A Beginner’s Guide to Italian Architecture

Catherine

Can’t tell your Renaissance from your baroque? Take our Italian architecture cheat-sheet to Italy with you, and you’ll soon become a history pro.

Classical architecture

The Colosseum in Rome at night

Let’s warm up with the easiest one: classical. The Romans were one of the most powerful civilisations on the planet, leaving their stamp everywhere from Turkey right up to Hadrian’s Wall. They were hugely influenced by Ancient Greek architecture.

When: From the fifth century BC.

Where: You’ll find classical architecture all over Italy, but unsurprisingly Rome is home to famous behemoths like the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.

How to spot it: Perfectly engineered arches and columns are a giveaway — the Romans specialised in them.

The icon: The Colosseum, which has become the powerhouse symbol of Rome.

Byzantine architecture

Riccione Byzantine mosaic

This was the preferred style of the Byzantine Empire — a late extension of the Roman Empire. It has origins in Greece, but was popular wherever the empire stretched, although many of the grandest structures have been lost.

When: Byzantine architecture as we know it really took off in the fourth century and lasted till the empire dissolved in the 15th century.

Where: Emilia-Romagna.

How to spot it: Mosaics and domes. The Byzantines really went for it, decoration-wise, plastering vast church domes with intricate gold mosaics.

The icon: The Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna. Consecrated in 548 when Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, it’s one of the earliest and most pristine examples of early byzantine architecture. Leave plenty of time to admire its cavernous mosaicked domes that show a mix of Bible stories and Christian icons.

Gothic architecture

Cathedral in Siena

In Italy, gothic is a mix between true French gothic and Romanesque architecture. That means you’ll see plenty of classical elements in it, although it’s very distinctly its own style.

When: Sixth to 12th century.

Where: Siena and Modena.

How to spot it: Solid, symmetrical structures with pretty details like small rose windows and inner arcades. Italian gothic structures tend to be the tallest in town, and filled with plenty of light.

The icon: Siena Cathedral or ‘the Duomo’.  This towering church comes with distinctive black and white striped marble columns. It’s also filled with art, from floor mosaics to the books in the gilded Piccolomini Library.

Renaissance architecture

Duomo, Florence

Florence is basically a byword for the Renaissance. This is where you’ll find the famous galleries filled with works of art by the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael. Like gothic and byzantine architecture, Renaissance buildings were also influenced by the Greeks and Romans.

When: Roughly 1300 to 1700.

Where: It’s got to be the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence. Native son Filippo Brunelleschi is said to be the first Renaissance architect. You’ll also see lots of colonnaded Renaissance villas throughout the Italian countryside.

How to spot it: Mathematical domes, columns and arches are the theme. The Renaissance is when architects began to be recognised as artists, so you’ll find creative flourishes too.

The icon: The Duomo, Florence.

Baroque architecture

Noto Cathedral deatail

The south of Italy took a particular liking to baroque, thanks to local architects like Andrea Palma. It’s the next step on from the Renaissance, so the decorations on the domes and arches take a dramatic turn. Windows were carefully placed to emphasise the huge size of churches and palaces.

When: 17th and 18th centuries.

Where: Sicily is a hive of southern baroque, with whole towns built in the style. Also watch out for Apulian cities like Lecce.

How to spot it: Theatrical touches like balconies, cherubs and gargoyle-like masks.

The icon: Another church — the towering Noto Cathedral.

Art nouveau architecture

Art Deco architecture in Viareggio, Tuscany

Art nouveau, Liberty, stile floreale — whichever name you call it by, the beach towns along the Tuscany Coast are glimpses into this post-industrial era of Italian architecture. Grand hotels, casinos and cafés all embraced the fashionable arts and crafts look.

When: 1890 to 1910.

Where: Viareggio promenade. Fancy really immersing yourself in the town’s grand 1920s heyday? Stay at the Grand Hotel Principe de Piemonte, where art nouveau and art deco details run throughout.

How to spot it: Art nouveau tells include decorative touches like stylised florals and fanciful windows.

The icon: Gran Caffè Margherita in Viareggio, with its fairy tale domes and glass lamps. Opera composer Puccini used to kick back with a coffee here.

We’ve highlighted our favourite eras of Italian architecture — what’s yours?