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Classic Italian Artists

Italian Art 101

With so much wonderful art to see in Rome, it’s useful to have a cheat sheet listing a few of the major artists whose names come up often.

Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598–1680) ushered in the Italian Baroque; you’ll see his work, especially sculpture but also architecture, everywhere you turn, from the colonnade of St. Peter’s to the stupendous Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. He was the first to succeed in capturing the softness of flesh in marble: see the goddess struggle desperately with the grim God of the Underworld in The Rape of Proserpina, in Galleria Borghese. His masterpiece, The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, is at the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria. Many of the more conservative members of the clergy were shocked when this work was unveiled, and it is not hard to see why.

Francesco Borromini (1599–1667), a leading Baroque architect, was Bernini’s eternal rival. The two started their working lives together as assistants to Carlo Maderno. When Maderno died, Borromini, who was introverted and depressive, expected to take over as chief architect of St. Peter’s, but the Pope gave the job to personable, charming Bernini instead. Borromini’s personal masterpiece is the Church of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane. Borromini eventually killed himself, consumed with frustration and jealousy because Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona had totally overshadowed his own work on the facade of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, opposite.

Caravaggio (1571–1610), known as “the Damned” because of his mutinous and dissolute character, was an innovator who changed the concept of painting, introducing the effects of chiaroscuro (light and dark) to create atmosphere and convey moods. Some of his most famous works are three masterpieces dedicated to St. Matthew, in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi near Piazza Navona; many of his other celebrated paintings are in Galleria Borghese. Caravaggio incurred the wrath of the establishment because he portrayed the saints as ordinary people with careworn faces, dirty feet, and ragged clothing, as in The Crucifixion of St. Peter in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo.

Michelangelo (1475–1564) is the uncontested giant of the Renaissance, celebrated in his lifetime and regarded with awe and reverence today. He saw himself as a sculptor but (unwillingly) turned his hand to the colossal job of frescoing the Sistine Chapel ceiling, achieving one of the world’s greatest masterpieces, equaled only by his Last Judgment. To appreciate his genius as a sculptor, see his powerful Moses in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, a total contrast to his delicate and sensitive Pietà in St. Peter’s.

Raphael (1483–1520), a master of the High Renaissance known during his brief lifetime as the “Divine Raphael,” is considered to have achieved levels of perfection seldom approached by other artists. His Madonnas are infused with spirituality and calm, his compositions are models of balance and harmony. He was 25 when he began painting the four rooms in the Vatican Palace that are now known by his name. Perhaps his most famous portrait is La Fornarina, featuring the baker’s daughter who was his lover and perhaps his wife, on view in Palazzo Barberini.

Updated: 2014-07-28

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