The Italian geniuses that shaped the world

By Simone | 2nd April 2019

Italy has been a leading cultural, political and religious centre of Western Civilisation at various points in history; from the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. Let’s take a look at the geniuses whose contributions to the Italian language, music, education, art, science and politics have made the world what it is today.


The Italian language wouldn’t be what it is today without Dante Alighieri. Before Dante wrote the Divine Comedy most poetry was written in Latin, a language only spoken by the wealthy and well-educated. Dante was a firm believer in the vernacular – the language that is spoken in everyday life by ordinary people. He was aware of the variety of Italian dialects and the need to create a unified language beyond the limits of Latin.

With the Divine Comedy, Dante combined the Tuscan dialect with elements of Latin and other regional dialects. His aim was to reach a readership throughout Italy that included laymen, clergymen and other poets. He showed that the Italian language was capable of the highest level of expression while reaching a far broader section of society than the Latin-speaking elite.


With composers like Rossini, Monteverdi, Puccini, Vivaldi and Verdi, you basically have one Italian composer for every century, covering all of the major eras, from Renaissance to Baroque and Classical to Romantic. And that’s not surprising, really, as Italy is the birthplace of opera and has played a major role in the progression of Western classical music.

The music made by these Italian composers is so ingrained into the Western culture that even if you’re not that familiar with the titles or creators of these tunes, you’ll recognise them when you hear them. If you grew up watching Looney Tunes, you can catch The Barber of Seville and the overture from William Tell by Rossini. La Traviata by Verdi is featured in Pretty Woman and O Mio Babbino Caro by Puccini can be heard in the TV series Downton Abbey.


With the Montessori method still prevalent in over 100 countries worldwide, it’s undeniable that Maria Montessori had an incredible influence on the education of countless children. Her method of education for young children stresses the development of a child’s own initiative and natural abilities, especially through practical play. The method allowed children to develop at their own pace and provided educators with a new understanding of child development. She was also an important advocate for women’s rights and education for neurodivergent children.

Montessori’s achievements are impressive, to say the least. First, she enrolled in and graduated from an all-boys school with a certificate in physics-mathematics, and then she went on to graduate medical school at the University of Rome in 1896. As you can imagine, being the one woman in these male-dominated spaces brought along some challenges. It was deemed inappropriate for her to be in a room with men in the presence of a naked body, so she was actually required to do dissections of cadavers alone, after hours.


We don’t want to make any assumptions, but there are two Italian artists that you almost definitely know, even if you have never studied art or history: Michelangelo and Da Vinci. The two have a lot in common; they lived around the same time and were based in Florence, they were both clients of the powerful Medici family. Perhaps most importantly, both of them are known for their incredible versatility, making them contenders for the title of the archetypal ‘Renaissance man’ (someone who is an expert in a number of different subject areas).

Together with Raphael; Michelangelo and Da Vinci are often seen as the ‘trinity of great Masters’ of the High Renaissance. The three artists have received perhaps the highest honour an Italian artist can receive; having a Ninja Turtle named after them. The fourth Turtle is also named after an Italian artist: Donatello, another Florentine artist from the Renaissance era, best known for his statues and architectural reliefs.


Just like Da Vinci & Michelangelo, Galileo Galilei was seen as a polymath or ‘Renaissance Man’. Stephen Hawking said Galileo was probably more responsible for the birth of modern science than anybody else and Albert Einstein called him the father of modern science. Galileo was also one of the first modern thinkers to clearly state that the laws of nature are mathematical. In The Assayer, he wrote; "Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe... It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures..."

Of course, it was the same line of thinking that got him into trouble with the Catholic Church. When he published Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger) most of the educated people subscribed to the Aristotelian geocentric view that the Earth was the centre of the universe. Galileo’s book described the observations that were in line with the heliocentric theory of Copernicus and therefore directly opposed certain Biblical statements. He was sentenced to house arrest, but actually produced some of his finest works during that time.


Although Machiavellianism might be a descriptor for a negative kind of politics, the influence of Niccolò Machiavelli can’t be overlooked. How many people can truly say they have a term of behaviour named after them, after all? Machiavelli’s publication The Prince describes immoral behaviour, such as lying and murder, as being normal and effective in some situations; the end justifies the means. Machiavelli is generally agreed to have been more than just ‘Machiavellian” himself, though.

Machiavelli’s ideas had a profound impact on political leaders in the modern west; from Thomas Cromwell to Henry VIII and Rousseau to Francis Bacon. Scholars have also argued that Machiavelli was a major influence on the Founding Fathers of the United States due to his favouritism of republicanism.


Use the hashtag #ItalianGenius on Catawiki to find books, maps and more related to these illustrious shapers of the world.

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