Architecture in Italy for the Lifelong Learner

A Brief Architecture Guide for Travelers to Italy

Il Duomo di Firenze, Brunelleschi's Dome, and the Bell Tower by Night in Florence, Italy
Il Duomo di Firenze, Brunelleschi's Dome, and the Bell Tower by Night in Florence, Italy. Photo by Hedda Gjerpen/E+/Getty Images (cropped)

Italian influences are everywhere in the United States, even in your town—the Victorian Italianate house that is now a funeral home, the Renaissance Revival post office, the Neoclassical city hall. If you're looking for a foreign country to experience, Italy will make you feel right at home.

In ancient times, the Romans borrowed ideas from Greece and created their own architectural style. The 11th and 12th centuries brought a renewed interest in the architecture of ancient Rome. Italy's Romanesque style with rounded arches and carved portals became the dominant fashion for churches and other important buildings throughout Europe—and then United States.

The period we know as the Italian Renaissance, or reawakening, began in the 14th century. For the next two centuries, a keen interest in ancient Rome and Greece brought a creative flourishing in art and architecture. The writings of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) revolutionized European architecture and continues to shape the way we build today. Other influential Italian Renaissance architects include Giacomo Vignola (1507-1573), Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446), Michelangelo Buonarotti (1475-1564), and Raphael Sanzio (1483-1520). The most important Italian architect of all, however, is arguably Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (c. 75-15 BC), often said to have written the world's first architecture textbook,De Architectura.

Travel experts agree. Every part of Italy brims with architectural wonders. Famous landmarks like the Tower of Pisa or the Trevi Fountain in Rome seem to be around every corner in Italy. Plan your tour to include at least one of these top ten cities in Italy—Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples, Verona, Turin, Bologna, Genoa, Perugia. But Italy's smaller cities may offer a better experience for lovers of architecture. A closer look in Ravenna, which used to be the capital of the Western Roman Empire, is a great chance to see mosaics brought over from the Eastern Roman Empire in Byzantium—yes, that's Byzantine architecture. Italy is the root of much of America's architecture—yes, neoclassical is our "new" take on Classical forms from Greece and Rome. Other important periods and styles in Italy include Early Medieval / Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. Every other year the Venice Biennale is the international showplace for all that's happening in contemporary architecture. The Golden Lion is a coveted architecture award from the event.

Ancient Rome and the Italian Renaissance gave Italy a rich architectural heritage that influenced building design around the world. Out of all the wonders Italy has to offer, which are not to be missed? Follow these links for an architectural tour of Italy. Here are our top picks.

Ancient Ruins

For centuries, the Roman Empire ruled the world. From the British Isles to the Middle East, Rome's influence was felt in government, commerce, and architecture. Even their ruins are magnificent.

The Piazza

For the young architect, the study of urban design often turns to the iconic open-air plazas found throughout Italy. This traditional marketplace has been imitated in various forms throughout the world.

  • Piazza Navona in Rome
  • Piazza San Marco in Venice
  • The Top Piazze (Public Squares) in Rome

Buildings by Andrea Palladio

It seems impossible that a 16th century Italian architect could still influence American suburbs, yet the Palladian window is found in many upscale neighborhoods. Palladio's most famous architecture from the 1500s includes the Rotonda, Basilica Palladiana, and San Giorgio Maggiore all in Venice,

Churches and Cathedrals

Italy travel experts will often come up with Top Ten Cathedrals to See in Italy, and no doubt there are many from which to choose. We know this when an earthquake destroys yet another sacred treasure, like Duomo Cathedral of San Massimo in L'Aquila—built in the 13th century and destroyed more than once by Italy's natural disasters. The medieval Basilica of Santa Maria di Collemaggio is another L'Aquila sacred space affected by seismic activities throughout the years. Without a doubt, the two most famous domes of Italian ecclesiastical architecture are located in the north and south—Brunelleschi's Dome and Il Duomo di Firenze in Florence (shown here), and, of course, Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.

Modern Architecture and Architects in Italy

Italy isn't all old architecture. Italian modernism was ushered in by the likes of Gio Ponti (1891-1979) and Gae Aulenti (1927-2012) and carried on by Aldo Rossi (1931-1997), Renzo Piano (b. 1937), Franco Stella (b. 1943), and Massimiliano Fuksas (b. 1944). Look for the designs of Matteo Thun (b. 1952) and the international stars who have works in Italy—the MAXXI: National Museum of 21st Century Arts in Rome by Zaha Hadid and the MACRO Addition in Rome by Odile Decq. Outside of Milan a new Mecca has been built— CityLife Milano, a planned community with architecture by Iraqi born Zaha Hadid, Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, and Polish-born Daniel Libeskind. Italy is sure to satisfy every architectural interest.


Ghirardo, Diane. "Italy: Modern Architectures in History." Paperback, Reaktion Books, February 15, 2013.

Heydenreich, Ludwig H. "Architecture in Italy 1400-1500." Paperback, Revised Edition, Ludwig H. Heydenreich, 1672.

Lasansky, D. Medina. "Renaissance Perfected: Architecture, Spectacle, and Tourism in Fascist Italy." Buildings, Landscapes, and Societies, 1 edition, Pennsylvania State University Press, November 17, 2005.

Lotz, Wolfgang. "Architecture in Italy, 1500-1600." 2nd Revised edition, Yale University Press, November 29, 1995.

Sabatino, Michelangelo. "Pride in Modesty: Modernist Architecture and the Vernacular Tradition in Italy." Paperback, Reprint edition, University of Toronto Press, Scholarly Publishing Division, May 21, 2011.

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Craven, Jackie. "Architecture in Italy for the Lifelong Learner." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Craven, Jackie. (2023, April 5). Architecture in Italy for the Lifelong Learner. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "Architecture in Italy for the Lifelong Learner." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).