An Italian Holiday Tradition

Gli Zampognari

In the days before Christmas, from the mountains of the Abruzzo, the Matese and the Sannio, the zampognari come down to the cities to add their sonorous magic to the spirit of the coming Holiday. By tradition they come in pairs, in traditional garb: the senior member plays the zampogna (a kind of bagpipe), while the junior partner play the piffero (a kind of oboe.) Always the repertoire includes “Tu scendi dalle Stelle”, the most beloved and best known Italian carol.


In those times

To us Italians living in self-imposed exile (at least for those of us coming from South of Rome), the sight and the memory of the zampognari are poignant reminders of an Italy that is all but vanished, of a simpler time, of a smaller close-knit world of family members and friends, of a lifestyle that played out almost entirely in the home, the local school, the church, the nearby bar, and the town square dominated by the clock tower. All within walking distance. A trip to the big city, 30 kilometers away, was a sometime thing, a serious undertaking, perhaps a treat for a small boy, offered as a reward for some significant milestone, such as a graduation. And the progress of the seasons was marked by unvarying milestones that spooled their stately way across the months: the hanging of the sorb bush outside the balcony, the making of the sanguinaccio by the severe black-clad women who lived downstairs, the bottling of the tomatoes, the taralli at Easter, the return of the swallows to their mud nests built in the seams between the beams and the flat ceiling. And, of course, the advent of the zampognari.

In those times there were no Santa Claus and no Christmas tree; there were instead the Befana and the Presepe. The Befana, a good witch, brought gifts to children who had been good on January 6 (the Feast of the Epiphany.) Adults did not exchange gifts in this simpler time: the preoccupation with basic needs was still too immediate to allow detours into discretionary items acquired simply for reasons of status, aesthetics, or amusement.

And now…

But that was then, and this is now. Italians now have Santa Claus and Christmas trees, and the trickle of holiday shoppers is morphing into a torrent. Italians are fond of giving and receiving artwork, custom-designed jewelry, and household items that combine functionality with beauty and tradition. Come Christmas, fashion-conscious young girls promenading along Via Veneto or Via Toledo will sport sparkling Murano glass pendants and intricately crafted earrings, the walls of Italian homes will be newly-hung with original Italian paintings and classic photographs recalling an earlier era, and the lady of the house will be enjoying her new Deruta bowls and serving platters. The old ones, after all, will be thrown out of the window with the outgoing year come December 31.

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The Nativity Scene in Italian Art – 2

Neapolitan Nativity Scene
Neapolitan Nativity Scene

In Naples, where the most elaborate creations eventually took place, we have a record of a Presepe given by Queen Sancia to the Poor Clares in 1370.  Development was subsequently rapid, with artists such as Giovanni and Pietro Alemanno and Giovanni da Nola.  The Presepe became mobile, based on wooden sculptures crafted to scale.  Artisans became ever more skilled in creating the “pastori”, eventually adding articulated limbs, wigs, glass eyes, lifelike bare skin.  At the same time the background was developing, the setting became important.  Perspective and special illumination were used, decorative elements were added, attention was paid to colors and the use of reflective surfaces.  In effect the Presepe outstripped its original function of representing  the bare Nativity, and became an artistic ideal in its own right, becoming more and more secularized in the process.  The scope of the representation also expanded: it was now not just the shepherds  and the Magi who came to worship the newborn Christ, but people from all walks of life, the baker, the butcher, the candle-maker…, all in the typical dress of their day and trade.

The Nativity scene is of course represented in very many countries all over the world, and it is fascinating to see how native cultural elements are incorporated into the Diversorium.  The pastori exhibit local physiognomies and local dress, architectural elements echo the architecture of the country, vegetation and other decorative elements are modeled after local examples.  The fidelity that is lost in giving up the attempt to represent the Palestinian landscape of 2000 years ago is more than made up for by the ecumenical union of all believers and by the implicit declaration that the event represented transcends any local characterization and holds a message for all mankind.

In Naples, particularly, we find that unique blend of classicism and religious art that had swept the Peninsula since the Quattrocento.  Thus, a Neapolitan Presepe may depict the grotto of the Nativity next to Roman columns, with the Vesuvio in the background and perhaps even the sea, Naples’ sea, somewhere in the scene.  Today the most spectacular collection of Presepi is found at the Museo di San Martino in Naples.  In these examples, rich in baroque detail and symbolism, some of the figures may be arrayed in valuable cloth and may be wearing real jewels.

The artistic/religious theme began to wane in the 19th century, and the Presepe became a commercial commodity, within reach of most families who wanted to recreate the Nativity scene, in a more or less simplified form, in their own homes.  Today one can buy most representational elements in a wide variety of sizes and assemble them at home – typically a joyous activity that involves the whole family.  A famous street in Naples, San Gregorio Armeno, houses most Neapolitan Presepe artisans, and the neighborhood comes alive every Christmas as hordes of Neapolitans and tourists alike prowl the shops in search of pastori, I Re Magi, il Bue e l’Asinello, the Angels, il Bebe’, and perhaps the Tavern-Keeper and the Shoe Maker.

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The Nativity Scene in Italian Art – 1

Nativity scene
Italian Nativity Scene

The Nativity Scene, called the “Presepe” in Italian, began with Saint Francis of Assisi, who re-enacted the scene of Christ’s birth in a living tableau in Greccio in 1223.  While conventional two-dimensional representations of the Nativity were plentiful in medieval and Renaissance Italy, the idea of a three-dimensional representation achieved via sculpted figures was slow to take off.  The earliest known artist to have attempted this was Arnolfo di Cambio, who, in 1283, created a representation “del tutto tondo”, in his own words.  But it was not until the first half of the Seicento that great advances in this new art form were made, starting in Lombardia  and Liguria and then extending elsewhere.  The artists associated with these advances were Antonio Bagarelli at Modena, Guido Mazzoni a Piobbico, Federico Brandani at Urbino, etc.

There are three themes that are played out in the Presepe.  They are the Mystery, the Annunciation, and the Diversorium.  The Mystery is of course, in Christian doctrine, the mystery of the Son of God taking on a human nature for the salvation of mankind,  The Annunciation in this context refers to announcing the fateful event to the world, symbolised by the shepherds receiving word from the Angel.  The Diversorium is a fancy Latin word which refers to the location, in this case the hut, in which the holy birth takes place.

The tale of the Nativity on which the Presepe is based can be found in Luke and Matthew.  Origen added the now canonical bue e asinello in the third century.  A point of deep theological import was the depiction of the Virgin Mary.  Should she be represented as a woman who had just given birth, attended by midwives and fortune tellers, as was common at that time?  Or should she be shown immune to the stress and the pain of human childbirth?  The former representation emphasised heavily the human nature of Christ; the second brought to the fore His divine nature, making it seem that his birth had not been of the normal human variety.

The Presepe as an art form reached its zenith in the Bourbon Naples of the 18th century.  A later article will detail its progress from these small beginning to the baroque masterpieces housed at the Museo di San Martino.

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Benvenuto Cellini – Italian Goldsmith

Cellini's "Saliera" in gold, enamel, and ivory
Cellini's "Saliera"

If one were to name a single Italian artist who most perfectly embodies the turbulence and the genius of late Renaissance Italy that artist would certainly be Benvenuto Cellini, unexcelled goldsmith, sculptor, painter, musician, but also a lawless murderer whose life was marked by violent conflict whenever his immoderate appetites were thwarted or his professional preeminence challenged. Benvenuto was also a successful military man, hailed as a hero at the Siege of Rome in 1527, rewarded by the Pope for his military prowess, and a distinguished participant in the conflict between his native city of Florence and its rival Siena. As if all this were not enough, Benvenuto was also the author of an acclaimed Autobiography, which is relentlessly self-promoting but magnificently captures the spirit of those restless times.

Benvenuto’s life is the stuff of film and legend. His travels spanned the great centers of Italian art, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice. He was a friend of Popes and kings, spending several years at the court of Francis I of France, immersed in court intrigues and controversies. During his stay in Rome he murdered a couple out of jealousy, because he was in love with the MAN. He was for a period jailed in Castel Sant’Angelo, from which he tried to escape in the best tradition of a Dumas novel. He suffered both legs broken in the process, and was nearly executed but for the timely intercession of powerful friends.

But it is of course his art that has made him immortal, and of all the art forms in which he excelled his predilection was goldsmithing and the carving of intricately beautiful objects. Some of his most notable works are the Saliera (The Salt Cellar), carved in gold, ivory and enamel, pictured in this article. The Saliera itself has a checkered history: made for Francis I of France it eventually made its way to the Vienna Museum, from which it was stolen in 2006. Only recently was it recovered and restored to its former home in Austria.

Famous are also his gold medallions, among which we may mention “Leda and the Swan”, also in Vienna, “Hercules and the Nemean Lion”, in gold repousse’, and “Atlas supporting the Sphere”, in chased gold. An outstanding Cricifix carved in ivory is housed at the Escorial, outside Madrid. And his “Perseus with the Head of Medusa” is a magnificent example of his larger sculptures.

Cellini died in his native city, Florence, in 1571. Straddling the end of the Italian Renaissance and the birth of Mannerism, he was truly a figure of myth, incomparable artist, swashbuckling adventurer, at the mercy of strong passions, and an accomplished author.

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Le Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome

Scuderie Art Museum
Le Scuderie del Quirinale

Some of the most acclaimed art exhibits to have taken place in Rome in recent years have been held at the Scuderie del Quirinale.  These have included works from quintessentially Italian artists, such as Antonello da Messina and Giovanni Bellini, as well as international collections on loan from from their permanent homes.  Such were the 100 Masterworks of the Hermitage and the masterworks of the Guggenheim, of which more later.  Notable other exhibits were Birth of an Empire, the Ottocento, Pop Art, Metaphysics, and Futurism.Over a scant 10 years the 32 exhibits hosted at the Scuderie have been characterized by uncompromising professionalism and unflagging passion, with the result that this former Museum of the Carriage has been indelibly etched in the memories of artists, art historians, and of the public, as one of the more prestigious venues of its kind in the world.  The physical building is itself interesting, and, as is true for many buildings in Italy, has a somewhat mysterious history which is well worth recounting.

Built in the first half of the 18th century, the building is located between the Piazza del Quirinale and the Salita di Montecavallo.  For the first two centuries of life its quiet purpose was to provide logistic support to its more imposing and important neighbor, the Palazzo del Quirinale, which is the Italian equivalent of the American White House in Washington.  One of the roles played by the Scuderie was to serve as a garage for the conveyances of the Pope, and, later, of the Italian royal family.  In the 80’s it was turned into a museum, the Museo delle Carrozze, in recognition of its early role as a rimessa.

The Exhibitions

A new life for the Scuderie began in1997, when the Office of the Italian Presidency, to which the building belongs, gave permission to the Commune of Rome to remodel and use the historic building for major art exhibitions.  Following an international competition, the architect Gae Aulenti was selected to restore the structure and design the exhibition spaces.  The work was performed in record time, just in time to inaugurate the new millennium.  On December 21, 1999, this most recent addition to the world’s top-tier exhibition halls was officially launched with the attendance of the President of the Republic, the Mayor of Rome, and the Italian Minister of Culture.  At its launch the Scuderie featured the 100 Masterworks of the Hermitage, obtained on loan from Saint Petersburg, the largest outpouring of art in that museum’s history.  Included were masterworks by Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin, Rousseau  le Douanier, Vlaminck, Derein, Vallotton, Vuillard, Sisley, Pisarro, Matisse e Picasso.  They were to remain at the Scuderie until June 2000.  Five years later, in 2005, there followed an equally important exhibit, the Masterworks of the Guggenheim, which definitely solidified the position of the Scuderie as one of the premier artistic centers of international collectivism.

Another important paradigm that animates the choice and programmation of exhibited material derives from the expressed goal to enhance the public’s understanding and appreciation for Italian classical and modern art.  This goal has been amply supported by great exhibits dedicated to such figures as Botticelli, Alberto Burri, Antonello da Messina.  Entire historical periods, such as the Renaissance and the Risorgimento, have been featured.  The place of Italian art in the larger context of international art has been explored in a series of thoughtful and innovative shows (Maestà di Roma, Rembrandt, Metafisica, Velazquez, Bernini, Luca Giordano, Da Giotto a Malevic. La reciproca meraviglia, Dürer e l’Italia.)

Not least of the Scuderie’s endeavors is carrying out a mainly summer program dedicated to the great figures of the international cultural scene (Sebastiāo Salgado, Wim Wenders e Santiago Calatrava.)  These are extraordinary events that manage to deliver maximum enjoyment and comprehensibility to the public, while retaining  maximum historical and artistic rigor and innovation.

The Scuderie, after 10 years of uninterrupted successful exhibitions, represents simultaneously the realization of an ambitious artistic goal and a departure point for similarly important endeavors in the future.

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The Venetian Gondola in Italian Art

Venezia e i suoi Spendori
Venezia - Canaletto

The gondola is simply the symbol of Venice, a unique Italian city often described as the most romantic city in the world.  Born early on as a canoe, later it became the stylized and elegant black boat we all know and admire. The polished black vessel  is propelled easily with a single oar by one man, in the traditional stand up position that has come to be known as the “Venetian Rowing” (Voga alla Veneziana).  We  must add that it is  the only big boat in the world which can be controlled with agility by just one person, yes, our beloved”Gondoliere”.  The Gondoliere is traditionally a man’s profession and the job is often passed from father to son. At this time there are 425 licensed Gondoliers in the official  Venetian Gondoliers Association, and though several women have tried to become licensed Gondoliers, so far none has been able to pass the grueling testing to become licensed in the city of Venice.  Many women have tried and failed.  Testing  candidates must demonstrate  the physical strength  and the skills to safely navigate currents and paddle in reverse and the ability to handle a 35-foot-long gondola.  It must be clarified that many male candidates fail the test as well.
The  typical Gondola is approximately eleven meters long, with an average width of 1.40 meters, weighing from 400 kilos to about 600 kilos, and it is composed of 280 parts made  from eight different kinds of wood, and it can take up to 2 years to build.  The bottom of the gondola is flat so as to navigate safely even in very shallow waters.   The gondola is asymmetric with the left side  larger than the right by 24 cm.  The asymmetry and slight inclination  on one side causes the gondola to resist the tendency to turn toward the left at the forward stroke.

The origin of the name “gondola” is controversial: some speculate that the origin of the name comes from latin word cymbula (little boat) or from concula (shell). Others guess it may have something to do with the italian verb “dondolare”  and others still  speculate the name comes from the greek word kuntelas, which is formed by the combination of  the words kontos (short) and helas (shuttle). We find a first official note about a gondulam in 1094, in which a decree of the Doge made mention of it.

During the golden age of the ‘Serenissima’, the independent Republic of Venice,  the gondola was not only a means of transportation but it offered both shelter from bad weather and privacy for the passengers, adopting   a closed cabin placed in the center of the Gondola. The delighted passengers could enjoy drinks, food, conversation or romance in complete confidentiality, surrounded only by the waters of the Adriatic Sea.  During the hot summer nights Venetians would cool off while showing off their finery by removing the cabin.  Therefore the gondola also became a social status symbol.  Today, thousands of tourists happily, and somewhat in awe, enjoy the luxury once only reserved to the Venetian aristocracy.

Because of its graceful shape, its cultural significance, and its iconic status, the Venetian gondola has been represented in Italian paintings repeatedly.  Economical prints of Venice, many featuring the gondola as the main subject, others merely including it in the background, abound in art and print stores.  The sight of a gondola says unequivocally Venice, just as the sight of the Vesuvius says unequivocally Naples and the sight of the Coliseum says unequivocally Rome.  However, the gondola is not widely found in the works of the Renaissance Venetian masters, such as Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, etc.  Bellini’s Miracle of the Cross at San Lorenzo (1500) is an exception, and the gondolas represented herein are more primitive versions of today’s elaborate boats.  More than two hundred years had to elapse before the gondola was able to take honor of place in the works of Canaletto (The Grand Canal toward Rialto, 1720) and Bellotto (Il Rio dei Mendicanti, 1740).  The main reason for this is probably the early masters’ overweening preoccupation with biblical subjects, but it probably also points to the utilitarian status of the early gondola, regarded simply as a useful conveyance rather than a subject worthy of an artist’s attention.

Contemporary artists whose original works feature the Venetian gondola with skill and passion include Angelica Di Chiara and Linda Lowry, among others.

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Italian Painting – The Later Masters in Venetian Art

Veronese - Happy Union
Veronese - Happy Union

No account of Venetian art would be complete without at least a quick summary of the works of Giorgione, Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto.

Giorgione was a major contributor to the development of the Venetian Renaissance although he was short-lived and therefore not prolific.  One of his most famous pictures is titled The Tempest, c. 1508.  In this example we find the artist included in his beloved landscape.   Aside from that the picture is enigmatic.  No  Biblical or Classical scholar has found a source for the scene including the soldier and the gypsy.

Titian is the most famous artist working in Venice during the Renaissance.  He is especially noted because of his new interpretation of paint application.  Previously artists used an invisible brushstroke so that the surface of the picture was completely smooth.  Titian preferred to allow the paint to take on a life of its own.  The technique is known as “painterly”.  The great Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens, followed in his footsteps.  The Assumption of the Virgin, 1515 – 1518 in the Friari church is a fine example of his technique.

Veronese and Tintoretto both were working in the late Renaissance and Mannerist periods.  These followed the High Renaissance, which ended  in approximately 1520 due primarily to the Protestant Reformation and the sack of Rome by the army of Charles V.  It was a time of anxiety for the Roman Catholic church and thus the style of painting changed to reflect the uncertainties.  Veronese was known for huge Biblical, allegorical and historical pictures.  He also painted the interiors of villas in the Veneto region.   His most famous piece, 42 feet long, is the Feast in the House of Levi, 1573.  Originally it was commissioned as a Last Supper but Veronese added a number of features that changed the message of that theme.  For including such subjects as monkeys, dogs, dwarfs and drunken German soldiers, he was brought before the Inquisition on heresy charges.  These were later dropped and the painting’s name was changed.

Tintoretto was a direct precursor to the next movement in the history of art known as the Baroque.  His work exhibited a great deal of drama and theatricality through the use of tenebrism and chiaroscuro, contrasts of light and shadow that exuded a sense of mystery.  This is a reaction against the use of luminous pure color and even lighting found in paintings by Veronese for example.  One of his favorite themes was the Last Supper.    The most unique rendition is found in San Giorgio Maggiore Church which was designed by Andrea Palladio (1508-1580).    This Last Supper dates to 1592-94 and includes a genre scene as well as the traditional Apostles and Christ.

There were other artists in Venice during the Renaissance who weren’t as closely connected to the formation of the Venetian School as the ones highlighted above.   Additionally, there were many great masters such as Giambattista Tiepolo (1696-1770) and Antonio Canaletto (1697-1768) who worked in subsequent centuries.

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Italian Painting – The Early Masters in Venetian Art

Doge Dandolo and wife presented to the Virgin
Doge Dandolo and wife presented to the Virgin

The scope of my talk this evening will be limited to Venetian Renaissance painting, a field that is rich with masterpieces as well as six renowned artists of the Venetian School.  They include Paolo Veneziano (before 1300 – ca. 1360), Giovanni Bellini (ca. 1426 –1516), Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco known as Giorgione (ca. 1477 – 1510), Tiziano Vecelli known as Titian (c. 1487/90 – 1576), Paolo Veronese (1528 – 1588),  Jacopo Robusti known as Tintoretto (1519 – 1594).  Each of the artists offered unique abilities to the formation of what is known as the Venetian School.
There are a few circumstances, historical and geographic, that contributed to the formation of the Venetian School, quite separate from that of Florence or Rome.

Venice was a wealthy, seafaring, powerful city on the Adriatic Sea.  During the crusade of 1204, Venetians invaded Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, and acquired great Byzantine treasures including the four horses that originally adorned the exterior of St. Mark’s Cathedral.  They now reside in the treasury.  St. Mark’s was copied from the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Constantinople, that city being a great influence upon the arts produced in Venice.    Geographically speaking, Venice is a city of canals and man-made buildings.  Because of the damp circumstances, new techniques were developed by the artists working there.  Oil paint on canvas was the preferred medium.  Wooden panels, the usual support for paintings, rotted too easily.  The fresco technique, so common in Florence and Rome was inefficient here.  Pigment applied to wet plaster would not dry properly and thus the picture would be lost.  The lack of vegetation,  and perhaps a nostalgic feeling for it, caused Giorgione in particular to include abundant shrubs and trees in his paintings.
The first influential painter working in Venice was Veneziano.  He worked in the Byzantine style that promoted a sumptuous use of gold and intricate detail.  A good example of his work hangs in the church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Friari, Doge Francesco Dandolo and His Wife Presented to the Madonna, 1339.   The Virgin and Child reflect the ancient icon (devotional piece), first painted in the early 6th c. and believed to be a copy of a painting St. Luke made of the Virgin.

Our next major player, Giovanni Bellini, descended from a family of painters.  His father and brother both were admired in their time, although it was Giovanni who was considered to be the founder of the Venetian School.   He was a master of altarpieces and tended to combine the Byzantine use of gold with realistically depicted images of the Virgin, Child and saints as opposed to the flattened appearances favored by the Byzantines.  The San Giobbe Altarpiece,c. 1487, was the first of the major altarpieces.  It hangs in the Galleria dell’Accademia.

Other great Venetian artists, such as Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese… were to follow.  These will be discussed in a subsequent talk.

Italian Art – Post-Renaissance Paintings, Mannerism in Italy

The term “mannerism” is applied to an Italian artistic movement of the 16th century, which drew its inspiration from the maniera (or the style) of the great artists who worked in Rome during the preceding years, particularly Raffaello and Michelangelo.

The age of the maniera begins with the death of Raffaello in 1520, and it is given impetus, ironically, by one of the blackest events in the history of the West, the sack of Rome by the Imperial Army in 1527.  This event scattered the Roman community of artists all over the Peninsula (Naples, Pesaro, Bologna, Mantova), and as far away as Fontainebleau in France, and everywhere they went the artists brought their visions and techniques and seeded the flowering of the maniera in Late Renaissance Europe.

However, the term maniera is already present in the writings of Giorgio Vasari in the 15th century.  For Vasari the next logical step from naturalism was the surpassing and the perfectioning of nature herself.  The logical argument went as follows: if the earlier greats had finally succeeded in understanding and codifying the laws by which nature can successfully be imitated, then their successors, starting with a complete understanding of these rules, will know how to bend them to their pleasure and their artistic inspiration.  Technical competence of the highest order and an ability to faithfully depict the natural world are givens in the ethos of the maniera: the mastery of the rules is merely the starting point for the license the artist is then allowed.  This tension between rule and license is in fact a key philosophical feature of the maniera movement.  This is the pictorial equivalent of that sprezzatura exhibited with such eloquence in the Il Cortigiano, by Baldassarre Castiglione.  Furthermore,  the maniera exhibits the inclusion of bizarre or incongruous elements, a vagueness in the colors, and a wide variety of background scenes.
Amongst the practitioners of the maniera there stands out a group of artists who elaborated classical themes with greater personality and depth than heretofore.  Of these we may mention Bronzino, Vasari, Daniele da Volterra, Francesco Salviati, Giuseppe Porta, Nicolo’ dell’Abate, Carpenino, the brothers Federico, and Thaddeus Zuccari.

The age of the maniera begins to decline with the end of the Council of Trent 1n 1563, but the movement, as it wanes, becomes ever more refined, introverted and decorative, giving birth to works of unexcelled virtuosity,  commissioned by the great European ruling houses for private enjoyment of an extremely elitist character.  Such were the works belonging to the Studiolo di Francesco I in the Palazzo Vecchio in Firenze, and in the collection of Rudolph II in Prague.  The movement finally declines into affectation, artificiality, preciousness, characteristics that have been variously found and evaluated in these artists according to the changing tastes of the times.

The term manierismo (as opposed to maniera) appears much later, with the flowering of the neo-classicism of the late 18th century.  Fundamentally this was understood as a digression of art from its own ideal, and was thus negatively judged by the historian Jacob Burkhardt in characterizing the Italian period between the Renaissance and the Baroque.  However, in the early years of the 20th century, with the advent of expressionism and surrealism, the Mannerists were rehabilitated and the underlying Mannerist philosophy (the separation of art from physical reality, the abandonment of the idea that the beauty of nature is unsurpassable, and moving past the idea that the artistic ideal  should be the imitation of nature) was vindicated.  In this conception then art becomes art for its own sake, ars gratia artis.

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Italian Art Exhibition – Original Paintings, Tuscan and Venetian Landscapes

Italian Art, Italian Wines
Italian Art, Italian Wines

Come attend an Italian wine tasting and enjoy the Italian art by Angelica Di Chiara, on exhibit at Ristorante Il Cedro in Menlo Park.  The artist will be on hand to answer your questions and demonstrate her technique.  Al Fabrizio will entertain with the melodic music of his mandolin.

The exhibit/wine tasting is on Wednesday May 19 from 4:00 to 5:30, then, if you wish, stay for dinner.  Make your reservation by calling 650.322.3376.  The restaurant is at the southeast corner of El Camino and Santa Cruz in Menlo Park, and free underground parking is available.

Sponsored jointly by finestItalian and by Ristorante Il Cedro.

The Venetian Mosaics at Stanford University’s Memorial Church

Interior of Memorial Church at Stanford UniversityAt the western end of Palm Drive, less than a mile from bustling downtown Palo Alto, past the Oval and the Memorial Court, there lies a little Renaissance church which to all appearances was magically lifted from some Italian piazza and transported to the campus of Stanford University. The church is nondenominational, it is the venue of many weddings, and it has become a tourist destination for visitors to Silicon Valley.

It is called the Memorial Church because it was built by the Stanford family in memory of Leland Stanford Junior, who died of typhoid fever at the age of 15 in Florence, Italy. And perhaps because of this Italian connection the Memorial Church evokes so strongly the look and feel of an Italian cathedral.

Furthermore, the mosaics that adorn the church were designed and created by Italian artists. The mosaics, 12 of them in each transept balcony, complement the beautiful stained glass windows, and were created mainly with 1/8 inch tiles, but larger tiles of 1/4 and 3/4 inches also occur. The color palette is astonishingly rich: more than 20,000 colors were used by the artists.

And who were these artists who created such masterworks at the beginning of the 20th century? The watercolors on which the mosaics are based were created by Antonio Paoletti, who worked closely with Jane Stanford to select the themes to be represented. The mosaics themselves were produced in Venice by the Salviati family, whose head, Antonio Salviati, had revived the medieval art of mosaic composition in Venice and had restored the centuries-old mosaics of Saint Mark’s Church. The manager of the Salviati Works at that time was a man named Maurizio Camerino, whom Jane Stanford had met in Venice, and who lent assistance to the Stanfords during the difficult times of their son’s illness. Camerino would eventually come to own the Salviati Works, and it was under his direction that the company produced the Stanford mosaics.

Interestingly, this was not the first foray by the Salviati family in the cultural and political milieu of the New World. Antonio Salviati had, in 1866, composed and donated to the United States a mosaic representation of Abraham Lincoln, gratefully accepted and acknowledged by the US Congress. And nearly 20 years later a similar gift, representing James Garfield, was presented to the US by the Salviati family to commemorate Garfield’s assassination.

More recently, in 1992, the son and grandson of Maurizio Camerino, whose family had given up their controlling interest in the Salviati Works, donated to Stanford University three paintings which had been produced by Antonio Paoletti and used to create the mosaics in Venice. These paintings had been on display in a backroom of the Venice headquarters of the Salviati Company. These watercolors measure approximately 3 feet by 6 feet, and they have now joined a collection of smaller Paoletti paintings in the archives of Stanford University.

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The birth of modern art in Italy – Giotto and Cimabue

How Modern Italian Art Was Born

Expulsion of the Money Changers from the Temple
Expulsion of the Money Changers from the Temple

Slowly and painfully, over several centuries, Western Europe began to pick herself up from the ruins of the Roman Empire in the 10th century. During this period the Eastern half of the Empire was still relatively intact, and it was culturally and artistically far advanced over the West. What little art originated in Italy and in the rest of Europe followed slavishly the Byzantine paradigm. This paradigm consisted of an abstract aesthetic which, though traceable to Roman and Hellenic antecedents, had abandoned the representational rendition of the natural world for a more formalized and non-naturalistic approach meant to stimulate in the viewer feelings of spirituality and piety, as was perhaps fitting in a society which was pervasively dominated by two institutions, the Empire and the Church. Visually then, Byzantine art was characterized by stylized figures of a supernatural monumentality and abstraction. Its purpose was to express man’s aspiration to the divine – the figures are absolutely bidimensional and stereotypical, and only in the faces one notes feeble attempts at some sort of realism. There is no spatial perspective, all figures are in the same plane.

Giotto appeared on the Italian artistic scene in the second half of the 13th century. It is said of him that, as an unschooled young boy, he was discovered by Cimabue in the act of drawing the outlines of the sheep he was tending on a stone slab with a pointed rock. Giotto’s drawings so much impressed Cimabue that he at once talked to the boy’s father and asked to have the boy come and live with him and be his apprentice. Permission being granted, Giotto was launched on a career which would eventually make him into a symbol of artistic virtuosity and innovation, a cultural myth in his own time, accorded a stature and a reputation which has continually grown over the centuries. The master, Cimabue, was no mean artist himself, and had already begun the process of freeing Italian painting from the stylistic strictures of Byzantine art. But the pupil, Giotto, eclipsed the master in very short order, and spread his art and his methods all over Italy. In the service of the ruling lords of the times, Giotto produced works in Florence, Rome, Naples, Rimini, Padova, Bologna, Milan, etc. Much of his work has been lost, victim to the ravages of time and those destructive acts attendant to wars, invasions and ignorance, and one must rely on chroniclers such as Vasari. And controversies still abound in artistic circles regarding the authorship of some of the works that are attributed to him. Nevertheless, there is unanimous consensus on the importance of this larger-than-life Italian artist who gave a new impetus and a new direction to Italian art, and, consequently, to the art of the entire Western world.

In brief, what Giotto did was to redefine the entire artistic paradigm of the time. The purpose of painting and its attendant aesthetic changed under the brush of Giotto. Art became realistic and representational; no longer stylized and abstract, it was now a representation of human emotions and passions. Humanity was its proper province, humanity was worthy of being represented and preserved for posterity, and this was ennobling and empowering. In the quest for salvation human values were no longer to be suppressed for an abstract, cold and unattainable spirituality; they were also precious and important. The physical world also changed: space was readmitted and redimensioned, the sense of volume was captured, colors were themselves elevated. Some time would still have to pass before the full flowering of the Italian Renaissance and the perspective of Brunelleschi, but the first step, solid and sure, belonged to Giotto in the waning years of the 13th century.

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The Brera Pinacoteca – a Treasure Trove of Italian Paintings and Sculptures – 1

The history of Brera Pinacoteca

Close to the Teatro alla Scala, a short walk up Via Giuseppe Verdi (which soon becomes Via Brera) one finds one of the richest repositories of Italian art on the peninsula, rivaling the Musei Vaticani in Rome and the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence both in the extent of its collection and in its artistic significance.  While purportedly functioning as an academic institution devoted to the teaching of aspiring artists from all over the world, it is nevertheless a museum of international stature.  Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately!) it has lain largely outside the ken of most American tourists, who tend to eschew Milano for the canonical destinations of Rome, Florence, and Venice.

The story of the Brera museum is fascinating, a golden thread woven into the history of larger European developments.  The physical structure began as a convent for a medieval monastic order which no longer exists, the Umiliati.  The Jesuits inherited the monastery from the Umiliati 1n 1571, and they implemented a reconstruction plan which gave the facility its aspect, typical of the late Lombard baroque.  In 1773, with the suppression of the Jesuits, the facility became property of the state, which at that time, was Austria-Hungary.  In 1776 the Accademia delle Belle Arti was founded according to the wishes of the empress, Maria Teresa.

The Brera in its modern form began to take shape with the arrival of Napoleon in Italy, in  1796.  In this period the Pinacoteca was born, and, under the energetic curatorship of Andrea Appiani,  a great influx of art (paintings and sculptures) took place from churches, convents and monasteries suppressed by the secular French.  The return of the Austrians in Lombardy slowed the process but a little: in 1859, with the Austrians decisively defeated, Vittorio Emanuele II and Napoleon III entered Milano in triumph.  At this time the great statue of Napoleon I, represented as Mars bringing peace, was located in the courtyard of the building.

Over the course of the succeeding century, until the second World War, the Pinacoteca grew steadily both architecturally and as a repository of significant masterpieces.  Damaged in the course of the war, it was repaired and re-inaugurated in 1950, and over the next twenty years other significant works were added to its collection.

The seventies marked a period of crisis for the Brera which culminated in the closing of the Pinacoteca in 1974.  To achieve the tasks of modernization and amplification which were deemed necessary, a project for a “Greater Brera” was contemplated, which would not only result in significant upgrades for the traditional Brera, but would also remodel the nearby palazzo Citterio for the creation of an integrated facility.  In the event, palazzo Citterio, dubbed “Brera 2”, did not receive the projected restoration, but was used mainly a a seat for exhibitions.

The Brera in an ongoing work of love and pride for the Milanese.  I recent years the activity of upgrading the building, adding to the collection, and improving the exhibits for the public has proceeded unabated in the face of complex social end economic problems.  Despite these problems, the Brera continues to amaze and to richly reward its visitors for the lush richness of its collection and for its long history of service to the visual arts.

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The Brera Pinacoteca – a Treasure Trove of Italian Paintings and Sculptures – 2

The collection at the Brera Pinacoteca

Unlike the great Italian museums in Rome, Florence, Naples, Torino, etc., the collectionism practiced by the Brera museum had its roots, not in the aristocratic collectionism of the Italian Renaissance, but in the political collectionism of the State, a Napoleonic idea whose roots go back to the ideals of the French Revolution.  The creation of the Italic Kingdom thus provided the justification for the launching of a great and modern national museum, in which masterworks from all the various schools and artistic institutions in all the conquered territories could find a congenial home, and in which they would be cared for and appropriately exhibited.

The influx of artwork into the Brera began with the 19th century.  The most notable of this first wave were Bramantino’s Crucifixion, Raffaello’s Wedding of the Virgin, and Bellini’s Madonna with Child.  In addition there were significant works by Tintoretto, Figino, Gentileschi, Crespi, and others.  The collected artwork, mostly from Lombardy,  was destined to various uses according to its artistic worth: the masterworks were to be exhibited in the Gallery, those of lesser worth were to be held for eventual exchanges, and those of least interest were to be made available to churches upon application.

In the succeeding years important works began to arrive from outside of Lombardy, and particularly from the region of the Veneto.  During this period Bellini’s Pieta’ was added to the collection, as well as works by Caracci, Reni, Albani and Guercino, some from the famous Galleria Sanpieri of Bologna.  But there were still few works representing the schools of Raffaello and da Vinci.  To remedy this 23 major works were obtained from the collection of Cardinal Cesare Monti, among which were Christ and the Adulteress and  Moses saved from the Waters, both ascribed to Bonifacio de’ Pitati, the Maddalena of Procaccini, and the Baptism of Christ by Bordon.  Then, in 1813, works by Reubens, Jordaens, Rembrandt and van Dyck were added following favorable exchanges with the Louvre in Paris.  In the meantime the influx of frescoes obtained from churches continued, and among these worthy of mention are works by Luini, Ferrari, Bramantino, and Foppa.  Towards the middle of the 19thy century began at La Brera that specialization in restoration and conservation which has ever since been integrated into the activities of the Museum.

After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of Austrian hegemony in Northern Italy  some paintings were returned to Rome, but the work of collection and amplification for the Brera continued, albeit at a reduced pace.  In the course of the next 50 years were added da Verona’s Adoration of the Magi, Caracciolo’s Christ and the Samaritan Woman at the Well, the Dead Christ by Mantegna, the Madonna of the Roses by Luini, as well as important works by da Corbetta, Bellotto, Oggioni, and Lotto.

In 1882 the Pinacoteca became independent of the Accademia delle Belle Arti, and retained most of the ancient masterpieces.  It was reorganized and amplified under the curatorship of Giuseppe Bertini, a brilliant curator who was also responsible for the acquisition of fundamental works, among which Bordon’s Venetian Lovers, Bronzino’s Portrait of Andrea Doria represented as Neptune, the Adoration of the Magi by Correggio, the Martyrdom of the Saints Rufina and Seconda by Procaccini, the Sacred Family by Bramantino, the Discovery of the Body of Saint Mark by Tintoretto. and Men at Arms by Bramante.  Along these there were many works, too numerous to mention in this brief article, of scarcely lesser significance.

More masterworks we added at the beginning of the 20th century, including Correggio’s Nativity, Piazzetta’s Rebecca and Eleazar at the Well, the Madonna of Carmel of Tiepolo the vistas of Venice of Canaletto, and the Red Car of Fattori.  Since 1926 the Association Friends of Brera and of Milanese  Museums has been responsible for the acquisition of Caravaggio’s Dinner in Emmaus, Lega’s Pergolato, and Segantini’s Spring Pastures.  After the second war, with the re-inauguration of the Museum in 1950, the collection grew even more with the addition of works of di Pietro, Boccioni, Cariani, Baronzio, and Ceruti.

In modern times, since the seventies, the Pinoteca’s collection has been augmented with artwork by di Ubaldo Gandolfi, Giordano, Padovanino, Salviati, del Vaga, and Carracci.  Most recent acquisitions are Fiumana, by da Valpoledo, the Crucifixion of di Fabriano, Christ bearing the Cross of Romanino, Venus and Cupid of Paterzano, and de Bardis’ Saint John the Baptist, to mention only a few.

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Italian Art from Roman Times to the End of the Renaissance

Pre-Roman Art in Italy

Venezia Impressionista Italian ArtBefore Rome started her expansion on the Italian peninsula, notable works of art were being produced by the Etruscans, dominant in Central Italy, and by the Greek colonists who had settled along the coastlines of Southern Italy.  The artistic expressions and techniques of the Hellenized parts of Italy  followed closely those of the mother country, whereas Etruscan art, though still influenced by Greek models, is readily differentiated in style and subject.  Etruscan art was mainly religious and the few surviving examples are connected with funerary rites.  Excavated Etruscan tombs containing bronze figures, jewelry, artistic implements, etc., offer a rich archeological evidence of artistic activity.  In painting there are notable frescoes in Tarquinia which represent the earliest surviving examples of pictorial art on the Peninsula.

Italian Art during the Roman Period

In the early Roman polity, during the semimythical period of the seven kings, there was a strong admixture of Etruscan social and artistic influences.  It is not surprising, therefore, that early Roman art was essentially a continuation of Etruscan art.  This condition persisted during the early republican period.  But in the later stages of the republic, as closer ties were forged with the Greek world, Roman art began to borrow more and more heavily from that world.  The decorative use of pictorial mosaics in the residences of the rich became widespread, as well as the practice of sculpture in public and religious buildings.  Numerous examples of both art forms survive in the ruins of both temples and villas, representing the flow of organized religion and public worship in Roman life.  Later, in imperial times, the influence of Greece in Latin art, and in many other fields, became even more pronounced.

Italian Art during the Byzantine Period

More severe, less naturalistic and sometimes more dramatic artwork styles were later developed in the surviving Eastern empire, following the fall of the West.  The stylized representation of the human figure, two-dimensional, with no depth or perspective,  characterizes the Byzantine style that dominated Italian painting until the end of the 13th century.  The context is almost invariably religious, and the intent of the artist is clearly not to produce a faithful representation of the physical world, but to evoke in the spectator feelings of otherworldliness, mysticism, and piety.

Italian art during the Renaissance period

The Renaissance was the great reflowering of art, literature, philosophy and science which began at the start of the 15th century, the fabled Quattrocento of Italy.  In this period, inaugurated by Giotto’s epochal break with Byzantine traditions, we have a more realistically representational art, an art more concerned with the representation and interpretation of the physical world, and the humanity that inhabited it, rather with purely religious themes.  This does not mean that religious themes were no longer treated; it does mean that, within these themes, the renderings were more worldly, more human, less stylized and ethereal.  Space came to be represented with the discovery of the laws of perspective, and in time secular subjects came to be represented along with religious ones.  Classical (pre-Christian) ideals were revived, the achievements of the ancients were rediscovered, and some were found valuable.  Hybrid subjects uniting religious and classical themes became common.  Humanism, the idea that humanity and human concerns were after all worthy objects of study, came into its own and left its mark on painting, sculpture, and architecture.

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Why Italians Produce Much Of The Best Art In History

Art and Artists of Italy

statuaRomana Italian PaintingAccording to some astonishing statistics about the country and its art, sixty percent of artwork and artisans in the world belong to Italy.  A known study illustrates that the knowledge and understanding of Italian art and artists by an average Italian is often better than that of students of art from any other nation.   Art is part of the heritage of Italy as if it were  in the Italian blood, and every town seems to be able to lay claim to some famous artist.

Featuring the work of extraordinary Italian artists

The art featured on Finest Italian is part of an effort to make the products of  the hard work and talent of Italian artists known and available to the whole world. The website includes the work of Italian painting masters and of young talented artists who have a strong and rich background in the traditions of Italian art. The website evaluates and promotes only those artists who have made substantial contributions in Italian art, thus bringing the best of Italian artwork right on your doorsteps.

Immense work of Italian Artists

Artists and painters of Italy, from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance period, up to contemporary times, have successfully made significant contributions to the world’s artistic patrimony. Browsing through the website,  you will be struck with wonder and admiration by their collective artistic prowess. Every culture has made its contribution and left its mark on the artistic patrimony of the world, but Italian artists continue to amaze with their inventiveness, their skill in execution, their mastery of ancient techniques, and with the passion they always manage to infuse into each and every work of art.

Italian work symbolizing an ancient culture

Many of the “-isms” of modern art trace their origin to trends and movements in Italian art.  The current of artistic development in the West begins with Cimabue and Giotto, crests in the Florentine Quattrocento, and repeatedly subdivides through the baroque and mannerist periods to give us the multiform fashions of modernism.  Italian works of art in your home are not just art qua art, but milestones along the extraordinarily rich and convoluted historical pathways  that have led us to the artistic paradigms of our day.

Ever growing collection of Italian paintings and other artwork

Finest Italian is proud to bring you a small sampling of this rich artistic tradition.  Our offerings include original renderings of seascapes, landscapes and cityscapes, immediately recognizable as Italian.  We bring you beautiful and practical ceramics originally designed and executed by hand, nostalgic black and white artistic photos that evoke the mystique of this country that has meant so much to the world, silver and glass wrought into elegant and unique shapes by dedicated artisans, and much more.  We are constantly expanding our selections and seeking out new artists to add to our community.  And we bring you all this with an eminently practical twist: our community of artists is composed of members who predominantly live and work in the United States.  So you can purchase your very own piece of Italy from us without the uncertainties of fluctuating currency exchange rates, without the perils and expense of overseas shipping, without a language barrier, and without complex return or exchange rules.

So go ahead and browse through our pages, feast your eyes, and when you are ready place your order.  We promise you an enjoyable and satisfying shopping experience.

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The Path To Happiness Should Include Italian Art

Today’s hectic world could use a little Italian spice

Italian Wine Shadow PaintingThere are so many stresses and pressures people are under nowadays that it is a wonder more people haven’t discovered the healing and calming effects that Italian Art can give you. For some people doing everything right is just not enough to break out of the slump that difficulties in life can produce. There is a psychological phenomenon that most people are completely unaware of.

Color has a strong influence on your outlook on life

Ever looked at a cluttered desk or table and felt a feeling of frustration? Ever been in a bad mood because your home or office is just filled with too much stuff?  You are not alone.  Millions of people suffer the same problem. Clutter is an example of how visual shapes and colors can cause your subconscious mind to be overburdened with calculations. The same problem with clutter is magnified when it comes to more pervasive things, like wall color, curtains, and other large features of your home.

Color can effect your subconscious mind

It seems to be common knowledge that certain colors make you feel one way or another.  The exaggerated example is the saying “I was so mad that I was seeing red.” Bull fighters for instance have been irritating bulls for centuries with the color red.  Using red in your home can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your personality.

Behavioral controls that use color

Hospitals and government institutions have been using color as a behavior modification technique for decades. Ever wonder why large facilities have well coordinated color schemes?  Many institutions use shades of blue, green, and earthy tones in order to create a calming atmosphere especially in places where patrons are in a stressful situation and may be easily irritated.  Many doctors and health officials believe that environmental conditions can increase the rate of recovery after injury or surgery and color plays a major role in that process.

Why Italian Art can bring you more satisfaction in life

There is no question that Italian artists have know how to inspire joy and feelings of well being through their masterful use of color. You won’t often find Italian art that is full of nonsensical clashing of colors. The eye wants to make sense of the world and too many clashing color combinations repel most viewers.  And Italian painters have the art of mood enhancement using colors down to a science.  It is no wonder that people are willing to pay top dollar to have this wonderful type of mood enhancing art in their homes.

Recent Art From This Author For Sale

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Acquiring Italian Paintings and other Art

The History of Italian Art is Important To Understand

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Italy is a country internationally admired for its vast culture, art and romance. The fascinating history and culture that constitute the essence of Italy is exemplified partly by its fashionable art, which has been flourishing and enriching the world since ancient times to the present.  Italian art recreates the heart and soul of Italian life and makes you feel like you are standing there in the midst of beautiful countrysides, vineyards, gardens and coastlines. Italian art finds its expressions in characteristically beautiful and elegant ceramics, drawings, paintings, sculptures, architecture, as well as in modern and vintage photography, cinematography, design and other crafts.

Acquiring Italian Art

The traditions of Italian art and craftsmanship go back to pre-Roman times and come to us through the Medieval reflowerings, the Renaissance, the Baroque, etc.  But most original Italian art, as is true everywhere in the world, is properly preserved in art galleries and museums to be enjoyed by connoisseurs and casual visitors alike for the price of an admission ticket.  It is only the truly wealthy and the truly dedicated who can afford to add a Raffaello or a Caravaggio to their private collections. But there hope for the rest of us: contemporary artists who are virtual students of the great masters in that they have nurtured their talents in their traditions and their styles offer us the opportunity to catch solid echoes of the works of the masters of long ago at a fraction of the cost. Other artists, on the other hand, have evolved their art along paths that lead to no immediately discernible connection with the classical masters, but their art exudes nevertheless the same subtle aura of “Italianity”.  The works of these contemporary artists and artisans are within reach of most of us, and who’s to say which of them will be deemed a Raffaello by the art critics of a century hence?  Another affordable possibility, for us “normal” people, to display a masterwork in our homes is the acquisition of a quality print, which can be obtained in a variety of sizes at reasonable cost.

Italian Art In Modern Age


Modern Art in Italy can be summed up by three different major artistic movements, namely Futurism, the Metaphysical School, and Classical Modern Art

Futurism came to life as a child of the Industrial revolution.  Its first proponent , poet Filippo Marinetti, published a manifesto on “Le Figaro’ in 1909. He summed up the major principles of the futurists, such as a love of technology, speed and violence, a celebration of the technological era of the future. Industrial cities, along with cars, and airplanes represented the ongoing motion of modern life and a sense of victory of man over nature and demanded a blunt cut from the traditions of art of the past. While Futurism remained mostly confined to Italy some of its ideas influenced movements such as dadaism, Surrealism , Art deco and constructivism (Carlo Carra’, Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla, Antonio Sant’Elia)

The Metaphysical School
Giorgio de Chirico is considered the father of this art movement, closely followed by Carlo Carra’, already a leading futurist.  The main characteristic of the movement is the concern with the effects of the subconscious mind on people’s lives. The result is idealized Italian cities and their squares (piazze) and the dream like effects of mixing and bonding of object of a visionary world . This movement is believed to have influenced Surrealism, which later dominated art in Europe. ( De Chirico, Carra’, Giorgio Morandi)

Classical Modern Art in Italy
At the beginning of the 20th century The Classical Modern school of art was popular in most of Europe with several Italian artists at the core of this school .  The intent of the school was the revitalizing of a simpler, less sentimental but more vigorous Classical tradition (Arrigone, Arturo Martini, Manzu’)

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