A Guide To Italian Art In London

Italian Art

London is full of beautiful Italian art in its huge museums

After ten years, I returned to London for a vacation and I was surprised by the incredible variety of pieces of art in the many local museums. In particular, what impressed me as an Italian was the very significant amount of art coming from our country, especially those from the Renaissance period, which could be considered the golden age of Italian art. Am I bothered that some of the most important Italian works of art are on exhibition abroad? Obviously not! Albeit not everyone agrees with me — some people are obsessed with the Mona Lisa and the Louvre — but I was very happy to see that art is truly universal and knows neither spatial nor temporal barriers.

The Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces

The National Gallery is the star of our virtual trip along Italian art in London. World-renowned for its incredible collection of European pieces of art, this museum hosts some of the most famous and significant paintings of our artistic history. Without a doubt, Caravaggio’s Supper at Emmaus (1601) falls into this category. It is impossible not to be impressed by the masterful technique and use of the light typical of this great Baroque artist. Moving in time back to the height of Renaissance period, we’ll find a Botticelli masterpiece: Venus and Mars (about 1485). Painted around the same years as his Primavera and The Birth of Venus, this piece refers to the same mythological gods of those well-known paintings.

Carvaggio Supper at Emmaus National Gallery London
Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio at the National Gallery

Leonardo is always Leonardo

In my opinion, however, the most impressive Italian artwork at the National Gallery is Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks (1492 – 1508). There is nothing to do: his emblematic faces and human expressions are true magnets for the visitors, who, when I was there, found it hard to leave the tiny room housing this masterpiece. There are two versions of the same subject, identical in the composition except for some details. The earlier one is at Louvre, while the second, darker and probably most fascinating version in housed in London. A little interesting fact for Leonardo’s fans: some of his notebooks are visible both at the Victoria & Albert Museum and among the British Library’s Treasures.

LEonardo da Vinci Virgin of the Rocks National Gallery
A particular of The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo Da Vinci, National Gallery

Lesser-known yet incredible paintings

There are other lesser-known beautiful paintings at the National Gallery that are definitely worth seeing. For an incredible representation of Venice, do not miss the city views (or vedute) by Canaletto, who perfectly recreated the atmosphere of his astonishing city of origin, in line with the realistic trend of the period in which he lived (eighteenth century). A completely different subject but with an extraordinary allure is Susanna at Her Bath by Francesco Hayez, the leading artist of the mid-19th century Milan, renowned for his polished execution. His masterpiece, The Kiss, is on exhibit in Brera Art Gallery.

Susanna at her Bath Francesco Hayez,
Susanna at her Bath, Francesco Hayez, National Gallery

The sculptures

So far, we have talked only about paintings. Nonetheless, if your passion is sculpture, you won’t be disappointed. Indeed, I selected at least two great statues to see in London. At the Victoria and Albert Museum, there is one of the two versions of Antonio Canova’s Three Graces (1814 – 1817). Considered an emblem of neoclassical art, this marble piece of art reveals all the mercy evoked by its name. Moving almost a hundred years later, we’ll arrive at the period in which another diametrically opposed but very interesting sculpture was created: Unique Forms of Continuity in Space by the Futurism founder Umberto Boccioni. This bronze statue, created in 1913 and on display at the Tate Modern, represents a figure aerodynamically deformed by speed, reflecting the unstoppable technological progress of those years.

Unique Forms of Continuity in Space Unberto Boccioni
Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, Umberto Boccioni, Tate Modern

Does it look like a familiar figure? It is on the head of the Italian 20 cent coin!

A can’t-miss opportunity

So far, I mentioned only a few and in my opinion must-see masterpieces that you can find in the incredible museums London have. Anyway, if you are visiting London and you are an Italian art lover, it could be a very good occasion to see some breathtaking masterpieces. After all, art is universal by definition and keeps living even beyosd its original context.