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Rome's artist history

Rome is one of the most important art cities in the world and for centuries has been welcoming artists to adorn its walls, ceilings, churches and palaces. The result is not only an awe-inspiring wealth of artistic treasures by some of the most famous artists of all time, but also the background stories, personalities and curiosities that accompany their creation.

Here are some things you probably didn’t know about Rome’s artist history:

1) Michelangelo’s body was stolen from a Roman church

Although a Florentine, Michelangelo spent much of his life working in Rome and moved there permanently for the last three decades of his life, preferring papal rule to that of the tyrannical Alessandro de’ Medici in Florence. When Michelangelo died, aged almost 89, in 1564 he was initially laid to rest in the church of SS Apostoli in Rome but Duke Cosimo de’ Medici decided that as a son of Florence, Michelangelo deserved a state funeral and fitting tomb in Florence. Knowing that the pope would oppose the transfer of the corpse, the duke enlisted Michelangelo’s nephew to sneak into the church to steal the body which was then sent to Florence disguised in a bale of hay. The tomb of Michelangelo, sculpted by Vasari, is now found in the church of Santa Croce in Florence.

2) Raphael died aged just 37

Given the amount of work he left behind and the immense influence he had on the world of art, it is surprising to learn that Raffaello Sanzio died at such a young age. Raphael moved to Rome in 1508, working mainly at the Vatican and running his workshop. In 1517 he, somewhat begrudgingly became engaged but was rumoured to have had numerous affairs until he took ill in 1520. After 15 days of sickness he died and was buried, at his own request, in the Pantheon. His tomb, which is still visible, is inscribed in Latin with the words “Here lies Raphael, by whom Nature feared to be outdone while he lived, and when he died, feared that she herself would die”.

3) One of Rome’s most famous Baroque artists was a woman

Not all artists working throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods were men. While the culture of the time caused a distinctly male dominance on the art scene, there were a handful of women who left their mark. Artemisia Gentileschi was born in Rome, the oldest child of a Tuscan painter. Learning from her father’s workshop, her talent was recognised early yet it would take almost 400 years for her name to earn its place in the story of Roman art. With a similar style as Caravaggio, Gentileschi’s skills in depicting the female form and using light to dramatic effect have now finally been recognised internationally.

4) Caravaggio was the bad boy of Rome

Michelangelo Merisi, or Caravaggio as he is better known, originally hailed from Milan but spent much of his working life in Rome. He became well-known known as a troubled genius and a master of the Baroque thanks to his dramatic chiaroscuro paintings which often dealt with dark themes and imagery. Caravaggio was often involved in fights and brawls, indeed his arrival in Rome was thought to have been prompted by him murdering a man in Milan. Between frequent arrests and spells in jail he nevertheless produced an awe-inspiring body of work. However, in 1606 a fatal duel resulted in Caravaggio being wanted for murder and led to him going on the run to Naples, Malta and Sicily for the next three years until his death in 1610 at the age of 38.

5) Picasso found inspiration (and a wife) in Rome

Picasso was one of many artists who flocked to Rome and found artistic stimulus in the city. Arriving in 1917 to work on the designs for his friend Jean Cocteau’s new ballet Parade, Picasso took up residence on Via Margutta and set up his studio. Although he stayed just two months, during that time he created two important works The Harlequin and the Necklace and The Italian Woman. While in Rome Picasso also met the Russian ballerina Olga Kokhlova who would eventually become his first wife.

6) Many of Rome’s masterpieces are free to see

The outpouring of artistic work during the 16th and 17th centuries was intrinsically linked to wealthy aristocratic families, the members of which would climb the ranks of power as cardinals or even as pope. Eager to prove their status and influence, they commissioned paintings and sculptures, offering patronage to the young, talented artists who came to Rome in search of fame and fortune. Often these works were displayed in the city’s churches to be admired by the people and are still there for visitors to chance upon. Head to San Pietro in Vincoli to see Michelangelo’s powerful horned Moses, get your Caravaggio fix at San Luigi dei Francesi or Santa Maria del Popolo where you can also admire Raphael’s Chigi Chapel, marvel at Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria and gaze at Filippo Lippi’s stunning frescoes in Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

7) Rome’s art scene is still going strong

While wandering the historic villas, museums filled with antiquities and streets flanked by ancient ruins it can be difficult to remember that Rome is also a present-day city which still produces and displays present-day art. Rome’s modern cultural scene has developed over recent decades with the opening of museums and galleries dedicated to 21st century artists and disciplines. In addition, there is a strong street art movement to be found in the outer neighbourhoods of Ostiense, Pigneto and Tor Marancia where colourful, creative and often socially themed murals cover entire buildings to remind us that the art history of Rome is still in perpetual motion.

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