The Renaissance. It was a period of creation, artistic expression, and cultural exploration. As most of Europe persevered under the yoke of the feudal system, Italy had entered an era of enlightenment. It should come as no surprise then that some of the most renowned artists of all time also hailed from this southerly peninsula – not just painters, but sculptors and architects as well. We’ll take a look at six of the most famous Italian artists, their works, and their unique lives.
Leonardo Da Vinci
The most well known of the bunch is none other than Leonardo da Vinci. If there was ever a personification of the consummate ‘Renaissance Man’ it was he. While he certainty painted (the Mona Lisa in Paris and The Last Supper in Milan can attest to that), he was also an inventor, thinker, writer, musician, scientist, and… well you get the idea. While most mere mortals spend a lifetime to master one discipline, Da Vinci was a jack of all trades, master of all (I know that’s not a thing but it makes sense here).
You could make the argument that Da Vinci was a man born a few centuries too early. In his notes, he drew up concepts for flying machines, solar power, a rudimentary calculator, and even a tank. It’s little wonder that of all Italian artists, Da Vinci has had the most enduring mark on pop culture today – making appearances in everything from video games to Tom Hank’s quest for the holy grail.
The only other artist that comes close to Leonardo in both name recognition and diverse skill set is Michelangelo. A painter, sculptor, architect, and poet among other pursuits – he produced some of the most recognizable and influential works of the Renaissance period. David is the world’s most well-known sculpture while the Sistine Chapel ceiling is famous for The Creation of Adam.
You can see his works today everywhere from Florence (where David stands tall in the Uffizi Gallery) to the Vatican. While Da Vinci may be at the centre of books turned Ron Howard movies (it’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ if you didn’t get the reference the first time), scholars and historians generally consider Michelangelo the better artist of his age. Unfortunately, he also started the irritating trend of having a biography written before his death – a trend that that 20-something celebrities seem to have taken to heart in the modern day.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Bernini was a famous sculptor and architect active throughout much of the 1600’s – though he also painted and dabbled in theatre. A favourite of the papacy, Bernini was granted many important contracts in and around Rome – including St. Peter’s Square in front of the Basilica.
Bernini is widely credited with facilitating the emergence of the Baroque style – which spread across Europe and even to the New World (that’s us). Like many artists associated with a certain style, he fell from favour for a time as the world moved on to newer and trendier things. These things always come in phases however, and Bernini has once again been granted his rightful place as one of the foremost architects and sculptors in European history.
He may have died young (38 in fact), but Caravaggio managed to wrack up an impressive collection of works as he traveled throughout Italy and beyond. At the beginning of the 17th century, he shot to stardom with the dual commission of The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew and the Calling of Saint Matthew. He is remembered for his use of strong shadows in his work – expanding upon the existing style known as chiaroscuro.
Caravaggio is perhaps the closest thing the Renaissance had to tabloid bait as far as celebrities go. After coming into fame and money, he was jailed several times, trashed his own place, killed a man (possibly over a tennis game), fled Rome, brawled some more, and finally died in suspicious circumstances. Perhaps not the refined, Renaissance man we were looking for – but there’s no denying Caravaggio was a ‘unique’ character.
The preeminent member of the Venetian school during the 16th century, Titian is remembered for a strong and masterful use of colour in all his paintings. Unlike many other great artists, he changed his style throughout his career – which has resulted in a diverse collection of works of a variety of styles and topics.
Works such as Bacchus and Ariadne and Salome with the Head of John the Baptist are still studied and admired today. He even painted a lasting tribute to Emperor Charles V with a portrait of him in armor atop his horse. While Titian lived into or close to his nineties, his life came to a sad end as the plague gripped both him and his son.
Lorenzo de Medici of Florence (also known as ‘the Magnificent’) was well known during the Renaissance for hosting and supporting many famous artists at his court. Besides Da Vinci and Michelangelo, another of the most revered is the painter Sandro Botticelli. If you don’t know who he is, you’ve likely rested eyes upon his two most famous works – Primavera and The Birth of Venus.
His personal life is a relatively sad story, as he was believed to hold an unrequited love for a married noblewoman (who allegedly was the model for Venus). Perhaps to get the last laugh over her husband, Botticelli requested to be buried at her feet when he died – a wish that was granted a few decades later.
That’s all for now!
While these six might be some of the most famous Italian artists, it wasn’t just them who made Renaissance what it was. Other painters, architects, and sculptors combined with thinkers, writers, scientists, kings, politicians, bankers, and more to give birth to what remains one of the most fascinating and creative times in human history. Whether you’re an art buff or not, you have to appreciate what one can achieve with a simple canvas – from which a masterpiece may be borne.
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