Here is a very topical subject because the Italian painting departments at le Louvre, usually crowded with tourists taking selfies before the Victory of Samothrace and clumping together in front of Mona Lisa are currently empty. If Paris is a bit far you will certainly find interesting collections of Italian art in the main cities of UK, the US and other English speaking countries
Everything begins in the 1400s (the XVth century for us), when Giotto is able for the first time to paint figures giving an aspect of relief similar to sculpture in the frescoes of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. The result is far more realistic than the previous paintings of flat faces devoid of any expression, inherited from the Byzantine art. On other paintings the characters stand in front of landscapes of trees, hills, buildings already drafted in perspective, populated by birds breaking with the tradition of religious paintings featuring a flat gilded background.
While in the rest of Europe architecture succumbs to the refinement of international Gothic, Italy is seeking to regain the simplicity of the antique architecture and decorations as codified by Vitruvius, coupled with mathematical research on the laws of perspective. This also applies to painting where Masaccio in "the Holy Trinity, the Virgin, Saint John and donors" in Santa Maria Novella in Florence (1427) applies the principles of perspective to a very sophisticated architectural decor. Donatella will apply the same principles to sculpture.
It is a period of economic expansion for cities such as Siena, Florence, Urbino that had gained their wealth in commerce, banking and industry and whose princes compete to give commissions to the most prestigious artists. It is also the first time the artist is identified by his name, so far artists were known as: "the master of."
Throughout the Quattrocento a real flowering of artists happens in every Italian city: Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca in Arezzo and Urbino, Mantegna in Padua and Mantua, Botticelli and Uccello in Florence –sponsored by the Medicis. These artists work on different subjects and with different styles: battle scenes for Uccello, the frescoes in San Marco’s convent for Fra Angelico, etc. All, however, meet in the implementation of the principles inherited from the antiquity: the use of perspective for the decor, bodies modelled in relief based on anatomy, faces showing individual expressions and promote secular and allegorical subjects alongside with the traditional religious representations.
This is the most glorious period of Italian art with the trio of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Raphael (maybe it is why the smallest Fiat car was named “Cinquecento”!).
The artist is no longer considered a mere supplier and imposes its will on the sponsor: Leonardo da Vinci does not hesitate to leave some of his works unfinished. Instead of Mantegna’s visible mathematical perspective lines, Leonardo invents the “sfumato”, atmospheric perspective that dilutes distant scenes; he also paints faces of changing expressions, like that of a living human being. Michelangelo – always competing for orders with Leonardo- enforces in the Sistine Chapel the modelling of the bodies, drawn with a mastery worthy of the great Greek sculptors; Michelangelo will actually return to sculpt after that the tomb of Julius II. Raphael then arrives determined to equal his two older colleagues and produces in a short time -he dies at 37- timeless masterpieces like the famous "Madonna of the Grand Duc" at the Pitti Palace in Florence or the " Nymph Galatea "a fresco in the Villa Farnesina in Rome, remarkable for its balanced composition and movement and by the sheer beauty of his figures that he attributed to a" certain idea "he had formed in his mind. At this trio will be added Titian with remarkable portraits as "the Man with a Glove" hung on the back wall of the Mona Lisa in le Louvre and Gorgone ‘s "Storm" at the Accademia in Venice where for the first time the landscape is the main subject of the painting.
At that time the Renaissance conquers the rest of Europe: the kings of France welcome Italian artists: Leonardo ended his life in Clos Lucé, Primatice decorates the Fontainebleau castle gallery with optical illusion paintings... This is the time when the fine arts, after being despised by Aristotle as servile arts related to matter unworthy of a free man compared to the liberal arts: - grammar, rhetoric, dialectic and arithmetic, music, astronomy, and geometry, finally acquire their fame.
Giotto's lamentation, Fra Angelico Annunciation, Masaccio's Trinity, Nymph Galatea by Raphaël, Man with a Glove by Titian, Giorgione's Thunderstorm
EH Gombrich The story of art: A must for anybody interested in art history. Can be bought second hand, old editions are still current ...