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Since ancient times Italy has been a fertile ground for artistic creativity. The Romans, admitted fine architects and engineers, nevertheless did little more than follow the led of their predecessors the Etruscans and the Greeks. Before the Roman Empire slowly slid into chaos, the artists and architects of the peninsula and its far-flung possessions had scaled enormous heights, leaving behind remarkable testimony to their power and diligence in Rome. What comes down to us today is mainly a mix of monuments, sculpture, mosaics and ceramics.

With the richness that comes from fragmented regionalism, all the great movements in western European art swept across Italy. Romanesque and Gothic, although variously adapted to local tastes, originated north of the Alps, And perhaps the most profound revolution in the history of art, the  Renaissance, was born and flourished in Italy.

Since the 17th century, much of the impetus in western art and architecture has come from other centres, but Italy has to this day remained active, if no longer such a glorious, player in all fields of the arts.


The earliest well-preserved Italian art and architecture dates from the 1st millennium BC. It is the product of three cultures: Latin and Roman in Lazio; Etruscan in what is now northern Lazio and southern Tuscany; and Magna Graecia in southern Italy and Sicily, where city-states were founded in the 8th and 7th centuries by Greek colonists.

In the main, the Greeks made the running. The Etruscans tended to ape and adapt what they learned from the Hellenistic masters, and the Latins and early Romans owed their comparatively primitive early efforts to the example shown them in turn by the Etruscans.

Tomb decorations discovered at Paestum in Campania, dating mainly from the 6th and 5th centuries BC, are extremely will preserved but almost the only examples of Greek painting in Italy to have survived.

 The ancient Greek city of Selinunte (Sicily)

They represent mythological and narrative scenes, and include the Tomba del Tuffatore (Tomb of the Diver), now in the Museo di Paestum.

While little painting h as survived the Greeks left behind a widespread architectural heritage in southern Italy. By far the greatest concentration is in Sicily. The Valley of the Temples just outside central Agrigento is a remarkable series of temples in varying states of repair. Other important temples include those of Selinunte (in the south-west) and Segesta, high up on hills in the north-west of the island. Syracuse and Taormina both host fine Greek theatres. In the mainland, the aforementioned temples of Paestum and the most impressive, although there are more remains at Metaponto di Calabria. Greek sculpture in stone and bronze also survives - it's on display in several museums, including Florence's and Syracuse's archaeological collections.

Like the Greeks, the early Romans built temples of stone. However, whereas the Greek temples had steps and colonnades on all sides, the Romabn variety had a high podium with steps and columns only at the front, forming a deep porch. The Romans also favoured fluted Ionic columns with volute capitals and Corinthian columns with acanthus leaf capitals (rather than the Doric columns with cushion-like capitals used by the Greeks). In any event, the Romans would not come into their own until much later.

Etruscan temples followed the Greek style but were more elaborately decorated. Few Etruscan architectural remains are visibly today, except for fragments of temple friezes, unless we include the many tombs and funerary complexes that have survived. The tombs at Tarquinia and Cerveteri (both in Lazio) are among the most engaging Etruscan sites you can visit. The Ara della Regina temple on the Civita hill near Tarquinia is the only significant structure of which anything remains.

A surprising number of Etruscan wall paintings have survived in various tombs. Indeed, most evidence of Etruscan art has come from their tombs, richily furnished with carved stone sarcophagi, fabulous gold jewellery, ceramics and bronzes. Decorated in vibrant colours, the tombs were intended to be a pleasing environment  or the dead, who were buried with their favourite worldly goods around them. The earliest subject matter was of a religious nature; representations of the afterlife became more common in later centuries. The best tomb paintings, dating form the 6th to the 1st centuries BC, can be seen at Tarquinia (Lazio). There are others at Chiusi in Tuscany.

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