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  • Writer's pictureSerafina Paladino

The Language of Italian Art History

Updated: Aug 3, 2022

An Introduction to storia dell’arte

The Mona Lisa also known as La Gioconda

Art history or storia dell’arte is an important subject in Italian education that students begin learning at a young age. This curriculum design is the result of Italy’s rich history of art that spans centuries. When one thinks of Italian art, usually the Renaissance comes to mind. The Renaissance, to put it simply, was a transition period in European history between the Middle Ages and the modern era characterized by a “rebirth” of classical art and philosophy. In many ways, the artists during this time aspired to surpass those of the past by exploring new techniques and inspirations. As language-learners, even if you do not study art, it is crucial that you understand the visual culture of different peoples around the world. The same can be said for those who wish to learn Italian.

Vocabulary to Know when Studying Art History

Just like how many terms in music notation originate from Italian, the same can be said for art. Let us begin with the art history of the Renaissance which is renowned world-wide today for its artists who sculpted breath-taking marble statues. What is so profound about a Renaissance masterpiece like the Statue of David, is that this marble figure stands in contrapposto. Contrapposto, which means opposite in Italian, is the posing of a human sculpture where the figure places more weight on one leg than the other. This allows for the sculpture to appear more realistic and as if the biblical hero David truly is standing before you on the battlefield.

The Statue of David

The David’s creator, Michelangelo, viewed sculpting as the highest form of art that required the most skill from its artist. That being said, the Renaissance master is also known for his fresco that covers the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City. Another famous painting from this period is the ubiquitous Mona Lisa. She was painted by none other than the uomo universale “Renaissance man” himself, Leonardo da Vinci. In Italy, the famed Mona Lisa is known as La Gioconda, and she is theorized to be a portrait of Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini whose husband Francesco del Giocondo likely commissioned the piece from Leonardo. The best way to describe this painting, which cannot be done as accurately in English, is through the Italian term chiaroscuro. When the words chiaro (clear, bright) and scuro (dark, murky) come to my mind I immediately visualize a work of art with intense lighting that adds to the drama of the scene depicted on canvas. Leonardo used a chiaroscuro lighting scheme to give the Mona Lisa an air of mystery where it is difficult to discern her emotions from the darkness of the painting’s background. Yet your eye cannot help but be drawn to La Gioconda’s illuminated face which bares her iconic smile.

Another term that beginning Italian students should know when referring to art is simply, maccia. When I first learned this word I associated it with the popular Starbucks drink, the “Caramel Macchiato,” but little did I know that a caffè macchiato is a common drink that you can order in a cafe in Italy. When referencing espresso, a macchiato is a coffee drink with a small amount of milk in it, almost like the barista only added a “spot” of foam to the mix. In fact, the word maccia on its own means spot or mark. So, the next time you drink a macchiato you can think of it as a “spotted” or even “stained” coffee in the literal sense of the name. This wordplay is also present in the world of art. During the second half of the nineteenth century, a group of Italian artists formed a group named the Macchiaioli. What made the macchiaoli artists distinct from their counterparts is that they painted light and dark shadows like spots on their canvases to create an expressive interpretation of natural landscapes. Art historians consider these artists to be the Italian equivalent of the French impressionist, notably Claude Monet.

The Importance of Art in Language-Learning

The Sistine Chapel

From a brief survey of Italian art history, we have encountered a series of beautiful masterpieces with vocabulary words included to describe them. By fusing art history with language I have built a foundation of Italian words that I will never forget because they are related to something that is important to me, art. After I engaged with these parts of history, my Italian improved because I learned about the culture behind this language throughout the centuries from the Renaissance to the modern age. Art is something that bonds Italians together, and we enjoy reflecting on our favorite pieces. Not to mention, it gives students something of context to hold onto when they’re still learning. Many students think that to master a language they must blindly memorize vocabulary words and grammar rules but this is not the case. We learn languages best when we understand the meaning behind the words we use and the rules we follow. As you learn more Italian you will also learn more about art and that truly makes your journey colorful and exciting.

Every step you take matters. ReDefiners World Languages offers courses and workshops in English, Spanish, Arabic, and Mandarin. For more information, please visit or email us at

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