). Italy's greatest living architect, Pritzker Prize–winning Renzo Piano (born 1937), lives in Paris and most of his great commissions, including the Pompidou, are outside Italy.

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