A Year of Italian Language and Culture: The Art of Italy

Oct 21, 2013

Michelangelo's David 2


For centuries “Italy” has been synonymous with art. An estimated 60 percent of the world’s designated art treasures reside within its borders, and Italian paintings and sculptures grace museums and collections around the globe. But Italy did more than inspire masterpieces: it developed the visual language of Western culture and changed forever our concepts of beauty and its creators.

A thousand years ago Italian—or, more precisely, the Florentine dialect of the time–had no words for art or artist. Arte meant “guild,” a collective of specialists in a certain field. Painters, who belonged to the same guild as doctors and apothecaries, and sculptors, members of the guild of stone and wood workers, were artigiani, or artisans, anonymous craftsmen who worked with their hands, usually for low pay and little, if any, recognition.

This began to change in the late thirteenth century with the emergence of a painter unlike any who had come before. We know him as Cimabue (ox-head), a nickname his stubbornness may have earned. In Florence in 1286 Cimabue completed a panel of the Madonna surrounded by angels for the Church of Santa Maria Novella. The large figures, more life-like than any previous works, so stunned the townspeople that they carried the painting with great rejoicing and the sounding of trumpets in a triumphant procession through the city streets to the church.

Cimabue (c. 1240 — c. 1302) may have been the first celebrity artist, but an even greater talent, his apprentice Giotto di Bondone (1277-1337), soon eclipsed him. “In painting Cimabue thought he held the field,” Dante Alighieri wrote in the Divine Comedy, “And now it’s Giotto they acclaim.” Within a few years, painters throughout Italy were trying to emulate Giotto’s ability to make paintings breathe.

Two centuries after Giotto, the greatest artistic flowering the world has ever seen took place in Italy. The man who gave la rinascita (rebirth) or the Renaissance its name, was a prolific (if prosaic) painter and respected architect, Giorgio Vasari (1511 –1574), who wrote the first book of art history. He called artists artefici, creators of beauty like God himself, touched with the same genius that lifted poets above less noble souls.
The first edition, entitled The Lives of the Most Excellent Italian Architects, Painters, and Sculptors, from Cimabue up to Our Own Times, came out in 1550; a second, more inclusive version of Le Vite (The Lives, as it came to be known), in 1568.

Although dates and details have proven unreliable, Vasari did something no one else had: He made artists as immortal as their works. As the aging Michelangelo wrote in a laudatory sonnet, Vasari had brought the dead back to life and prolonged the life of the living (or the half-living, like himself, he added.} He also created a new vocabulary to discuss the capolavori (masterpieces) of Italian art.

Words and Expressions

la difficultà (difficoltà in contemporary Italian) — the technical and aesthetic challenges of creating works of beauty.

giudizio dell’occhio — judgment of the eye

la facilità — the seemingly effortless ease with which artists created their works

meraviglia — a sense of marvel or extraordinary delight inspired by art

stupore -– the amazement resulting from "the perception of a thing that exceeded the limits of the senses,” such as Michelangelo’s David

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.

Click below for an up-close look at Michelangelo's shepherd boy:

Subscribe here



La Passione
Mona Lisa
La Bella Lingua