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Italian Neoclassical Art

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Neoclassical art was popular around the Western world, but it had a special meaning in Italy. In this lesson, we'll examine Italian Neoclassical art and see how it developed.

Neoclassical Italy

Traveling has been a revered pastime for the upper class throughout all of European history. Even in ancient Rome, elite youths embarked on a traditional coming-of-age tour of parts of the Empire. While the act of traveling never changed, the destinations did, and that could be significant.

By the late 18th century, many elite youths were going on a trip known as the Grand Tour, which took them through the most notable ancient ruins and works of art in France and especially Italy. Why? Because Europe at the time was enamored with the artistic movement known as Neoclassicism, a revival of ancient Greek and Roman forms built upon firsthand interaction with ancient ruins and works of art. So the Grand Tour was educational, and used to inspire generations of elites to spread Neoclassicism across the world. While Neoclassical art found its way into the arts of many nations, however, there was culture that didn't have to embark on a lengthy tour to learn about the ancient worlds. The Neoclassical movement was right at home in Italy.

Tenets of Italian Neoclassical Art

The Neoclassical movement originated in Italy, where Roman ruins were in abundance. So, if we're starting in Italy with a style based on reviving Classical art, we need to distinguish between a few terms.

The Neoclassical movement emerged in the mid-18th century in Rome, and spread from there. This is not to be confused with the Italian Renaissance, the movement of the 15th and 16th centuries that first sought to restore Classical forms and ideologies to art. The Renaissance tried to build upon the legacy of the ancients, picking up where the Romans left off and incorporating those ideas into new arts. The Neoclassical movement was more decorative, using the stylistic elements of ancient Greece and Rome as well as reviving forms popularized in the Renaissance. Both movements emphasized Classical motifs, geometry harmony, symmetry, and rational designs, but they were produced in very different time periods.

So, where'd the Neoclassical movement come from? For one, it was a rejection of the ornate Baroque and Rococo styles prominent in France, and an appeal to restore a Classical purity to art. The obsession with the ancients, however, was also encouraged by the recent archeological discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum. For the first time, artists and designers could tour not only ruins but parts of entire Roman homes and public buildings, preserved under the ash for centuries. As a result, the Neoclassical movement had a range of new aesthetic motifs to work with, was more decorative than the Renaissance, and placed greater emphasis on interior design. Italian Neoclassical furniture, for example, contained motifs like columns and Roman wreaths and was found in many wealthy homes.

Architecture

To best understand Neoclassical art in Italy, let's look at a few artistic disciplines in greater depth, starting with architecture. Neoclassical architects built new structures modeled directly on Greek and Roman temples. This style was popular around the world, but there was one place it never really caught on: Rome. Why wasn't Neoclassical architecture popular in the birthplace of Neoclassicism? Simple - there were already so many actual Roman temples and Renaissance structures around.

The Teatro San Carlo in Naples is one of the most significant Neoclassical buildings in Italy
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That being said, other parts of Italy did see some expansion of Neoclassical architecture (although it was never as influential as in other countries). Milanese architect Luigi Cagnola was responsible for a mighty triumphal arch in Milan known as the Arco della Pace, while the Teatro San Carlo of Naples became one of the first and most notable Neoclassical opera houses in the world.

Painting

Prior to the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum, very little was known about Roman painting. Even with this discovery, artists never really emulated Roman painting styles. Neoclassical painters were more interested in creating scenes of Roman life or Roman ruins, generally in clear images with clean lines and harmonious compositions.

Painting of the Colosseum by Giovanni Paolo Panini
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