In Rome, there is so much to discover, and it can get overwhelming to create a crash course in art history for yourself with limited prior knowledge. To make this experience easier, here is a rough guide to art in Rome and where to seek it out.
Ancient Roman Art
Art played a pivotal role in establishing the Roman Empire in a position of grandeur and superiority, as it could be found everywhere for people to see on both grand and smaller scales.
The artists in ancient Rome experimented with materials making sculptures, paintings, mosaics, frescoes, and constructing large architectural monuments and structures, all influenced by surrounding Mediterranean countries such as Greece and Egypt, innovating over their particular styles.
A lot of this art has still survived to this day, and I love being able to visit them. Especially when I am in a reflective mood, I like being in the presence of objects and spaces designed to create specific experiences in this ancient empire.
Where to Find Ancient Roman Art?
- Palazzo Altemps: As part of the National Roman Museum, the mansion holds important ancient mosaics, inscriptions and epigraphs, frescoes, and sculptures such as the “Dying Gaul”.
- Palazzo Massimo alle Terme: Also part of the National Roman Museum, the palace has artifacts that include ancient Roman coins, jewelry, ornaments, and parts of Roman wall paintings.
- Ara Pacis Museum: This museum is dedicated to the ancient Roman altar called Ara Pacis Augustae, which was built to celebrate peace in the empire of Emperor Augustus. Apart from the altar, the museum also has a portrait bust of the emperor and reliefs and sculptures that show what the empire was like under his rule.
- Palatine Antiquarium: Another great source to learn about ancient Roman art is this museum located on Palatine Hill. The collection includes decorative household items and Roman pottery.
- Colosseum: An ancient amphitheater in the city’s center, which may be the site you are most familiar with. It was used for public spectacles and gladiator events.
- Roman Forum: The ruins of this forum still stand today near the Colosseum and between the Palatine and Capitoline hills. It was the main square and marketplace in ancient times and had a lot of important structures which can still be recognized, such as the temples of Saturn and Vesta, the senate house Curia Julia and a lot more.
- Pantheon: An ancient Roman temple in the city center known for its architectural traits, including a big open-sky dome in the center of its ceiling.
- Circus Maximus: The stadium was built to be used mainly for chariot races; the site’s sunken oval shape has still survived and can be visited. Today, many treat it as a park for exercise and for walking their dogs, and sometimes the stadium is also used to host international concerts.
- Baths of Caracalla: You can visit the remains of ancient Rome’s greatest thermal baths. Whenever I go to see the baths, I imagine the kind of networking and community the communal bathing created for the Romans back then.
Apollodorus of Damascus
This Greek architect designed some very important imperial buildings for the empire. Here are a few that can still be visited today, such as Trajan’s column and Basilica Ulpia, which are part of the Roman forum.
Art in the Middle Ages in Italy spanned from the 5th to the 15th century and can be divided into three stylistic periods.
- The Early Middle Ages was heavily impacted by Byzantine art and included mosaic works.
- The Romanesque period brought architectural shifts and sculpture and fresco work.
- The Gothic period also evolved architectural styles and featured more detailed religious paintings.
Cavallini was a medieval Italian painter and mosaic artist influenced by the Byzantine art period and the Italian Gothic style.
- Basilica of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere: Cavallini’s frescoes in the church Santa Cecilia are well known and depict several scenes, such as his portrait of “The Last Judgment”, Saint Cecilia on a throne, and other frescoes that tell stories about her life.
- Santa Maria Maggiore: To see Cavallini’s mosaic work, head to the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore which has its main arch decorated with his mosaics depicting scenes from the life of Christ, the early Christian church, and more.
Torriti was another Italian painter and mosaic artist from the Roman School of stylistic art.
- Basilica of Saint John Lateran: Torriti’s mosaic in this church is one of his most well-known works depicting Christ surrounded by saints and angels, along with other religious scenes.
- Santa Maria Maggiore: Torriti’s mosaic of the “Coronation of the Virgin Mary” can be found in this church.
One of the first ‘missions’ I went on when I moved to Rome was to seek out the works of Renaissance artists. Luckily, there was plenty to see and admire, including art by the most famous Renaissance painters, Raphael and Michelangelo.
- Vatican Museums: There are four beautiful rooms in the museums known as “Raphael Rooms” dedicated to frescoes that Raphael painted depicting different religious and historical scenes.
- St. Peter’s Basilica: Raphael’s altarpiece “Transfiguration” can be found in the church and depicts the duality of Jesus Christ as both human and divine. It was one of Raphael’s last paintings before his death and was completed by one of his students.
- Villa Farnesina: The Renaissance building is known for Raphael’s frescoes, including the “Loggia of Cupid and Psyche” and the “Triumph of Galatea”.
- Palazzo Barberini: The palace holds two famous Roman paintings by the artist called “La Fornarina,” which means “The Baker’s Daughter” and “The Madonna of the Palafrenieri” (groom).
- Sistine Chapel: The entire chapel is decorated with paintings by Michelangelo, from the frescoes on the ceilings to those on top of the windows and the walls, with his most well-known piece being “The Last Judgment”, which sits above the chapel’s altar.
- Church of San Pietro: On top of Esquiline Hill lies the church of San Pietro, which houses Michelangelo’s statue of Moses.
At the beginning of the 17th century, there was a transition from Renaissance to Baroque art, where artists displayed religious scenes with less harmony and a lot more drama, aiming to let go of balance to convey high intensity with a much more darkened color palette.
Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Bernini was a sculptor, architect, and painter who was credited to have started the whole style of Baroque. Here are some of the places you can find his work in Rome:
- Borghese Gallery: Bernini’s statues are spread around twenty rooms in the gallery of Villa Borghese, including “Apollo and Daphne”.
- Capitoline Museums: Bernini’s bust of the mythological gorgon Medusa can be seen at the museums. It is a very emotive sculpted head that portrays the horror and pain associated with the story of Medusa.
- Piazza Barberini: At this piazza, you will find the Triton Fountain, designed by Bernini, depicting a merman holding a shell above his head and kneeling over four dolphins. At the corner of the piazza is another Bernini fountain called Fontana delle Api (Fountain of the Bees).
- Ponte Sant’Angelo: This bridge that connects to Castel Sant’Angelo is lined with elevated statues of angels that Bernini was commissioned to make.
- Piazza Navona: Bernini’s famous Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) can be found in the square. It has a rocky base that supports an ancient Egyptian obelisk and has four human figures found at the base that represent four rivers: the Nile, the Ganges, the Danube River, and the Rio de la Plata.
Caravaggio was the first Italian painter I started hearing a lot about when I first moved to Rome; my art history friends always seemed to be talking about him in awe when mentioning famous paintings in Rome. His painting style is said to have inspired the Baroque movement.
- The Vatican Museums: The museums house Caravaggio’s famous painting, “The Entombment of Christ,” which shows Christ being lowered into his tomb after his crucifixion.
- Borghese Gallery: There are multiple paintings by the artist housed in the gallery, with the most notable ones being “Boy with a Basket of Fruit”, “David with the Head of Goliath,” and a self-portrait “Young Sick Bacchus”.
- Church of San Luigi dei Francesi: Located in the Contarelli Chapel of the church, there are three Caravaggio paintings titled “The Calling of Saint Matthew”, “Saint Matthew and the Angel,” and “The Martyrdom of Saint Matthew”.
- Church of Santa Maria del Popolo: The church is located in the square Piazza del Popolo and holds two important paintings, “The Conversion of Saint Paul” and “The Crucifixion of Saint Peter”.
I now know why Caravaggio used to be such a center-point in conversation among my art historian friends. The use of starkness and light and dark in his work is very bold and conveys extreme emotion that I have been able to feel as soon as I lay eyes on his paintings.
Neoclassical And Romantic Art
What I love to notice about these periods of art is how either they favor showing more emotion for a realistic portrayal of history and human experiences or opt for a more restrained, less emotional approach.
To me, it shows a history of battling with expressiveness and the heights of human intensity.
The Neoclassical and Romantic art periods overlap in the late 18th century but use two different styles in conflict with each other.
Neoclassicism goes against the styles of the Baroque period, seeking a simpler, restrained style. Romantic art enjoyed more color, emotional expression, and depicting nature and landscapes.
This neoclassical Italian artist came from a family of stonecutters and so is known for his marble sculptural works. You can find his work in Rome at:
- Museo Atelier Canova: If you decide to seek out Canova’s work, the most unique experience you can get is to visit his atelier, which now runs as a bar and restaurant and houses over 400 of his works and one of his students. You can admire his sculptures towering over you while seated on a table with a coffee.
- La Galleria Nazionale: A lot of Canova’s work can be viewed at the National Gallery in Rome, including the sculptures “Cupid and Psyche”, “The Three Graces”, “Paolina Borghese as Venus”, “Theseus and the Minotaur” and “Perseus with the Head of Medusa”.
More on Romantic Art
Although Rome is not known to be a center for Romantic art, some artworks from the period can be found in Museo di Roma and the National Gallery (GNAM).
Modern And Contemporary Artists
I love following the contemporary art scene in Rome and watching it shift and evolve using different museums, galleries, and smaller alternative spaces in the city.
Since exhibitions shift to different locations regularly, my suggestions will be based on where to explore contemporary art in the city as well as the names of famous Italian artists whose works keep revolving at various exhibits.
- MAXXI (National Museum of 21st Century Arts): The MAXXI was designed by award-winning architect Zaha Hadid and is one of the most distinct, inspiring, innovative modern buildings that can be found in Rome. It displays works by both Italian and international artists using different mediums and focuses a lot on architectural exhibits as well.
- National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art (GNAM): This national museum is possibly the best space to inform yourself more about contemporary Italian artists. It has famous works of art in Rome from movements such as Italian Divisionism, Futurism, the Novecento Italiano movement, and many metaphysical art.
- MACRO Museum: This is one of my favorite museums to visit as it is a renovated Peroni brewery converted into a space for Italian and international art shows. It has hosted works of the Italian artists Michelangelo Pistoletto, Francesco Clemente, and Maurizio Cattelan, to name a few.
Italian Artists to Look Out For
- Giorgio De Chirico: One of my favorite Italian artists who was a big influencer of the metaphysical art movement creating lots of dream-like imagery of metaphysical cities and creatures.
- Monica Bonvicini: Bonvicini works by creating thought-provoking and bizarre installations that are meant to challenge societal norms.
- Michelangelo Pistoletto: Pistoletto’s art is connected to the Arte Povera movement using everyday objects; he is also known for his ‘mirror paintings’.
All these artists had a lot of influence in Rome and had several exhibitions in the museums listed above and other independent galleries in the city.
This guide is not an exhaustive list of all artists mentioned above. There are a lot of other artists who belong to each period who have not been mentioned.
I encourage you to research further into art in Rome and to keep your eyes peeled for surrounding art in the galleries you go to. There is always much to discover here, even when you think you have seen everything.